June 4, 2008 | 3:29 am
|By Boris Yaro |
Times staff writer
June 6, 1998
I went to the Ambassador Hotel 30 years ago to make a victory-party picture of Sen. Robert Kennedy as he won the California presidential primary. I was a Times reporter, but on that evening I went on my own time, despite an upset stomach from too many tacos and onion rings, toting my personal camera.
To me, Bobby represented what was left of the Camelot era of American politics, and I wanted him to win. I wanted a picture of him for my wall -- something that said a new era was aborning. And as the night grew long, it looked as if he was going to win.
I entered the hotel pantry area early June 5, shortly after midnight, just as Bobby walked by and into the main ballroom to make his victory speech. I hadn't brought a flash unit into the hotel, opting to use "natural light," which was in vogue in 1968. I followed him and stood near the podium. As he finished I shouted, "Bobby, give us a V!"
He did. I made a photo and then ran back to the pantry to get a closer photo as he passed by.
I got more than I wanted.
It was crowded, so I sat on one of the freezers, next to Pasadena Star News photographer Dick Drew. As a rush of people came from the ballroom I aimed my camera, but I didn't see Kennedy. "Hey, Boris," Drew said, "you missed him."
I hopped down from the freezer and moved off to my right, spying Bobby shaking hands with some people. I aimed the camera, but there wasn't enough light.
Then there were a couple of explosions that seemed to light up the entire room.
As debris hit my face, the smell and the stinging bits reminded me of the firecrackers I'd played with as a child in Iowa. Then the crowd around Bobby parted and there was a man with a contorted face and a revolver, and shots were still being fired.
Bobby put both arms up and began to bob and weave like a boxer. At one point he put his head down almost to his knees, but the man with the gun kept lunging and firing, wounding five other people.
I froze. "No," I said to myself. "Not again. Not another Kennedy."
As soon as the firing stopped, several men in suits jumped the shooter and pinned him to the metal counter top. They tried to force the revolver out of his hand, but he was still grabbing for it.
During my professional career I have been instructed to not touch things, especially at a crime scene. But as I watched the shooter go for his revolver, I broke the rule, crouched under the swinging arms and grabbed the gun. I was shocked to feel that the grip of the gun was smooth and very warm. Then someone took the weapon from me. I turned to see who, but all I saw were business suits and tuxedos. I figured it was probably a cop and turned back to Bobby, who in the darkness was sinking to the floor.
Suddenly the area was lighted by a TV film camera and I started to make photos of Kennedy sprawled on the floor, a busboy near him.
My mind was shrieking, "No . . . no, this can't be. I'm here to make a photo for my wall."
Someone grabs my arm. It is a woman, and all I see is her face. Her mouth is making funny sounds. "Don't take pictures," she says. "I'm a photographer, and I'm not taking pictures!" She is pulling on my arm, trying to move the camera from my eye. I am shooting at a very slow shutter speed, and she has stopped me.
I pull my arm from her grasp and growl, "Goddamn it, lady. This is history!"
I made several other frames until the crowd blocked Bobby from my view. Then I remembered Times photographer Steve Fontanini's words earlier in the evening: "They're holding deadline for a victory picture."
I ran around the hotel lobby until I found a pay phone. I called City Editor Bill Thomas and told him Bobby Kennedy had been shot. He said, "Yeah, we heard he was hit in the leg."
"Sir," I replied, "I saw blood dripping from his ear." Thomas didn't hesitate: "Get the film back quickly."
In the newsroom, as my film was being processed, I was being debriefed for the story. I was a lousy witness; the rewrite man was trying to talk me out of my shock. Photographer William S. Murphy, who painstakingly developed the underexposed film, came by and told me there were good images.
I saw them. They hurt.
It was more than six months before I could physically handle the negatives; I couldn't stand looking at the images in the darkroom.
That picture I wanted for my wall? It would be 10 years before I could put one frame up in my home, and then I buried it in the far corner of the den.
I had trouble being in crowded places and more than once became edgy and upset and had to leave a theater or a restaurant because there were too many people.
As the early morning hours of June 5 wore on, those problems had not yet manifested themselves. But after all the questions were over in the newsroom, I walked back to my cubbyhole darkroom in the photo department and, out of sight of everybody, I cried hot tears of anger.
I cried for me and you and all the world. Bobby would cling to life for another day, but the truth was already there:
Camelot was lost.
|Note: Boris Yaro retired from The Times in 2001.|