Life Magazine Spotlighted at MFA Boston



Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Through January 16, 2023


A current exhibit at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) takes a deep look at Life Magazine. (That’s a journalism pun; Life’s chief competitor was Look.) 


Life goes to press


Life published weekly from 1883-1972 and monthly from 1978-2000. There’s still one called Life, but if you ignore magazines at the supermarket checkout, you might not be aware of that. It only does “commemorative” issues of iconic events and bears little resemblance to the original, though the photography remains stellar.


One might argue that the demise of Life doesn’t really matter. After all, one can go to Google Images and find any image one wishes. You could, but Life once offered that the Internet does not. At one time Life entered 25% of all American homes each week, which made it an influencer of public views on human-interest stories, but also of important social issues concerning war, race, technology, protest, and other public interest topics. I know of nothing substantive that reaches that much of the public today, unless one is naïve enough to think Tik Tok, Instagram, or Facebook are “substantive.” The latter actually contribute to the noise that distracts us from focusing on important things.



 The MFA exhibit is small, but it’s more than random pictures. You will also learn about how photographers and writers collaborated and about Life’s discerning–read picky–editors and photo curators. One measure of this is a long table piled high with rejected 35mm slides–a million of them! The above 1946 photo of Natalie Kosek with a bin of rejected photos and scads more on her desk, the bulk of which will end up there after a page dumps her garbage. Another display shows strips of negatives that meticulous editors wearing jewelers’ loops pored over to select the best images, and contact sheets showing how they were cropped.


 Life was a pioneer in bringing women aboard. Its first photo cover was from Margaret Bourke-White, soon to be a favored Life contributor. The subject is the Fort Peck Dam in Montana, and the internal spread shoed her shots of instant shanty towns that housed and attended to the needs of the construction crews. Other than New Deal agencies, I can’t think of another outlet that meant as much to Depression era shutterbugs than Life






The magazine went to war in the 1940s. Robert Capa contributed an image that, at first glance, might make you wonder why it was chosen given that it’s out of focus. When you realize that it’s an American GI swimming ashore of D-Day in 1944, that blurry shot perfectly captures the frantic chaos of the invasion of France, the grim determination of the soldiers, and the dangers they faced. The magazine also excelled in subtle propaganda during the war. Carl Mydans went on assignment at the relocation camps where Japanese-American were interned as “enemy aliens” during World War II, surely one of the most shameful incidents in this nation’s history. Instead of belaboring sorrow, Mydans gave us seemingly banal shots. That was the point; Mydans normalized Japanese-Americans to underscore that they were as “American” as their jailers.




Numerous Life Magazine photos became so familiar that they were mythologized. A lot of history textbooks duplicated a brilliantly ironic Bourke-White image of African Americans standing in a food line. Chances are good it’s labeled a Great Depression breadline. Not so! They were victims of a 1937 Louisville flood. Alfred Eisenstaedt captured the euphoria of Victory over Japan Day in Times Square (1945). Popular opinion holds that it’s two sweethearts kissing; in truth, they were strangers and didn’t meet again until many years later. Such indeed is the power of photography! 






After the war, Life published another famous photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson, whose people of Russia photos were rare glimpses behind the Iron Curtain. Frank Dandridge’s 1963 “Birmingham Bombing Victim” silently but powerfully portrayed the tragedy and pathos of racism and Neil Armstrong’s image of fellow Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin—seen here reprinted in one of the aforementioned commemorative issues –altered the way Americans began to think of their solar system. Life seldom engaged in abstract art photography, but Fritz Goro contributed a stunning look at a red laser light fired through a pinhole in a razor blade. It’s especially stunning given that it was made in 1962.




Call me crazy, but maybe we need to revive Life and assign picky editors to Instagram.


