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Number 1 Shimbun

Tributes to Max Desfor


Tributes to Max Desfor

Max Desfor — Photographer Extraordinaire & Club Stalwart

Former FCCJ President Max Desfor, who covered some of the greatest stories of our time as an AP photographer, passed away at his home in suburban Washington on Feb. 19 at age 104.

“Max Desfor lived a long, rich, exciting life,” AP President Gary Pruitt said in a note to the online newsletter distributed largely to AP retirees. “His photographic work for AP will live even longer – forever.”

We all know that Max won a Pulitzer Prize for his Korean War photos. But it is not widely known that he was one of the AP conspirators who delivered a camera, film and flashbulbs to Frank “Pappy” Noel, another AP photographer who was then a prisoner in a North Korean POW camp.

The project was dreamed up at the FCCJ in December 1951 as AP people sat around wondering what to send Noel for Christmas, according to Hal Buell, a former head of AP photo operations and a co-author of the AP history book Breaking News.

“Cigarette? Bourbon? Goodies? ‘How about a camera?’ Max suggested. That brought laughter, but the more the gang had to drink, the better the idea seemed,” Buell wrote for the Feb. 20 issue of the newsletter. “And so it was done, with the help of communist correspondents at the Peace Talks. That produced a big scoop for AP. Max named the project for security purposes (keeping UP in the dark) ‘Father Christmas.’”

Before the Korean War broke out, Max was in India and took the iconic photo of Mohandas Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru in Bombay in 1946 at the annual convention of the Congress Party that led India’s independence a year later from British rule.

After the photo was distributed to AP subscribers in India, some newspapers used the photo on the cover of their 1947 calendars, without obtaining AP’s permission, according to Myron Belkind, another former FCCJ president who served as AP bureau chief in New Delhi in 1966-77.

When then New Delhi bureau chief Preston Grover complained about it to the editor of a leading newspaper, the editor replied that the very special photo of Gandhi and Nehru “belongs to all of India. It is a national treasure.”

In 1973, the Indian government made the photo into a postage stamp, commemorating the Independence leader and the nation’s first prime minister. But there was no credit to the photographer. At the AP’s insistence, the government eventually acknowledged that Max was the photographer who captured the special moment. And when he made a return journey to India, the government publicly thanked him for taking the iconic photo, Belkind said.

- Kazuo Abiko
(Former AP general manager for Northeast Asia; FCCJ president 2001-02)

Max Desfor is mentioned in the FCJ’s history book, Foreign Correspondents in Japan, some 15 times, including a half dozen photos either taken by him or in which he appears. I first met Max in the mid-1960s soon after joining the FCCJ, and we quickly became friends. This was due partly to my service during the Korean War. Max had covered the war as an AP photographer. The famous photo of refugees scrambling across a destroyed bridge in 1950 won him the Pulitzer Prize (p. 56). It gave us something in common.

The mentions of Max in our history book also include his many contributions to the Club, notably as second vice-president in 1953 and then as president in the 1974-75 administrative year. Many will remember, too, his participation in the popular skits that were part of the Club’s annual anniversary celebrations (p. 173). Max was one of the early members of the “Hamsters” group, dating from 1950, who created the more sarcastic skits. In another notable appearance Max was one of the former presidents bearing the Club’s signboard in the march down Nakadori from our former to our present premises in February of 1976 (p. 225).

It would take several thousand words to list the many interesting events in his life of which I am aware, and a full-length book to cover his life story. That would include his first wife, Clara, an outspoken woman with her own views and a good cook as well. Max and Clara were a great couple, a relationship ended by her death in 1994. They raised one son, Barry. Max remarried at age 98 to Shirley Belasco, also a nonagenarian, at which time he surmised in an email that perhaps that would qualify him for a Guinness record. A quick check showed that someone else had beaten him out by a year or two, news that brought an “Oh, well,” from Max. Shirley died in 2015.

Making it to the age of 104 on top of all his other accomplishments is record enough.

RIP, Maxie

- Charles Pomeroy
(Editor of Foreign Correspondents in Japan, a history of the Club that is available at the front desk.)


Published in: March 2018

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