Caroline Valenta, a trail-blazing newspaper photographer and Pulitzer-prize nominee, who had lived on Suffolk Street in Sag Harbor for more than a decade, died on Feb. 20 at the Westhampton Care Center. She was 88 and had pancreatic cancer for three years.
Born on May 27, 1924, in Shiner, Tex., to John E. Valenta and the former Lillie Wacker, Ms. Valenta left the University of Houston near the end of her senior year in 1945 to work for The Houston Post as a full-time staff photographer. She was the first woman to be hired as a photographer and the only woman in the photo department.
Within six months she had taken photographs that earned her national acclaim. One, shot in October, 1945, two months after the end of World War II, was of a returning Army lieutenant greeting his family. It was picked up by the Associated Press wire service and appeared in more than 1,000 newspapers worldwide. Known as “Daddy, Daddy,” it was chosen by Edward Steichen along with another of her photos for an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1949.
In 1947 Ms. Valenta gained further recognition for a series of pictures of the S.S. Grandcamp, a liberty ship filled with approximately 2,300 tons of ammonium nitrate which caught fire and burned dockside, destroying much of the port of Texas City. One image, of the skeleton of the Monsanto Chemical plant, was nominated for a Pulitzer. She was 23 years old at the time.
Ms. Valenta covered hundreds of accidents, crimes, fires, murders, and disasters as well as human interest stories and celebrity features while working 80-hour weeks. Competing photographers at The Houston Chronicle and The Houston Press, both afternoon newspapers, nicknamed her “ ’ol blood ’n’ guts” because she once picked up a man’s brains while helping ambulance workers who were scrambling to pick up the pieces of two men killed in a fuel-truck explosion. A colleague once introduced her as “the gal who would charge hell with a bucket of water.”
She also worked all over the United States while on assignment for the leading newsweeklies of the era, such as Life, Time, Look, Fortune, Ebony, and smaller-circulation magazines.
Ms. Valenta moved to New York City in 1952 with her husband, Worth Gatewood, where she continued to work professionally for the Daily News and news magazines while raising seven children. In 1957 she photographed the birth of her daughter Lillie, holding her Rolleiflex twin-reflex camera upside down and looking up at the viewfinder to compose her pictures. The family moved to Long Island in 1961. Later in life, she moved to Sag Harbor to live with one of her sons, remaining after he moved away.
While on assignment, Ms. Valenta photographed notables such as future President Lyndon Baines Johnson (then a Senator from Texas), the Duke of Windsor (who photographed her in turn), Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra, Woody Herman, former Vice President John Nance Garner, Charles Lindbergh, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Phillip Johnson, Ben Hogan, and baseball’s Billy Martin and Stan Musial.
Once, assigned to photograph W. Averill Harriman, the former Ambassador to the Soviet Union and Great Britain and then Secretary of Commerce under President Harry S. Truman, Ms. Valenta knocked on his hotel room door only to have him answer it in bare feet, clad only in his blue boxer underwear. After she introduced herself, he replied, “Why, I had no idea they’d send a girl to take my picture. C’mon in and take a seat while I get dressed.”
She is survived by all seven of her children: Dr. Caroline V. Gatewood of Hampton Bays, Grover V. Gatewood of Bridgehampton, Gloria V. Gatewood Russo of Sayville, Lillie V. Gatewood of Greenvale, John V. Gatewood of Oakland, Calif., Rosabelle V. Gatewood Naleski of Southold, and William W. Gatewood of Grayslake, Ill. Also surviving are two stepchildren, Boyd Gatewood of San Jose, Calif., and Louise Gatewood Horton of Houston, eight grandchildren, and one great-grandchild. Her husband, Mr. Gatewood, a former Sunday editor of the Daily News, died in 1998.
A service was held at the Robertaccio Funeral Home in Patchogue on Tuesday, Feb. 26.