Award winning photojournalist, Gene Barnes shares his life and times as a cameraman for NBC News during the radical 50's & 60's. His stories are ironic, iconic, historical and things we still talk about to this day. All copyrights to images and stories are owned by his daughter, Christina Barnes. Please ask permission for use and respecting copyright laws will be very much appreciated.
Hollywood, California 1961
During a break at Paramount Pictures where he was filming HATARI. After lunch in the commissary the United States Marine Corps honored him with an award for his recruiting efforts through film and personal appearances during World War II and Korea.
Pictured outside his office before and after removing Associate Producer Michael Hamilburg’s plaque from the slot on the door leaving him with a satisfied smile on his face and his name alone. (Warner Bros. Studio – Burbank, California – 1973)
John F. Kennedy
I had no idea how important this young Senator was when he addressed a California woman’s group in Pomona during a whirlwind campaign tour for the presidency. As I covered John Kennedy throughout the democratic convention in Los Angeles it became more and more obvious he would be nominated by his party as their candidate. Then, by a controversial narrow margin, he went on to beat Richard Nixon and became the 35th President of the United States.
He was a hard man to cover on his presidential visits to Los Angeles. Like the time the press waited for him in front of a Hollywood hotel–he climbed out the back window and down the fire escape to keep some secret meeting with who knows who.
Three years later his brains were blown out and I was in the Dallas hospital to record the doctor announcing the death of the President of the United States.
The press corps from all over the world descended on Dallas like a swarm of locust. We had to accept the tragedy as objectively and professionally as possible and treat it as you would any other homicide. But it was the President of the United States that was murdered, our President. Hearts were heavy, morale was low, intrigue high. Nevertheless we gathered as much information as we could.
Things began to fall into place when they arrested Lee Harvey Oswald. We no longer needed to follow leads of who the killer might be. We waited at the Dallas Police Station to capture pictures of Oswald when they marched him silently through the halls. In what seemed a desperate attempt, he once called out saying that he was “Just a patsy in this thing.” Then we learned they were going to turn him over to the county. Cops and the press jammed the basement garage. Two Dallas policemen walked from the jail elevator and entered the garage with Oswald as if they were marching him steadfastly into the muzzle of Jack Ruby’s .38. In spite of being surrounded by police and the press, Ruby was able to fire that single fatal shot silencing Oswald as millions of viewers witnessed it in horror on television.
I was inside by the elevaator where the police were supposed to turn Oswald over to county officers. I photographed Oswald being led out of the elevator right past the county officers towards the door to the garage. When I realized they were not going to make the exchange, I shut my camera off and shouted ‘let’s go’ to Ted Mann, the soundman. Glad Hill of the New York Times came with us as we ran down the hall to a door leading out of the building.
Just as we rounded the corner we heard POP. Glad, in his gravelly baritone said, “You don’t suppose somebody shot the son-of-a-bitch?” I shouted over my shoulder, “Hell no. It was just a bulb. Keep running.” We reached the door. I lunged at the cross bar to open it just as a uniformed cop outside jumped down the steps and tried to hold the door shut. I shouted, “Quick. They told us to get us of here!” He jumped back, startled. We rushed out, past him and up the stairs. We were the only press that got out of the police building.
I offered Glad a ride and we ran to where I had a car and an off duty cop waiting to drive. A TV engineer in a remote truck confirmed that Oswald had been shot. Cops were running in all directions around the building. I heard one shout, “They got a nigger around the other side.” Someone else shouted for someone to move the armored car that was blocking the garage exit. We stood a few feet away watching as two different men unsuccessfully tried to start the engine. Meanwhile Oswald was bleeding to death on the garage floor. Cars had to be moved from the entrance leading into the garage on the opposite side of the building to let the ambulance in. The ambulance could not get out until they finally got the engine started on the armored car and moved it out of the way.
