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“How Would You Like To Be Attached To The Red Army?”
A cameraman at Yalta tells what it was like to spend a few days in claustrophobic luxury with Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt— and to be offered a job by Joseph Stalin
June/July 2005 | Volume 56, Issue 3
(I said that there should be two motion-picture cameramen for each contingent because changing motion-picture film in 1945 was a lengthy process that involved putting the entire camera and a fresh roll of film into a light-tight changing bag. The camera operator would then slip his arms into elastic sleeves and, by touch alone, open the camera, remove the exposed film, and seal it into a can, then open a fresh can of film and thread it into the camera.)
To my surprise, everyone agreed, and the problem was solved. Because President Roosevelt had specifically asked me to cover the conference, I was the only American still photographer to record it for the rest of the time we were there.
I did not see all my own photographs until after the war.
When my father returned to Washington, he sent one complete set of prints to my mother to hold for me until I returned; another set went to the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park, and the third is, I understand, in the National Archives.
Before the second plenary meeting, I gave my father a Soviet 10-ruble banknote on which I wrote my name and “Short-Snorter—Yalta—5 February 1945.” I asked him if he could arrange to get Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin to sign it for me as a souvenir of the conference.
I watched him take it into the conference room. President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill signed it without hesitation. Marshal Stalin balked, however, obviously baffled. Later my father told me that Roosevelt explained to Stalin that the Short Snorter Club had been formed by American pilots who ferried bombers across the Atlantic to England and that anyone who flew across the Atlantic was eligible to join, provided he was brought into the fellowship by two members. Stalin pointed out that he had never flown across the Atlantic Ocean and therefore was not eligible. Roosevelt said that he was taking it upon himself to waive that requirement in this instance. With obvious reluctance, Stalin signed.
That evening President Roosevelt was the host at a dinner for Churchill and Stalin and their immediate staffs, including my father. When I photographed the guests around the dinner table, one seat at the end of the table was empty because Major A. H. Birse, Churchill’s interpreter, had not yet sat down. This picture was featured on a full page in Paris-Match magazine with the caption “The empty chair was General de Gaulle’s,” reflecting French bitterness at his exclusion from the Yalta deliberations.
There was an abundance of beluga caviar at Livadia Palace. In fact, a heaping saucer of caviar for each person was the first course at breakfast every day, followed by herring, bread, fruit, and tea. The menu never varied. I longed for orange juice, fried eggs, toast and coffee, and I knew that the President’s entourage included the Filipino mess boys who staffed the presidential yacht Potomac . I discovered they had brought with them enough food to feed the entire U.S. delegation of 258 people and that there were whole cases of fresh eggs among their supplies.
But the Russians insisted on cooking every meal. Two headwaiters recruited from the Hotel Metropole in Moscow served us all. They were an unsmiling pair who spoke no English. I usually had breakfast with my father in his bedroom because there was no other time for us to be alone together. He was amused as I vainly tried with gestures and sketches to describe to the waiters the breakfast I preferred. Finally, after several days, they triumphantly brought me a platter of one dozen fried pullet eggs, preceded by a saucer of caviar and followed by herring, bread, fruit, and tea.
Generally, I had lunch and dinner in the second-floor dining room with members of the Secret Service and the Navy staff responsible for communications and logistics. The meals were copious, but the menu, which was the same for both lunch and dinner, never varied. As with breakfast, the first course was caviar, followed by roast pheasant, string beans, cabbage, and potatoes, all accompanied by excellent Georgian wine.
My father was weak and bedridden for most of the conference, but he attended all eight of the meetings at which Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin were present, seated directly behind the President. Many of the lower-echelon meetings were held with him in his bedroom. There he would advise members of the American delegation on positions to take with their British and Russian counterparts at a ministerial or military level.
On the few occasions when dad was up and dressed but not involved in a meeting, I took pictures of him with other members of the U.S. delegation, including Ed Flynn, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, who had no role to play at the conference but whom the President invited along as a courtesy; with Charles (Chip) Bohlen, an assistant to the Secretary of State who would act as FDR’s translator; and with Stephen Early, the President’s press secretary. After I took Steve’s picture with Dad, I turned my Speed Graphic over to him so he could photograph my father and me together on the balcony of Livadia Palace, with the Black Sea in the background.