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This little ditty comes to you, dear reader, at the close of 2016 with my best wishes for a New Year filled with an abundance of lovely surprises, new adventures and discoveries, radiant health and many occasions for laughter. This narrative aspires to set a mood of joy and hope as we ring in 2017! Love, Abigail

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Dedicated to the family and descendants of W.J. Gray, and especially his granddaughter, without whom this article would have been so much less than it became.

 

BLUE LARKSPUR, a superb thoroughbred from track to breeding shed, captured in the lens of W.J. Gray. Photo and copyright, the estate of W.J. Gray.

BLUE LARKSPUR, a superb thoroughbred from track to breeding shed, carrying the W.J. Gray stamp. Photo and copyright, the Estate of W.J. Gray.

As many of you know, I am wholly addicted to photography and especially vintage photographs. One of my favourite haunts, even when I’m not looking to buy anything, is Ebay — a superb place to just enjoy old photographs of all kinds.

Over the years, my collecting of rare old photographs of thoroughbreds and standardbreds has netted a handful of surprise discoveries and chance encounters with people from all around the world. One was with a descendant of Colonel Phil Chinn of Kentucky, and another took place when I bought a photograph of Safely Kept beating Dayjur in the 1990 Breeders’ Cup Sprint in the now famous “shadow incident” (below). As it turned out, the seller was the then owner of the UK’s Pacemaker magazine (now Owner Breeder), who was in the midst of selling off his magazine’s photo archives. So it was that I was gifted with some rare and wonderful photographs of Nijinsky, Danzig, Danehill and Sadler’s Wells from the Pacemaker archives. As a thank you, I sent this gentleman a copy of Secretariat from the Thoroughbred Legends series, as he was a huge fan and this was one book he didn’t have in his collection.

But one of the most fascinating of my discoveries began on an ordinary day, when I was trawling Ebay for no particular reason. I was scrolling through a search I routinely do of vintage horse photos when I stumbled upon a relatively rare Phar Lap, at a ridiculous price. I bought it and then returned to the seller’s listing, to see what else s/he had on offer. What came up was the kind of “find” that makes a collector dizzy: photos of the beloved Exterminator, the great Discovery (BM sire of Native Dancer, Bold Ruler, Bed O’ Roses and Hasty Road), of Blue Larkspur (outstanding in every way, the son of Black Toney is credited as being one of the X -chromosome, large heart sires), Pavot (US Champion Two year-old and grandson of Man O’ War), beloved Stymie, “The People’s Champion,” and a couple of more obscure thoroughbreds. These were large and possibly authentic photographs of the day. I bought the Exterminator and a few others. And then I sent a note off to the seller, asking about the provenance of the photographs. S/he duly responded to say that they were purchased at a garage sale in Los Angeles, where s/he had found them “stuffed into a cardboard box” on the front lawn, surrounded by vast arrays of household goods.

 

COALTOWN by W.J. Gray. Photo and copyright, the estate of W.J. Gray.

COALTOWN by W.J. Gray. His signature is just under the colt’s hind leg. (This was one I was too late to buy, unfortunately.) Photo and copyright, the Estate of W.J. Gray.

I waited for the arrival of my bounty, feeling that this might well be my personal “Antiques Roadshow moment.” You know the reference: the moment where the little lady from some tiny town that no-one has ever heard of is told that her photograph is worth a small fortune. Or not: many purchases turn out to be not quite what they appear to be in the Ebay listing, mostly due to sellers who know little or nothing about the difference between original and newly-minted photographs.

In the interim, I went back to the seller’s Ebay profile to check on other photographs that s/he might have sold. There I discovered images of a handful of thoroughbred champions who had been scooped up by other buyers: Calumet Farm’s Coaltown, who had the misfortune to race in the same years as Citation; the champions Alsab, Challendon and Gallorette, together with Reigh Count, the sire of Count Fleet; and Rosemont, he who famously beat Seabiscuit and Omaha and sired the champion filly, Bed O’ Roses.

Anyone who collects thoroughbred photos of the past will know that getting an authentic, original photo of Coaltown, Exterminator, Reigh Count, Phar Lap, Discovery or Gallorette is a definite coup because, for whatever reason, images of them are scarce. But what was equally fascinating in this seller’s lot was that the majority of the images were ones that I had never seen anywhere before. And this, of course, peaked my curiosity. I hoped that my own photos would yield some clue as to the photographer’s identity and/or the source (i.e. studio or printer’s mark, date of production, etc.)

