Born in Newark, New Jersey on December 21, 1910, George Martin Lacks was the only child of Harold ("Harry") and Jennifer Lacks. Harry Lacks was of Polish and Russian descent; Jennifer was fully Russian. Both were Orthodox Jews, and probable first-generation immigrants, certainly no later than second-generation. Because it was customary for American immigration officials to bastardize the foreign names of many immigrants upon their arrival to the U.S. (particularly the more difficult names), it can be reasonably conjectured that the name "Lacks" is a bastardization of one of several Polish surnames, including "Lach," "Łukasiewicz," "Łukasz," or "Łukaszewski."
My paternal grandfather Harry passed on before I was born, so I know almost nothing about him, save for this astonishing fact. At some point in his life he contracted esophageal cancer; at that time the only known treatment was to remove the diseased portion of his esophagus and implant a feeding tube in his chest. Doctors predicted that Harry would survive only six months or so following the surgery. Harry defied their expectations by surviving another twenty years, feeding tube and all.
The Lacks family was, I am told, quite well-to-do, and for reasons unknown to me, George spent most of his first 15 years living in Buenos Aires, Argentina. His own health was rendered rather frail by a childhood bout with rheumatic fever (which very likely weakened his heart muscle, and might have contributed to his early demise). I do not know whether he ever attended college, but it's clear that he received roughly the equivalent of a college education while he was a teenager. He eventually acquired facility in speaking and writing in four languages: English, Spanish, French, and German. George was also fluent in Yiddish, owing to his Jewish roots, and the fact that Yiddish is highly derivative of German.
As a young adult, George met and married Seema Josephi, who apparently preferred to be known as "Joy." George must have married quite young, for he and Joy Lacks bore a daughter, Geraldine, in November 1933, when George was not quite 23 years old.
By the time he became a grown man, George was already widely traveled, and had accumulated a palette of worldly tastes, along with a certain wanderlust. Therefore it comes as little surprise that when he was employed as a photojournalist for the Los Angeles Times, and given the opportunity to travel through China and shoot pictures there, George seized that opportunity. In addition to working for the Times, George took on freelance work for several foreign news agencies, many of them Chinese. During this time he befriended Alex Buchman, an aeronautical engineer and skilled amateur photographer who also freelanced in foreign news agencies, and who was traveling through Asia only because he could not find work as an engineer during the Depression years.
Even while both were working in China, it appears George and Joy maintained a home on North Western Avenue in Los Angeles, Cali- fornia. In the early 1930s George founded Lacks News Photos, a photojournalistic and film-developing business, with headquarters in Shanghai. I am told that while George upheld the "nuts-and-bolts" aspects of his business, Joy performed the bookkeeping chores. Over time, both had cultivated a large circle of friends and acquaintances in Shanghai. But according to Alex, Joy was not an easy-going individual, and seemingly a ruthless, cold-hearted sort of businessperson. Apparently this had put a severe strain on their marriage, and, probably prior to 1940, the two had parted ways.
Meanwhile, in April 1937, George received an offer to travel through Europe as the official photographer for an entourage of Chinese dignitaries headed by one Dr. H. H. Kung, China's finance minister. This trip afforded George the opportunity to photograph several European heads-of-state, but the coup de grace occurred when, under the auspices of Dr. Kung, George snuck into Adolf Hitler's summer hideaway in the Berchtesgadener Alpen and took 36 exposures of Der Führer at very close range, something no American photographer had theretofore accomplished, and very few thereafter. (For a detailed account of this episode, including a seven-page letter drafted by George describing the event in full, visit The Hitler Suite of this website.)
The one or two years that spanned the middle of the 1940s proved to be the most prolific and eventful of George's entire life. He took on a post with LIFE Magazine as a war correspondent, chiefly covering the Asian and Pacific theaters. This arrangement made sense for both parties, as George had already spent at least a dozen years spanning this territory on his own, with his own news photo service head- quartered there. But George also received numerous assignments from LIFE to go stateside and photograph various domestic news stories. In the spring of 1945, he and a team of other photogs went to a divorce court in Los Angeles that became notorious for granting divorces at an inordinately high rate to young women who had struggled with brief but very unhappy marriages. Within a single day, George alone captured about two dozen images of these women, pre- and post-trial.
