by Betty Dravis
Betty Dravis: Welcome to Dames of Dialogue, Bob. It’s a pleasure to have such a distinguished photojournalist with us today. I’d like to make it clear upfront that I know you personally, having been friends back in the day…waaaaay back in Hamilton High School (Ohio) when we were classmates. You just happened to be my first movie date, but that has nothing to do with why I am interviewing you, of course. I selected you because you are a Dream Reacher of the first caliber and have been very successful in your chosen career. That said, I’m curious about how you got started; did the photography come before the writing or vice-versa? And which do you enjoy doing the most?
Bob Lee: Well, Betty, I think I could be described as an “in the moment kind of guy.” Whatever I’m doing gets my full attention. When I was in junior high school, after seeing me hunt-and-pecking on her old, black Underwood typewriter, my mother predicted that when I grew up I would be a writer. (Incidentally, she was timed in a typing competition at one hundred ten words a minute. She was so fast the keys often stuck together…)
In my first year of high school I built a small darkroom in the basement and taught myself how to process film and print photographs. The best of my prints of classmates ended up taped to the inside of my school locker door—especially the shots of two pretty classmates wrapped in white towels over their swim suits. At graduation ceremonies I was chosen as the student most likely to become a Hollywood photographer. Both predictions were to come true before I was twenty-nine. Whatever I’m doing, I like best. To discover a truth from a chain of words that tumbles from your mind that you didn’t know was there that literally sings to your heart and brings tears is the most satisfying gift of all.
A few years after graduating from Hamilton High School, I decided to move to California, but detoured in Denver, Colorado—planning to work my way to California. (More details of that below…) My first break in photography actually came through the US Air Force. In Denver in November of 1951, I enlisted in the Air Force and was assigned to the 307th Bomber Wing stationed on the island of Okinawa where I ended up in a photographic unit processing aerial photos of bombing raids by B-29s on North Korea’s ammunition factories and dumps. Magnesium flares were dropped to light up the ground and the photos were used to evaluate the success of the mission.
The airfield had great photo processing facilities that we photographers were encouraged to use to expand our photographic skills in our free time. I bought an expensive German Rollaflex camera. On weekends and holidays I toured around the island going into many of the small, out-of-the-way villages and beaches on a bicycle I bought for ten dollars. I took hundreds of pictures of local scenes and people. Then I used the base labs to process film and make prints when the labs were not in use. Later, I took 8×10 prints to some of the people I had photographed. My commanding officer really liked my work and suggested that I had a natural talent for composition and “timing the moment with people.” He encouraged me to consider becoming a photojournalist when my tour of duty was over. The CO gave me a third stripe and placed me in charge of the copy lab which was a smaller darkroom with a workroom set up for making copies. “As long as you can keep up with your work flow for me, you can do your own work anytime you feel like it,” he said. That was the luckiest break in the world for someone who wanted to be a first-class photographer and had two more years to serve in the Air Force. The CO saw something in me that was planted and shaped by my hard-working, Christian parents.
When you’re given a job to do, do it beyond what is expected and it will be noticed and rewarded. It turned out that I had this darkroom all to myself for the rest of my tour on the island and I didn’t have to pay for any supplies but my film. I was the only one of the photographers who worked in the labs who wanted to be a photojournalist.
Betty Dravis: I can tell you’re proud of your parents, Bob. They set a good example and now you’re setting one for your children. I relate to our high school class predicting you would be a photographer. Coincidentally, the Class Prophecy, as we called it back then, also predicted I would be a writer. And it’s also a coincidence that we both ended up in California–at opposite ends–after taking different paths to get where we are.
As I noted above, I have known you since my youth, but failed to state that we were not in contact during the majority of that time. I hope you don’t mind if I share the unusual story of how we renewed our friendship after many years. When my first novel, Millennium Babe: The Prophecy, was published in December 2000, as part of a public relations campaign I bought a copy of a Hamilton High School Directory that listed my classmates with last-known addresses. You were one of the ones who received the letter I composed and you immediately wrote to me (snail-mail). Later we started emailing, exchanging “war stories” about our careers and families. Since then I have met your lovely wife, Ileana, and you two have been up North to visit me several times. Crossing paths again more than fifty years after graduation is mind-boggling, but I am grateful it happened. We have shared a lot of laughs since then and learned new writing skills from each other…not to mention life lessons.
