Snapshot: my mother at work

My mother, Karen Radkai, was a remarkable photographer and an edgy personality.

In late 2017, I received an email from the “Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí” in Figueres with a special request: They needed biographical information on my mother, Karen Radkai, for a pending photography exhibition called “The Women who photographed Dalí” based on their collection. They also needed some photographic material.

The request serendipitously dovetailed with my slow, but painstaking work on a biography of my mother and father, both photographers of some note, especially around the mid-20th century. And so, I ultimately wrote the entry to the exhibition’s catalogue. It is not a “private view.” My copious notes and memories are for another time and a fuller publication.

“What doesn’t kill us, makes us harder…” The famous quote from Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Gods, appropriately taglined “How to philosophize with a hammer,” rings in my ears when I think of my mother, Karen Radkai. She was not the easiest person to be around or to grow up with. She was, however, someone who left a mark, and lots of photographic material.

Karen Radkai photographed by Paul Radkai
Karen Radkai, 1949, with her trusty Rolleiflex (she also used Hasselblads), photographed by her husband, Paul Radkai.

Brash, brilliant, outspoken and highly opinionated, she could make enemies out of friends within minutes, but could also attract the loyalty of those who were willing to give her space, who recognized the person behind the lens, who saw and appreciated the very fine – and extremely myopic – eye she had. She was also ambitious, had endless energy resources, and a kind of resilience that could drive any normal person to distraction. A large part of the energy came from her passion for her work, as such. She had the great good fortune of living at a time when photography had reached a kind of creative apotheosis and was firmly in the hands and fingers of a small, busy, gifted elite of perceptive editors, publishers, and photographers, of course.

She was born in 1919, in Munich. She once told me that she had already started photographing as a child. It was a hobby she enjoyed, and somewhere amongst her papers, I do hope someday to find some of those old shots. Otherwise, among her earliest memories, was sleeping in a bathtub, because the inflation in the early 1920s in Germany had wiped out the family fortunes. Abandoned by her parents, who separated soon after her birth, she was sent to a convent, where, by her own account, she acquired the discipline that she maintained her entire life.

As a teenager, she left Nazi Germany for the USA, where her mother had moved to about eight years prior. She was working as a stylist in New York in the mid-1940s when she met a dashing Hungarian émigré, who was already a fairly well-established photographer, my father, Paul Radkai. He let her have his studio to work in and experiment – according to him. Her boundless energy and ambition bore fruit. Soon she became a protégé of the notorious Alexey Brodovich at Harper’s Bazaar.

Reared in a convent during the Weimar and early Nazi years made my mother a passionate liberal. She remembered teasing the guards at the Feldherrnhalle in Munich when on breaks in her native Munich.

She was twenty-nine when the magazine sent her on assignment to post-civil-war Greece to photograph Queen Frederica (herself a German granddaughter of Emperor Wilhelm II). While the pictures of that job are unavailable, I do own a stunning vignette from that journey that tells the entire story of my mother’s photographs and perhaps reveals the artistry of photography itself: She found the subject somewhere in the war-ravaged country. A man stands. He is looking down at an elderly woman shining one of his shoes. She is almost prostrate. The man towers over her. My mother, I realize looking at the image, did not actually seize that image. She saw it coming and caught the millisecond of the man’s contemptuous look. It also summed up a deep-seated feeling she had about how men treated women.

Her career was a steep upward curb for many years, despite personal setbacks and a marriage that went south for too many complicated reasons to enumerate. She had in all four children, but her true companion was her work, and that made her a favorite of many VIPs, particularly from the world of film and music. The childhood of my sisters and me was populated by some remarkable people and filled with special memories.

Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey in a shot for Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, by Karen Radkai in our apartment in Paris.

Because she rubbed elbows with so many big names in the creative world – may I confess that I played chess with Man Ray some time around 1969? – my mother was rarely in awe of prominent personalities. Her approach to work was quite Germanic: You come, you do it, and when it’s finished, you pack up and left. I would say, this kept her quite objective when photographing, an important point, since she would not let her personal taste get in the way.