Ironically, just weeks before he received this assignment, George had married for a second time. Around 1943 or 1944, he met Blossom Claudia Santos (October 18, 1924—July 13, 1981), a native of Chavez Ravine near Los Angeles, and daughter of Daniel Nuñez Santos and Helen Martin (née Elena Burilova or Ivanova). Blossom was a good deal younger than George, by nearly 14 years, and by all appearances was considered by many men to be quite attractive. George pursued her furiously, although he was handicapped from the start by his sheer physical appearance. At just five feet, three-and-a-half inches, he was really no taller than Blossom, and anyone who has already viewed pictures of him, on this website or elsewhere, will attest that it would be a long stretch to deem George a "stud," or even "handsome" in the conventional sense. Many years later, Blossom would say that when she first met him, George struck her as being "a lettuce-and-tomato sandwich." But somehow his brains, his achievements, his wicked good humor, and the force of his personality won her over to his side. The two were married in a modest civil ceremony on St. Patrick's Day 1945.
Shortly after their wedding, however, George was back in the Orient, shooting pictures for LIFE. In China, Japan, and the Philippines he captured the images of such dignitaries as General Douglas MacArthur, General George C. Marshall, General Chou En-lai, and Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek. However, as a photographer he also favored "the salt of the earth," the grittiness of common people often situated in most uncommon circumstances. He took several thousands of pictures of Japanese citizens in Chinese internment camps, wounded soldiers in Chinese hospitals, and Mongolian peoples on city streets and rural landscapes. Remarkably, all of this was accomplished over a span of little more than one year. Approximately 700 of these photographs have been posted online in various places. For a sampling of George's photographic work in Asia and the U.S. in the mid-Forties, visit the Online Collections page of this site.
In the fall of 1946, George returned to Los Angeles, apparently for good. For a time he continued to work for LIFE Magazine, photographing movie moguls and film stars on location at various Hollywood studios. (He also shot this picture of Richard M. Nixon in 1947, which became one of his best-known photos of all.) However, his real bread-and- butter where LIFE was concerned—working as a photojournalist in the Asian and Pacific theaters—had dried up during the immediate postwar years, and he was soon released by LIFE Magazine. He resumed his duties with the Times-Mirror newspaper in Los Angeles, for which he worked until approximately 1956, when he moved to the Los Angeles Herald-Express.
In the 1950s there were about five or six dailies published in L.A. It was commonplace for photogs to have worked for all or nearly all of them, because they were frequently fired, only to be hired soon thereafter by some other paper. The fact that George worked for only two papers in more than 25 years must have attested to his durability, and the extent to which he was valued as a photojournalist of high caliber. In 1950 he was approached by the University of California at Los Angeles about the possibility of conducting seminars on photography. He accepted the offer, and for several years hence he spent many Saturday mornings teaching what was then the equivalent of an "extension course" in photojournalism.
In 1956, George was persuaded by his colleagues to join the Los Angeles Press Photographers Association (now called the Press Photographers Association of Greater Los Angeles, or PPAGLA). His photographic work quickly found its way into the next edition of "Just one more!", the annual journal of the association, in 1957. By 1958 George had been seated on LAPPA's Board of Directors, and by 1959 he was elected its president. His photos appeared in every edition of "Just one more!" from 1957 through 1960, the year of his death. On this page you'll find a complete summation of his photographic work published in "Just one more!", as well as the dedicatory message he composed while serving as president of LAPPA.
From the time my mother Blossom remarried in late 1961 to Kenneth G. Brown (May 9, 1922—February 2, 2005), she was never eager to revisit the years she spent with my father. Very shortly after his death, her actions made clear that she just wanted to "move on." That explains in part why information about my father's life is rather spotty, and difficult to come by. However, on those few occasions when she did speak of George, she was very, very candid. I can only imagine that, almost immediately after they were married in March 1945, their marriage was thrown into an extreme state of duress. Within weeks George was back in China, shooting pictures for LIFE Magazine. Meanwhile Blossom maintained the home front, tending to George's daughter Geraldine, who at the time was only 11 years old. At just 20 years of age herself, my mother-to-be was really not much older than her stepdaughter, and ill-prepared for the stresses of motherhood.