Bob Lee: You’re right, Betty. Whenever I relate that story, my friends are astonished. But to tell more of what happened after graduating from high school in 1947, I worked for a wholesale automotive parts store for two years. It became boring and repetitive and I yearned for something new and exciting and one day at the local library I found it: skiing! I decided to put dreams of California on hold, move to Denver, Colorado and learn how to ski.
The store I worked for was the Savage Auto Supply Company, owned and operated by three brothers and their aging father. One day I asked Bob Savage, the oldest brother and general manager, if he knew anybody in Denver in the auto parts business. He had met some men at a national convention several years earlier who owned ten stores throughout Colorado and he volunteered to write a letter of recommendation and introduction. Bob also phoned his friend and he offered me a job over the phone. I accepted and within a week I was on my way in my 1942 Buick Roadmaster convertible–with everything I owned in the trunk and back seat.
By 1951 we were in a war with North Korea, so I enlisted in the Air Force for four years. When I returned from Okinawa I was stationed at Travis Air Force Base, a few hours’ drive north of San Francisco. I was assigned to the base photo lab along with forty other photographers and only enough work for two. Most of us were free to wander about the base at our leisure. It was obvious after a few weeks that we were not going to get an early discharge, except three months early was granted to those who enrolled in college. I enrolled, but that still left me with a year of service. When I started gaining weight I began going to the base gym to workout with pick-up games of basketball.
Then one day in the Special Services Lounge my ace-in-the-hole jumped up and hit me right in the eyes. Goosebumps ran down my back and arms. There it was again: skiing, my salvation from boredom. The Air Force owned a recreational ski lodge on top of Donner Summit. The notice of its existence was on a small sheet of paper on a bulletin board. The details of using it were pitiful.
I asked around and finally got in touch with the CO of Special Services, Colonel Rhodes. To make a long story much shorter, I got my CO to transfer me with Colonel Rhodes’s approval to Special Services and assignment as the ski instructor to replace the one being discharged in three weeks. The photographs of my ski trips to the Japanese Alps from Okinawa are what convinced the Colonel to request my transfer. I put together photojournalistic posters that were displayed around the base with the visual and written details that made the lodge desirable. This chapter of my life is a novel in the making. I spent that winter on the mountains of the Sierra Nevada making friends with all the ski resort owners, photographing ski races, dating female Olympic racers and photographing them. All these contacts were going to serve me well after I graduated from college and began my career as a freelance photojournalist. There is more, but I need to follow a chronological line of thought.
Betty Dravis: That sounds good to me, Bob…whatever works for you, works for me. But before you continue, I’m glad you mentioned playing basketball in the service; that reminds me that you were captain of our school basketball team back in the day too.
It’s interesting that your career got started in Colorado and really took off when you hit California. The photos and stories you wrote are intriguing and published in prestigious magazines, and I’m impressed by some of your interview subjects, especially the late, great, iconic producer Aaron Spelling. I really enjoyed all of his famous TV productions; the list is too long to place here but it includes Charlie’s Angels, Dynasty, Burke’s Law, Beverly Hills 90210 and Melrose Place, all phenomenal hits.
Bob Lee: I didn’t publish or write anything until after I was discharged from the AF in September of 1955 and had graduated from The Art Center School in Los Angeles with a degree in Photojournalism. Students in their last year at the Art Center are required to create the equivalent of a Thesis for a Doctorate, except there is no tolerance for sky gazing with wooly-muffle prose that has no chance of being published. I decided to shoot for the stars by writing and photographing a couple who had unsuccessful first marriages and in their second marriage they were living on Donner Summit year round, raising Husky sled dogs and small children and experiencing some of the largest snow storms of the twentieth century. My project was patterned after The Saturday Evening Post’s “How America Lives” series.
After Will Connell, my PJ professor gave me an A+, I sent New Love—New Life in the High Sierras to the photo editor at The SEP. She rejected it, but her letter was very encouraging. She wrote, “This story is the finest, most complete free-lance submission I have ever received. We plan our stories a year ahead of time and we already have our winter stories set for this winter. It would be wrong of me to ask to hold it for a year; it’s too good. Please send it to another magazine.”
