You just never know where Jim’s photos are going to take you. We start out to do a post on Ogden Nash and William Saroyan and end up with Jim’s mom. It’s a journey, indeed, a trip. Go figure.
With our ongoing focus on Jim’s lesser-known and/or pre-rock ‘n roll body of work, I find myself tickled again and again to be able to focus on Jim’s burgeoning talent and passions and, especially, his incredibly productive few years in New York City.
His assignments for The Saturday Evening Post stand out, in particular, such as this shot of Ogden Nash (1902-1971), an American poet, novelist and lyricist – and apparent chain smoker, as he is never without a cigarette in Jim’s entire shoot.
Nash was revered for his light verse full of nonsensical, made up words and nifty rhymes that could camouflage surprisingly deep observations, as well as his straight-ahead and well-anthologized prose. Though his work strikes me these days as a bit outdated and stereotypical for my tastes, Nash definitely had a way with a phrase and managed to work with puns, rhymes and comic misspellings without succumbing to what I call “death by limerick.” Here’s “Reflexions on Ice-Breaking,” one of Nash’s best known proverbs that seems tailor made for Jim:
Candy is dandy
But liquor is quicker
The Shadow of the Valley
Another ’63 assignment for The Saturday Evening Post saw Jim capturing an ebullient William Saroyan (1908-1981) at the famed Algonquin Hotel. The caption that accompanies this shot we’re running here along with Jim’s proofsheet in “Proof” mentions that it was the second time Jim had bonded with Saroyan, the first in Paris. It seems they hit it off and discovered a fair amount in common: Saroyan, an Armenian orphan from Fresno with strong agricultural roots and Jim, raised mostly by his mother, a Persian Assyrian who also was connected to farming families in the San Joaquin Valley.
Saroyan, a novelist, playwright and short story writer who won a Pulitzer for Drama and an Oscar for best original story for “The Human Comedy” in 1943, was one of those guys that gets to be called a “literary lion” with a bibliography of powerful, diverse work that just goes on and on. In addition to his published work, Saroyan is strongly remembered for his championing of the Armenian cause in the wake of the deliberate and systematic destruction of the Armenian population by the Ottoman Empire during and just after World War I, something I first heard about in depth from Jim, who I believe also had Armenian roots on his dad’s side.
It’s no big secret that swarthy, big-nosed Jim had a lot of issues with his background and his family. Jim really was, first and foremost, an American; he would pronounce it sort of like ’merakin with an aw-shucks southern/western accent. But, that adjective barely got out of his mouth before he stressed that what he REALLY was, was ASSYRIAN, descended from ancient, venerable tribes. He could even speak a passable version of Aramaic, the semitic language known since the 9th century.
Back in the day, he could talk hours about it. One of the very few times I saw Jim express true regret about his body of work was sometime in 1988 or so around the fact that he had not documented “where he was from like Saroyan had.” I remember him late at night, head in hand, moaning about how he’d blown his chance, they were all dead and it would never be the same. To make matters worse, he was estranged from his mom – a major falling out because she blamed him for the break up of his second marriage and he couldn’t bring himself to forgive her (another story for another blog).
Saroyan, not surprisingly, sums it up powerfully in his 1936 book of stories, “Inhale and Exhale,” “There is a small area of land in Asia Minor that is called Armenia, but it is not so. It is not Armenia. It is a place. There are only Armenians, and they inhabit the earth, not Armenia, since there is no Armenia. There is no America and there is no England, and no France, and no Italy. There is only the earth.”