(Ethel Kurland suggested to your Editor that some excerpts from the manuscript of her autobiography
might be of interest to readers of the Gazette. Herewith, a sampling of her fascinating encounters with
by Ethel Kurland
General H. Norman Schwarzkopf, addressing a group of young women, urged them to “live your
dreams.” He spoke of the great changes that had taken place in the Armed Forces, with women in combat
aboard ships, at West Point and other military installations, plus the role of women in Desert Storm.Now,
women are no longer content to just learn typing; new horizons have opened. While opportunities for
today’s women may be greater than ever, it was not always so.
When, therefore,as a teenager, I became the youngest ship news reporter covering the New York
waterfront during the luxury liners’ glory days, I didn’t realize how unique this was until much later...It all came about because of my intense interest in New
York’s waterfront. The glittering ocean liners tucked into the piers bore the names of countries I knew
about but certainly never expected to see, like the Swedish-American Gripsholm, the Italian Rex, Roma and
Conte di Savoia, Great Britain’s Queen Mary, Bremen from Germany and, the queen of them all,
Normandie from France, the most luxurious liner ever built, a floating palace.
Although New York was my home town, I wandered around, at the age of seventeen, savoring
every sight and carrying a small camera to record it all. I was always drawn to the waterfront where at
night, the glittery reflection on the water transposed it into a Christmas-like scene. I never tired of seeing
the ships dressed in their finery and I never thought all this could change my life. But it did.
One summer night, the sound of music and voices which carried across the water brought me once
again to the waterfront. I saw people boarding the ships, women in evening clothes with orchids cascading
from shoulder to waist. Gardenias perfumed the air. Stewards were hustling large steamer trunks up the
I wondered where the passengers were going and what kind of world would receive them at the
other end of their journey. Watching them that night, I had an idea: “What if,” I thought, “I were to take
photographs of them boarding the ship? Perhaps they would buy copies of this great event.”
My camera was really an inadequate one but perhaps in time I would buy a better one.That night
I made the decision that was to change my life.
The telephone book listed all the steamship companies and the nearest one was the New York and
Cuba Mail Steamship Line. I went there with some trepidation. What was I to say that would interest them?
I decided to try and see what would happen. I didn’t know who to ask for but, spotting a sign that read
PUBLIC RELATIONS, I turned to that desk, introduced myself to a man in his fifties and launched into
Although fully expecting to be rejected, with the courage of ignorance, I described what I hoped to
do. Instead of turning me away as I had expected, this man was very cordial and actually receptive to my
idea, but for a different reason.
“Take these photographs,” he suggested, “in front of our life preserver bearing the name of the
ship. This will give us good publicity. I’ll give you a berthing sheet which lists the passengers and their
home towns. Then send the photographs to their local newspapers with an account of their trip.” He then
made out and handed me a pass to board all their ships!
I was ready to dance out of there but when I started to leave, he said: “Wait a minute, kid.”
Opening his desk drawer, he bent down, took out a bottle of scotch, poured a too-generous amount and
offered it to me. I had never tasted whiskey before. When he held his glass high and said “Good luck, kid!”
I downed my drink in one gulp, wincing a bit. This well-meaning man did not suspect that I was
under-age. I had officially become a ship news photographer and reporter!
My pass read “N.Y. & Cuba Mail Steamship Company. Pass Ethel Kurland, Official Ships’
Photographer, to All Steamers.”The first ship I covered was the s/s Borinquin. When I flashed my precious
pass to the man at the head of the gangway, he merely nodded and I entered this new world, wildly excited.
Just before sailing time, the orchestra was playing a stirring Africa-Cuban medley and it was tempting to
fling oneself into a wild dance. Outside on the deck were huge trays of bananas, small and red from Africa
and sweeter than any I had ever tasted before. The passengers all wanted to be photographed against the
New York skyline and somewhere the name of the ship was prominently displayed. They all wanted copies
sent to them. When their local newspapers ran these photographs, whether they were the local banker or
butcher, it was all big news in their town; my little career took off!
I followed up this good fortune by visiting all the other steamship lines to secure their passes
which they readily provided, once I had shown them the clippings from the local papers and my name
below as a credit.This was the biggest thrill of all and when small checks began arriving from these papers, I was launched into my career; heady stuff—the courage of ignorance had paid off. I was touring Europe at
Eventually, I was servicing 120 newspapers, a small syndicate in addition to providing the wire
services like Associated Press, Reuters and United Press International with some scoops.
Things didn’t always go well. One day, as I passed a working gangway, I saw someone who
looked familiar boarding. He was glancing nervously around as though he did not want to be seen. I
suddenly recognized him as the great conductor Arturo Toscanini. Excited, I ran forward to ask if I could
get just one shot. Unlike the paparazzi of today, we were polite. He hesitated, then agreed. I nervously
hoisted my large camera, took one quick look at the ground glass image and clicked the shutter. Back in
my darkroom, savoring it all, I developed the film but there was nothing on it. I had failed to remove the
To board incoming ships, it was necessary to get up at dawn. A government cutter, crowded with
people from Immigration, Health Department doctors and newsmen would arrive out at the Narrows,
pulling up next to the ship. The first time, I was confronted with a serious problem, climbing a rope ladder.
Holding on was a trial, with one hand carrying the camera, the other a case of flashbulbs. Women didn’t
wear slacks, only skirts. I was urged to go first on the theory that if I fell, someone would break the fall. I finally realized why this suggestion was made when I looked down to see the men looking up and
chuckling. I was really not welcomed at first.