Frank Leonardo’s gifts of gab and camaraderie were on full display about once a month when a group of us pre-Murdoch New York Postniks congregated for breakfast at an Upper West Side diner to schmooze and reminisce. It was like Old Jews Telling Jokes except two of us were Italian. We told newspaper war stories. We vied for equal time, like GOP wannabe presidential candidates at a Fox News debate.
Frank was often a step ahead. He was the only shutterbug among a bunch of scribes but that didn’t matter. He was well-read, a polymath and just as attuned to the literal side of a news story as any writer. He sometimes pissed off his reporting partner at interviews when he would lay down his camera and pose his own questions for the subject. Most of us, however, tolerated the habit.
“They were good questions,” said Clyde Haberman, a charter member of the breakfast club.
While Frank may at times have thought a word was worth a thousand pictures, that didn’t mean he wasn’t a crack photographer: He won two awards from the New York Press Photographers Assn., first prize in breaking news for a photo of a fireman carrying a rescued child down a ladder; and second prize for the photo of a diving polar bear, which is still a source of mirth for the Leonardo family.
“I know that category was called ‘animal,’” said Frank’s wife Barbara Garson, “because I remember laughing at the plaque, which read ‘Frank Leonardo Second Class Animal.’”
He did not seek plaudits. “He never entered photos into any contest including the Press Photographers,” Garson said. “In that case, I believe a former girlfriend did it for him.”
Frank was born in Brooklyn in 1937. His father Thomas, also a photographer, was killed in action in World War II when Frank was eight years old. He and his mother Helen then moved to the Parkchester section of the Bronx. This early history of loss and upheaval became the blueprint for a bumpy road. Garson said young Frank dropped out, or was kicked out, of five New York City high schools before receiving a diploma from Theodore Roosevelt Night School in the Bronx. He then somehow won a scholarship to NYU, where he earned a degree in geology.
Along the way, Frank met and married his first wife, Dorothea Snyder, mother of his two children, Cecilia and Thomas, who survive him.
His early interest in geology waned and — Voila! — he landed a job as a news photographer for the French news service Agence France-Presse. His 40-year career was launched by catching the magic in a moment of history: Frank was the pool photographer on the roof of Montreal City Hall on July 24, 1967 when General Charles de Gaulle electrified thousands of wildly cheering Quebecois — and stirred an international uproar — by declaring, “Vive le Québec libre” (“Long Live Free Quebec”).
Though Frank, says his wife, was not dazzled by celebrity, he was deeply impressed by de Gaulle’s magnetism and stature. No record exists of whether he felt the same way about The Fab Four when, on February 7, 1964, when their Pan Am Boeing 707 landed in New York. A photo of their raucous arrival at JFK records his presence among the scrum of photographers gathered behind a metal barrier.
Frank also appeared in the famous documentary movie “Harlan County, USA” where he is seen filming a picket line of striking coal miners in rural Kentucky. He also witnessed the real-life event that inspired the 1975 Sidney Lumet movie “Dog Day Afternoon” when three shotgun-toting men besieged a Chase Manhattan bank in Brooklyn in an abortive attempt to trade hostages for money.
Frank had little interest in the glamorous or thrilling sides of his profession. In his leisure time he enjoyed puttering with his 20-foot-long Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham (“He could fix anything,” said a family member) and he was an avid kite flyer. He owned dozens of kites that he liked to fly in the Sheep Meadow using a deep sea fishing rig to “have his own set of wings to become a bird in flight,” to paraphrase Mary Poppins.
Frank Leonardo’s final job before retirement was as photo editor at CMP, a computer trade magazine. In this position he once asked a major photo agency to send him photos of subway turnstiles. One of the photos bore his own byline.
‘He called them wondering where they got it and they volunteered some pay,” said Barbara Garson. “That was the only time he ever followed up any newspaper photo of his.”
That was Frank.
He died of cancer on July 26 at age 86.
The shutter fell and the light is extinguished. —Anthony Mancini