by Filo Vance
Amelia’s cameras ‘talked’ to me…
The initial Kodak 620 Duo camera came to me under rather strange circumstances. Let’s just say that what I have since learned makes me believe it to be the one which was supposedly in the Earhart/Putnam antique Washington Irving desk ‘mostly destroyed in the fire at their Rye, NY estate which occurred on or near Thanksgiving day, 1934’.
With this in mind and history available from Purdue University I discovered Amelia lost many of her poems, her scrap-books and personal papers (which were in that desk). The fact that the Earhart/Putnams never returned to their NY house and George took a $72,000.00 insurance loss made me very curious. An e-mail arrived from “unknown” stating he or she wished to divest themselves of a camera that once belonged to a famous personage. Supposedly, it was worth considerable money to an organization which might sell it at a healthy profit – AND was I interested? The e-mail mentioned some events which had not yet occurred, stating these would add to its worth… it would be sent by courier. Yes, of course, I wrote back!
The following afternoon, a brown van was in my drive, a delivery-type dressed in tan uniform asked my name and then replied; “please show me ID, sign here and initial here. Photo ID, please, because this small package is heavily insured.” I’d never seen anything besides an automobile that was insured for thousands at delivery, so I stood there until the driver disappeared and then hurried to open the box. Inside I found a well bubble-wrapped small folding camera inside a leather case and some dunnage which included a couple UTAH Hotel unused luggage labels (why I set them aside and threw away the bits of foam at the ends of the box I don’t know).
I saved the return address, my delivery name & address, as well as a plastic sleeve that covered most of the box exterior. I was mostly interested in that camera, and disposed of the small box. Inside the case was a typed, unsigned note: “I believe this belonged to Miss Earhart [Amelia]. I have had it a long time. Now it will benefit your organization” (Flying Tigers). Stuffed in the bottom of the case was a crumpled bit of a 1935 Sunday NY Times Newspaper supplement, virtually falling apart, but obviously taking up space so that the camera ‘fit’ better.
Shortly thereafter I visited the Kodak internet site and learned from a vintage ad folder of the day that the camera was a very high-end 35-mm model that was well beyond anyone but a serious photographer’s or wealthy person’s pocketbook range. The largest most recent collector of the model had only 8 of them, because of the scarcity due to it being the middle of the Great Depression in America. Although AE did not advertise for Kodak, as she did by endorsing Packard Motors and various aircraft, she was one of the stauncher users. The article even mentioned the later (1936) model that AE and Noonan would take on their globe-girdling trip and had photos of her using the camera to take pictures of people taking her photo in Hawaii.
I e-mailed Kodak. They were in the midst of disposing of the film camera business, having declared Chapter 7 Bankruptcy, keeping only their printers and digital cameras in a struggle to survive the long Japanese cheap-camera onslaught. Despite this, they were kind enough to provide some former employee, turned collector’s correspondence. The rep put me on to an Australian gentleman with various theories about Earhart and Noonan’s disappearance and other photo sources showing AE using the camera. Eventually I found the US Army inventory list from AE, Noonan and Mantz’s first attempt & crash at Luke Field, HI. Also, I acquired info on how to remove the lens and obtain the camera’s serial number.
I contacted the old Kodak collector. He had worked at the Kodak Rochester, NY facility from 1930 until 1938 and when I mentioned an Earhart camera, he told a rather interesting story. It seemed that before Christmas in 1934 a man (who obviously knew little about the camera he had in his hand) had taken a camera to the Kodak Rochester repair facility to have it evaluated for ‘heat damage’. The damage was likely because the case had a scorched leather case and the strap was burned completely away. Examination, however, indicated all functions were working and just some cleaning was necessary. The man returned after the holidays, paid the charges and bought a camera case which was generic for other models as well. The case was an inch longer than the 620 Duo. When he asked the employee who the owner was, he received an incomplete answer. The gentleman went on to explain that George Eastman, never wanted his invoices to associate with buyers’ names, because he was afraid of law-suits; however when repairs were made they maintained a list of serial numbers. I gave him what I had discovered and waited for a reply…
Unfortunately, the list was not in this gentleman’s possession. At that point he’d put 2 & 2 together and seemed to know we were talking about Amelia Earhart’s camera. Kodak’s film camera records were sealed and a part of the Bankruptcy and possibly would never see the light of day again. But the gentleman said that he believed the man who brought the camera in had been a fireman from some remark he had made and long ago had wondered if the camera might have belonged to Miss Earhart.
Let me here say that in 1938, on the New York 1-year celebration of Air Mail delivery to Rye and other areas, a former neighbor of the Putnams enclosed a personal letter to Amelia in the First Day Cover, which would go sealed & unopened until 2010 (through various collector’s hands). Finally someone did open it and there it was – “Oh my dear Amelia, I have heard the Japanese may have you; how very dreadful… we keep looking for you and George to return… you know one of those volunteer fireman saved many things from the fire, some of your papers, and old books, and a camera… I do hope you’ll come soon for them, Bernie has them all carefully put away.”
WOW – there’s the answer that we had suspected: that “Bernie” may have out-lived his wife, or perhaps was the fireman – and had held onto this these many years!
Now – this made me go and dig out those old luggage labels – why, I don’t rightly know. I had them in with some FDCs and stamps from the Marshall Islanders. The stamps depicted AE’s Electra leaving Lae, crashing on a reef at Mille Atoll, a Japanese cargo ship hauling the wreck aboard and AE & Noonan shown with a crutch, being taken into custody by a Japanese soldier on the beach after apparently using their inflatable raft to make a shore landing. I admit that was a funny place to have them, but everything contained in that book’s clear vinyl sleeves had to do with some aspect of Amelia… including several photos that were credited to her, yet she was in them, though I had my suspicions because one, taken at the Muroc Dry Lake’s “Happy Bottom Riding Club” was then being featured on the History Channel presented a clue – that’s another story in itself.
So here I am looking at two Utah hotel luggage stickers and wondering what value they might have to a collector. People collect most anything – just look on eBay!. A friend e-mails me a story that had appeared in an Anchorage, AK newspaper about Amelia and one of her Vegas. It had mechanical trouble on a cross-country fight and had to set down on a farm, where she spent the night with the family. The writer is the farmer’s daughter who had her photo taken with Amelia that afternoon; she was 6 then. It seems they did not have a phone, but a neighbor did. They drove over in a Model T and AE called the mechanics at Lockheed with directions. The next evening she was driven into Salt Lake City, where she stayed at the UTAH hotel… co-incidence? I think not! I think Bernie or the fireman saved those labels as they were either a bit darkened by heat or age. I took photos of them, and just for kicks listed them on eBay for $60, an un-heard of price for a nowhere hotel with such a name (I did bother to research the hotel, and learned it had become part of a convention center years back – no mention of an Amelia Earhart Suite)…
But to my surprise, the following morning a gentleman named Peard, better known as “Woody Rogers”, had paid the price, and was e-mailing me, asking if the labels ‘talked’ to me? He had some rather strange items that AE once owned and seemed to fit in with the conspiracy theory people; He described what he was setting out to do on a part of Saipan littered with un-exploded WW II ordnance in an effort to find the bunker which he believed contained the wreckage of the Electra using ground-penetrating radar.
I mailed them that afternoon, and “Woody” has since sent all kinds of info.
His theory was fully discussed, but I never asked if he was receiving luggage-label vibes! I will admit the cameras told me interesting stories, and the labels… well, they must have wanted to be saved – just for “Woody”,
Filo is our fiend and respected guest blogger. Great story, Filo! Keep up the good work.