My adopted father Cornell Capa, was a Hungarian born photojournalist, the younger brother of famous war photographer Robert Capa. Cornell was a LIFE staff photographer whose beat was in South America. I first heard of his name at the age of 9 while living in Peru and a missionary told my parents about a photographer covering the death of his brother in the Jungles of Ecuador. Years later, a friend, whose father was one of the five missionaries killed told me about Cornell Capa. She described me how he encouraged her mother to become a writer and taught her to use a camera. As fate would have it, a year later, I found myself in the same jungles of South America with cameras around my neck. The natives would ask if I know of a photographer who gave them “meat cookies”, 20-years ago. I would later find out these cookies were slices of Hungarian Salami. Back in the US after bushwhacking for a year, I made a point to go see this Senor Capa. Seeing him turned out to be harder than I’d imagined. He was a busy man who started the world-known International Center of Photography. I managed to secure a meeting and showed up at his second-story walk-up apartment on 5th and 29th. He answered the door and looked like seeing a ghost. His first question was ‘What are you doing here?” Being rather cocky and brash, I answered, “God Sent Me!” To which he screamed and flung the door wide open.
It turned out, in his mind; the appointment was 65 blocks away at his office. For one reason or another, he stayed home that morning (pre-cell phone days). So to this Hungarian with a flair for the dramatics, I became a divine joke for years to come. Whenever opportunities arises, he would exclaim “God Sent Him!”
He asked what I could do. I told him, anything. Before I gave it much thought, I became the museum’s first Janitor. While the job was not for the ambitious, it did come with perks. There was a whole building to call my own, morning runs to Tennis courts in Central Park and a Fifth Avenue penthouse. Unbeknownst to me at the time, it also came with the perk of having another Father Figure for the rest of my life. Though he and I did not always see eye to eye, the beauty he left in me was indelible.
I left my janitorial job within 10 months because I couldn’t get along with the insignificance. As I moved out of his museum, unbeknown to him, I moved into his third-floor apartment. His wife Edie, Edie Poo, Poo Poo, Pookeepsie, whichever names I came up with, embraced me and my names with great affection. She was my loving Jewish mother and he was the tough gardener with the dreaded pruning scissors. Anytime I would sprout he would prune the twig off. I resisted and she would always know how to heal the wounds. It took many years for me to realize, his pruning served to set my roots deep. The caliber of his will, his insights and the generosity in his heart all awakened in me along the way.
I wanted to start a Museum magazine; he was overwhelmed and would dismiss me for my lack of experience. Not one deterred by lack experience, I went out and did it anyway. I gained professional status and did started my own publication, just not for the Museum. I always went to Edie Poo whenever I need to talk. He watched me, amused and always complemented me with “Mazel Tov”. When I started publishing my magazine, he quietly paid for a $ 6,000-page ad out of his pocket for 11 years, four times a year.
In the end, after Edie Poo laid to rest, I would visit him frequently with his caregivers whom he affectionately calls them his “Black Angels”. We wouldn’t talk much but we could sit and look at each other, feel the depth of our kindred souls. He would reach out with a shaking Parkinson’s fist and whisper “Bravo!”
When I visited him, I was the only one who slept in Edie’s vacated bed. When he screamed at night from a bad dream, I would reach overt o hold his hand. I’d tell him how much I love him and what extraordinary things he did for so many, without claiming credit. How many life-changing acts of kindness he’s given. He would break a grin and blur out “You Fucker”, “Bastard” or “Bull Shitter”. Toward the end, his eyes would tear, grasp my hand tight and blur “Thank You.”