‘Girl Photog’ Was Headline News During the 1940s
Helen Brush Jenkins got her start in newspapers by showing off photos of snakes. And no, they weren’t slithering around the newsroom.
Jenkins was a Los Angeles newspaper photographer well before women had secured a place in the media. She didn’t take society-page pictures of celebrities dripping in diamonds, either. She elbowed her way to the front to photograph oil and chemical explosions, sensational trials, presidential campaigns, a nuclear blast, notables and nobodies.
For the record:
12:00 AM, Apr. 01, 2005 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday April 01, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 79 words Type of Material: Correction
Helen Brush Jenkins -- The L.A. Then and Now feature in Sunday’s California section included a photo of former Los Angeles Daily News photographer Helen Brush Jenkins with an old newspaper headlined “Mob Mauls Girl Photog.” The article and caption incorrectly tied that headline to a 1940s incident in which Jenkins was accosted by a mob of USC students. In fact, the headline pertained to a different incident, when she was attacked while covering an anti-Semitic gathering in 1945.
A onetime roller- and ice-skating performer, she is one of a dwindling number of self-taught newspaper photographers, a pioneer for women who followed in her footsteps.
“There was a lot of competition back in those days [1941 to 1954], and I had to be very inventive, setting up my shots differently from everyone else,” said Jenkins, 86, in a recent interview from her home in San Marcos, where she lives with her husband, George Jenkins.
In early 1941, she was teaching dance skating and performing under the spotlight to “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” and boogie-woogie songs at Sid Grauman’s Hollywood Roller Bowl.
There the blue-eyed redhead skated into the heart of Daily News photographer Gib Brush, who had gone to meet a “newsie” -- a pal -- but ended up taking her photograph for the sports section.
“He was smitten right away and asked me out to dinner,” Jenkins said. “But he hit the bull’s-eye with me when he showed concern for his mother by calling and letting her know where he was going. He proposed a few days later, but it took him six months to clean up his debt and marry me.”
She put her skates away later that year after Brush began teaching her to capture picturesque views of nature on camera.
Armed with a boxy Speed Graphic camera and several photographs of snakes, she applied for a job at the Daily News, a now defunct downtown newspaper with no connection to today’s Daily News in the San Fernando Valley.
“They said they’d try me out for a week,” Jenkins said. “My first assignment was to cover 1,500 head of cattle that got loose from the stockyards” in East Los Angeles.
“While my city editor, Sparky Saldana, was driving my car, I rode around on the running board, fighting with cowboys on horses who thought we were going to stampede the herd. Oh god, what fun! And that’s how I got my start.”
Weeks later, she still had a job. On Sunday morning, Dec. 7, 1941, she was in the newsroom at Pico Boulevard and Los Angeles Street. “About 10:30 a.m. things were pretty quiet. Then the presses started to roll,” which always shook the building, she said.
The paper had several editions, even on Sundays. And on that particular Sunday, at 7:55 a.m. Hawaii time, the United States found itself under attack in the Pacific.
“Ding, ding, ding went the ticker tape,” she said. “It was the news of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. It was also the first time I ever heard anyone yell, ‘Hold the presses!’ ”
She ran down three flights of stairs to the street, where she photographed people with tears streaming down their faces and horror in their eyes.
When her husband and other reporters and photographers went off to war, the paper was “so hard up” it was forced to keep her, Jenkins said.
In 1943, when she was 24, she was assigned to take pictures of a Pacific Coast League baseball game at Wrigley Field in South Los Angeles. Her boss ordered her not to wear a tight-fitting sweater or slacks.
Crouching to shoot near first base, she saw that she had attracted the notice of spectator Bing Crosby and two of his buddies.
The next day, she said, the manager of one of the teams called the paper, blaming her for his players’ three errors. He told her editor not to send a female photographer again because it was hard for his guys to concentrate with a pretty girl running around the field.
“My editor said, ‘I thought I told you never to wear a sweater.’ I said, ‘But I didn’t. I had on a blouse and culottes.’ ”
That same year, she scooped the other papers with a shot of one of two teenage girls who had accused actor Errol Flynn of statutory rape.
After Flynn’s attorney attacked the girl’s morals during her testimony, the girl became distraught. Jenkins took her to the ladies’ room -- out of reach of male photographers -- and snapped shots of her looking like a victim, not a culprit. Flynn was acquitted nonetheless.
One football season, she was accosted by a mob of USC students whose faces she had preserved on film as they threw furniture into a bonfire before a game.
“There must have been 1,500 people there, and in the wink of an eye they surrounded me, squashed me and demanded I give them my camera. As I stood there nose to nose with them, they started chanting ‘Pants off, pants off’ ” -- meaning, take her pants off.
“The reporter I was with was muscled out and ran and got the dean, who was like Moses parting the water. The next day, my photo made the front page” with the headline “Mob Mauls Girl Photog,” Jenkins said. “And many of those students I photographed were expelled.”
On Aug. 14, 1945, the day Japan agreed to surrender, she took her camera to the streets again. This time she saw people dancing and hugging and servicemen kissing pretty girls.
About nine months after her husband returned from the war, Jenkins labored -- literally -- photographing the birth of her first baby for Life magazine.
In that era, women usually quit their jobs once they had a child. Not Jenkins; she was back in the newsroom by Feb. 20, 1947, when a chemical blast at the O’Connor Electro-Plating Co. ripped apart four blocks in the Pico Boulevard manufacturing district.
The Daily News building shook -- and it was nearly a dozen blocks away. Jenkins grabbed her camera and ran to the scene.
Climbing a rusty fire escape, she aimed her camera at the destruction. The blast had destroyed or damaged 116 buildings and excavated a crater 22 feet wide and 6 feet deep.
“There were dead bodies everywhere,” she said, including that of a 10-year-old boy who had been hit by a pipe while riding his bike a block away. A trembling switchboard operator sat in her swivel chair out in the open, surrounded by shards of glass.
Seventeen people were killed and 150 injured in one of the city’s deadliest industrial accidents. The body of the company’s chief chemist was never found.
The next year, Jenkins and her camera greeted President Truman when he made two whistle stops in Los Angeles during the campaign.
On Feb. 1, 1951, Jenkins prepared to capture another historic image. A nuclear bomb was to be tested hundreds of miles away, one of the first above-ground blasts at the Nevada Test Site.
In the predawn darkness, she set up her camera atop the Daily News building, framing the horizon with the nearby steeples of St. Joseph’s Church and the city lights of 12th Street.
“Three hundred miles away! For three seconds it was daylight, then pitch black again. The newspaper headline called it ‘Atomic Dawn,’ and I had it exclusive. It was the most awesome sight I’ve ever seen in my life, outside of the birth of my children,” she said.
It was an award-winning photo and one of the highlights of her career.
For a while, her career burned almost as brightly as that blast. But on Dec. 18, 1954, the Daily News closed; her job was gone.
She went on to freelance, raise her four children and lead the Greater Los Angeles Press Club. Her husband, Gib Brush, died in the 1960s.
She remarried (three times), but she never retired from photography. These days she prefers a compact digital camera.