The Mysterious Mr. Kelty

After 20 years covering the circus, photographer Edward J. Kelty settled His tab, moved to Chicago and apparently never took another picture. What happened?

By Ellen Warren Chicago Tribune Senior Correspondent
Published February 7, 2003

Cleaning out the small, North Side apartment after his father died, young Ed Kelty found one -- and only one -- clue pointing to his dad's intriguing and sometimes bizarre career.

It was 1967, and going through the few possessions that Edward J. Kelty left behind, his son found a single camera lens. There were no photos. No negatives. No cameras. The lens was the only hint of Kelty's 20 rollicking years as a traveling circus photographer.

Today, nearly 36 years after his death at age 79 in Chicago Veterans Research hospital, E. J. Kelty's circus photographs are on the covers of two coffee-table art books. The most recent volume is devoted exclusively to Kelty's strangely compelling images of sideshow freaks, clowns and other circus exotics.

But what of the man behind the camera? In the early 1940s, the hard-drinking New York photographer and proprietor of Century Photography sold some of his negatives, unloaded the rest to settle a bar tab and moved half-way across the country to Chicago where he seems to have had no prior ties.

Most puzzling of all: As far as anyone knows, he never took another picture.

Collectible and rare, E. J. Kelty photos show extraordinary technique, but what makes the pictures irresistible is the subject matter: The bearded lady, the snake charmer, the sword swallower, here a woman with no limbs, there a pinheaded man. Giants and midgets tiny, tinier, tiniest.

They are hopelessly politically incorrect by today's standards but, "there's some kind of vicarious thrill that comes through those photographs. You just can't not look at them," says curator Miles Barth who wrote the biographical essay for the recently published book, "Step Right This Way: The Photography of Edward J. Kelty" (Barnes & Noble, 144 pages, $30).

After serving in the Navy in World War I, Kelty followed circuses in his specially outfitted little truck where he could process his film on the spot. He even slept there.

The lost years

Once in love with picture-taking, Kelty spent the last third of his life in Chicago doing something else.

What to make of those lost years?

"Probably we'll never know," says Ed, the older of Kelty's two sons.

Probably, he's right.

"The Kelty trail comes to a dead end in Chicago," says Barth. "Originally, I was going to call my essay, `The Mysterious Edward Kelty and Century Photographers.'"

"I did not find a single photograph in all of my research taken by Kelty after the date of 1940 . . . It's as though he was driving 80 or 90 miles per hour and his career just shattered. There were no pieces to pick up," says Barth.

From the bits he left behind in his tidy apartment, Kelty seemed to have had eclectic interests and a wide circle of acquaintances. He was "A big schmoozer. A guy who chatted with people," says his son.

Is it too much to hope that some of those people, reading this, can shed light on the last chapter of his life?

If he were alive today, E. J. Kelty would have just turned 115. He was born in Denver on Jan. 23, 1888.

His wife, Annette, a secretary in his successful Century Photography business, was only in her late teens when she married the boss, who was 34. She, too, is long dead. Though they never divorced, they had little contact after 1933, the year their second son, Charles Herbert ("Herb") Kelty was born. The brothers grew up knowing their father was a photographer who made pictures of the circus, but little more than that. A handful of his pictures remained with the family when the parents split up.

Few memories

Both of Kelty's sons are still alive. Herb, 69, met his father only twice, after he had grown up. Ed, 72, has only a few memories from the times before his father left for good. As an adult, like Herb, he only met with his estranged father twice.

The one-paragraph obituary that ran in the Chicago Tribune on May 20, 1967, offers nothing to untangle the Kelty mysteries. In less than 100 words, the obit describes Kelty as a "retired professional photographer who once was the official photographer for Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus."

Even that is not quite so. Kelty was under contract to that circus, meaning he had to pay Ringling Brothers a commission for every circus picture he took. But he was not a circus employee, which had several of its own photographers who specialized in behind-the-scenes candids.

"Edward Kelty was the Cecil B. DeMille of still photography," writes Barth, "Assembling and directing large groups of circus performers and staff."

Using a camera and accessories that could weigh a back-breaking 50 pounds, some of Kelty's eerily detailed, big top and banquet photos -- he did weddings and parties, too -- have up to 1,000 people in them.

"You've got all this detail and kind of glamor and outrageousness," says Ken Harck, one of the nation's premier collectors of circus photos and memorabilia -- especially sideshows -- who owns more than 100 Kelty pictures.

Harck, who lives in a suburb southwest of Chicago, says, "Kelty was a great photographer. I'm sure he didn't think of himself as an artist. He was just some hack going around taking pictures and developing them in the back of his car."

"I was absolutely astounded when I found out anybody collected his stuff," Kelty's son, Ed, a psychologist, said recently during an interview in his Maryland home.

Moment of recognition

It was by sheer chance that he found out his father's pictures were anything special, he recalls. That was in 1985, when he walked into a circus exhibit at the National Geographic Society in downtown Washington, D.C.: "I said, `I know that picture!'"