The ambulance drove out within three feet of my lens. Oswald had the unmistakable gray pallor of death. We raced for our car and followed the ambulance across town on streets with huge dips, the off-duty cop tooling the rental car like a racer. Glad’s head kept hitting the roof because of his height. We skidded into the hospital entrance sideways on the lasts shred of brake lining, jumped from the car while it was still rolling and ran to the emergency entrance. The place was a bedlam of activity. Ted and I recorded aas much as we could, including the “pristine” bullet found under Governor John Connelly.
Out of the blue our cop driver came over, telling me he knew who shot Lee Harvey Oswald, but it would cost ‘whatever the freight would bear.’ I couldn’t believe it, the identity of the assailant hadn’t been broadcast. I told him I’d have to clear it with Don Roberts, the NBC deskman in Houston. An orderly showed me to a phone in a room behind a wall of diffused glass. I could see the cop’s silhouette lurking on the other side as he listened. I told Don the guy claimed he knew who Oswald’s killer was and he wanted money for the information. Don checked the wires while I waited. When he came back to the phone Don said it was just coming in. The hall door opened and the cop said in unison with Don “It was a guy named Jack Ruby!” Ruby, owner of a nightclub which featured strippers. He looked the part. We’d seen him around the police department ever since they brought Oswald in, handing out business cards for his Carousel night club, telling everyone to come on down for free. After Ruby killed Oswald we all suspected conspiracy, but with whom? Dallas turned into a nightmare of lies, subterfuge, mystery, total confusion.
Because of my involvement in Dallas I have been asked many times who I thought was behind the assassination. It is a difficult story to tell, so much happened, and complications arose at every turn. My life was profoundly affected in my dogged desire to tell the truth, with no outlet, and my opinion never varied from the one I formed the fourth day in Dallas. An opinion that is shared with many tabloids and some quality publications.
Nearly every morning a large segment of international press staying at the Statler Hilton gathered for breakfast in the hotel dining room. Carefully selected theories were exchanged. Carefully, selected theories were exchanged. Carefully, because everyone was looking for fresh leads and an exchange sometimes dove-tailed into information you already had. A French reporter came bounding in enthusiastically the morning after Ruby shot Oswald, announcing it was the American Mob who had Kennedy assassinated. Simple and logical to him, immediately raising eyebrows, including mine. The Frenchman’s theory mad more sense than anyone, including Jack Ruby’s weak explanation that he killed Oswald because he felt sorry for Jackie Kennedy, the President’s widow.
Some expounded the idea that Kennedy had pulled the plug on the Bay of Pigs invasion and sealed his doom by cutting the mob out of their Havana casinos. Another: Bobby Kennedy threatened Las Vegas gambling riches by proposing that Federal counters be installed in casino counting rooms to prevent skimming. Killing John would have direct influence on Robert was the reasoning. It would weaken Bobby’s power as head of the Justice Department.
Who was Oswald? Was he connected to the mob? No one knew, but as things began unraveling it appeared he was CIA, an agent fronting as a communist, working out of a New Orleans building that was a CIA front. Why would he want to kill Kennedy? Some thought for Castro. It went on and on.
We followed leads as rapidly as they developed. Many were unsuccessful, thank God. One such time was when Robin MacNeil and I went to Jack Ruby’s apartment to photograph and see what we could uncover. Ruby’s sister was there. The door was open. She yelled out, “What the fuck do you want?” and told us to get the hell out of there. In retrospect I think we both should be grateful. Everyone who had been in direct contact with Ruby, or his apartment, died under various circumstances. It was then network chief Bill McAndrew said if we kept up the investigative reporting we would find our heads in our hands.