The champion ALSAB. Photo and copyright, the estate of W.J. Gray.

The champion ALSAB. Photo and copyright, the Estate of W.J. Gray.

My anticipation was rewarded shortly thereafter when a large, padded envelope arrived. As one photograph after another emerged, I was beyond delighted. Each one was 13.5 X 11 ” with very little border, printed on thick,nicely aged paper presumably used by printing studios/photographers of the day. The images themselves were crisp and compelling. With the exception of the Exterminator and the Phar Lap, each one bore either the signature (within the print itself) of a “W.J. Gray ” or an oval stamp that read “W.J. Gray, Photos, 411 So. Main Street, Los Angeles.”  

The Exterminator bore an encircled C in one corner that I can attribute to the great equine master, C.C. Cook, as well as recognizing his distinctive hand in inscribing the horse’s name, the jockey (A. Johnson) and a few other details on the print itself. Affixed to the photo, on fading newsprint, were typed details of Exterminator’s race record.

 

The print of EXTERMINATOR. Photo and copyright: C. C. Cook.

The print of EXTERMINATOR. Note the paper note affixed, listing his race record. Photo and copyright: Keeneland-Cook.

The Phar Lap only carried a typed newsprint square of the date and locale of his death, together with his career earnings. Had it been taken at either Menlo Park, CA or at Agua Caliente? I knew that, after his celebrated arrival in California and at the request of the American press corps, the champion was kitted up to pose for photos — the last that exist of Phar Lap before his untimely death.

There were no other identification marks on the print, although the image was superb and I knew that this was an exceedingly rare image of Australia’s beloved “Red Terror.” (At this writing, I have only managed to locate one copy of this photo online, but the site is in a foreign language so I was unable to read it. If any of you have any information about it — including recognizing the track where it was taken — please contact me here below, in the section reserved for COMMENTS. Thank you. AA)

 

The PHAR LAP photo.

The PHAR LAP photo. I am fairly certain that this is Billy Elliott in the irons and Tommy Woodcock in the background, in coat and hat. (Phar Lap’s Australian jockey, Jim Pike, had very noticeable cheekbones and a sharper nose. But at a distance, his official trainer, Harry Telford and Woodcock look somewhat similar. However, it was Woodcock and not Telford who accompanied Phar Lap to America, making it important to know who that figure in the background is, as it would date the photo.) Taken either at Menlo Park, CA or at Agua Caliente, Mexico, or else taken in Australia at some point in his career.

Once I had fully savoured my treasures, and framed the photos of Old Bones (aka Exterminator) and Bobby (aka Phar Lap), I began a search for the mysterious Mr. W. J. Gray.  But “Gray” is a common surname and searches kept giving me any instance of “W.J.” separately from “Gray.” After several dead ends, I finally hit upon a lead.

As it turned out, W. J. Gray was a photographer of some of Hollywood’s most iconic stars:

 

INGRID BERGMAN by W.J. Gray. Note his signature on the photo on the left-hand side. Photo and copyright, the estate of W.J. Gray.

INGRID BERGMAN by W.J. Gray. Note his signature on the photo on the left-hand side. Photo and copyright, the Estate of W.J. Gray.

 

JUNE ALLYSON by W.J. Gray. Photo and copyright, the estate of W.J. Gray.

JUNE ALLYSON by W.J. Gray, also carrying his signature on the right. Photo and copyright, the Estate of W.J. Gray.

 

A young FRANK SINATRA by W.J. Gray with the latter's signature visible under Sinatra's. Photo and copyright, the estate of W.J. Gray.

A young FRANK SINATRA by W.J. Gray with the latter’s signature visible under Sinatra’s. Photo and copyright, the Estate of W.J. Gray.

 

Too, I found one image of an iconic historical figure in American – World War II history that Gray had captured in understated dignity …

 

GENERAL DOUGLAS MACARTHUR by W.J. Gray. Photo and copyright, the estate of W.J. Gray.

GENERAL DOUGLAS MACARTHUR by W.J. Gray. Photo and copyright, the Estate of W.J. Gray.

 

…as well as numerous aircraft, and one snowy scene of Los Angeles in the winter of 1944:

 

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This was enough to tell me that Mr. Gray was, indeed, a very fine photographer, one whose reputation for exceptional work was acknowledged. After all, not just anyone was called upon to photograph Ingrid Bergman or General Macarthur. As well, many of the airplanes he photographed were produced by the industry giant Lockheed, with whom Gray likely had a contract.

