In the evening of January 11, 2000, I drove my rental car into the parking lot of the Holiday Inn in North Miramar, a bedroom community for San Diego. I had flown across the country to spend a week interviewing 84-year-old Hy Peskin for a book about his amazing career in sports photography, mysteriously cut short at its apex 35 years earlier when he abandoned not only his profession but also his name, changing it legally to Brian Blaine Reynolds. He was a legendarily difficult personality, with many admirers but few friends in the sports business. In truth, few people knew what had become of him and most presumed him long since dead.
Upon reaching my room I called the Reynolds household in nearby Murrieta, as I had been requested to do, advising him of my arrival.
“So, you want to get started?” Hy asked in his memorably raspy voice. Not really, I admitted, as I had been in transit for fifteen hours and was exhausted. I assured him I had driving instructions to his home in nearby Murrieta and would be glad see him at 8:00 a.m. sharp. He seemed disappointed but acknowledged that he too might be sharper in the morning.
Half an hour later there was an insistent knock at the door of my hotel room. I opened it to find a round old man in pajamas and bedroom slippers, with an overflowing scrapbook under his arm, who announced in the flamboyant style that would soon become familiar, “I couldn’t wait until morning. I’ve been waiting for you my whole life.” He was accompanied by two young boys wearing yarmulkes and payes, the curling sideburns of the Orthodox Jew. He introduced them as his adopted sons, Preston Blaine Reynolds and Brian Jeremy Reynolds, then turned to me with a stage whisper, “They never heard of Hy Peskin.”
So began the most memorable week of my professional life. Each morning I would interview Hy from the foot of his bed, where he lay with eyes hooded as he conjured up his past, in the pajamas that were never exchanged for conventional clothing. “You didn’t eat breakfast?” he said to me one day. “Want me to throw something on and we’ll go for an early lunch? In this restaurant that I like. We’ll go informal but we’ll go.” For this occasion he changed into a fresh pair of pajamas but kept the slippers. In the afternoons while Hy napped I would speak with his remarkable former wife Adriana McMinn (Godoy), now reconciled after an intervening marriage that had produced the children. Sometimes Hy and I would extend the interview to a second session, but generally not: he typically went to sleep at 6:00 p.m., right after his dinner.
Who was Hy Peskin? I had known him by the hundreds of photographs I had seen over the years, always distinctive in composition and density of color, always recognizably “a Peskin.” I knew that his challenging angles, unprecedented aerial shots, and unequaled athleticism had redefined his profession. I knew he had worked for Sports Illustrated (where he was the magazine’s first staff photographer), Life, Look, Colliers, The Saturday Evening Post, and more. What I didn’t know, however, could fill a book.
Hyman Peskin was born in Brooklyn on November 5, 1915 to Russian-born parents Sarah Sokolowsky and Elias Peskowitz (original name Pesachowitz), a tailor who lost his job in the early 1930s. “When I began to sell newspapers,” he told me, “we had been living in an apartment, $27 a month, and my family could hardly pay the rent. When I got them all selling papers, including my father, we moved to a better part of town, the magical Eastern Parkway area. I saved my family with the newspaper selling.”
He went to Brooklyn Evening High School for several years and appears not to have graduated. “I hardly ever went to class; I got off into another direction by having met a newspaper photographer, Izzy Kaplan [of the New York Mirror], and helping him at the ball games. First in Brooklyn and then later at the Polo Grounds, Yankee Stadium, other events, hoping through him to get a job at his newspaper which in those days paid $12 a week for an office boy. My goal was to be a writer and I thought through him maybe I could get that job. Incredibly I helped him every day, all kinds of events, without pay for three long years… it was 1933, 1934 and 1935. Finally I got the job and after a few months they approved me to transfer to be the office boy in the sports department. Later I left the sports department in great, great frustration because of a run-in with the editor, Dan Parker, and reluctantly asked to be transferred to the picture department, which I knew well but never had real, real interest in. I became the hypo-boy in the photo department, developing the pictures, writing the captions, things like that.”
In 1935 he married his sweetheart Blanche from Erasmus High, “the first girl I ever spoke to,” and became a fulltime professional photographer, often shooting the Brooklyn Dodgers. But after enlisting in the Marines in 1943-44, he returned with an itch to experiment in stop-action color photography. Applying to the leading 30 magazines in the country, Peskin found that only Look had any interest and only the Daily Mirror had a job for him, his old one.
