otheritalyWhat does Bill de Blasio, the recent winner of the Democratic primary for the New York City mayoralty and the presumptive next mayor, have to do with Polaroidland? Hah! Everyone has something to do with Polaroid, if you dig far enough.

That said, the Boston Globe today revealed that his connection is sturdier than most: His mother, Maria Wilhelm, worked in Polaroid’s public-relations department for nearly twenty years. A quick search of newspaper databases reveals plenty of quotes (and a few “no comment”s) that she offered the press down through the years, especially surrounding the Kodak lawsuit. I asked Donald Dery and Sam Yanes, each of whom ran Polaroid’s PR operation (Don until 1980, Sam thereafter), and they remember her well. (She died in 2007.) Sam offered this:

I could agonize for hours about how a word or phrase might be interpreted and take that craziness home with me.  But Maria Wilhelm would just plow ahead, like a pro, working from 9 to 5, always on deadline, always on point.  Her main job was to place “Amazing Things Are Happening Here” stories everywhere. And she was very good at it—case history after case history.  Because she was older than the rest of us, and decidedly more elegant, when I was out of town, she looked after our financial and corporate communications concerns. But she was not comfortable with this level of responsibility, and I would invariably have to return to Cambridge if a material disclosure was in order.  My former wife, who was (is) as cynical as they get about corporate actors, thought Maria was best actor of the bunch, and loved seeing her.

She was a historian on the side, too, and wrote a well-regarded book about the Italian resistance during World War II. I shouldn’t be surprised to find, yet again, that Polaroid people were awfully smart. But it’s nice to see it again, and I feel a little extra kinship with her, being an after-hours historian myself. Also, I really enjoy picturing little Bill de Blasio, future Socialist, playing in the hallways with little Grover Norquist, future anti-taxer and drowner-in-the-bathtub-of-government.

One Response to From the Department of Unexpected Links: Bill de Blasio and Polaroid

  1. protestfolk says:

    What should also perhaps be mentioned is that when the former campaign manager of Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton’s wife, Bill “Polaroid” de Blasio, was attending high school in Cambridge, Massachusetts (and not in New York City), his mother apparently was a public relations executive for a corporation, Polaroid, that collaborated with the apartheid regime in South Africa during the 1960s and 1970s. As the NEA noted when it indicated why it was awarding a Rosa Parks Award to Caroline Hunter a few years ago:.

    “At the age of 21, fresh out of Xavier University, New Orleans, Hunter landed a good job as a chemist at the Polaroid Corporation. Then one day, quite by chance, she spotted in her workplace an enlarged South African photo identification card. The year was 1970, decades before the anti-apartheid movement in the U.S. had gathered steam. But Caroline Hunter knew the significance of that photo identification card. It was part of what Nelson Mandela called “the hated document”— that is, the South African passbook all Blacks in South Africa were required to carry at all times. It was an important link in the chain that the Apartheid regime used to control and monitor the movement of Blacks.

    “Polaroid had in fact been doing business with the apartheid government of South Africa for years. Most important was its ID-2 system, which consisted of a camera, instant processor and laminator. It could generate a photo identification card in just two minutes and more than 200 in an hour—exactly the technology the apartheid government needed to enforce its Pass Laws Act.

    “After finding the mock passbook, Caroline Hunter and her colleague (and later husband) Ken Williams, a photographer at Polaroid, launched their campaign. They distributed fliers around the workplace, alerting their colleagues to Polaroid’s complicity with apartheid. They organized demonstrations outside the company’s headquarters, and they spoke out to the larger community. Up until this point, Polaroid had a reputation as a liberal company—”an equal opportunity employer.” But the Polaroid management did not take well to the protests, and they fired Hunter and Williams…”

    In his book “Sharpville: An Apartheid Massacre and Its Consequences,” Tom Lodge also wrote that “the formation of the Polaroid Revolutionary Workers Movement (PRWM) by black employees at Polaroid’s Cambridge, Massachusetts headquarters signaled wider concerns with US-South African connections: the PRWM was formed to stop Polaroid’s processing of film for South Africa’s passbooks…” And according to Victor K. McElheny’s 1998 book, “Insisting On The Impossible: The Life of Edwin Land”: “…Early in 1971, demonstrators protesting Polaroid’s involvement in South Africa and Land’s key role in defense nearly prevented Land from speaking about his color-view research at the American Physical Society in New York…In 1970 and 1971, employees and outsiders demanded that Polaroid cease selling its products in South Africa, including its photo-identification equipment…Some critics even took out large advertisements urging a boycott of Polaroid products. To meet the criticism, Polaroid sent a committee…to South Africa. The committee…recommended continuing sales through Polaroid’s South African dealer, which amounted to $1.5 million a year…”

    Perhaps Caroline Hunter should be the next mayor of New York rather than the “Carpetbagger from Cambridge” whose mother was apparently a public relations executive of a corporation–Polaroid–that collaborated with the South African apartheid regime until Caroline Hunter–not Bill “Polaroid” De Blasio–protested in the 1970s?

Leave a Reply

Set your Twitter account name in your settings to use the TwitterBar Section.
Website Apps