After his parents separated, son Ed says, "Mom was very closed-mouthed The best she could say was he had problems with alcohol. She presumed that it was post-traumatic stress from his war experience. It was called shell shock then. She thought that the World War I experience affected him so he used alcohol more than he should have."

Both Herb and Ed Kelty tell similar stories of their separate meetings with their father in Chicago in the 1950s and '60s.

Herb, an inventor and businessman now living in northern California, says he met his father for the first time in 1952 when, coincidentally, they both were living in Chicago.

Herb was in his second year at the University of Chicago when his mother came to visit. "It was weird. It was unexpected. After 19 years, my mom says, `Hey, do you want to meet your dad?'" Herb said.

The three of them met for lunch at the coffee shop of the Mira-marHotel, 6218 S. Woodlawn Ave., where, as Herb Kelty recalls, "virtually nothing" came out about his father's life in Chicago. "It was polite conversation. Superficial," says Herb. "I'm not going to interrogate someone, even to this day. I accept what they want to tell me."

The next report of Kelty in Chicago comes from son Ed who, attending a psychology association meeting here in the 1950s, on a whim looked up his father in the Chicago phone book and called him. Father and son spent the day together, as the older Kelty showed off his adopted city.

"He would talk about politics. He would talk about world affairs. He would talk about anything -- but himself. I guess I wasn't ready to interview him, either. At this point, I had no idea he'd become a revered circus photographer," says Ed Kelty.

"He talked about the city of Chicago, which he loved. We walked everywhere. He didn't own a car I remember he showed me a Maxfield Parrish mural in Chicago, in a bar [probably the now missing "Sing a Song of Sixpence" at the defunct Sherman Hotel at Randolph and Clark Streets].

"We went to one place, we went in there and had a drink mainly so we could check out the restrooms. They were so heavily decorated, over the top, original artwork in the john," Ed recalls.

Loved life in big city

As you might expect from a man who spent years photographing circus freaks, "He would know all these oddball things about the city, including the stones [from around the world, embedded] in the Tribune Tower. He really liked big cities," Ed says.

Herb Kelty recalls meeting his dad for the second, and last, time in Chicago in 1961. They had lunch at the Tropical Hut, then on 57th Street. "We never got into any big communications thing," Herb says, but he did learn "E. J. was working at a ball park. Wrigley Field. As far as I know, he was selling stuff in the stands."

The final first-person account comes from the late '60s, when son Ed visited with his father not long before he died. On their day together, "I don't even know how he was able to pay, but he insisted on paying for everything," says Ed.

In all their visits, the sons never saw where their father lived. "I offered to come and meet him in his apartment," says Ed, but the elder Kelty declined. "In retrospect I would say he was quite defensive about how modest it was. He said, `There's nothing to see.'"

Ed Kelty, his wife and his mother found this out first-hand in May, 1967, when they flew to Chicago for the photographer's funeral -- Herb did not attend -- and spent several days cleaning out the apartment at 3825 N. Pine Grove Ave., only a few blocks from Wrigley Field.

Virtually everything the family knows now about Kelty's lost Chicago years -- not much -- comes from memorabilia that son Ed tucked in his suitcase and took home as mementos of a father he barely knew.

In his suburban Maryland home, Ed Kelty sets out on the kitchen table all the clues.

Clues in union cards

There are union cards from Local 236 of the Athletic and Public Events Vendors union, spanning the years 1951 to 1966. These are the only indication of how E. J. Kelty was making a living for part of his time in Chicago, when most men would have retired. He would have been 63 to 78 years old.

Among the items on the table are five pin-on vendors' licenses, including one marked "Wrigley Field Concessions," another that says "International Amphitheater" and one emblazoned "Vendor 697 Hamm's Beer 45."Neither son remembers his father as a baseball fan, though Ed says his father "just loved sports events" and had photographed boxing matches at Madison Square Garden.

It was in the basement of the old Madison Square Garden, only blocks from the various Century studio locations where Kelty worked, that he probably made his most famous photograph, the 1929 "Congress of Freaks" of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus.

That weirdly transfixing picture is on the cover of the 2000 book "One Man's Eye: Photographs from the Alan Siegel Collection" and appears in the "Step Right This Way" companion book to the recent show of Kelty photos at New York's International Center of Photography.

Going through membership cards, Ed found three addresses for his father. The first, where he was registered to vote in 1942, is 112 E. Superior St., now the location of the Neiman Marcus store. Next comes 3728 N. Fremont St., the only one of the buildings still standing, a handsome, three-story stone front with double oak and glass doors. Kelty's voter registration cards with this address near Wrigley Field span 1953 to 1962.

A 1963 Wrigley Field Concession Employee's Identification card places Kelty at Cubs park for that euphoric 1963 season -- the only year between 1947 and 1967 when the team won more games (82) than it lost (80.)

Telltale clippings

One of the most intriguing finds was "stacks and boxes filled with newspaper clippings and photocopies of newspaper articles about disasters in the United States: Bridges collapsing, earthquakes, tornadoes, major fires," Ed Kelty says. "Under the bed, everyplace, there were these newspaper things. We found a lot of notes, handwritten notes about the events It seems he was putting together material for a book."