This rejection was a disappointment, but I have always believed that I have a powerful guardian angel. I would be graduating two months later and I had other work to do for other classes. Within a week, I was called into the Dean’s office to meet a widely published PJ from New York and Florida named Carroll Seghers, lll. Carroll was looking to hire an assistant photographer with knowledge of the city, a good car and a good eye for “people” photography. He had three assignments for New York magazines. The Dean had recommended me, if I was interested. Fifty dollars a day and all expenses! Would I turn that down? Not on your life! Carroll was to become my most influential mentor. He was living the life I wanted to copy. The next four months of my life changed so fast that only a grace-bestowing God could bring all these elements to fruition in such a short period of time.
Betty Dravis: Wow, that’s exciting, Bob. I’ll never forget my first big break in journalism when I was a free-lancer and invited to interview the popular actor Clint Eastwood and shortly after that, the sexy movie star of the 50s, Jane Russell! Those were heady days for both of us, it seems.
Your list of credits and the big names that you photographed and wrote of are very impressive: producer Aaron Spelling, actors Zsa Zsa Gabor, Gloria Swanson, Vivian Leigh, June Allyson and Gene Barry (during Aaron’s TV production of Burke’s Law)…not to mention the 1960 Winter Olympics. And it must have been fun to photograph Bob Hope with Jon Provost, the new (at the time) boy in the popular Lassie TV series. And the list of magazines who published you reads like a Who’s Who of magazines: Time, West, Cosmopolitan, TV Life, Saturday Evening Post. You even had assignments for the Encyclopedia Britannica; the list of credits goes on and on…
Bob Lee: Thanks, Betty, it was the most exciting and rewarding period of my life at that point and I’d like to share more: In the last four months of 1958 I graduated from the Art Center School with “distinction.” Carroll Seghers read New Love—New Life in the High Sierras and loved it. He phoned Robert Atherton, the executive editor of Cosmopolitan magazine and praised my story. Robert said, “Send it overnight express.” Within three days the story was sold for $750. Carroll’s first assignment was to photograph Frank Sinatra while acting in a new movie. That went well. Next, was a story about a complete cast change in one episode of Lassie for Life Magazine. The PR rep for the show asked Carroll to take some pictures of the new boy, Jon Provost, that would make a nice cover for TV Life magazine. Carroll suggested that I do it. I think it paid three hundred dollars and Carroll told me to keep it all.
The next story was a photo study of the life of teen-agers in California for Cosmopolitan. The editor chose to use two of my shots. By the time Carroll was ready to return home, we were bonded friends and I had learned so much from him that I integrated over the next several years. His parting advice was, “Get some ideas together for stories you want to do and take them to New York and contact as many editors as you can. Bob Atherton told me that he thinks you have a bright future and wants to meet you. Your story is going to run ten pages and he’s not changing one word. I don’t suppose you’re aware that he has edited Hemingway, Faulkner, and Fitzgerald.”
I was delighted, to say the least, so I followed Carroll’s advice and went to New York where I bunked down at the Manhattan YMCA near Grand Central Station for three dollars a night. On the flight I considered that maybe I should try to get an agent. In the yellow pages I found the literary agency listings. I didn’t recognize any names until I reached the s’s and saw Ad Schulberg. I remembered reading a book called What Makes Sammy Run by Budd Schulberg and decided to give this Schulberg a call. After I told her that I had sold a story to Cosmo that was going to run ten pages in the December issue, she invited me to her home that was a beautiful apartment on Fifth Avenue in the heart of Manhattan. She was a small, elegant-looking lady with a friendly, engaging smile and demeanor. After a few minutes of conversation, I learned she was Budd’s mother and for years had been a talent agent for some of the most famous movie stars in Hollywood. Her husband was the president of RKO and later, Paramount. In one book I read later she was referred to as “The Queen of Hollywood.” She preferred the less stressful agenting of writers. She agreed to represent me and asked me to have dinner with her that night. She had two tickets to a classy supper club where a new singer named Barbara Streisand was performing. It was a grand evening.