NBC was the only news agency with David Ferry’s name. Ferry, a weird homosexual with heavy dark painted eyebrows, was an airplane pilot. Ferry’s name was passed on to me via the desk who got it from a Dallas cameraman who got it from his wife who picked it up from a Dallas cameraman who got it from his wife who picked it up from some back fence gossip with a neighbor. We all didded that it was kind of a “fairy” tale because we couldn’t find out much about Ferry. He was supposed to have been involved in flying two or three men out of the Dallas area right after the assassination from some airport where he hid a plane. It later turned out that he was the pilot who flew Mafia boss Carlos Marcello back to new Orleans from Puerto Rico where Bob Kennedy had him dumped by Federal agents because Marcello kept insisting he was Puerto Rican, not Sicilian.
New Orleans district Aattorney Jim Garrison launched a conspiracy trial involving Clay Shaw and a bunch of weirdos sporting leather, whips and chains, and bizarre homosexual trappings. Ferry was to be his first witness, but was found dead in his apartment the day before. I wasn’t surprised when I saw the headline. It seemed that anyone connected to the Kennedy assassination in any way were dying all over the place. After reading the story I picked up a letter with an Oklahoma return address, presumably from a newsman friend who lived there. I got a chill when I opened the simple message: “What can you tell me about David Ferry?” signed, Susan Martin.
I asked the advice of my good friend Frank Hroneck in the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office. Frank said simply, “Don’t respond unless you want to become involved.” She was reportedly a puppet for Mark Lane, the attorney who seemed to be making a living off the assassination.
Master of Semantics
It was a dull news day when Tom Pettit informed us that Hayakawa was greeting the press at the downtown Los Angeles Statler Hotel. Here from the north, Hayakawa was continuing his crusade against what was then the newly proposed change being made by the telephone company: replacing prefix names with numbers and adding three additional digits for area codes in front.
Good Sam was not a mathematician and detested numbers so he organized what he called the Anti-Digit Dialing League comprised mostly of friends and relatives, with a membership of less than twenty. While he was usually capable of gathering press, apparently we were the only newsmen interested in this subject. While he was usually capable of gathering press, apparently we were the only newsmen interested in this subject.
Hayakawa’s prophetic, whimsical comments slowly turned to truth. His approach was quite logical in assessing the situation as he referred mainly to the personal hardship being brought about by the monster phone company to people with poor memories, and those like himself who were inept with numbers. Instead of simply having to remember five numbers, with a two letter prefix, like PE 6-5000, five additional numbers would precede the other five, making it: 409-736-5000. Outraged, he commented that it wouldn’t be long before individuals would be known by their social security number, rather than their name.
He began at an early age as an acrobat. A physical problem forced him to explore other areas, leading to his inimitable jaunty style, thte cocked straw hat becoming his trademark. He spent his life in performing arts delighting men and women alike the world over with songs that remain fond memories: Thank Heaven for Little Girls, Mimi, I’m Glad I’m Not Young Anymore, and many others. Performing in a one man show at the Greek Theatre, he opened to rave reviews.
During this period the evolution of TV news management began expanding. Demands on people who gathered the news became oriented toward academia. No one was being hired without a journalism degree. This brought people into the field without background in reality or historical wisdom. Newsreel cameramen with worldwide knowledge had been the reporters, photojournalists, for the infant medium.
One such 30 year old reporter was assigned to work with me and the soundman on this story. He was an educator, had a degree in journalism and no practical experience. He spent his life in schools. We met him in the empty parking lot. While he went off to locate Chevalier, Ted and I found a beat-up piano backstage where we could seat Chevalier at the keyboard for the interview. When the reporter returned he asked what we knew about Chevalier. Not only was he star struck, he was totally unprepared. I gave him notes I had put together.
Chevalier seemed weary. The reporter’s ineptitude didn’t help.
Richard Nixon ~ Marilyn Monroe ~ Arthur Miller
The press corps were at Los Angeles International Airport to cover the departure of Vice President Richard Nixon. He was just warming up, preparing to give his standard “and I say to you…” rhetoric, cameras and lights were ready.
