Helen Brush Jenkins dies at 94; pioneering photojournalist
With a click of the camera pressed against her forehead, the photojournalist broke ground in a way her male colleagues never could.
Two weeks later in 1953, Life magazine printed the picture she took moments after giving birth at a Los Angeles hospital. The headline read: “Mother Photographs Her Minute-Old Baby.”
Helen Brush Jenkins was already well-versed in getting the shot when she decided to record her first glimpse of her first born. As a female news photographer, she had been a pioneering presence at the old Los Angeles Daily News since the early 1940s when she was hired because so many cameramen were away at war.
“Her career was unique. She was a woman working as a newspaper photographer at a time when women simply did not work in that field,” John Versical, who is making a documentary about her, told The Times.
Jenkins, 94, had a stroke several days before she died Wednesday at her Chicago home, said her daughter, Genji Leclair.
She was a professional skater at Sid Grauman’s Roller Bowl in Hollywood when Daily News photographer Gib Brush showed up around 1940, spotted Jenkins in her skating silks and was “smitten,” she later said.
Six months later they were married and Brush was teaching her how to handle a camera and taking her out on assignments. After enlisting in the military during World War II, he encouraged her to apply at the Daily News, a now-defunct newspaper that was based downtown.
When Jenkins told a Daily News city editor that she knew how to shoot, he replied, “We don’t have any females here,” her daughter recalled. “She responded, ‘I’m not a female, I’m a photographer.’”
Given a one-week tryout, she was sent out to photograph a herd of 1,500 cattle that had gotten loose from 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,” Jenkins told The Times in 2005. “Oh God, what fun! And that’s how I got my start.”
That one week stretched into more than a dozen years, during which Jenkins documented history large and small until the paper folded in late 1954.
One of her most important photographs was taken in the predawn hours of Feb. 1, 1951, when 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 on 12th Street. And then she waited for a nuclear bomb to be tested hundreds of miles away in Nevada.
“For three seconds it was daylight, then pitch black again. The newspaper headline called it ‘Atomic Dawn,’ and I had it exclusive,” Jenkins said in the 2005 interview. “It was the most awesome sight I’ve ever seen in my life, outside of the birth of my children.”
“Helen had a reputation for getting the shot she wanted,” Vivien Ringer, a Daily News colleague, said in a lengthy trailer for the documentary. “She’s gutsy old Helen. She would do anything to get the best shot, and she was better than most of the men or probably all of them in the photography department.”
Her subjects often included the famous — Eleanor Roosevelt, Harry Truman during a whistle stop in Los Angeles and a parade of Hollywood celebrities that included Charlie Chaplin, Louis B. Mayer, Clark Gable and John Wayne.
Some of her favorite photographs came from the crime beat. One shows a fire at Universal Studios with “the suits running away and the firemen running in” while another printed around the world is a close-up of a fireman holding a puppy rescued from a fire, her daughter said.
In 1943, Jenkins was only 24 when she was sent to cover a Pacific Coast League baseball game at Wrigley Field in South Los Angeles and given one caveat: Do not wear a tight-fitting sweater.
Crouching near first base, she drew an admiring comment from singer Bing Crosby, she later said. The next day, a manager of one team complained to the paper that “it was hard to play baseball with this pretty girl running around the field,” Jenkins told a group of retired Los Angeles journalists in 2002.
When her editor harrumphed, “I thought I told you never to wear a sweater” she replied, “But I didn’t. I had on a blouse.”
She was born Helen Marie Pfeiffer in 1919 in Omaha to a salesman for a fine china company and his wife. When Helen was about 12, her father left the family and moved to California. Her mother soon relocated to Los Angeles with their three children.
After graduating from high school, Jenkins taught skating at the Roller Bowl. Pretty enough to warrant a screen test at Universal, she walked out when the director got fresh, her daughter said.
Once Gil Brush returned from the war, he wasn’t able to get rehired by the Daily News, his daughter said, and eventually opened a private photography studio.
The couple had four children, including their son Gilmer, whose birth was heralded in Life magazine and their youngest, Genji. One daughter died as an infant and another died when she was about 3, after many surgeries.
Jenkins coped by getting lost in her work while her husband “was a different person after that,” according to the documentary.
The couple divorced after 25 years of marriage. She married three more times and was widowed twice.
In 1971, Jenkins and her two children moved into a Synanon center in Santa Monica as the controversial rehabilitation program expanded to include new-age professionals who sought out the lifestyle. She “fell in love with the philosophy, people and environment,” her daughter said.
Her son quickly left but Jenkins stayed until 1990, when she moved to San Marcos with her fourth husband, George Jenkins. After he died several years ago, she moved to an assisted-living facility in Chicago on the shores of Lake Michigan, which she photographed every day well into her 93rd year.
Jenkins is survived by her son and daughter, nine grandchildren, 12 great-grandchildren and two great-great-grandchildren.
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