Jan

27

 My friend recently wrote to my friend Art Shay asking what his secret is. This is what he wrote:

The secret is starting out with good DNA and poor immigrant parents who respected learning and believed that by working diligently, despite the handicaps of poverty, good looks and middling athletic skills, in this country you could amount to something.

In Russia at 23 my father was a political activist working with young Leon Trotsky. When he came to America, which had already suffered its Revolution, he became a tailor like all his 7 siblings who'd taken up the family trade. Although he hated uniforms, because of what they meant in Europe, my father encouraged me to become a Boy Scout and helped me win my 21 merit badges. I became a Life Scout, missing Eagle by being one bird short for the required Bird Study merit badge! (I could have used your help Josh!)

In the Depression I'd sometimes accompany my father looking for work in the needle trade, starting at one of the 8 story factory buildings, top floor, back door, and working our fruitless way down. He was out of work half the time and supported me and my 3 brothers and mom by fabricating dresses at home. He taught me to love reading and respect learning and sometimes played plangent Russian songs on the mandolin (singing the lyrics quietly– my favorite being" Nagyishcka"- the horse whip, which accented the sharp rhythms of the troika horses as they ran through the snow) to put 3 year old me to sleep.)

He took me to Central Park to watch the rich kids sail their boats. He taught me it was OK to sneak a feel of an Arctic sled on display behind "Don't Touch" sign and ropes, but make sure the guard was not looking. (In my career I would make dozens of secret pictures!).

When I enlisted in the Air Force Herman Shay wept, because military service often meant death and absence forever, but he had already taught me the meaning of America, and what a privilege it was to give back something of myself to it. I had a lucky war. I had but 9 months of college, but I educated myself. I've read hundreds and written about 60 books and countless articles. My writing idols are Nabokov, Hemingway, Algren and Chekhov.

I became a photographer when I realized I did not have the DNA spark to be a great writer. To come up to my own ideals. I compensated with the camera. Some of my pictures have been compared by tough critics, to works by Dostoevsky, Hemingway, Dickens, Melville. Algren and even Nabokov. This is flattering and great for the ego. But I don't buy it. One of my Chicago pictures, recently bought by a great university for their new library was sold to them by my gallery for an outlandish amount. My older daughter, who overcame typical teenage difficulties, was recently honored by the LA Bar Association for being a top intellectual property, trade mark and patent attorney in LA. When she was in law school she was the first student in US history to have a case in the US Supreme Court. She won her case with her professor (he had the license) reading her brief. She said, beforehand, knowing I had staked out the Mafia in a dozen cities for Time and Life: "If you come near the Supreme Court with a hidden camera the day I'm there, they'll arrest me for patricide…"

It also helps to have a brave, beautiful, intelligent rare book dealer of a wife for 67 years and counting.

Best,

Art


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  1. shawn mesaros on January 28, 2012 10:30 am

    so interesting how people who have the “Ace Greenberg Degree” (PSD) Poor Smart and Deep Desire…. accomplish so much. Resourcefulness as a “learned talent” in the form of survival instincts. The meek shall inherit the Earth. So it now becomes for China as it was for America.

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