From the scanty information I was able to retrieve, it appeared that much of Gray’s extant work was done in the 1930’s and 1940’s.

The great CORNELL WILDE, photographed by Billy Gray. Photo and copyright, the estate of W.J. Gray.

The great CORNELL WILDE, photographed by Billy Gray. Gray’s characteristic signature sits to the left, below Wilde’s. Photo and copyright, the estate of W.J. Gray.

But nowhere –nowhere — was there any indication of the photographer’s perhaps secret passion for the great thoroughbreds of his day. Whereas the Hollywood and possibly the Lockheed photos could well have been taken in California, several of the horses I had discovered never raced in California, indicating that Gray may have travelled around the country to record their exploits. Did he, I wondered, also work for (a)newspaper(s), capturing images of great thoroughbreds for their pages?

 

A quite spectacular photograph of DISCOVERY, the BM sire of Native Dancer and Bed O' Roses, carrying the W.J. Gray stamp. Photo and copyright, the estate of W.J. Gray.

A quite spectacular photograph of DISCOVERY, the BM sire of Native Dancer and Bed O’ Roses, carrying the W.J. Gray stamp. Copies of this shot can be found on Ebay by those unscrupulous dealers who copy and sell other people’s work. Photo, the Estate of W.J. Gray.

Another thorny question: why a stamp and not a signature? Could the stamp indicate that the photograph was developed by Gray at his studio, whereas the signature, as seen in the Hollywood photos and on some of the thoroughbred shots, indicated that Gray himself was the photographer? This explanation seemed most likely, and is reinforced by the handwriting on the Discovery shot (above) that looks very much like C.C. Cook’s hand and carries only the Gray stamp. I hasten to add that, unlike today where so many unscrupulous types download someone else’s work from the internet and sell it on places like Ebay, if Gray did indeed sell others’ work in his store, it would have been through an agreement reached with the photographer, who likely made a commission on the sale of his work.

However, Gray — like C.C. Cook and other photographers of the day — was also given to writing on some of his negatives, as is the case with the photo of Alsab (above) that carries both writing and his signature (while minus the Gray stamp). If signature vs. stamp weren’t intended to discriminate the photographs Gray handled,  it’s equally possible that he just switched from signing his photographs to stamping them, making all those bearing either identification mark attributable to him. A tough call, and one impossible to resolve without the knowledge of someone who knew the man and something about his career.

So, on went the winding trail of the narrative of these stunning images and their creator, until I came across a blog that held a new Gray photograph. Although not of a thoroughbred, in the Comments section below it there was a reply from W.J. Gray’s great grandson, who confirmed that his great grandfather had owned a photography shop in Hollywood/Los Angeles. I duly obtained Mr. Gray’s great grandson’s coordinates from the blogger and shot off a hasty email. Could he tell me something more about his ancestor and about Gray’s thoroughbred photos?

CHALLENDON. Photo and copyright, the estate of W.J. Gray.

CHALLENDON, in what appears to be a press photo. Photo and copyright, the Estate of W.J. Gray.

Within a few days, I received a very cordial note from Mr. Gray’s great grandson, who told me that he was researching his great grandfather, knew he had taken photos of Hollywood stars like Charlie Chaplin and commercial aircraft, but had absolutely no idea that he had an interest in thoroughbreds. I duly sent him copies of some of the thoroughbred photographs that had been listed on Ebay. Again I received a reply and a promise that he would forward the photos, as well as my letter, to other Gray family members. This was in 2014.

As the photos I had found were outstanding and reflected not only Gray’s skill but his knowledge about some of the most important thoroughbreds of his time, it was hard to forget about him.

Then, a day after I began writing this piece, I saw that there were many comments on The Vault that I had had no time to answer, given the Christmas holidays…and first among them was a message from W.J. Gray’s granddaughter. In fact, in a context where truth is stranger than fiction, she had written to me the day before I decided to try to pull something together about her grandfather for my first post of 2017.

Happy coincidence? Certainly.

I had been thinking about the mysterious Mr. Gray as a great subject for a new year post, because I believe that discovery is one of the great spices in life, even if its story is incomplete, which Gray’s clearly was until the moment I read his granddaughter’s note to me.

Sometimes the Universe is indeed inexplicable — and on December 26, 2016, it was presenting me with a gem.

