Remembering Marion Carpenter

Pioneer White House Photographer Dies
ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Marion Carpenter, one of the first female White House photographers who traveled with President Harry Truman and covered him daily, has died. Though Carpenter broke ground in her profession, she died alone and destitute at age 82.

Marion Carpenter with President Truman.
Marion Carpenter with President Truman.

Her body was found late last month on her couch, bundled up tightly against the chill because the thermostat had been lowered to save money. The body, found Oct. 29, is still with the medical examiner while friends — most of whom met Carpenter at garage sales or thrift shops — try to track down her only child, a son whom she had not seen in more than 30 years. “She sounds like the type of woman upon whose shoulders we all stand,” said Susy Shultz, president of the Journalism and Women Symposium. “It’s sad that we don’t know about a Marion Carpenter. The women who came along in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s had it the hardest. They were the women breaking paths.”

In the 1940s, Carpenter was one of the first women in the White House News Photographers Association. She was the only woman among a handful of photographers who traveled with Truman. Carpenter studied photography in St. Paul and went to Washington when she was about 24. She won the White House job as a photographer for the International News Photos syndicate. In her belongings when she died were photos she took of Truman, which the president inscribed to “Miss Carpenter.” One of those photos, which showed Truman striding uphill toward the Washington Monument, bears the message: “It’s good exercise if you keep it up, but not for high-heeled shoes, Miss Carpenter.”

How her life unraveled is a book with many missing pages. “This is a story and a half,” said a friend, Beverly Allstopp. “But we’ve all just got pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Marion was a very private person, and she kept a lot of things from everybody.” According to what she told her friends late in life, a love affair with a married man may have helped end her career prematurely. Carpenter’s marriage to a Navy officer who abused her ended in divorce. In Washington, she fell in love with a Capitol journalist. When the affair ended, Carpenter married again. Her new husband, a radio announcer, took her to Denver, where she had a son. By late 1951, the marriage — and her career — were over. She was 31.

Back in St. Paul, Carpenter ran a wedding photo business and worked as a nurse to support her mother and child. Her son, Mjohn Anderson, ran afoul of juvenile authorities and left home at 19. According to friends, Carpenter never saw him again. He would be 52 now.

Carpenter’s friends have found no relatives except for a cousin in Maine who authorized them to sort through her belongings. In her later years, Carpenter passed time at thrift shops, sitting on used furniture while browsing through old copies of National Geographic. Carpenter showed magazines to friends and explained why photographs were composed the way they were. “She was sensitive, and kind, with an overflowing heart,” Allstopp said.

Ms. Carpenter’s entries in the 1946 WHNPA contest included:

• “White House Santa: President Truman shown with his Christmas gifts.

• “Favorite Dessert” The President enjoys cake and ice cream at a garden party on the White House lawn given for 885 wounded veterans.

• “Meat Decontrol” President Truman broadcasts Meat Decontrol to nation

• “The photographers Friend: The president, gracious, as usual, poses for the “Just one more” He. added, “Photographers have to make a living too”

•”The last Mile” The president accompanied by a Secret Service agent takes his daily early morning walk around familiar sights in Washington, D.C.

•”Spring at the White House” President Truman strolls out to the White House ground and admires the first spring magnolia blossoms.