To complicate matters, while my father was mostly overseas over the next two years, there were marital infidelities, probably on both sides. My mother admitted to becoming pregnant twice during that time, and twice she sought and received the services of abortion doctors, at a time when abortion was not only illegal, but also morally reproved in just about every corner of the country. It was also extremely risky, not just medically for the women in question, but also for the doctors who terminated these unwanted pregnancies. I have gathered that my father was quite philosophical about these unhappy episodes, probably thinking that he had brought them upon himself by acceding to the demands of his career and his worldly-wise, wandering temperament.
Once George was back in the states, however, he and Blossom apparently determined that they really love each other, settled into their marriage, and committed to its health and well-being. Between 1950 and 1953, they produced three children of their own: Gordon in July 1950; Geoffrey in June 1952; and Suzy in December 1953. By this time they had moved into a small two-bedroom house on Craner Avenue in North Hollywood, which my dad purchased for around $14,000. The house had a large, ample backyard that was great for kids to play in, and a separate garage. Like so many houses in the area, the entire lot was elevated about three feet from street level, with a long driveway that extended from the garage to the sidewalk, and abutted the sidewalk with a steeply-sloping ramp; the front yard was buttressed by a brick retaining wall on its front side.
From the beginning, the relationship of George and Blossom was dogged by the fact that George chose to wed outside the Orthodox Jewish faith. Blossom was made to attend Methodist services as a child, but like George, showed no inclination to adopt any religious preference as a young adult. These facts riled George's mother, Jennifer Lacks. For even in modern times, Orthodox Judaism firmly condemns interfaith marriage as having no legitimacy whatsoever, and even forbids sexual intercourse with a member of a different faith. What's more, secular intermarriage is viewed as a deliberate rejection of Judaism by the spouse who is originally and ostensibly Jewish. Orthodox Jewish law also proclaims that children born of a non-Jewish woman and a Jewish man cannot be Jewish.
For these reasons George's mother subjected Blossom to an unrelenting wave of ridicule and other psychological abuse throughout the course of their marriage. Of course, Jennifer Lacks' opprobrium was utterly misplaced: it was, after all, her son George who exercised his existential prerogatives, and chose to marry outside his faith! That didn't stop George's mother from continually referring to Blossom as "the shikse," a Yiddish term that denotes a non-Jewish woman, parti- cularly one who might be seen as a temptation to Jewish men and boys, and which in some contexts bears extremely pejorative connotations. By extension, my brother Geoffrey and I were deemed "shkotzim," another pejorative term denoting non-Jewish male children—even though we were babies or toddlers, and could in no way be held accountable for any religious orientation. (The same sort of abuse occurs when children are routinely and thoughtlessly deemed "Christian (next column)
children," or "Buddhist children," or "Muslim children," or even "atheist children," when in fact they are children of Christian parents, children of Buddhist parents, etc.) In more forthright terms, my mother might as well have been thought by her mother-in-law to be a whore, and the Lacks children to be bastards.
In the 1950s, Jennifer Lacks lived in a small apartment in Venice Beach, as did many other elderly Jewish folks. Our visits to her apartment were infrequent, and always occasioned by palpable discomfort, at least on my part. A thick cloud of tension hung in the air whenever we visited with our paternal grandmother. Against the apartment of our mother's mother in San Francisco—small and Spartan, but nevertheless clean and modern-looking—Jennifer Lacks' Venice Beach residence stood in sharp contrast. It was very turn-of-the-century in appearance and furnishings, with a heavy, musty odor all about that reeked of the mothballs that she kept in dusty steamer trunks full of clothes in the bedroom. Scarcely to anyone's surprise, my mother elected to have no further contact with Jennifer Lacks upon my father's death.
From time to time I was told by some who knew him that, as a father, George was loving but aloof, and somewhat detached about fatherhood. If that's the case, I never perceived it. I know fully well that he was wedded to his career, that he maintained numerous hobbies and interests, and had a strongly impractical side to him. In short, he was something of a dreamer. Just the same, I also believe that he managed to hold together quite well the many and varied compartments of his life. In my estimation he was a superb father—loving, affectionate, understanding, and very patient. In all the years I spent with him I can never recall feeling deprived in any way. Sure, there were times when he had to mete out discipline, sometimes spanking us on our bottoms. But his discipline, though firm, was never vicious, hurtful, or excessive. More importantly, perhaps, I cannot recall many occasions when he raised his voice to us in anger. Despite being a little guy, my dad was possessed of a rich, baritone voice, and many times his tone of voice sufficed to instill the requisite fear and rectitude in us. Moreover, he and my mom must have been masters at shielding the kids from squabbles, marital discord, drunken behavior, and the like. If they ever went on a bender (which they must have from time to time, especially with friends), they were particularly careful to keep it from view.