Rob Weir  


The Lioness Over-Populated but a Heat-Pounding Thrill



By Chris Bohjalian 

Doubleday, 315 pages 

★★★ 1/2 



Chris Bohjalian isn’t the most literary novelist in the land, but he's certainly one of our finest storytellers. He does deep dives into background research, a talent he honed when he wrote for the Burlington Free Press back in the 1980s–before Gannett bled it and other dailies dry to divert their assets into Useless Today.


This time Bohjalian takes us back to the hair-trigger Cold War in the early 1960s as it played out in East Africa. Weddings gone wrong are so overdone as to have become cliché, but The Lioness is about a honeymoon gone so far off the rails that Hades would have seemed a relative paradise. It also sandpapers the sheen from varnished celebrity.


Popular actress Katie Barstow tied the knot with gallery owner David Hill and invited her peeps along on a destination honeymoon before that was a thing. Who could resist a luxury guided safari to Kenya? The guest list included her agent and her publicist, Peter Merrick and Reggie Stout respectively, but also three of her closest friends: actress Carmen Tedesco, African American actor Terrance Dutton, and screenwriter Felix Demeter. Katie's older brother Billy Stepanov, a self-help psychologist, and his pregnant wife Margie are also on the A-list. Everyone loves Katie; even though she and Billy were badly treated by their theatre parents, Katie is kind, confident, and bubbly–a mighty mite whose qualities evoke images of Veronica Lake.


Katie’s honeymoon is a let's-look-at-some-wild-animals adventure. Charlie Patton and his crew at Safari Adventures know where to find them, but caution everyone that the savannah is a place where the dead are eaten, not carried home. This is the setup for several jeep loads of circumstances that bump us between East Africa and Hollywood. Most of the book is set in the years1961-64, with flashbacks to childhood and a leap forward to a 2022 coda. In the 1960s, colonialism was collapsing across Africa, but borning independence was not a painless delivery. The fracturing of the Belgian Congo, threats of war between Kenya and the former German Tanganyika, untold numbers of rival tribes, and hostilities in Rwanda (!) made Africa an overripe fruit to be plucked during tit-for-tat Cold War proxy battles between the United States and the Soviet Union.


Patton respected lions, hyenas, leopards, crocodiles, and snakes, but he feared Americans and Russians: 


... they all scare me a hell of a lot more then pissed off rhinos and ornery lions. The rhinos know we are a threat and the lions have learned we can be very risky prey .... But the Russians and Americans? We are just pawns on the chess board. Harmless and expendable.


Consider that remark foreshadowing. Nationalist chaos, global anxiety, Yankee tourists, celebrities, and not-so-buried Western spook activity have all the markings of a hostage situation. But who are the kidnappers? They mockingly assume the noms de guerre of American astronauts Grissom, Glenn, Shepard, and Cooper and sound Russian, but who can be sure? What are the chances your abductors won't kill you once they collect their demanded ransom? When do you decide to take direct action and what should it be? What are the consequences of failure? Or, indeed, of success so far from settled civilization? 


Bohjalian educates his readers yet hides didacticism inside a novelistic structure that sucks us into the drama. Who is the titular lioness? I changed my mind several times before that identity was confirmed! Bohjalian also cleverly appropriates Cold War spy novel tropes such as agents, double agents, moles, and compromised loyalties. He overlays early 1960s norms of masculinity and femininity and what could be justified in the name of patriotism.


This is an ambitious novel, overly so in my estimation. Because Bohjalian has stuffed a lot of characters into a 315-page book, some by necessity must become sacrificial lambs. He similarly telegraphs other outcomes, another casualty of overpopulation. I am less charitable when he slips from early 60s norms and drifts into those of today.


To toss my critic’s hat in the closet, I doubt the above critique will matter to most readers. Bohjalian is simply a masterful spinner of yarns; tell a spell-bounding story and your audience is too invested to notice holes in the literary fabric. Call The Lioness a classic page-turner.


