Karen Mullarkey is one of the most influential and respected picture editors of all time. She’s a national treasure. Dozens, if not hundreds of photographers owe much of their success to her. Karen cut her chops at Life Magazine and quickly moved on to be the Director of Photography at Rolling Stone, Newsweek and Sports Illustrated. If you care about photography, photographers, the editorial world or history in general, read on.
You can see part two of my talk with Karen here.
When Karen started at Life in the 1960s America's men wore silver.
(Ralph Morse/Life Magazine)
But they still preferred their women painted in gold.
(Life Magazine, November 6, 1964)
In 1964, after I graduated from college, when I went out looking for a job the first thing they asked was how many words do you type, how fast is your dictation and do you make good coffee... Honey. I only had one of those skills. I make pretty good coffee.
In those days there were two secretarial schools in New York that took college graduates. One was called Mary Byers the other Katharine Gibbs. The dress code was pretty much the same. High heels, dress, girdles, stockings, bra, white gloves, but at Katie Gibbs you also had to wear a hat. I look like crap in a hat, so I went to Mary Byers.
I was competitive. I had an older brother and that’s the only way you could eat. You have to be competitive in life in order to survive. So I got very good. I’d sit down in front of the television and take dictation all the time. My dad had a typewriter. I’d practice all the time. Finally I’d have him blindfold me and type what he said. The upshot of all that was I wound up being able to type at over a hundred words a minute and take dictation at least a hundred.
I still couldn’t get a job. I failed every interview because I was so terrified. A friend advised me to go to Time Inc. because that’s where girls from Darien, that’s where I grew up, work. So I wind up at Time Inc. and become a crackerjack secretary.
Every department had a full bar. When people here say, “Oh my god, did you ever watch Mad Men?” I say, No, because I lived it.
Quite by accident I get sent to the Director of Photography at Life Magazine, Richard Pollard. He needs a secretary who can type and take dictation. Like all department heads of that time he had an English secretary and she couldn’t type or take dictation, but she was a pit bull. Nobody got through his door. I mean W. Eugene Smith. I mean nobody unless they had an appointment. There were no drop-ins.
That’s how I started. I become the typist, the dictation lady, the lowest on the totem pole. I was very adept at that. Whatever I was asked I did. He didn’t ask me to make coffee, but I did make the drinks at night. In those days, at Time Inc there was an ice machine on every floor like the Easy Eight Motel. Every department had a full bar. When people here that they say, “Oh my god, did you ever watch Mad Men?” I say, No, because I lived it.
He (Richard Pollard) came in very early, at seven. He told me I had to be in by eleven, because he knew I was out playing with Bill Eppridge and everybody else. When I came in, on my little desk, would be on brown paper a letter to, then just a name and bullet points. It was up to me to write the letter.
In the beginning I was in a little room walled into the center of the bullpen. The photographers would walk by and look at me like I was a specimen. The needed to figure out who I was, where I fit in the chain of command and therefore was I worth talking to. They’d all look in there and then walkaway, Eisie (Alfred Eisenstaedt) Carl (Mydans) you name it.
One of the grunt jobs I did was to put together the entries for the Missouri contest, Pictures of the Year. In those days I had to make those boards that all fold together in a certain way like that child’s toy. If you didn’t have it exactly right, and if the caption was perfect on the back, they would throw out the entry. So I get this done and I have to take it downstairs. I’m on 29, and 28 is where all the photographers were located in their little rabbit warrens, plus the lab, color and black & white, the picture collection and the guys who fix the equipment. They were extraordinary. Schneider was his name. He’s the guy who invented the nitrogen purge box which they used on the used on the Apollo program so you could see the rocket going up. So I’m carrying this huge stack of boards and I start to struggle and out comes Pollard. He says, “I’ll carry that for you.” We go downstairs and parade past all the photographers and they see me following Pollard and he’s carrying my stuff. He did that on purpose. Suddenly, I was somebody they all needed to know.
