Art Shay, Whose Camera Captured the Famous and the Everyday, Dies at 96
Posted May 10, 2018 6:53 p.m. EDT
Art Shay, a noted photographer who chronicled the famous and powerful, including nine presidents, as well as the everyday life of mid-20th-century Americans, died on April 28 at his home in Deerfield, Illinois. He was 96.
The cause was heart failure, his son Richard said.
In more than 1,500 assignments for Life, Time, Look, Sports Illustrated and Fortune magazines, Shay photographed famous Americans like Marlon Brando, Elizabeth Taylor, Muhammad Ali, Jimmy Hoffa, Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy and President John F. Kennedy. He also passionately documented the streets of his adopted hometown, Chicago.
Shay was a prolific writer as well, with more than 60 books, including many nonfiction children’s books, and five plays to his credit. Two of the plays — “A Clock for Nikita” in 1963 and “Where Have You Gone, Jimmy Stewart?” in 2002 — were performed in the Chicago area.
Shay was born in the New York borough of the Bronx on March 31, 1922, one of four sons of Herman and Mollie (Schesten) Shay, poor Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. His father, a tailor, bought him a Royal portable typewriter on an installment plan, putting $2 down and making payments of 25 cents a week.
When young Art won a bingo game, he used the prize money to finish paying for the typewriter. He learned how to use a darkroom when he was a Boy Scout and wrote for the school newspaper at James Monroe High School in the Bronx.
He enrolled in Brooklyn College but left in 1943 to join the Army Air Forces, becoming a lead navigator during World War II under the command of the actor Jimmy Stewart. He flew more than 30 bomber missions and survived a deadly air battle in September 1944 in Kassel, Germany, where dozens of U.S. planes were lost and more than 100 U.S. airmen killed. He received the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Croix de Guerre.
Shay always carried a camera with him, and, in June 1944, he photographed a midair collision between two B-24 planes and sold the images to Look for $100. He recounted the experience in his autobiography, “Album for an Age: Unconventional Words and Pictures From the Twentieth Century” (2000).
“I was horrified,” he wrote, “but equally horrified because a hysterical colonel was pulling and pushing me, screaming, ‘You can’t shoot that — it’s restricted.’ I ducked, dodged and documented.”
Shay went to Life’s offices to ask for work as a photographer in 1947. Instead, he was offered a job as a writer. He wrote more than 100 articles over the next four years to accompany photos by some of the most famous photographers of the era; along the way, he learned how to tell stories through pictures.
He went out on his own as a freelance photographer in 1951 and worked continuously for leading magazines for 40 years. He formed a close friendship with the writer Nelson Algren while on an assignment to photograph him for Life. One of Shay’s best-known photos is of Algren’s lover, the author Simone de Beauvoir, naked, shot from the rear.
His most memorable assignment, he said, was covering the first presidential debate between Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon in 1960 for Time — because, he said, he was witnessing history as it was happening.
On April 4, 1968, Shay arrived in Memphis, Tennessee, just hours after the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and photographed the aftermath, in color, for Life. He shared his car with the writer Garry Wills, who was working for Esquire, and they went with the police as they searched for the killer and responded to reports of riots.
“Back at the police station,” Shay wrote last year in an article for the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, “we were told King’s body was taken to the Lewis Funeral Home and they were working on the body to make it presentable to the public. We spent an eerie night in the mortuary, as the attendants labored to camouflage the bullet hole in King’s head while the radio played King’s recorded speeches. People lined up before dawn to see his body. Many of the stunned mourners who filed through the funeral home rued never having seen the man alive.”
Shay married Florence Gerson in 1944. She often accompanied him on assignments, hiding his cameras in her purse while they stalked and photographed mobsters. She later operated a rare-book shop in Highland Park, Illinois. The couple had five children including a son, Harmon, who disappeared in 1972 in Florida and is presumed dead.
After Florence Shay died in 2012, Shay published a book of photographs and reminiscences, “My Florence: A 70-year Love Story.”
In addition to his son Richard, Shay is survived by another son, Steven; two daughters, Jane Wald and Lauren Lavin; six grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
Last year, Shay received a lifetime achievement award from the Lucie Foundation in a ceremony at Carnegie Hall. After a brief speech, he whipped out a harmonica to play a solo, noting that any “Jewish kid growing up is expected some day to go to Carnegie Hall.”
“So,” he added, “my parents must be kvelling wherever they are.”