Press and Reviews

In A Snap Her Ship Came In

by R.J. Cohn cover of The Courage of Ignorance

She lit up the world with her camera, dashing across the Atlantic on luxury liners more times than she can remember, snapping pictures of some of the most memorable figures of the 20th century.

From Gertrude Stein and John F. Kennedy to Leslie Howard and Max Schmelling, Ethel Kurland of Sandpoint, Idaho managed to photograph them all before she reached her 21st birthday as she skirted her way around the globe.

"It was a wonderful, charmed life, and I'd do it again in a heartbeat," she reminisced. "I was free and footloose with no commitments or worries. And when you're constantly surrounded by celebrities and exotic places, it's almost as if you're being touched by a dream."

Lured by the grandeur of the great ships and ocean liners that filled the New York Harbor in the late 1930s, Kurland found herself continually wandering down to the waterfront with her camera.

"I would have given anything to have sailed off to France or Spain," she said. "But who had money back then?"

What she did have was gumption. And a half-cocked plan. An amateur photographer with very little experience, she marched into the Cuba Lines front office, looked the public relations man squarely in the eye and told him flat out they needed her.

"Back then nobody was taking pictures of passengers of trans-Atlantic voyages and sending them back to their local newspapers," she explained. "When people traveled to Europe then, it was big news. I told him not only would it be great P.R. for Cuba Lines, it would be the best damn advertising they could ever get. I figured the guy would probably toss me out on the street for being so brass."

But instead she got more than she dreamed. He liked her idea so much he wrote her out first-class cabin passes on every ship Cuba Lines owned, and proceeded to pour her the first tumbler of Scotch she ever had.

"Go get 'em, kid," he told her as she knocked back the Scotch. "I hope you make it."

Decades before it was fashionable for a woman to travel on her own, 17-year-old Ethel Kurland walked up the gangplank of the S.S. Boriquen with a bulky 5-by-7 box camera and a trunkload of flashbulbs ready for a global photo shoot.

"I didn't know what in the world I was doing," she said. "I was somewhere between naive and nuts. But sometimes maybe that's what it takes."

Before she was halfway across the Atlantic on her maiden voyage, Kurland realized she had created not just a free ride to Europe, but a big business that was becoming overwhelming.

"It turned into quite a little syndicate," she said. "Not only was I making money from passengers and their local newspapers, but I was sending pictures to all the wire services like UPI and Reuters, using the closet in my first-class cabin as a developing room. And remember, I was still a kid."

Stung by wanderlust and adventure, she traveled for years aboard the most luxurious liners in the world, including Germany's Bremen, the Roma of Italy, England's Queen Elizabeth and the Normandie of France.

Shortly after photographing heavyweight champion Max Schmelling en route for a rematch with Joe Louis - "he was smug and cocky as they come" - she scooped every wire service photographer with a picture of Ambassador Joseph Kennedy and his 17-year-old son, John.

"Joseph Kennedy was the most unfriendly, defensive man you'd ever want to meet," she said. "Just downright contemptible. JFK was only a kid then and had absolutely nothing to say."

She once refused to photograph Cary Grant when he pushed a little boy who asked him for his autograph.

"Who did he think he was, anyway?" she said, frowning as she recalled the incident. "The hell with Cary Grant. I wasn't going to take that man's picture for all the tea in China."

Her cruise ship career came to a dramatic close as suddenly as it began when the United States entered World War II. Almost overnight the glamorous, stately ocean liners were transformed into colorless troop carriers.

Still on the move with her camera, Kurland set up shop in Army camps across the country, photographing recruits before moving to Hollywood where she was hired to shoot the big screen stars of the 1940s.

She eventually opened a gallery in Carmel, Calif., and became friendly with photographic icons Ansel Adams and Edward Weston. A Sandpoint resident for 10 years, she started the Animal Shelter five years ago and is writing her memoirs.

"It's important to be curious of this world of ours," she said, "and not just sit back and settle into a quiet life.

"Traveling opens up so many doors, not just to the world, but doors inside yourself you never thought were there," she said. "It makes you realize there's absolutely nothing you can't do and that you should never limit yourself. What's the adventure of that?"

Copyright 1999. Reproduced with permission of The Spokesman-Review. Permission is granted in the interest of public discussion and does not imply endorsement of any product, service or organiztion otherwise mentioned herein."