I few weeks later, Pollard asked me if I was happy. Now, I’m still in that little square box with walls all around me. I don’t know where I got the courage, but these words came out of my mouth. When I said them, I swear to God Kenny I wanted to reach out and pull them back in.
I said, “I could be happier.”
He answered, “Oh really, like doing what?”
Somehow I had the bravery to reply, “Whatever you take the time to teach me, Mr. Pollard.”
He liked that answer.
Pollard wrote down some numbers and said come with me. He went to the end of the hall and opened a door. Behind that door were yellow bags. Each bag contained the rolls of film from a take (a set). If the photographer shot thirty rolls there would be thirty boxes in there. They weren’t organized. Everything was thrown in there like a junk closet. He gave me ten set numbers and told me not to come back until I had all ten. This was the reject, reject, reject film. In other words, it had been through Peggy Sargent, the top editors, picture editors, they had pulled and shown and that’s what had ran (in the magazine). Next the film had gone down to the Time/Life Picture Collection. All the little minions in the picture collection would go through it again and pull seconds. That’s what went to the picture collection. What was left over, was this stuff. So they just threw it in this room.
Pollard had me bring all the bags to his standing light table near his office. I asked him what to do.
He replied, “These are the rocks, but in among these rocks there are pearls. If you’ve got an eye, these pearls will jump out and bite you in the ass.”
He told me to go through the boxes, and he wouldn’t necessarily tell me what the story was.
I remember asking, “Don’t I need to know what the story is?”
He said, “No, you need to know whether or not a picture does something for you. It doesn’t matter what the story is.”
Then I was told to take my selects and lay them out as a story sequence on the lightbox and knock on his door when I was done.
We did this four times until he decided I had potential.
Then he would give me like a gift, I’m not kidding you, to certain photographers. I was sent to their studios with a notebook. The rules were, I was to speak only when spoken to. Write all my questions down. Never interrupt. Never ask why, and do what I was told.
One time he gave me to Gordon Parks, a brilliant teacher. Gordon gave me a set of contact sheets that he already edited and told me to edit them. I’d asked what the story was.
Gordon said, “I don’t want to tell you the story. I want you to make up names for these people and, like an actor, make up the backstory. Then pick pictures that make you feel something. They’ll either make you laugh or cry, or get angry or curious. They’ll make you want to know more.”
That’s how I started. I’d mark the contact sheets and give them to him. That’s also when I learned to make a martini. John Dominis taught me that.
When I came back from these events, He (Pollard) would ask if I had questions about the day. Then he’d buzz that photographer in their cubby hole and ask if they’d like to come up for a drink. This was like God calling them. They’d come up the stairs two at a time. Pollard told me to make their drink first. So I had everything ready. I’d ask them what they needed. The bar’s open. I’d gone to the ice machine and everything was ready. I had chilled martini glasses in case we were going in that direction.
After I served everyone, Pollard would say, “Karen was over at the studio today, How’d that go?”
They’d say, she was very quiet, she only spoke when she was spoken to, which meant I passed the first test.
And then he’d ask, “Did she get your drink done right?”
They’d answer, “Oh, fantastic.”
Then he’d ask, “Did she have a notebook?”
They’d say, “Oh yes, she took some notes.”
Pollard would then say, “That’s for her education. She’s written down all her questions while you were shooting and I want you to give her the full answer.”
Some of these answers could be secrets. I don’t remember the photographer, but he was shooting a celebrity like Sophia Loren and he had this big bank of lights and he had a cloth over them for diffusion, but he only had them on one side. I was interested, so I asked about it. This was a trade secret. Like how George Hurrell shot. After a question like this, the photographer would look at Pollard, aghast and say that’s a major trade secret.
Pollard would say, “I know, but I want you to tell her exactly why.”
One time a photographers asked, why he should give me these answers.
Pollard replied, “Because I’m training the kid, and one day you’re going to work for her.”