“With my great desire to move to higher levels, I scraped together about $10 and bought one box of Kodachrome and arranged with Saint Nicholas Arena that I could shoot a fight there [on May 11, 1945]. The fight happened to be a match between Lou Nova and a guy named Gunnar Barlund. Virtually every newspaper photographer had one camera, the Speed Graphic. Occasionally they would have the big, big long range cameras but day in, day out, they had a Speed Graphic…. You could shoot it from the back curtain or the front shutter, but you had one camera. When you went to a sporting event the limitations were tremendous. But in boxing you were okay, the action was 12 feet away, you could shoot a lot. I mounted on my Graphic not one flash bulb but a unique setup with three flashbulbs so when I pushed the button all three would go. I knew I would have to shoot wide open to capture every bit of light on the film. Although I thought maybe it would work, I never had made any test in that direction.
“The speed of the film in those days was ten. I was trying to be so careful with my film that in the entire fight I made only three pictures. But trying to shoot at the right time when the fighters were turned right to me, one guy was bleeding, that side of his face was showing and I tried to shoot at the punch, three times in the entire fight. I sent off the pictures to Eastman Kodak in Rochester, which would take several days for developing, and went back to my work at the Daily Mirror. A few days later, I went to Railway Express which was only about three blocks down the street from the newspaper, got the box, ran to the window, tore open the box near the window to look at what I had. And my heart jumped out of my mouth: the three pictures each were fantastically clear, sharp, the blood, three of the greatest pictures of my life. All perfect, perfect, perfect. I didn’t go back up the street to the newspaper, I went down about a mile to Look magazine, to the editor that had been interested in me, brought him to the window when I got to his office and said, look here. When he saw reality, action in color, I was hired on the spot for roughly twice the money I ever made. I was no longer a newspaper photographer.”
Peskin went on to shoot hundreds of covers for This Week, Life, Collier’s, and more. Among his personal favorites was the Life cover and photo spread with Jack Kennedy and bride-to-be Jacqueline Bouvier. He shot a beautiful serene portrait of Joe DiMaggio, with “a soft smile that wasn’t Joe DiMaggio at all.” And he shot beautifully composed shots like Ben Hogan’s dramatic 1-iron shot on the 72nd hole of the 1950 U.S. Open in Merion, Pennsylvania, universally acclaimed as the greatest shot in the history of the sport. But what truly set Peskin apart from his peers was his combination of inventiveness and athleticism. Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times testified to his athletic style by writing in 1961:
“You’ve seen Hy at these things before. He runs more laps than Vladimir Kuts and this is remarkable because Hy only stands about 5’7” and weighs about 195, most of it evenly distributed below the waist. Moreover, he ran his laps under full pack of two Leicas, one Rollei, sacks full of film, a telegraph from the editor, and a note from his wife telling him not to forget to pick up the roast. And Hy was doing all this on only three hot-dogs, a Pepsi and a (double) bag of peanuts. I think Hy’s 72-yard dash across the infield under full equipment was the finest I have ever seen….”
What made Hy Peskin run? “Anticipation,” he told me. “Anticipation is the key word in the coverage of all sports. For example, one day I was shooting for Life magazine a game, maybe at Detroit, and I shot as usual when nobody was on base from the first-base side of the batter as he hit, close by. Often times I really endangered my life by edging closer to the baseline to shoot him when it is very possible for a batter to lash one out right at your nose. But I did it often. There was a particular batter, he hit, I shot, as he ran past me towards first I ran past him the opposite way, around home plate towards third base because there had been a runner on first base. As I ran to third, here comes the base runner from first, sliding into third. I got the picture but the fielder dropped the ball and it was rolling away. Now the base runner picked himself up and was running hard past me toward home plate. I wheeled around and ran as hard as I could behind him and got just in time, close enough to home plate, to shoot him sliding into home. I thought it was one of the greatest stunts I had ever pulled. Those pictures appeared in Life.”
Success followed success until the first Ali-Liston championship bout, in Miami in 1964. “I set up everything the previous day like photographers normally would with the lights overhead, camera down below. I tested everything, everything was great.… I came the next morning, the day of the fight and I went to the arena, like an idiot I didn’t recheck my camera, is it hooked right into the lights to be synchronized with my light? I simply took the camera which I had already checked the previous day, put the film in and proceeded to shoot the fight. I was shocked to learn later that I had virtually no pictures because the lens was not tied in any longer to my strobe lamps overhead. Somebody did something deliberately to put me out of business. So I was a strikeout at a very, very important event and I virtually disappeared from Sports Illustrated thereafter.”
