Hank O’Neal’s ‘happenchance’
For this author, photographer, record label owner (CIA agent, too), it’s been a wonderful life
NEW YORK — Hank O’Neal may be the most interesting person you’ve never heard of.
Himself an accomplished photographer, O’Neal, 78, has been friends with several of the foremost photographers of the 20th century: from Berenice Abbott (she was maid of honor at his wedding) to André Kertész and Robert Frank.
For many years the owner of a jazz record label, Chiaroscuro, O’Neal has been friends with an even more head-spinning array of people in the music world: from Dizzy Gillespie to Dave Brubeck, to the music executives John Hammond (they were business partners in the ’80s) and Ahmet Ertegun, to the classical trumpeter and conductor Gerard Schwarz and the ballerina Allegra Kent.
“Back in the ’70s, my primary interest in life, besides making records and taking pictures, was chasing ballet dancers,” O’Neal says with a post-sheepish smile.
He’s sitting in his office, which has more books on its shelves than many small libraries and more recordings than most small radio stations. On the walls in the rest of the apartment, which he shares with his wife, Shelley Stier, there are enough photographs to keep a gallery in business. The apartment is in the East Village, a few doors from the Strand Bookstore and within walking distance of the Village Vanguard and Blue Note jazz clubs. O’Neal gets around, but he doesn’t need to go far to do so.
The author of more than a dozen books, O’Neal has another half-dozen on the way. The most recent is a reissue of “A Vision Shared,” his pathbreaking 1976 book on the Farm Security Administration photographers of the ’30s and early ’40s. The group included Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans. O’Neal knew him, too.
The new edition is published by Steidl Verlag, the world’s most prestigious publisher of photography books. Steidl has also issued a half-dozen volumes on Abbott co-edited by O’Neal and Ron Kurtz.
“Hank is one of the more interesting people I’ve met in my life,” says Kurtz, a collector and philanthropist, in a telephone interview. The MIT Museum’s Kurtz Gallery for Photography is named for him. “He’s sort of an aw-shucks guys, a selfless guy, in a way. He understands how much you can get done when you don’t give yourself pats on the back.”
It was writing that brought O’Neal into contact with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who edited one of his books. “She was the real deal: a nice, nice person,” O’Neal says. Nice isn’t the same as uncritical. O’Neal laughs when he recalls the time his editor complained about some copy he’d handed in. “Goddammit, Hank, Caroline could have written something better than that, and she’s only 14!”
An even more unlikely connection is with Ty Cobb, the legendarily mean baseball Hall of Famer. “Well, he wasn’t mean to boys who wrote him letters,” O’Neal explains. Their correspondence when O’Neal was in his early teens is the subject of one of those forthcoming books, “Sincerely, Ty Cobb.” It comes out later this year.
O’Neal, who’s on the boards of the Jazz Gallery performance venue and the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, is also on the honorary founders board of the Jazz Foundation of America. Wendy Oxenhorn, the foundation’s executive director and vice chairman, is a longtime friend.
“The thing that makes Hank great is his continued child-like curiosity,” Oxenhorn says in an e-mail. She likens him to “a walking art gallery that lets whoever he is gracing get that ‘one man show’ they always wanted in whatever format they choose because the world in his eyes is all Art. He just keeps walking, to see what he can see.”
O’Neal’s many associations might make him sound like a real-life Zelig, the Woody Allen character who seemed to know anyone who was anyone in 20th-century culture. Except Zelig wasn’t a CIA agent: Yes, O’Neal served with the agency — as a junior officer, not a spy — from 1963 to 1976. He was still on the payroll when he began Chiaroscuro and started hanging out with Abbott. His CIA training came in handy the three times he helped her smuggle gold across the Canadian border.
O’Neal put in a mandatory stint at Camp Perry, the CIA training facility in Virginia, more familiarly known as “The Farm.” “You’d go out and trail people in Norfolk. Learn how to pick locks and stuff, how to do a black-border crossing. I remember one night I was all by myself, playing pool. They had a wonderful rec room. I realized I wasn’t alone, and there was [former CIA director] Allen Dulles.”
The Farm was also where O’Neal saw his first James Bond movie. “It cost a quarter,” he recalls.
O’Neal’s star-studded stories might sound like a severe case of the name-drops. In fact, all those bold-face names are as naturally a part of his conversation as the occasional bad joke and his wheezy laugh. It’s more that he’s connecting the dots in his life, much in the way he’s spent nearly half a century connecting the dots in American culture — introducing Abbott to Allen Ginsberg (who was photographer at O’Neal’s wedding) or trying to record Ornette Coleman with Arnett Cobb (“Hey, they were both Texas horn players,” O’Neal says with happy shrug). Few people alive today have such a widespread set of dots, let alone ones of such high artistic quality.
“It’s just part of the concentric thing where one person leads to the next to the next to the next,” O’Neal says with a smile. He smiles a lot. “You know, it was just a matter of happenchance.”
Might “happenchance” be an East Texas-ism? O’Neal was born in Kilgore, near the Louisiana border. For once, a question vexes him. “I don’t know,” he frowns. “It’s just a word I use.” He says this in a slightly reedy voice that still betrays a bit of Lone Star drawliness.
O’Neal has the easy-as-pie manner of a country boy, which complements his city-boy cultural accomplishments. Named for his father, Harold L. O’Neal, he was “Hank” from the get-go. His parents didn’t want to call him “junior,” he explains, “and they wanted to get a name that sounded like a cowboy.”
When O’Neal was 10, he and his parents moved to Bloomington, Ind. Two notable things happened there. He won a Hawkeye camera in a grocery-story prize drawing, starting him on the road to photography; and, in one of the more beguiling bits of Hankian happenchance, he played a cabin boy in the US premiere of Benjamin Britten’s opera “Billy Budd.” “The only time I’ve ever been onstage with music in my life,” O’Neal says, “other than to announce a band.”
