The Photograph That Gave Weegee His First Big Break by the Forward

The Photograph That Gave Weegee His First Big Break

In the summer of 1936, Arthur Fellig, the newspaper photographer who would soon be known as Weegee the Famous, was already calling himself Weegee. But he was pretty far from being famous. He had quit a steady job as a darkroom printer about eighteen months earlier and started trying to make a living as a freelance photographer, working out of a crummy one-room apartment behind Manhattan police headquarters. It was, at this stage of his life, a hand-to-mouth existence, grubbed out one five-dollar sale at a time. Late-night pictures of arrests and fires were keeping him fed, barely. That summer, he hit a dry spell, and by late July he was nearly broke. He briefly considered hocking his Speed Graphic press camera, which would have kneecapped his ability to make a living. One late July day, when he dropped by Acme to sell a couple of auto-wreck photos for a lowball price, he ran into the boss, Robert Dorman, who offered him a chance to go back to his darkroom job. Fellig was desperate enough to consider it. Really, what he needed was a lucky break — and then, abruptly, he caught one, or rather he created one for himself.

Friday, July 31, was not one of those sweltering city nights when the murder rate is said to spike. The temperature didn’t even get out of the seventies. That did not matter in the MacKnight household, across the harbor from Lower Manhattan, on Avenue A in Bayonne, New Jersey. Around 6:00 p.m., Edgar MacKnight came home from work to discover his wife, Helen, hacked to death. She had, it quickly became apparent, died at the hands of their seventeen-year-old daughter, Gladys, and her eighteen-year-old boyfriend, Donald Wightman. It was fabulous tabloid material, for quite a few reasons. The families were well-to-do: Edgar was an executive at a cable manufacturing company, and Donald’s father ran the local yacht club. Gladys was a member of that newly named species known as a “teen-ager,” and she was described in the news reports as sullen, tomboyish, athletic, and reliably combative with her old-fashioned mother. Donald looked squeaky-clean and collegiate. In Weegee’s great description, “he could have made the all-American axe team.”

As for Helen, she’d had a nervous breakdown a few years earlier. She and Edgar had disapproved of their daughter’s relationship with Donald, and a few minutes after he arrived for their tennis date that evening, Helen got into a quarrel with Gladys about dinner. (Gladys claimed later on that her mother had caught her and Donald in the kitchen, necking.) Depending on whom you believed at the subsequent trial, either Gladys or Donald had grabbed a hatchet from atop the refrigerator and killed Mrs. MacKnight with six blows. The young couple jumped into a car and fled a few minutes later, then came back and turned themselves in around 10:00 p.m. When she was arrested, Gladys displayed a certain press awareness. “Will I get the papers?” she asked her jailer. “May I see reporters in my cell?”

It had happened early enough to make the Saturday-morning New York editions. The Times, in a move that was a little unusual for such a seamy case, put the story on its front page, though the murder was subordinated to international news. The Daily News just squeezed it into its final: GIRL, 17, AND BOY KILL HER MOTHER was the big black headline on the back page, confusingly appearing over a photo from a celebrity divorce trial that was playing out just then. (The headline didn’t bother with the customary “alleged,” but the story inside the paper is hedged.) A good story—but, significantly, the arrest had happened late in the eve- ning, and the story had likely been phoned in to the News’s city desk from Bayonne. There were no photographs.

Weegee got hold of the city edition of the News at 3:00 a.m. and imme- diately called the Post, saying he’d go after the story on spec. Being an afternoon paper, the Post wouldn’t be locking up its own first edition for another five or six hours, so the desk editors said yes and assigned a twenty-four-year-old reporter named Leo Katcher to meet Fellig and head out to New Jersey. The two men already knew each other. Katcher drove because Weegee had been too broke to gas up his car.