I confess to being deeply fascinated by my father's avocations when I was growing up. Perhaps to my mother's consternation, he spent many hours in the garage, where he had set up a rather elaborate workshop containing a drill press, a table saw, saw blades that could cut metal and wood, a spacious workbench with a vise mounted on its edge, and a wall filled with well-organized hand tools, nuts, screws, bolts, nails, and other fasteners. My father was a skilled amateur craftsman and builder. Of all the things he doted on in that workshop, I recall two particularly well: the hi-fi speakers that he assembled himself using drivers and components salvaged from a theatre (see The Music page on this site); and his crowning achievement, a film dryer, fashioned of aluminum, glass, heating elements, a timer, and fiberglass matting, an impressive machine that stood taller than he did. I still remember how he carefully cut large sheets of aluminum into shape on the table saw, how he relished drilling hundreds of half-inch ventilation holes on some of these sheets, one hole at a time, each methodically positioned and centerpunched so as to be aligned in a precise geometric pattern. The drilling alone must have taken many hours to complete; for him I imagine it was a sort of meditation. But George's finishing flourish was a device that reflected well his impish sense of humor. Somewhere in the course of construction, he had gotten hold of a small music box. He built the music box right into the dryer, and rigged it so that it would begin playing once the film was sufficiently dry. The tune? "How Dry I Am."
My dad and I spent many hours together in that workshop. I was intoxicated by the smell of the metals, the woods, and the oils that he used to lubricate the pieces that he was machining. I'm certain that I pestered him with an endless litany of questions. He fielded those questions very patiently, and not once can I remember him shooing me away from this mechanical paradise. (But then, I was intoxicated by the smells of the kitchen as well. I would open the spice jars one-by-one, and take a deep whiff. My mother was a builder-of-sorts too, and I must have pestered her almost as much as I did my dad about all the goodies she prepared in the kitchen!)
My parents were quite scrupulous about saving money, yet come birthdays and Christmastime, they were generous to a fault. Always keenly attuned to the interests and abilities that we seemed to be culti- vating as children, our dad gifted us accordingly, with stimulating toys and devices that he surmised would facilitate and expand those interests. Seeing how I was so bent on watching him in his workshop, he presented me with some great construction kits for kids: first Knickerbockers, then Tinkertoys, and lastly, for my eighth birthday, a fabulous Gilbert Erector Set. My brother Geoffrey always fixated on my dad's hi-fi system (as did I); consequently, he received a very grown-up gift for his fifth birthday: a Sonic Capri 400 portable record player. My mom and dad also carefully honed my nascent interests in math and science. I remember being given a telescope, a chemistry set, an electrician's set, a crystal radio set, and many, many books. Early one evening my dad took me to a bookstore in North Hollywood. As I leafed through some books geared to kids and teens, I found one that really juiced my passion for dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures. It was The Golden Treasury of Natural History by Bertha Morris Parker. Most parents, I suppose, would have been delighted that their child showed an interest in such a book, and might have snapped it up reflexively. Not my dad. Instead, he put to me this challenge: "Save your allowance over the next few weeks, and when you have enough ($3 for this volume, not inconsiderable in the 1950s), we'll come back and get the book."
Twelve weeks later, I did, and he did. How can anyone say that he was not the greatest father around?