 

Some horses don't wear well down through time. Meet the excellent LADYSMAN, winner of the Arlington Futurity, the Hopeful, the Grand Union Hotel Stakes and the United States Stakes in 1932, when he was also honoured with Champion Two Year-Old honours. LADYSMAN was a real press and fan favourite until his retirement in 1935. Used with the permission of WJ Gray's granddaughter.

Some horses don’t “wear well” down through time. Meet the excellent LADYSMAN, winner of the Arlington Futurity, the Hopeful, the Grand Union Hotel Stakes and the United States Stakes in 1932, when he was also honoured with Champion Two Year-Old honours. LADYSMAN was a real press and fan favourite until his retirement in 1935. Used with the permission of WJ Gray’s granddaughter. Photo and copyright, the Estate of W.J. Gray.

 

W.J. (Billy) Gray’s granddaughter’s initial message to me was followed by a flurry of emails and an actual “phone date.”

As it turned out, she had been born two weeks after her grandfather died, in January 1958, but had grown up hearing many stories about him. Her mother, Billy’s daughter-in-law, had only wonderful memories of him: “…She adored him and his gentle spirit, {he} was the absolute kindest person she ever knew! …My grandfather was a self-made man who lived his life with dignity, integrity and kindness.” (Private correspondence)

As she went on to say:

“…When you contacted my second cousin, his dad sent me copies of the photos you found (where did you find them?)

That began my search for horse racing photos…I couldn’t find any, except one that had been hand painted and was sold at an estate auction a few years prior. I searched for months! Many many months with no success.

Then one night I was watching the movie “Seabiscuit.” I was crying at the appropriate moment😊 and then put the movie on hold and asked out loud (no one was home) ‘Grandpa, am I ever going to find your horse racing photos?’.

I began to search on the internet, again. This time I searched ‘WJ Gray Seabiscuit’. On the third page of searches I found three lines that included contact info and:
‘large, original photos of Seabiscuit and War Admiral by Wm Gray of Los Angeles for $100, Philadelphia’

I called him immediately and told him that {the photographs he was selling} was my grandfather who died 2 weeks before I was born and I was searching for his photos. The man called me back the next day and said I must have those photos and {that he had} discovered 4 more in his stash! He said his father had bought them in Philly when a bar closed and they were selling the photos off the wall! He’d tried to sell them before and thought that no-one understood what they were. But he did. He liked the ‘ponies’.” (Private correspondence) 

 

WJ GRAY getting ready to take a photograph. Used with permission by his granddaughter.

A very dapper WJ GRAY getting ready to take a photograph, possibly at Santa Anita. Used with the permission of his granddaughter. Photo and copyright, the Estate of W.J. Gray.

Then scans of the photos she had tracked down and purchased from the man in Philadelphia arrived. Once again, I was astounded. Not only were the images crisp, but most were shots of thoroughbreds I knew well but had never seen before: War Admiral in close-up coming into the final turn of the Belmont Stakes (and victory in the Triple Crown); Phar Lap after his win at Agua Caliente; an apparent press photo (because it included a typed byline) of Seabiscuit losing the Santa Anita Handicap to Rosemont; A.C. Bostwick’s champion, Mate, winner of some important races, notably the the Preakness, Champagne and American Derby in 1931; Equipoise winning The Metropolitan (1932); and Granville, a very good son of Gallant Fox, on track in the colours of the famous Belair Stud. Each large photo carried the oval “WJ Gray Photos” stamp.

 

GRANVILLE on track. Photo and copyright, the estate of WJ Gray.

GRANVILLE on track. Photo and copyright, the Estate of WJ Gray.

Mr. Gray’s granddaughter was also kind enough to send photos of her grandfather, as well as biographical notes.

 

W.J. GRAY with an unidentified horse. Used with the permission of his granddaughter.

W.J. GRAY with an unidentified horse. Used with the permission of his granddaughter. Photo and copyright, the Estate of W.J. Gray.

William (Billy) J. Gray was born on Edisto Island, SC in 1883, the youngest of ten children. He was orphaned at the age of seven and while in an orphanage was taught a trade that presumably allowed him to work on the railroad, possibly as a cabin boy. He eventually ended up in Los Angeles CA. Some time before 1919, Billy had bought himself a camera and learned how to use it, because in that year he took a photograph of Woodrow Wilson that he sold to the Los Angeles Times newspaper. (A signed copy of this photograph hangs in the Ronald Reagan Library, where it was discovered by Billy’s granddaughter. She tells me that the family has the original print.)