Marilyn Monroe and husband-playwright Arthur Miller walked in totally unexpected. They had just arrived from New York on a private plane. Monroe was always top news copy so I flipped my lights on her and she was ready. Other photographers followed my lead leaving Nixon without light or attention, standing dumbfounded on the sidelines watching Marilyn Monroe pose for the cameras. Miller looked on, appropriately grim. Miller had been a witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee of which Nixon was an active member during the early 50′s.
These pictures were made November 2, 1959. Three years later Monroe was dead, leaving behind a tarnished myth. Assignment editor, Ed Conklin, still feeling booze from the night before, received a tip on Marilyn’s death and got me out of bed in the wee hours of the morning to cover it. Only a few of us were on the scene: a handful of police, a photographer from the Santa Monica police beat; Jim Bacon of Associated Press and I were the only news media. A neighbor told us she saw Bobby Kennedy walking away down the driveway shortly before midnight.
Because of her involvement with the Kennedys, arch enemy and head of the Teamsters, Jimmy Hoffa had her place bugged. He had to have known who was there in her last hours. If Hoffa did have her bedroom bugged, he knew Bobby Kennedy was there. And why didn’t he use it? Twenty years later evidence gathered by researchers placed Bobby Kennedy in Los Angeles the day before she died, leaving by helicopter from Peter Lawford’s Santa Monica beach house that night to connect with a private plane for a flight back to San Francisco. But the story didn’t surface for twenty five years.
Monroe typifies countless pretty girls who populate Hollywood and possess no real acting ability. She was filled with insurmountable insecurity and just played vulnerable Norma Jean. Monroe could barely read a line. That, of course, was part of her charm.
I saw only melancholy in her eyes. The famous glamour star was really more to be pitied.
Nelson A. Rockefeller
A Republican gathering at the Los Angeles Biltmore Hotel followed an unsuccessful speech before the San Francisco convention at the Cow Palace where Rocky was shamefully booed by Goldwater and Nixon supporters. Giant posters of Nixon hovered tastelessly over the proceedings. A picture could not be made of Rocky without Richard Nixon’s countenance. Nixon was his nemesis, and Nixon followers his enemy.
I covered Rocky on one occasion when some hard core print reporters influenced his press aide to split his press conference in two. The first half for print media, the second for television and radio. Disgruntled newspaper reporters claimed television news traded on their questions, their expertise, that TV news had no depth and newspaper reporters could explore the candidate in a more meaningful exchange without the presence of the upstart media. They argued that answers to print reporters questions often aired on television before some publications hit the street. The reporters neglected to mention they, too, utilized information solicited by TV newsreel cameramen. Newsreel crews did not have reporters with them in those times.
Furious about the decision, NBC officials assigned two crews to cover the first news conference: one on a tripod to cover Rocky, and me with hand-held sound to cover the brou-ha-ha about to develop.
The scene was heating up when we arrived. Several newsreel cameras had already set up and newspaper reporters were fuming. Key agitators argued with Rockefeller’s press aide and TV crews steadfastly held their ground. Television department heads were there demanding their right to cover the first press conference, stating there could not be a “separate but equal” press conference. I questioned the equality of it based on “what if” Rocky got knocked off in either press conference. Obviously, some would miss the story. The aide had an anguished expression, clearly sorry he attempted to set precedent to help his newspaper buddies.
I moved through shadows with available light candidly recording heated exchanges between the two factions. When Ed Conklin, second in command at NBC, showed up, I followed. Unaware, Ed approached Rocky’s aide, questioning what the hell was going on. I stood behind Ed in darkness with a zoom lens trained on the aide’s strained face. After some haggling, he stared hard at Ed and blurted out “Look, Ed. You know Rocky can’t say the same things to television that he can say to the press.” Glancing over Ed’s shoulder at my lens, he angrily protested, “Is that thing on? You should tell me what that damned thing is running!” I ran to the lab and we fed Huntley-Brinkley for the network show, a clear cut scoop which explained everything in a few terse words.
I apologized to Rocky later that night at another event. He understood, saying the whole thing was pretty silly. That was the last attempt at divided press conferences.