Rob Weir



That Touch of Mink Works on Several Levels



Directed by Delbert Mann

Universal Pictures, 99 minutes, Unrated





That Touch of Mink is a charming romantic comedy and a slice of 1962 social values. The United States was in the thrall of post-World War II victory culture (to borrow Tom Engelhardt’s term). For those who came through the Great Depression and wartime shortages, materialism held allure. The mink in the film’s title was a marker of wealth, not a perverse desire to slaughter little brown weasels, hence a mink coat was an object of desire for millions of American women.


Gender roles were quite different in 1962. Patriarchy reigned, women working was perceived as temporary until marriage, the Baby Boom remained loud and prolific, and women pursuing men was commonplace. That’s the way it was; if you can’t take it, tell it to your therapist and avoid this movie. That Touch of Mink is about a society with prescribed roles. Looming on the horizon were the Port Huron Statement, Vietnam, feminism, and other things that shifted cultural perspectives.


You could view That Touch of Mink as the last gasp of a fading value system, or just as a fluffy romp. I recommend the second. It’s a late screwball comedy leavened by the sharp script of Stanley Shapiro and Nate Monaster; that is, lots of snarky badinage, an attract/repulse/attract romance, and improbable situations that make sense within their manufactured contexts. It’s funny!


Cathy Timberlake (Doris Day) is an Ohio-born woman living in New York City and sharing an apartment with Connie Emerson (Audrey Meadows). Connie slips her extra food through the window of the Horn & Hardart automat at which she works, but Cathy needs a job. She is dressed for an interview in full 1962 battle armor: a dress, hose, evening gloves, and coiffed hair. As she walks down the street, a chauffeured Rolls drenches her with dirty water. She is mortified by her condition and that the car didn’t stop. (Hey, she’s from Ohio!)


Actually, the car’s owner, Philip Shayne (Cary Grant) ordered the driver to circle the block but Cathy was gone. Later, he gazes out the window of his high-rise office and sees her going into the automat. He’s a busy executive and has an upcoming meeting, so he sends his assistant Roger (Gig Young) across the street to pay for cleaning her clothing. Mistaken identity occurs, Connie offers bad advice, and Cathy is outraged by Payne’s poor manners.


When she bursts into Shayne’s office to throw the money in his face, though, she is instantly smitten by his good looks and charm. It’s the start of an off-and-on courtship that rockets between giddiness to misunderstanding and back again. Cathy will get a mink and then some. Everything always works out in a screwball comedy, but first obstacles must be overcome, not the least of which is Cathy’s fear that Shayne is trying to bed her.


Screwball comedies without topnotch actors seldom work. No worries. Cary Grant was arguably the best screwball actor of all time. Who could wine, dine, beguile, and be silly better than he? Doris Day is also terrific. She walks a tightrope between naiveté and self-confidence, all the while swaying this way and that with superb comic timing. It’s the kind of role Marilyn Monroe might have taken, but Day was a superior talent.


The secondary roles are equally sharp. Gig Young is hysterical as the self-flagellating Roger, who left Princeton to work for the “evil” Shayne who tortures him with raises, a pension, and benefits! He’s so “miserable” that he sees a distracted therapist (Alan Hewitt) who pumps him for stock tips, mishears, and thinks Roger is gay.* Young gets some of the best lines in the film and he makes the most of them. Audrey Meadows shed her Honeymooners role as a doughty housewife, but retained her tart tongue. There is also a chewy role for John Astin–who later attained fame in The Addams Family­–as a sleazy suitor for Cathy’s affections. Even Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Yogi Berra, and umpire Art Passarella got into the act in a cameo diversion with Cathy and Payne sitting beside them in a Yankee Stadium dugout.


In all, That Touch of Mink is pure gold. Gold was $35.35 an ounce in 1962, about $328 in 2021 dollars. Great deal! Buy it! Gold now sells for nearly $1,760 and you can get a really nice coat for that.


Rob Weir


* Yes, humor was wrung from gayness in 1962. But that was a good thing, as movies subtly helped change perceptions. They helped in the evolution from being an illegal “perversity” to a humorous condition, and (eventually) acceptance.