Some Hollywood love stories are front and center for the world to see like Brad & Angie, Hepburn & Tracy and of course Kermit & Miss Piggy. But there are other Hollywood love stories just as epic, just waiting to be discovered in the background, like the story of Jack and Ellie. I met Jack my first day volunteering for the Motion Picture and Television Fund Country House (a retirement home for people who have worked in the entertainment industry.) I was tasked with keeping watch over the 84-year-old cantankerous resident on a field trip to Universal Studios. Jack Pashkovsky was born in Russia, and even after more than seventy years in the states, he still had a pronounced accent. He had a scruffy hint of a white goatee, wore a light blue Members Only jacket that matched his watercolor eyes, and on his head he wore a small tan fishing hat that was at least two sizes to small for him.
Jack was the quintessential example of a bark being worse than the bite – in fact, he tested my mettle that first day with a steady stream of griping that almost scared me off. He was annoyed he couldn’t just drive himself in his beloved thirty-year-old Volvo, he was ticked off they thought he needed a “babysitter” (me), he thought the price of a coke was outrageous, and most of all, he hated the heat. He complained bitterly about the blazing sun (which, in his defense, was oppressive that early August day) and after about an hour of wandering and whining he sat at a table under an umbrella, crossed his arms and refused to take another step.
In desperation, thinking his too-small fishing cap was not protecting him from the sun well enough, I went and bought him a ball cap with a large bill and presented it to him hopefully as a solution to keep out the over-zealous sun. It was that simple olive branch that broke through the walls of grief (that I had no idea even existed) and prompted Jack to open his heart to me. As his eyes welled up, he thanked me for buying the new hat but explained he liked his old hat just fine. In fact he loved it – because it had belonged to his wife of fifty-four years, Ellie. Through his tears he told me that he had proudly worn that hat every day in the two and a half years since she had passed away. And he would continue to wear it until the day he joined her again.
Ellie had been a model, a gorgeous sapphire-eyed blonde with an effervescence that was evident even through the time worn photos he showed me. Reverently, proudly, as a jeweler might show his most treasured diamond, Jack would offer up photo after photo and we would fawn over the wonderfully photogenic Ellie together. He had actually plastered one whole wall of his small room with oversized posters of his wife impishly teasing the man behind the camera right through the lens. The photos were stunning, not only the subject, but the composition…remarkably natural and full of life, not something one normally sees in portraits from the 1930’s and ‘40’s. And Jack had taken every single one of them. When I commented on what a beauty she was, he assured me that he was well aware she was out of the league of a Russian Jewish camera man with a short temper and a chip on his shoulder.
As an eleven-year-old immigrant in New York City, Jack found solace in the movies and fell in love with the worlds they so beautifully presented. The moving pictures (as he called them) spoke to him on a deep level, and he wanted desperately to be a cinematographer. So he saved up all of his money, and at the age of twenty-two, moved across the country in pursuit of his Hollywood dream. Unfortunately, he soon discovered that nepotism ran the business in those days, and the few cinematographer jobs available were usually given to cinematographers’ sons.
But while the studios didn’t give Jack a chance – Ellie did.
She thought the brash young photographer was charming, and despite the grumpy façade, he won her over not only with his wry humor, but also with his talent. Ellie encouraged Jack’s artistic vision, raved about his photography, and she began helping him to make short films after the two lovebirds saved up enough money to buy a 16 mm camera. One Sunday afternoon in his small over-heated room at the home, Jack showed me the first film that they made together. Rhythm of the Rails was a charming film in which Ellie played a babysitter who falls asleep while watching a toddler (played by her two-year-old nephew) at which point the small boy goes on an epic adventure with his ever-present teddy bear. In the end, the world-traveling duo manages to get home just before the sitter wakes up, none the wiser.
Watching the sweet black and white film that somehow spoke volumes without a single line of dialogue, I instantly became aware that I was looking right into the soft mushy heart of the grizzled old man before me. That little film went on to win an award at The Cannes Film Festival in 1948. Jack and Ellie made many more short films, winning two more Cannes Film Festival awards, an amazing accomplishment for a truly independent filmmaker, back in the days where the studios were king.
Sadly, Jack was never able to break the barrier that kept him from becoming a full-fledged cinematographer, but he forged his own path, working odd jobs on the studio lots and doing anything he could to be near the action. Every day when he went to work, he actually hid his own 16 mm camera in his lunch pail and took some of the most stunning candid footage of everything from rehearsals of grand Busby Berkeley films to Marilyn Monroe playfully throwing water on crew members between scenes. But it was a cherished hobby, encouraged by the steadfast support of Ellie, that would become Jack’s greatest career legacy. Over the course of over twenty years, Jack managed to amass one of the largest collections of candid celebrity photographs of all time. He was never paid a dime for the photos, never sold them to magazines -- he shot them purely for the love of movies and the actors who starred in them. Many of the pictures in his collection can be viewed in a display at the Motion Picture and Television Fund Hospital – the rest have been donated to The Toronto International Film Festival for preservation.
In our five years together, Jack shared his passion for film with me, introducing me to such classics as THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG, THE THIRD MAN, and countless others including his favorite, FIDDLER ON THE ROOF. And I will never forget the day when my 87-year-old friend took me on an honest to goodness date: driving me in his old gold Volvo to the Westside Pavilion to see the movie version of his favorite Pushkin story, ONEGIN. Afterwards he treated me to a hickory burger and a chocolate pie at the famous APPLE PAN restaurant, which he gleefully declared hadn’t changed a bit since he and Ellie frequented the joint in the fifties.
But my favorite moments with Jack were the hours he spent telling me stories about his beloved wife while tending the Double Delight rose bush that was her favorite. Unashamed, on many occasions he let his tears water those roses, the evidence of a deep and abiding connection. The two endured the pain of infertility, the uncertainty of unemployment, and unrealized career dreams – but they had something stronger than a dream, they had real love.
Even though my friend Jack passed away more than a decade ago, I think of him every day – thanking him for encouraging my dream to become a writer, telling me to forge my own path, and inspiring me to settle for nothing less than true devotion and everlasting love in my own life. To honor Jack, I always make sure to plant a Double Delight for Ellie whenever I move into a new home, because I know it would make him smile. And believe me, a smile from Jack was as blazing bright as the August sun on that fateful day where one of the great loves of my life first told me about the great love of his.
To read a little more about Jack and to see one of his stunning photographs, click this link: http://www.thestar.com/entertainment/2011/04/25/shooter_of_stars_gets_a_fitting_tribute.html
I also encourage everyone to visit the Country House in Woodland Hills to see dozens more of his amazing celebrity shots. Don’t forget to talk to some of the old-timers while you’re there, they have some pretty incredible stories to share with anyone who is willing to listen.