Before he entered the Navy to serve in WW I, E. J. Kelty worked as a reporter-photographer for the San Francisco Examiner, which would make writing a book a logical extension of his early newspaper career.

Ed Kelty guesses that his father got interested in disasters after reading the extensive coverage of the 1944 Hartford, Conn., circus fire. The flare-up at the big top of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus incinerated 167 matinee-goers, mostly women and children.

Another possibility is that E. J. Kelty's war experience might have contributed not only to his drinking, but also to this peculiar scrutiny of cataclysmic events.

Among his father's papers, Ed found a six-page typewritten journal that includes the account of a gruesome tragedy stemming from a fire on Nov. 11, 1918, when the elder Kelty was in the crew of a U.S. transport ship, the Ophir, in Gibraltar harbor. He writes of an American sailor who died, stuck in a porthole trying to escape the flames. "From the hips down he was burned to a crisp."

This journal offers Kelty's own description of his passion for his photography, making it all the more puzzling why he seems to have abandoned his career and moved to Chicago.

Leaving the burning ship, Kelty writes, "What I was most interested in saving were the pictures I had collected [taken] while in the service so I wrapped them securely and tied them inside my life jacket -- -- --and as it turned out they were the only things I saved."

Among the 1940s, '50s and '60s membership cards Ed Kelty retrieved from his father's apartment are the Old Timers' Baseball Association, the Veteran Boxers Association of Illinois, American Legion First Aero Wing #836, the Illinois Veterans Commission, the Cook County Veterans Association and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, 1st Aero Wing #1234.

Not even the oldest of old-timers in these groups remembers Kelty. For instance, 95-year-old Joe Murphy, an American Legion officer at every level in Illinois in the '50s and '60s, said he didn't know him.

Similarly, 80-year-old Joe Molitor, who in 1969 succeeded his father as executive director of the Old Timers Baseball Association in Illinois, has no memory of Kelty. Molitor located records that list Kelty as a dues-paying member from 1961 to 1966. Fittingly for a big drinker, banquet programs list Kelty as a donor for the "Roll Out the Barrel" free beer program at the Old Timers' annual big dinner.

Although the vendors' union Kelty belonged to is defunct, it was succeeded by the Service Employees International Union, Local 1. The local's vice president, Vince Pesha, says a fire destroyed the old records that might have helped fill in the blanks of Kelty's Chicago years.

One provocative scrap that son Ed found among his father's effects was inmate "scrip" used like money and marked "Cook County Jail." "It is not unlikely that he got picked up if he drank a lot," says Ed. But, no police, court or jail records could be located.

Collector's interest

Photo collector Alan Siegel, chairman of a New York strategic branding company, has been a moving force behind the flurry of interest in Kelty, promulgating the photographer's work in the two books and the exhibit in New York.

Siegel says he happened upon his first Kelty in 1975 when he was looking through a bin of low-value photos at an auction at Sotheby's.

It was the then-unknown 1929 "Congress of Freaks." "It was unbelievable to me. That picture made such an impact on me. I had to buy it," says Seigel, recalling he paid $200.

The photo "taken by a commercial photographer with a banquet camera" hangs in Siegel's home and "holds its own" flanked by photographs worth hundreds of thousands of dollars by famed artists Diane Arbus and Irving Penn. Siegel says the "Freaks" photo today probably would bring $5,000 to $10,000.

Barth, who wrote the Kelty biography essay and is curator of Siegel's collection, says among the reasons for the scarcity of Kelty photos not only is the abrupt end to his photo career but the type of film he used. Nitrate-based, it was unstable, volatile and unless properly conserved -- it wasn't -- turns to unusable jelly. Many of the negatives that Kelty used to pay a bar tab in New York ultimately landed in a Tennessee collection of circus memorabilia. The negatives disintegrated and were tossed in the trash, Barth says.

But none of this explains why Kelty apparently stopped taking photos.

Maybe it was as simple as Herb Kelty's analysis: "He got wiped out in the Depression, and it takes a bunch of money, equipment. And you've got to get the stuff developed. The problem was he had a highly stylized type of photography, which was, lord knows, out of style."

But why did E. J. Kelty move to Chicago?

Who knows?

Herb Kelty hypothesizes it was because Chicago had a reputation as a place where a man could find some sort of work.

Even the funeral chapel where Kelty was mourned, at 2838 N. Lincoln Ave., has been demolished so no records are available there. Ed Kelty remembers a lady friend, "a senior citizen" who was among the funeral attendees but can't recall a name.

Kelty is buried in a veterans cemetery in Rock Island, 150 miles southwest of Chicago. Ed Kelty's last memory of his dad -- by then well into his 70s -- was saying goodbye. He was "still zippy" as he "walked off jauntily."

As for those years in Chicago and the abrupt end of Kelty's now-heralded photo career, says the son, "It's a total mystery."