ST. PETERSBURG -- Know what Florida needs right now? It needs Jack Swenningsen.
Yes, Jack Swenningsen, old coot idea man, famed photographer and, if you must know, accordion master. Jack Swenningsen, who wants to return Florida to glory, wants to bring those vanishing tourists back, wants to keep old Floridians from leaving — in fact, wants to make old Floridians fall in love with Florida again.
Get out of his way, man. Give him a camera, a palm tree and two cavorting girls in bikinis. Ol' Jack — that's what he calls himself — will grab his camera and capture the dream.
"While I'm thinking about it, I'd want a beach ball in the picture, too!''
Jack Swenningsen! Age 91! Brimming with ideas and energy still!
Jack Swenningsen, the man who invented Florida!
Ponce de Leon. William Bartram. Andrew Jackson. Chief Osceola. Henry Flagler. Forget the names in the history books. The one you need to know is Jack Swenningsen.
In 1948, the young advertising hotshot moved from Brooklyn to St. Petersburg to escape the cold. He knocked on the door of Florida Speaks magazine, introduced himself as "The Picture Man'' and was instantly hired.
Florida Speaks was a monthly chamber-of-commerce-type magazine marketed to frozen northerners.
The war was over. Folks felt optimistic about the future. Sure, a returning GI could seek his fortune in snowbound Ohio, Michigan or Wisconsin. Or he and the wife could buy themselves a sleepy bungalow in Florida.
Jack Swenningsen drove 100,000 miles around the peninsula for decades, taking dreamy come-to-Florida photographs. Most were published in Florida Speaks, but many showed up in advertising brochures and Sunday newspaper supplements all over the United States. The Florida he documented didn't quite exist, of course. How could it? So he invented an ideal to go with the pictures.
Let's say a couple, whom we'll call Bea and Ernie, pick up the Chicago American on the way home from Sunday Mass. On a gray January morning the windy streets are piled with snow.
Ernie asks, "Bea, aren't you tired of the snow?''
Bea, who slipped on ice the day before and bruised her behind, is exhausted. Her adorable infant son always has a runny nose.
"Look at this picture in the American, Bea. Wouldn't it be nice to live in a place like this?''
Bea isn't sure. It would mean moving away from friends and family.
"Look at this photo,'' says Ernie, doing the hard sell. "If we lived in Florida, we'd reach out the back door and pick oranges for breakfast. We'd catch fish in the canal behind the house. Coconuts, Bea! We'll have our own coconut tree!''
• • •
He got a Kodak folding vest camera when he was 14. He developed film in the basement next to a pile of coal. He graduated with an advertising degree from Pratt Institute, served in Italy during the war and hustled to make a living afterward.
Then he moved his family to Florida.
"You can't imagine what Florida was like to a Brooklyn Yankee like me! The way I saw Florida, it was a fairy land! All pristine! Virgin! I'd never seen such trees! Beautiful springs! Big animals! Beaches. WHAT BEACHES WE HAVE! How could anyone want to live anywhere else?''
Yet there was always room for improvement.
Traveling through Florida, Jack carried important props in his station wagon. He carried beach balls, bikinis, straw hats, oranges and fishing poles. He carried chaise longues, firewood, croquet sets.
Just in case he had to spice up a photo.
Jack Swenningsen's pictorial Florida lacked mosquitoes, humidity, hurricanes and other unpleasantness. It was balmy and breezy, ol' Jack's Florida, a nice place to drink fresh-squeezed OJ while looking at palm trees and puffy clouds.
In St. Petersburg, he was well known to the Kay Lyons Charm School and its bevy of beautiful girls — "goils" in Jack's Brooklynese — whom he posed in photographs. He didn't pay the goils, but often he provided tasteful red bikinis for them to wear in the beach pictures.
Jack and his wife — he and Amelia married 67 years ago — live in a perfect bungalow in western St. Petersburg near the railroad tracks. Jack's excellent photos line the living room walls; in a storage room next to the garage are a dozen boxes of old photographs perfectly preserved, ready to publish right now if God or Gov. Crist needs them.
Ol' Jack will tell you what's wrong with Florida today. Wholesome virtues have too often been replaced by the tabloid world of Miami Vice. Crime. Drugs. High taxes. No wonder the latest statistics are glum about Florida's tourism and population growth.
The challenge makes ol' Jack want to grab a Speed Graphic 4 by 5 and take a field trip.
No dirty photos of pouting, half-nude women on the beach for Jack Swenningsen. No hairy men with earrings and tattoos sitting on scary motorcycles at the traffic light next to your elderly mother in her sensible Dodge. No gangbangers! No insurance agents! No tax collectors!
Just nice folks living the Florida lifestyle in the shade of a coconut tree.
He would pose a freckled-face kid on the dock with a fishing pole. (Of course he'd tie a rock to the line and toss it over.) Pole bends! Fish on!
Now, ambling into the photo, he'd pose a grandfatherly figure — somebody right out of a Norman Rockwell calendar — wearing Bermuda shorts, smoking a pipe and carrying a fishing rod. Grandpa, by the way, would be grinning and displaying a big fat fish (that Jack bought at the seafood market on the way over).
Finally, in the foreground, he would pose his trademark wholesome sunbathers in red bikinis. They would be offering good-natured advice to a handsome guy wearing a goofy chef's hat who is preparing to grill the fish.
For an instant the corners of ol' Jack's upbeat mouth droop south.
"A lot of people moved here. Maybe too many. Maybe I was too good. Sometimes I feel guilty.
. . . Better not put that in the paper.''
Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8727.