Books: Fortunate Life Margaret Bourke-White

by Vicki Goldberg Harper & Row; 426 pages; $25.95

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Her Cleveland pictures caught the eye of Editor and Publisher Henry Luce, who was planning a magazine that would rigorously and sumptuously chronicle the world of U.S. business and economy. Bourke-White offered just the photographic skills that FORTUNE needed. Working together on one early assignment, Luce toted her cameras and equipment. Bourke-White's success at FORTUNE helped create the concept of photojournalism, the grouping of artful but newsworthy pictures into a narrative that made words subordinate or unnecessary. When Luce began LIFE in 1936, the magazine's first cover picture, of the Fort Peck Dam in Montana, was by Margaret Bourke-White.

Advertisers soon began to employ her face and name to endorse products like coffee, phonograph records and wine. Such favored treatment did not always sit well with her colleagues and competitors, especially when she ordered them about. While covering World War II, she had the habit of showing up on the arm of the C.O. at the local theater of operations. One LIFE photographer, queried by the home office as to why Bourke-White was ahead of him on a story both had been assigned, replied that she "had one piece of equipment he didn't have."

Such charges have inevitably followed successful women and probably will until female bosses outnumber males. Goldberg makes a halfhearted attempt to portray Bourke-White as a feminist heroine, but concedes "she often acted in ways no self-respecting feminist could approve." Indeed. Impediments to her work regularly aroused hysterics and tears. When Author Erskine Caldwell decided that he did not want to continue collaborating with her on a book about the South, she "raped him," according to Caldwell's agent. (The collaborators were later married and divorced.) One of Bourke-White's long- suffering secretaries came to regard her boss as "the kind of woman I didn't want to be . . . lacking in human relationships."

The unappealing side of Bourke-White's character is clear and a little beside the point. After all, she never set out to be a beloved, nurturing soul. She wanted to be "famous and wealthy," as she wrote when young. It is possible to quibble with her goals but not, as this biography makes clear, the determination and courage she brought to their attainment.

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