One of the things I treasure most about our childhood is the way that our parents refrained from condescending to us, and avoided "dumbing down" their conversations to make them more "suitable" for children. Our mother tutored us from a very early age, and made certain that we could read and write simple words and phrases before we even approached kindergarten. What's more, our parents didn't shrink away from discussing adult subjects within earshot of us, nor did they shield us from objects of art that were, frankly, quite adult and/or sexual in nature. They maintained a large circle of interesting friends, many of them sourced from my dad's profession. These friends frequently came to the house to visit and share a few drinks, and I always struggled gamely to understand what their conversations were about. Sometimes I actually succeeded, and even managed to grasp a nuance of language here and there. (On one occasion, I am told, my parents threw a small cocktail party at the house. Two of the people in attendance were a couple from France, and they spent virtually the entire evening making snide remarks about the party in French, dropping petty insults about our home and its furnishings, about the other guests, and so on. How did this come to be known? My dad was fluent in four languages, including French. Imagine how these two must have scraped their jaws from the floor when, at party's end, my father approached them and said, "Ce fut un plaisir de vous avoir à la fois à cette fête ce soir. J'espère que vous reviendrez bientôt.")
I also remember well one of my father's acquaintances, a man who also spoke French fluently. He was Charles Mauu, a native of Tahiti and an actual Tahitian tribal chieftain. Charles Mauu was also an accom- plished musician, vocalist, and actor who played bit parts in Holly- wood movies. It seems clear that my father made his acquaintance with Mauu as he scoured the film studios of Hollywood to photograph actors and actresses at work. My father even had in his record collection a 10-inch LP entitled Polynesia! Native Songs and Dances of the South Seas, which Mauu recorded with The Royal Polynesians in 1956, and which I presume was a gift from Mauu.
Like many others in mid-century America, both of my parents were quite enamored of the emerging "martinis, tikis, and torches" subculture that has enjoyed a huge resurgence in recent years with the younger "lounge-lizard" set. My dad had begun collecting books on Polynesian culture, a few select records, and statuary items, especially tikis. Even my mother got into the act; she was a pretty good artisan, and I recall her drawings of tikis (which inspired me to create one of my own, in colored pencil), and a substantial chunk of volcanic feather- stone that she purchased and subsequently carved into a convincing semblance of a tiki. However (and I apologize in advance for invoking such a shopworn cliché here), my dad wanted to take his interest in Polynesia "to the next level." He wanted to move the entire family to Tahiti. Literally. He had grown weary of the L.A. scene, had tired of the rat race of working for L.A. newspapers, and was drained even further by his additional duties as president of the Los Angeles Press Photographers Association in 1959. Most telling, perhaps, he had not traveled overseas in more than a dozen years, by which time he must have been chafing pretty badly. He took his Tahitian plans seriously enough to have begun collecting the equipment and supplies he would need to make the journey.
When my father put the idea to my mother, her response was, shall we say, less than encouraging. With her characteristic bluntness, she replied, "George, if you go to Tahiti, you're going alone."
Apart from her thinly-veiled threat of separation and divorce, and her concerns about how their children's education would fare in such a foreign and relatively undeveloped environment—concerns that were, in retrospect, amply justified—there were other bits of input that, in the end, deflated my father's hopes completely. In particular, George's friend Alex Buchman had received a letter from a friend of a friend, a man named Mr. Kinney who had lived in Tahiti and found it far from the idyllic place envisioned by George. Alex relayed the letter to my father, perhaps hoping to convince him once and for all of the impracticality of the whole scene. According to Alex, my father was crushed, and thoroughly dispirited, when he read that letter. Alas, all of this transpired just months before he died.
If my father had any particular weakness, any personal failing of a magnitude that literary types often mention in connection with Greek tragedy, I would have to say that he was too much a romantic, too much an idealist, a man who, for all his many and considerable achievements, did not have his feet quite properly anchored in the unglamorous realities of day-to-day living. Considered from one aspect, why should he have? For most of his life he was extraordinarily lucky: he was born into a wealthy family, and as an adult he enjoyed a welter of opportunities that many could only dream of. It's difficult to avoid the disquieting notion that the final quarter of his life gradually disabused him of his outrageous good fortune, perhaps to the point of breaking him. In 1999 I received from his colleague and friend Delmar Watson a pair of large portraits of my father, portraits that were photographed by another friend and colleague, Bob Martin. I believe that these are very likely the last photographs of George ever taken. As I study one of these portraits especially, I am haunted by my father's facial expression, which is utterly unlike that of any other portrait of him. Gone is the jocularity, the airy good humor, the quizzical skewing of his eyes, the cockiness and self-assurance. Instead, he appears exhausted, disillusioned, and defeated—and maybe, just maybe, a bit apprehensive.