By 1960 or so Hy had turned to entrepreneurial ventures such as the World Series of Sport Fishing with Ted Williams and his BIG idea, the American Academy of Achievement (AAA), formally launched in 1961. As Hy described the basic idea in later years, it was grandiloquently this: “To erect a Mount Olympian Gathering of the Gods of Achievement once a year to meet the greatest young achievers of the country.’” With the aid of his sons Evan, Ron, and Wayne and wife Blanche, the AAA attracted a motley crew of notables, celebrities, ambulatory wallets, strokable egos, and flashes in the pan. High-achieving high-school students would hobnob with the likes of Edward Teller, Brooke Shields, Wayne Newton, Roger Staubach, Jimmy Stewart, Helen Hayes, Stevie Wonder, Ben Feldman (“America’s No. 1 Salesman of 1965”), Col. Harland Sanders (Kentucky Fried Chicken), Helen Keller, Albert A. Morey (“Largest Insurance Brokerage”), Debby Boone, and Jack LaLanne.
After three publicly successful — but for Peskin’s finances disastrous — Golden Plate banquets in Monterey (“Negro haters and Jew haters”), San Diego, and Oceanside, by 1965 Hy Peskin had reached tether’s end. “A guy came and took away my car for not paying, and I was left on the streets of Oceanside, 20 miles from our home in Escondido, nearly 50 years old. No money, no more photo career because I had lost my assignments from Sports Illustrated. No money from the three Banquets of the Golden Plates that we had, standing ovations for me, but nobody realizing that I’m getting virtually nothing.” He moved the operation to Dallas, where he was able to stay afloat, but he was told there would be no further support from civic leaders.
“I decided to stay and to change my name to eliminate the image of the Jewish photographer from Brooklyn as the leader of the Academy. So I became the only man in the history of the world, the only father named after his children, I took my three sons’ middle names, made a new professional name, Brian Blaine Reynolds, and soon enough the program became successful. But I did leave Dallas, when I felt after a number of years they too wanted to get rid of me so they could steal the program. I packed up my family and went to Philadelphia and the support for the Academy grew and today it’s on a very solid foundation.”
By 1985 Reynolds’s youngest son Wayne took over managing the organization but before the decade was out the senior Reynolds filed lawsuits against his sons, charging they had colluded to take control of the AAA from him. A countersuit exposed Brian Reynolds to up to $3 million in liability. What to do? They were making him out to be crazy, "just because of this pajama thing." Adriana Reynolds advised her husband to call Ray Charles, a recent AAA honoree. “Ray Charles came as a witness to the five-week-long trial,” Hy told me. “He came in the very last days or so, and in his own words told how he thought so much of me, how I was the Academy and so forth. The jury was very much taken with him and he saved my life. It was a $3 million lawsuit against me. Those people never collected a penny.” The jury instead awarded him damages of $800,000 (later reduced to $200,000), and another jury granted him a monthly pension of $10,000 from the Academy.
Wayne Reynolds moved the AAA offices to Washington a few years ago, adding world leaders to the roster of prominent Americans; today the organization is known as simply The Academy of Achievement and its annual event is the International Achievement Summit. In 1999 Wayne and his wife Catherine B. Reynolds were able to make her sizable foundation the principal sponsor of the Academy, which now matches international bigwigs with select graduate students rather than high schoolers.
On June 3, 2005 the Academy held its annual International Achievement Summit in New York at the American Airlines Theater on West 42nd Street. Filing in past gawkers were such high-powered figures as Sally Field, Denzel Washington, Queen Rania Al-Abdullah of Jordan, playwright Edward Albee, NBC’s Katie Couric, U.S. Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, novelist Tom Wolfe, and Bill and Hillary Clinton.
Also on June 3, Catherine Reynolds announced a $10 million gift to NYU for a program in social entrepreneurship. In recent years her foundation had granted $100 million to the Kennedy Center but had seen its offer of $38 million to the Smithsonian refused because the attached string seemed to the curators too binding: the construction of an exhibit honoring Americans who had made great individual achievements, from Abraham Lincoln to Oprah Winfrey. Wayne Reynolds commented to Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes: “I’ve never met people like this [the Smithsonian curators] who said individuals never mattered in history. My whole career, my whole life, Cathy’s whole life is based on one person can make a difference in America.”
On that same June 3, 2005, Hy Peskin a.k.a. Brian Blaine Reynolds died in Herzliya, Israel. On the homepage of the Academy of Achievement’s website (http://www.achievement.org/) one may see the date of founding (1961) but nowhere is there a mention of the man who founded it, the individual who mattered.