I was shocked. I was stunned, but I didn’t show it, because I was playing in the men’s playpen. I had learned early that you show no fear. You just took it. I still did all the typing and dictation by the way. Which was cool. He’d rather I did the other stuff during the day and then I’d stay at night and get all his letters done.
So they would tell me things and I’d write down their answers. That was the game. Eventually I got very good at this and one day he called Ralph Morris up to his office. He was Mr. Astronaut. He had been shooting the space program since the monkeys. He’d done that very famous picture of the original seven in their silver suits. Life was getting ready for the Apollo program. They owned the first person stories to all the astronauts and their families, because in the beginning no one would give them a life insurance policy and Life underwrote the insurance. They only had to payoff one time, on Apollo Seven.
Pollard told Ralph, “I have a Christmas present for you. I’m giving you the kid.”
I got that job because I could drive. That’s how come I got the job. Ralph took me under his wing, and I started to organize Life’s Apollo coverage.
I did everything. I got the hotel rooms . I got the cars. I ran the teletype machine. I learned how to edit black & white negatives in the lab. I did it all. By the time we got to Apollo Eleven and the moon landing I had the place wired.
I actually hid Neil Armstrong’s wife and children on a boat up the Indian River. NASA couldn’t find them. I’d rented a house six months ahead of time under the premise that it was for a Time Inc. executive who was needing to dry out. That’s where I put Neil’s family. The day of the launch I put them on the boat and a Life photographer with them. NASA knew that I’d done this and they wanted to kill me.
We hired a jet to get the film back. At that point, all the (Time Inc.) big guys were there. You name them, from Life’s Assistant Managing Editor Philip Kunhardt on down, everybody. I said, this is how it’s going to work. The vice president was there, Hubert Humphrey, and the deal was you had to be wheels up before the vice president. If you were not, you were stuck there. In those days for only thirty minutes, but thirty minutes meant a lot. This was all raw film. I set it up, so that the photographers would have to meet me at point X after the liftoff at T plus ten minutes. I had a helicopter overhead picking up the film from the boat where the Armstrong’s were. That was the only time those kids got excited, to tell you the truth. They’d seen their father go to space. They were like, oh yeah, right, but that bucket dropping down from the helicopter they were like, oh my god. The photographer took the picture and it was like, look there’s dad going to the moon.
I told Kunhardt, and Loudon Wainwright (Jr.) and all the other honchos that you have to be at the jet at T plus twenty minutes. I’ll be there. If you are not there, I will leave you, because this plane is taking off at T plus twenty-five. I was there and they were running. Wainwright was Life’s best writer, a wonderful and talented man, but he was heavy and running wasn’t his thing. They knew I was serious because I told them you can fire me later, but I’m getting this film back on time. I was there with a watch and they made it by two minutes. I said run up the stairs gentlemen. Drinks will be poured.
I got this telex, telling me it was one of the greatest jobs ever done.
I had been promised that I could become a reporter. In those days, if you were a woman you had to go through the clip desk. Boys who got out of school the same time I did became cub reporters immediately. The girls had to go through a process called the clip desk. It was a nightmare.
I was told I wouldn’t have to go through the clip desk (before becoming a reporter). I got back from Florida and found out that another woman had been given that job because she had been sleeping with one of the top editors. So, I quit.
I end up moving to L.A. and working for Time in the Beverly Hills bureau (known as the Bevedit Bureau) for the associate publisher who was a pig. He keeps leaving his coffee cup on my desk, which I used to not washout. I’d just put the next morning’s coffee in.
So I wanted to go back to Life. I called Pollard and told him I’d work in the lab, just take me back.
He said two things (this is in the beginning of 1970), “This magazine is going to fold. Probably in 18 months, two years at the maximum. It’s going to go under.”
I was so surprised.
The second reason, which he said was really the first, was, “In life there’s no going back, there’s only going forward. So even if you’ve made a mistake, keep going forward it’s going to open a door.”
And he was right.
Next week we’ll publish Karen’s memories of her days at Rolling Stone, Newsweek and Sports Illustrated. Stay tuned!