A Kate McLeod, E.L. Doctorow, Ken Burns Story

by Kate McLeod



When I was with Time Magazine, I was doing a special section on the Statue of Liberty/Ellis Island anniversary. I wrote to E.L. Doctorow and a few other luminaries and finally asked E. L. (Edgar) to write the piece for me.


Kate McLeod
Kate McLeod

We had lunch and I talked about how I saw the essay. We left the lunch in agreement. I had about a month to put the piece to bed, but a week after I’d met with E.L. he called me. He’d read something in the paper about Lee Iacocca’s involvement in the Statue of Liberty/Ellis Island Foundation, (Iacocca, who was running Chrylser a the time, raised money and the awareness of that project.) which completely set him off. He told me he was changing the essay so as to rail against corporate interests and Iacocca in particular.


“That’s not what we had in mind here at Time,” I said. “What we want is a celebration of how immigration made America great.” But he was determined to rail. So we came to an impasse. Now I’m thinking, I have three weeks and I am in a complete panic—heart-racing-panic.


My husband, Jerry Flint, after listening to my tale of woe, said, “You know I saw this film on PBS and it seems to me that film includes all of the stuff you want for the essay.”


E. L. Doctorow
E. L. Doctorow

“Great,” I said, “But it’s a film on PBS. What’s that going do for me?”


Jerry said, “I’ll get a copy of it and we’ll watch it.”


We did. It was a film by some guy named Ken Burns who was from New Hampshire. I called Florentine Films in Walpole, NH and I got Ken on the phone and told him that I would like to take his film, put it into essay form and publish it in Time Magazine. He was coming to New York the next week so we agreed to get together and have dinner. Ken, Jerry and I had dinner and talked about it. Ken said go ahead; he agreed to make an essay.


Ken Burns
Ken Burns

With two weeks before my deadline, Jerry, an award-winning journalist for Forbes Magazine, sat down at the computer and made an incredibly beautiful essay out of Ken’s film, for which he wouldn’t take a dime. In those days we paid writers and artists real money in my department so I gave the money to Florentine Films and I took Jerry to dinner at Lutece, where its much celebrated owner, Andre Soltner, came to the table to visit.


It was quite a project. The essay was very beautiful, everything I had hoped it would be for the readers. And we even obtained historic photos from a stock photo company, which I think became the now very well known supplier of photos, Corbis. I always felt bad about parting company with Doctorow but, other than that, it was a wonderful project and a great experience.


Lewis Hine was best known for his use of photography as a means to achieve social reform. His camera became a powerful means of recording social injustice and labor abuses. In 1904 Hine photographed the thousands of immigrants who arrived at Ellis Island. Hine came to realize that he could use his camera for both educational purposes and social reform. 


"Italian family in ferry boat leaving Ellis Island."
“Italian family in ferry boat leaving Ellis Island”


In 1908, Hine then turned his efforts to investigating and photographing child-labor abuses, both in factories and on the streets.  Hine was comfortable talking with children and would attempt to get as much information as possible regarding their living conditions, the circumstances under which they were forced to work, and their names and age.

"Miners: Breaker boys, Hughestown Borough Pennsylvania Coal Company. "
“Miners: Breaker boys, Hughestown Borough Pennsylvania Coal Company”


Through his photographs, Hine was able to inspire social change. His photos documenting the horrid conditions under which children were employed, made real the plight of these children. This led to the passage of child labor laws.

"Newsies: Out after midnight selling extras. "
“Newsies: Out after midnight selling extras”


Hines was also well known for his photos of the building of the Empire State Building. Hine photographed the workers in precarious positions while they secured the iron and steel framework of the structure, taking many of the same risks the workers endured. In order to obtain the best vantage points, Hine was swung out in a specially designed basket 1,000 feet above Fifth Avenue. Of the many photographs Hine took of the Empire State Building, “Icarus Atop Empire State Building” became his most popular. To this day, one thing has always baffled me, particularly considering our modern day world in which everyone has his or her fifteen minutes of fame: The steelworker in this iconic American photo remains unidentified. 

"Icarus" atop Empire State Buiidling"
“Icarus atop Empire State Buiidling”