SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
At the age of 100, Ruth Gruber's responsible for a lot of firsts. When she was just 20, the Brooklyn-born Gruber became the youngest Ph.D. ever at the University of Cologne in Germany. In short order, she was the first photojournalist, much less woman journalist, to travel to and cover both the Soviet Arctic and Alaska. She documented Holocaust survivors and the plight of the ship the Exodus in 1947. She's been the subject of a documentary film, of a made-for-TV movie, and earlier this summer she received a lifetime achievement award and an exhibition at the International Center of Photography in Manhattan. Karen Michel has her story.
(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING)
KAREN MICHEL, BYLINE: Hello Ms. Gruber, Dr. Gruber I should say. Hi, Karen Michel. It's a pleasure to meet you.
RUTH GRUBER: Very happy to meet you. Come sit down.
MICHEL: Ruth Gruber greets a visitor to her apartment overlooking Central Park, resplendent in a print sundress, her hair in a blonde bouffant and her feet in gold mesh slippers. Sitting in a comfortable chair, she recalled that after she earned her Ph.D. at a German university, her accomplishment made headlines back home but yielded no jobs. So, she started writing, but no one bought her articles, until she wrote about the home she was eager to leave.
GRUBER: I wrote an article about Brooklyn, that it was microcosm of all the countries in Europe. And The New York Times bought it for the Sunday Times and paid me big, big check - $25 - which I never deposited. If The Times has trouble, I caused it.
MICHEL: The Herald-Tribune started buying her articles, its female publisher urging Gruber to write about women, and she was on her way to a career that spanned 80 years and documented in the film, "Ahead of Time."
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "AHEAD OF TIME")
GRUBER: I was a rebellious kid. I wanted to encompass the whole world. I wanted to know what everything was like. So, that really set my whole course.
MICHEL: Photographer Zeva Oelbaum produced the documentary.
ZEVA OELBAUM: The incredible role that she played was that not only was she in these really definitive and iconic moments in history, but that she was able to bring them down to human size by telling the stories of individuals and so really engage the viewer and the reader in the moment in history.
MICHEL: It was in the Soviet Arctic, in the mid-1930s that Ruth Gruber first started taking photographs. No one taught her, just as no one taught her to write. She had an ear and an eye. Maya Benton curated a recent exhibition of Gruber's work at the International Center of Photography.
MAYA BENTON: That this was just a tool in her tool kit to tell these stories is incredible because she was really one of the 20th century's great photojournalists. She was just a badass. I mean, there's no other way describe it.
MICHEL: No kidding. After the Soviet Arctic, Gruber headed to Alaska in the early 1940s. There, she learned what she calls to live inside of time. She tells the story of sending a cable to Anchorage, saying that she needed a flight from Nome to Barrow.
GRUBER: So, I got a cable back from this company that had bush pilots: See you Tuesday, weather permitting. Tuesday came, no pilot. Another Tuesday came, no pilot. I'd send another cable. No pilot. In New York, if the train was late, I was raring to go. What was the use getting upset in Alaska? So, I decided I would just live inside of it like a golden bubble.
MICHEL: It's a quality that Gruber claims is responsible for her ability to be patient, to see things that she might otherwise have missed in her urge to tell the story. That and being a woman gave her an advantage in getting sources to reveal themselves. In 1944, she spent two weeks on the Henry Gibbins, a ship of a thousand Jewish refugees, many of them in clad in their striped, ragged concentration camp uniforms, on a voyage from Italy to America.
GRUBER: Some of the men said we can't tell you what we went through, it's too obscene. You're a young woman. I said, forget I'm a woman. You are the first witnesses coming to America. So, they talked. Nobody refused to talk.
MICHEL: But it was on another ship three years later that Gruber did some of her best-known work. The Tribune assigned Gruber to accompany the United Nations special committee on Palestine. In Haifa, she saw the nearly destroyed ship, the Exodus 1947, and its 4,500 holocaust survivors, who were forced to board three ships waiting to take them back to Germany. It was on the Runnymede that she took what is her most famous photograph: of a union jack superimposed with a swastika, and beneath it in the high contrast of a burning sun, hundreds of people, standing, squashed together. The image became Life magazine's photo of the week. Gruber still remembers being on that ship, hearing the captives sing what later became Israel's national anthem.
GRUBER: (Singing in foreign language). OK.
MICHEL: In her doctoral dissertation on Virginia Woolf, the 20-year-old Ruth Gruber wrote that her subject is determined to write as a woman. Through the eyes of her sex, she seeks to penetrate life and describe it. The same could be said of the woman who wrote that, 100-year-old Ruth Gruber. For NPR News, I'm Karen Michel in New York.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.