The following day, Bob Atherton took me to lunch. I told him about my experience as a ski instructor during my last year in the Air Force and that I wanted to do a story about the Alexander Cushings of Squaw Valley and the coming 1960 Winter Olympics. He said he would think about it and let me know. After a week in Manhattan, I had four pre-sold assignments and had met ten editors that I could approach by phone later with ideas. I was on my way…
Back in California I decided to make the rounds of the LA advertising agencies with my portfolio of children’s photographs. I sold two to a young account executive named Angela Fox Dunn. She asked me where I had taken the pictures. The answer necessitated telling her about New Love-New Life. She wanted to read it; she was a frustrated writer and after reading it, she invited me to a picnic on the beach where we discussed writing. I learned that she was in love with an Italian man whose sister had recently returned from Spain after two years of working in Madrid for an American contractor as an interpreter. “Her name is Ileana and she speaks four languages, lived in Milan, Italy through WWII. You two would really like each other. She’s from a good family and she graduated from Scripps College in 1956. She will make someone a fantastic wife. You’re both the same age.”
Angela’s uncle is William Fox of Twentieth Century Fox Studios. Her mother is the story editor at Fox Studios. Angela has published several hundred movie star profiles in the LA Times, but most important to me, as it turned out, Angela was a born matchmaker! She hosted a Christmas Eve dinner party for Ileana and I to meet and invited another couple that she had brought together. The Fox family in LA is sizable and some of them take turns hosting holiday parties between Christmas and New Year’s Eve every year and Angela took us to every one of them. After the fifth night-party at a beach house north of Malibu Beach and under a full moon I proposed to Ileana and she accepted. We stopped at Coffee Dan’s in Santa Monica to drink a toast to each other and plan how to break the news to our families.
As timing would have it, the following morning I had a call from Bob Atherton in New York. “Good news, Robert. We’ve decided to go ahead with the Cushing Squaw Valley Olympics piece, but you’ll have to be in Squaw Valley early morning New Year’s Day to get the pictures we need. Okay?”
“Why the rush, Bob, I’m planning to get married in a few days.”
“I apologize for the short notice, but the three Cushing daughters are attending a private school in Virginia and are home for the holidays, but they are returning to Virginia by train at 3 pm on January 1st. We need pictures of the entire family on the mountain showing the valley below.”
I hesitated for long moments before Bob interrupted my thoughts by saying, “I appreciate your dilemma. Let me sweeten the pot to present to your fiancée. We will pay all your honeymoon expenses by giving you a second assignment of “How and Where Californians Have Fun” and you can take all the time you need—within reason, of course.”
“Okay, Bob, it’s a daunting task, but I’ll try. I’ve got to schedule a preacher, get a blood test, a license, buy a ring, put my ski gear together, organize my camera gear, then notify all the family on both sides. I’ll ask Ileana and get back to you shortly.”
I phoned Ileana and she said, “Let’s do it.” And we did! That turned out to be the most important and luckiest day of my life.
Betty Dravis: Sounds like your guardian angel was working overtime that day, Bob–fantastic photography deals and a lovely wife in one fell swoop! Your life was taking off to stratospheric heights… But time flies, and you and Ileana now have a grown daughter and son and reside in Idyllwild, California, with a second home near Palm Springs. Both locations are among the most beautiful places on earth. I’d like to ask a simpler question about photography and then move on to your novel. We love talking “books” here at Dames of Dialogue, but since I know you also photograph breathtaking landscapes and seascapes, I would like you to share your favorite one with us.
Bob Lee: That may be a simpler question, Betty, but since I love nature in all its manifestations, I can’t choose a favorite. Is it okay if I e-mail you a selection of my best nature shots and you choose your favorite?
Betty Dravis: That’s a deal, Bob! I’m the winner in this situation because I get to see a number of your lovely works. I won’t name the one I select now because the story is finished before I select the photos; instead I’ll post my favorite here. It will be hard to choose between a mountain mirrored in a lake and a glorious sunset or sunrise, for example, but I’ll do my best. Thanks for the opportunity.
And now on to your adventures in Peru and a bit of book talk: I know that you have some connection with Peru and a trilogy you are creating is set in that country. Bob, I have read your unpublished manuscript and it’s a powerful, dynamic accomplishment with unforgettable characters. I hope it gets published soon because you’ve worked on it for over twenty years and it’s a remarkable story. I think the world is ready for something so well-written and original. I think it would make a blockbuster of an action movie with a strong love story.