They got to the police station in Bayonne around five, an hour before the sun came up, and found not a single reporter on the scene. They’d all been there earlier, but the warden had declared “no more pictures tonight,” and the men from the press had left with, Weegee said, “a gentlemen’s agreement” that they’d all come back the following morning around eight or nine, so nobody would get scooped. But he hadn’t been there at the time, and “Me and Leo Katcher didn’t know about the agreement.” But Katcher, who had grown up in Bayonne and worked at the Bayonne Evening News, did know the warden. Quickly he persuaded him to bring the couple up to be photographed, and Fellig shrewdly told Gladys to make herself up, to look her best. “Smile,” he told her. She bared her teeth, saying, “Haven’t enough of those things been taken yet?” Then she relented and posed, grimacing, with Wightman and on her own. Weegee kept shooting, and when he finished up, Gladys sent him off with “Okay, Toots. I’ll be seeing you.”

The police captain, standing nearby, called her the “freshest, boldest girl I ever saw.” Donald Wightman was more reserved, but he, too, sat for portraits, looking crestfallen. Weegee used up every glass-plate neg- ative he had brought in his camera bag. As she headed back down to her cell, Gladys whispered to him out of the side of her mouth, “How do I photograph?”

Pretty well, it turned out. Within an hour or so, reporter and photographer were back through the Holland Tunnel and in the Post’s building on West Street, Katcher typing up his copy, Weegee in the dark- room. That afternoon, the Post had it: a full-length photo of Gladys (in tennis skirt and sneakers) on its front page, Katcher’s snappy jailhouse interview with the couple on page 2, and a montage of pictures of Gladys and Donald on page 3. “Post Photo,” read the credits beneath them, but it was the freelance Weegee who got paid that morning. The caption writer did his damnedest to turn the pictures into a hard-boiled drama.

Nice kids, the townsfolk in Bayonne always thought. Gladys MacKnight was a bit of a tomboy, sometimes a bit sullen and quick-tempered, but she came from one of the first families of Bayonne … Donald Wightman was well liked, a bit of an athlete—in short, a promising boy. Who would have dreamed, as these two youngsters tennised and motored about town, that today they would both be in jail, charged with the horrible ax-murder of Gladys’s mother? One quick flash of temper, one moment of yielding to weakness, and now they face long terms in prison, if not the electric chair. Study these faces. Do you see any clue to such a quirk in their characters?

The next year, at the couple’s trial, a prosecutor held up a newspaper image from that day, showing a defiant, smirking Gladys. The lawyer asked the jury, “Does this look like a girl suffering from shock … ? I think not. Nor do I think you do.”

Weegee’s competitive advantage evaporated by midday: the rest of the pack caught up when the couple was brought out in the morning to be arraigned, and the final editions of several papers had photos not dissimilar to Weegee’s. But Acme and the Associated Press had each bought his take. The Herald Tribune, usually prim about murder stories, ran an Acme photo (his). So did the Daily Mirror. The World­Telegram bought and used a couple as well. Altogether, Weegee said, he pulled in seventy-five dollars for that one job: enough to gas up the car, pay the rent, stock up on film and flashbulbs, and sustain himself for a couple of weeks. (The equivalent, in 2018, would be about thirteen hundred dollars.) The city editor of the Post paid him in cash, on the spot. Leo Katcher earned some of the credit as well: just a couple of years later, he himself was promoted to city editor of the Post, then published a couple of well-regarded books, and eventually went out to California to write screenplays, successfully.

Weegee followed that later in the week with two more front-page stories, plus whatever small-time fires and car crashes he got in between those: he was out of his slump. At the photo desk of the World­Telegram, at least, the editors appeared to take notice. Twice in the next two weeks, they bought pictures from him and credited them not to the usual “Acme” or “World­Telegram Staff ” but instead to “Arthur Fellig Photo.” He was on his way.

This article was adapted from “FLASH: THE MAKING OF WEEGEE THE FAMOUS” (Henry Holt). © 2018 by Christopher Bonanos.

The Photograph That Gave Weegee His First Big Break

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