The family moved to Syracuse, N.Y., a year later, when he was 13. O’Neal got a job in a music store. “I would use every nickel that I had to buy a jazz record,” he says. “Everything was new at the same time. Nothing sounded old.” That eclecticism informed the musical sensibility that would define the Chiaroscuro roster: grounded in mainstream jazz, but by no means limited to. The label’s best-selling LP: The South African pianist Dollar Brand’s “Capetown Fringe.” The best-selling CD: Jay McShann and Ralph Sutton’s “The Last of the Whorehouse Piano Players.”
“It didn’t seem strange to me to do [the avant-garde saxophonist] Hamiet Bluiett one day and [the Dixieland cornetist] Wild Bill Davison the other day. It was just really good music. It still really is.” Another mark of the label’s catholicity: More than half of the inductees in the Jazz Hall of Fame recorded for Chiaroscuro at one time or another.
How did O’Neal come to have a record label? More happenchance. During his CIA service, he met a wealthy jazz fan named Sherman Fairchild. Fairchild bankrolled the label, originally called Halcyon, with the pianist Marian McPartland as third partner. That was 1969. “The partnership dissolved eventually,” O’Neal explains, “because Marian was primarily interested in recording Marian, and I was primarily interested in recording Marian and everybody else.” When Fairchild died, his estate sold the label to O’Neal for a nominal sum.
A year at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute taught O’Neal he wasn’t cut out to be an engineer. Happenchance took him to Syracuse University. A course on Soviet government brought him to the attention of a CIA recruiter. When he learned that he could do his ROTC-required time in the Army working for the CIA, that sealed the deal.
O’Neal spent a few years in Washington working as an analyst, then was sent to New York. This was 1967. When it’s pointed out that its domestic activities got the CIA in trouble right around this time, O’Neal makes a useful distinction. “The covert part, not the overt part.” Extrovert that he is, O’Neal was definitely overt.
Its expensiveness made New York an unpopular posting. O’Neal didn’t mind. He stayed for three consecutive three-year tours and finally left the agency because it wanted to send him to Pittsburgh.
New York was where happenchance really kicked in. A senior agency administrator who’d once played with the ’20s jazz legend Bix Beiderbecke introduced O’Neal to the jazz guitarist and bandleader Eddie Condon. When O’Neal moved to New York, Condon was a neighbor. They decided to do a book together, O’Neal’s first. “Eddie was full of fun stories, and we were having a ball.”
The book’s designer had been a student of Abbott’s. O’Neal met Abbot and bought some prints (always a good way to endear yourself to a photographer). “She told me if I ever got a real camera to come up to Maine [where Abbott lived] and she’d show me how to use it.” The first lesson did not go well. “You’ve got to do a damn sight better than that, buster!” Abbott told him. But it saw the beginning of a friendship that would last until Abbott’s death, in 1991. It was a mark of how much Abbott came to depend on O’Neal that, yes, she enlisted him those three times to go with her to Canada to buy gold and smuggle it back into the States.
It was Abbott “who put me into photography in a really serious way,” O’Neal says. Around this time, he began to take an interest in the work of the Farm Security Administration (originally, the Resettlement Administration). The dozen photographers this small government agency employed between 1935 and 1943 amassed some 175,000 images documenting social conditions in America. At least two of those images are among the most famous in the history of the medium: Lange’s “Migrant Mother” and Arthur Rothstein’s photograph of an Oklahoma farmer and his two sons hunched against a Dust Bowl storm.
Taken as a whole, these photographs are the greatest work of public art in US history. All of them can be seen on the Library of Congress website, at www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/fsa/. Having access to them was a very different story in 1976, when “A Vision Shared” appeared.
What gives the book its enduring importance is that O’Neal sought out nine of the 10 surviving photographers, as well as Lange’s widower and Ben Shahn’s widow, and had them select the photographs they wanted to include, write the captions, and tell him their stories. The one regret O’Neal has is not including the 12th photographer, Gordon Parks. “He was there only for a minute or two,” O’Neal says, “but he would have given [the book] greater breadth.”
Kurtz had the idea for the new edition. “When I first saw this book,” he says, “the images were wonderful but the reproduction was not. So I suggested it was time for a redo.”
What most pleases O’Neal about “A Vision Shared” is the human element: The tribute it offers not just to a remarkable body of work but, even more, to that body of work’s creators.
“It was finding people who’d sort of been overlooked,” O’Neal says. “The very best thing about the ‘Vision Shared’ book, from a lot of standpoints, is the fact that — not that they were unknown — but Jack Delano and Russ Lee and Marion Post Wolcott started getting shows. Then a zillion different books followed. If you had a nickel for every book that had FSA pictures after that you could retire.” O’Neal says this with a laugh, then gets serious. “America sometimes has a problem with recognizing what it really has. And particularly in those years recognizing people who were no longer young and hot and cool and so forth.”
O’Neal says something similar about music. “I made 12 records with Earl Hines — and I do not have one alternate take. He never made mistakes! But he hadn’t made a solo record in forever. When I recorded Mary Lou Williams, it was her first solo record since the ’40s,. And these are major American artists who were being completely ignored because the RCAs and Columbias of the world —” His voice trails off. “They wanted to do what was current and hot or make an R&B record. There’s nothing wrong with that. But you have to do it all.”
If one thing defines O’Neal’s happenchance journey through the past half century it’s been just that: an ongoing attempt to do it all, or at least do it all as regards much of what has been uniquely American about American culture and so enhance and enlarge appreciation of that American uniqueness. If O’Neal ever writes his autobiography, “A Vision Shared” would be an ideal title, except that it’s already taken.