At some time in the 1960s, she and Paul, my father, bought a house in Cadaqués, the one behind the church up on the hill. It was a funny idea, a bit spontaneous, as I recall (she was like that: after selling that house, she bought an apartment in a small Austrian village from the billboard announcing the house was being built). The village was full of jet-setters and wannabes, rich people living a life akin to that of the rois faineants, odd-balls, social drop-outs, artists real and fraudulent, and Dali, of course, who used to stride into the Bar Meliton twiddling his mustache – I remember him, because, as a boy, I would play chess there. He’d arrive a little like an archbishop expecting his rig to be kissed by the faithful. I’ll be honest: My mother though him a little pretentious, and being a classic liberal, disagreed seriously with his approval of Franco. 

Meliton, a Dali haunt in Cadaquès


Salvador Dalì at the Bal de Bestegui, Venice 1951, photographed by Karen Radkai

But when she was sent to photograph him, she packed her equipment, took her trusty assistant, Vaughn Murmurian, and did the job, and did it well. Her first encounter with Dalì, however, was in 1951 at the famous Bal de Bestegui in Venice, which she and my father, Paul Radkai, attended as photo-reporters. She told me once that Dalí made a few coarse remarks about some of the activities he performed in one of his rooms. On that end, nothing could shock my mother. Especially coming from a man. I asked what she replied…. it was a comment about his age.

My mother also did a lot of advertising, but the photo-reportage was her favorite kind of work. And she was not only an assignment person. She had an unerring eye for what was photogenic, what would fit in a good magazine and so, over the years, she collaborated with many outstanding magazines, notably World of Interiors, a British Vogue publication, which at the time was brilliantly edited by Min Hogg.

As a son, as a freelancer like her, but with not nearly the talent, I find it difficult to separate the private and the professional. For years now, I have been working on gathering information for a kind of biography, not a list of jobs, not a curriculum vitae, but a personal one.  So I’d like to close with a small anecdote.


My mother and I did one job together. It was for House & Garden. The subject was the 18th-century Schloss Fasanerie near the archbishopric of Fulda in Hessen, Germany. She landed in Munich and, in spite of a generous expense account, picked up a small car. We drove the 400 kilometers to Fulda and set up shop in a B&B. No fancy hotels. We spent one day essentially walking around the palace, which was owned by Prince Moritz von Hessen, whom she admired for his ability to work and run businesses rather than jetset away the family fortune.

The Imperial Staircase at the Fasanerie (Fulda, Germany)

The next day, she photographed systematically, while I took note of the furnishings in each room, worried details, picked up the history of the castle and the family (with a long pedigree and some tragic events, especially in the 20th century).

A third day’s work was needed. Everything went very smoothly. But there was one little incident that, again, was typical: Throughout the three days, the house- and groundskeeper had stuck with us like fly-paper, opening doors and moving objects around. I tried to keep him out of my mother’s way, because I sensed he was getting on her nerves (as an amateur photographer, he’d keep making comments about photography, which she hated because, as the Germans would say, Dienst ist Dienst, Schnapps ist Schnapps). At one point, my mother asked if we could put some flowers in a vase, because otherwise everything looked too museum-like. The man said casually that vases in the 18th century then were not for flowers, but rather for decoration. And maybe she could photograph it another way… I did my best to distract, to change the subject, to interfere, because I could see my mother’s lips tightening, a slight pallor form along her nose. I knew that behind those sunglasses she always wore, her eyes were sending out 88mm flak shells. She hated anyone interfering with her work. And the gentleman was then subjected to a tongue-lashing that I can only sum up with “You do your work, and I’ll do mine.”



Memories from another world

Part I: East Germany

(The Iron Curtain held the world hostage on both sides of the infamous border for decades. For the Germans, the hostage situation was a little different because entire families were divided — as are Korean families, I understand. Many Westerners also experienced the East Bloc and were horrified or fascinated or both. My own experiences were mostly in East Germany and Hungary in the late 80s. The following is a series of memories and comments on the situation back through my own eyes both as a journalist and as a plain citizen visiting my then wife’s family. It is important to be detailed and clear, because this is my tiny contribution to the subject I once studied: History. My only tiny feeling of personal pride was having seen early on that the curtain would break open soon (after my first trip in ’86) and that the break would come in Hungary. No editor at the time was interested, the comment was “too speculative.” One East German colleague I met in Budapest thought I was nuts. I was happy to publish one little piece in the Boston Globe, finally, on November 9, 2009.