It was the sale of the Woodrow Wilson to the LA Times that suggested to the twenty-six year old Billy Gray that his photography hobby could, in fact, be potentially lucrative. And he had the courage to follow his instincts — and his heart. As Hollywood and its stars together with various newspapers came to recognize Billy’s endowment, it was possible for the then father of five to support his family during the dark days of the Depression by taking pictures. At some point soon after the sale of the Woodrow Wilson photo, Billy opened his first place of business in Los Angeles, to be followed by a second establishment, also in Los Angeles.

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An early advertisement placed by W.J. Gray, sometime after 1921. Note the company name: FILM STARS PORTRAIT CO. Used with the permission of his granddaughter. Photo and copyright, the Estate of W.J. Gray.

As the ad above indicates, Billy Gray was targeting Hollywood stars in the early years of his career and to say that he was successful would be an understatement. Below, a W.J. Gray photograph of Hollywood icons and, in his own hand, a note on the back:

 

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This was Charlie Chaplin’s private plane. Photo and copyright, the Estate of W.J. Gray.

 

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Back of the photograph above, listing of the names of the Hollywood icons pictured. Used with the permission of Billy’s granddaughter. Photo and copyright, the Estate of W.J. Gray.

 

A cousin also supplied memories of Billy “on the job,” as in this excerpt from my private correspondence with Billy’s granddaughter:

“My cousin, as a little girl, remembers visiting our grandparents in Los Angeles and walking to our grandfather’s studio on Pico (his other studio). Grandfather was developing his own film and in those days you printed a photo, ad or sheet of stationary one-at-a-time. She remembers helping stack the sheets of naval ship stationary, one at a time. During and after the war, grandfather would go down to the docks and take a photo of the ships. He’d come back, develop the film and then print one sheet at a time on stationary. She added that they {other members of the Gray family} would help Grandpa as he printed the individual stationary paper and envelopes: she would fold them and place them into the envelopes which was how they were sold.

Then he would go back down to the docks to sell it. The sailors would buy the stationary that featured their ship to write home on.

My cousin was born near the end of the war and grandfather was still producing this stationary after the war.”

In addition, Billy’s granddaughter mentioned a photograph she had of Billy in a printing shop in Chicago, as well as evidence that he had travelled to Greenland at some point. She further told me that her grandfather’s wife hand-coloured portraits and other photographs associated with the Gray’s photography business and that she had located one, of a thoroughbred, that had sold at auction.

In our lengthy exchanges, she was also able to confirm that Billy was indeed a horse lover (as opposed to just a photographer of thoroughbreds), who had friendships with several of the jockeys at the California tracks and possibly at other racing venues. (This reported by her aunt, Billy’s 91 year-old sister.) As for the “stamp vs. signature” issue, she was unable to provide clarification. However, when I asked about the typing at the foot of some of the photographs, she told me that it was indeed her grandfather who had typed in these details himself.

 

 

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The Santa Anita Derby of 1937. Typed underneath by WJ GRAY: “Start –Santa Anita Derby. Won by “FAIRY HILL.” (M. Peters up) Photo and copyright, the estate of WJ Gray.

 

A portrait of Billy Gray. Used with the permission of his granddaughter.

A portrait of Billy Gray. Used with the permission of his granddaughter. Photo and copyright, the Estate of W.J. Gray.

 

Finally, Mr. W.J. Gray was emerging out of the shadows for me and I was glad. He was an exceptionally gifted photographer and one who deserves to also be celebrated by anyone interested in thoroughbreds and the history of racing in America.

In recording facets of the world as he knew it, Billy made his mark in the world a lasting one.

He could not have known that his photographs would leave a trail for a little girl who loved him to follow. But I’m betting he’d be pleased. I know that his granddaughter is.

What a precious, precious gift Billy Gray left her: the opportunity to literally see a part of his world, through his eyes.

W. "BILLY" J. GRAY: Here's looking at you?

W. “BILLY” J. GRAY: Here’s looking at you! Used with the permission of his granddaughter. Photo and copyright, the Estate of W.J. Gray.

 

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NOTE: THE VAULT is a non-profit website. (Any advertising that appears on THE VAULT is placed there by WordPress and the profit, if any, goes to WordPress.) We make every effort to honour copyright for the photographs used in our articles. It is not our policy to use the property of any photographer without his/her permission, although the task of sourcing photographs is hugely compromised by the social media, where many photographs prove impossible to trace. Please do not hesitate to contact THE VAULT regarding any copyright concerns. Thank you.

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