Please tell us about your adventures in Peru and whether that inspired Circles of Destiny. Feel free to name the books that form the trilogy, capturing the essence of each in one line…which is the hard task that publishers ask us authors to do…
Bob Lee: My daughter’s Godmother, LiLita Fraser Mellon was born and raised in Peru. A close friend of hers was in the San Pedro area looking to buy five used tuna boats to take back to Peru because the local boat builders had lost too many unseaworthy new boats and there were millions of tons of anchovies running just a few miles off the Peruvian coast. We entertained this wealthy young man at our Lake Sherwood home. I traveled to Peru with his fleet of five tuna boats and was welcomed into the Fraser household as a family member by LiLita’s physician father and her mother, brother and sister-in-law. All of them had been guests at our Lake Sherwood home. I was also welcomed into the homes of all of LiLita’s friends that she had written letters to. Her brother was a very well-connected businessman. The eldest daughter of the vice-president of Peru taught me much about Peruvian society. I had many adventures in Peru and they did inspire the writing of the novels, but at the time I wasn’t conscious of gathering research.
As you know, Betty, it’s almost impossible to put a story concept in one line, so I hope it’s okay if I give a portion of an overview that I use with my submission letters:
In 1968, the year of the assassins, an angst-driven priest, Father Doug Ryan, is sent to Peru from Los Angeles to investigate an Andean padre accused of using mission funds to buy guns for Communist guerrillas. He is mistakenly identified by a dictator-in-the-making as the source of the Andean padre’s gun money and is marked for torture and death. Choosing to take a dying street urchin to a hospital, rather than meeting with the Cardinal-Archbishop of Lima, saves the priests’ life. The death of the street urchin creates an unbreakable bond between the priest and the doctor who tries to save the boy. Several hours later, the doctor chooses to risk his own life to help save the wounded priest who is being chased through downtown Lima by two squads of counter–revolutionary soldiers. The doctor hides the priest in his nieces’ bookstore with her help. The realization that the dying boy as well as the doctor and his niece, Chabuca Barcea, has saved his life compels the priest to follow a treacherous path to fulfill his spiritual mission.
By helping to save Father Ryan’s life, Chabuca is forced onto an unknown path to preserve her life and her father’s manuscript. She volunteers to be Ryan’s guide and Quechua interpreter by going into the Andean wilderness with him to find the renegade priest. Their journey turns into a quest for spiritual peace, an epic blend of fiction , history and personal experience.
The narrative continues in the second book of the Circles of Destiny trilogy, Heart of a Warrior – Soul of a Saint, and comes full circle with a satisfying, dramatic ending in the third book. It’s titled Spirit of the H.A.R.P; it’s a work in progress and is almost finished. Chabuca and Doug continue the search for her father’s assassins until she is kidnapped by a communist guerilla leader, Pactimbo, the Russian. The ransom is that her uncle, a senator, write and persuade the legislature to pass a land reform. After the dictator’s attempt to assassinate the president fails, a coup d’état succeeds, and the secret policy of genocide continues against the landless Indian population.
Betty Dravis: I know you are not a man of few words, Bob, so am not surprised that you didn’t wish to condense your ambitious, exciting trilogy into one sentence per book. Whenever an agent or a publisher asks me to do that, I often think how unrealistic it is…but I try to go with the flow. I’m happy you gave this more lengthy description. It’s very well presented here and will surely intrigue all who read it. Since you’re retired now and have always believed in following your dreams to fulfillment, I assume that getting your trilogy published is your next big dream. Is it out to submission currently and what do you hope for your writing career in the next few years?
Bob Lee: Yes, Betty, I’m very excited by the prospect of getting these books in print. The first book of the trilogy is with one of Hollywood’s leading literary agents, Joel Gotler in Beverly Hills. I’m awaiting some news, but have learned to be patient when dealing with agents and publishers.