I will publish this in several installments and at some time in the future will add some photographs from my own collection (it is in storage far away), so please feel free to check back or subscribe.

Final crossings

On November 13, 1989, I entered East Germany illegally and in full knowledge of what I was doing. It happened on the Glienicker Brücke that connected East and West Berlin over the Havel river. This pretty little cantilever bridge was a neural spot between the then moribund East Bloc and the preening Western Democracies, an almost legendary construction that had been used for spy exchanges between East and West. It was a crisp, cold day, almost blinding. My visa for the German Democratic Republic, GDR, had just been stamped out by a curt border guard who had informed me that in order to return, I needed a new visa. “But I left my belongings in the hotel in Potsdam,” I stated politely. “Well, you’ll have to get a new visa,” he said with finality, punctuating a visible disinterest in an American citizen by turning to the next fellow in a fairly long line of people wanting to cross the bridge.

Glienickerbrücke-Source unknown

I set off as in a daze, my mind crunching the possibilities available to me to get my belongings back and, above all, to complete my job, which was perfectly unpolitical: I was writing an article on the particular baroque style of Frederic the Great of Prussia, whose palaces at that point in time stood on either side of the Wall: Sanssouci in Potsdam, Charlottenburg in West Berlin, with a number of other architectural testaments spread liberally around the area. My mother, Karen Radkai, was doing the photography. It was one of the few times we worked together — alas, for she was a terrific person to work with — and we were freelancing. House & Garden, where she published often, had registered interest in purchasing the article.

A lot has been forgotten over the past decades, a lot has been buried under the more egregious or absurd aspects of the East Bloc in general and East Germany in particular, the Orwellian control mechanisms in place, the prisons, the shoddy manufacturing (not all of it), the inefficient economy, the drab housing. In addition to all the spying, including preposterous attempts to gather people’s odors, the system had generated a few very pedestrian inconveniences. For one, if you wanted a visa as a westerner, for instance, you had to apply at least a month ahead of time and you had to know exactly where you were going to go and when, since the authorities, obsessed as they were with control, did not really take to spontaneous travel. Secondly, to phone the GDR from the West, you needed a healthy dialing finger, plus about a day’s worth of time. A special operator would register your call early in the morning and then connect you at some time during the day, it could be three, eight, or ten hours later. You just waited and waved away any other incoming calls (this was before all the sexy communication systems we have today).

That is the information that shot through my mind as I sauntered towards West Berlin on the Glienicker Bridge. That, and my rather innocent mother and her assistant wandering around Potsdam enjoying the somewhat dreary sights. Even though I had warned her this might happen, as a native German from the unified country, she simply could not conceive that there was this long, spooky, insurmountable wall cutting Germany and the world in two. So I did something inconceivable: I stopped before reaching the West Berlin side of the bridge, turned around and started walking back, trying to look as casual as a 6’3” man with a mop of unruly blond hair and wearing a trench coat (finest spy garb…) might be able to. A pebble on the beach and all that. There was not that much traffic, and what there was, was coming toward me from the east. In my peripheral vision, I caught the border guard dealing with someone’s papers, and I willed him to keep looking away from me at whatever he was doing. “I’m just a little grey mouse, as grey as the tar,” I mantraed to myself, heart beating like a loose wheel on a roller coaster. … I passed under a small East German banner. And suddenly, like a baby out of the womb, I was reborn in the GDR. But without a visa.

As I mentioned above, I knew what I was doing. I had found out the day before that I only had a one-time visa, care of an East German misunderstanding. But in those heady days after the now famous announcement by Günther Schabowski, I could not believe it, even though the opening of the border was only one way at the time, from east to west – and West Berliners were still not permitted to cross the border. And secretly, I did want to beat that bizarre system just once. I guess everyone did at some point, some with more risk than others. My own risk would have probably been a few hours at the custom’s house or police station. Some people I knew risked more. And I hope to unveil some of their stories in the following narrative. They are not the prominent folk, people whose quotes are famous and repeated like gospel. They are just everyday people with their struggles and tribulations. East Germany Part II continues…