Betty Dravis: You already mentioned the influence of Carroll Seghers, lll on your life, but who are others you look up to? I, myself, have had a lot of mentors and mine are as different as the sun and the moon: Clint Eastwood influenced me when he went on after I interviewed him to reach astronomical heights. He taught me to dream big and not let anything stop me; Eleanor Roosevelt was a font of wisdom; and my parents taught me all about honesty, kindness, the importance of dreaming and to follow Biblical teachings. And like many writers, my favorite authors inspire me: from famous ones like Pat Conroy, Joseph Finder and Maya Angelou to soon-to-be-famous writers like my friends Christy Tillery French, Chris Platt, Chase Von, Laurel Rain Snow, Caitlyn Hunter and Maggie Bishop. I’m wondering who your favorite authors are and which one inspired you most.
Bob Lee: Pearl Buck, The Good Earth; John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath; Graham Green, The Power and The Glory: Les Miserables by Victor Hugo; all the books of Thomas Merton; all the books of Carl Jung; Soul Mates by Thomas Moore; The Life of Saint Francis by Nikolas Kazantkazakis; The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone; Lust for Life by Irving Stone; Scene and Summary by Leon Surmallion. I also spent twelve weeks with Lajos Egri , a Hollywood script doctor and renowned Hungarian playwright who wrote the quintessential The ART of Dramatic Writing and several others.
I’ve learned much from each one of these men and women, but the most inspiration comes from my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Betty Dravis: I can see His influence on you, Bob, and find that admirable. If you had the influence to change anything in the history of the world, or the present or the future, what would you choose to change and why?
Bob Lee: The Bible tells us that “God hates a Liar.” President Abraham Lincoln said, “No man (or woman) has a good enough memory to be a successful liar.” I would vote for a law that says, “Every politician that lies to those who have put their trust in them shall be subject to jail time at hard labor based on the severity of their lies and the damage their lies have done to innocent lives.” Just being voted out of office into a cushy retirement income for the rest of their lives is cultural suicide and unjust to those who have to work harder to pay the increased taxes to keep these lying thieves in the luxurious lifestyles they’ve become accustomed to.
Betty Dravis: That might sound harsh to some readers, Bob, but most Americans have political savvy and would agree with you; politicians have gone too far and have caused catastrophic damage to too many people, to the detriment of our great nation. Now for another question: If you could spend the day with one person (someone in history, a favorite author, a public figure, a character in a book, etc.), who would you choose and why?
Bob Lee: Jesus Christ, because He gave me mercy, grace and love, cleaned up my life and offered me the gift of eternal life. I’ve accepted that gift with gratitude.
Betty Dravis: Bob, I too am a believer and I admire your faith. Now this question is really two in one… and I think I know how you will respond: Next to your faith, writing and photography, what is your passion and what is your pet peeve?
Bob Lee: You probably guessed right, Betty. My passion is to honor each day and thank God for one more day of life on this beautiful earth and to revel in the miracles of life all around me. My pet peeve is a liar who lies about his lies.
Betty Dravis: Thanks for sharing so openly with us about your life, Bob. It has been a delight learning more about you. I’m sure our readers will want to know even more about C. Robert Lee, so do you have any websites or links you would like to share with us?
Bob Lee: Not at this time, but people can reach me on FaceBook.com.
Betty Dravis: I’m on FaceBook, too, Bob, as are all the authors I know, many Amazon reviewer friends and many members of my extended family, including grand nieces and nephews. It’s a great place for quick, easy communication.
In closing, I would like to add: I know Circles of Destiny has received pre-reviews from a cross-section of people with well-developed critical faculties and impressive credentials. I don’t have room to share them all, but I would like to leave this one for our readers to digest because it’s the opinion of Norman Corwin, a writer-producer-director who holds visiting lectureship chairs at five major universities; chairs two Motion Picture Academy Award committees; has won twenty-two major awards in media and the humanities and has published seventeen books. A documentary film, The Golden Age of Norman Corwin was awarded an Oscar in March of 2006. After reading parts of Circles of Destiny to his advanced writing class at USC, he told the students: “The scenes of the dying street urchin, the feeling of impotence, compassion and loneliness on the part of Father Ryan, and how he and the good Doctor Tomas tasted the boy’s death in their souls haunted me to the point of tears. It was only my long professional training that got me through.” After lengthy discussion, Norman ended the session by saying, “As you have seen and felt, this writing achieves great power.”
Corwin’s evaluation is a perfect way to end this interview, Bob. Thanks again for sharing with us, and best of luck with Circles of Destiny. Check back with us and let us know when it’s published.