Known for film work before winning acclaim as author
HYANNIS, Massachusetts––Hope Elaine Ryden, 87, author and/or photographer for 26 books mostly on wildlife subjects, and a frequent photo contributor to National Geographic, died on June 18, 2017 in Hyannis, Massachusetts from complications of hip surgery.
Born on August 1, 1929, in St. Paul, Minnesota, Hope Ryden was the third of three daughters and a son born to Ernest Edward Ryden and Agnes Ryden, who were respectively minister for the Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in St. Paul and the church organist/pianist.
As well as leading the relatively constrained life of a minister’s daughter, Hope Ryden grew up surrounded by music and journalism.
Parents wrote & composed
Sharing their interest in music, the senior Rydens either wrote or translated from Swedish more than 40 hymns for publication in various Lutheran, Methodist, Episcopalian and Presbyterian hymnals. E.E. Ryden was also author of The Story of Our Hymns (1930) and The Story of Christian Hymnody (1959, and from 1945 to 1958 was secretary of the Commission on a Common Hymnal, which standardized the hymnal used by the Lutheran Church in America.
E.E. Ryden (1886-1981), originally from Kansas City, had been a police reporter for the Kansas City Star before earning his divinity degree from the Augustiana Theological Seminary in 1914. He continued in journalism as editor of The Lutheran Companion for 27 years and of another periodical, The Lutheran Outlook, 1938-1942.
Eventually, in 1960, E.E. Ryden was among the 34 members of the Committee on Lutheran Unity who brokered a merger of four previously separate Lutheran denominations to form the Lutheran Church of America.
Early success in safety film
First mentioned in print in 1949 as maid-of-honor at a sister’s wedding, Hope Ryden initially pursued a career very different from the work for which she became best known. While earning a degree in English in 1951 from the College of Iowa, Hope Ryden starred opposite Milburn Stone (1904-1980) in A Closed Book, a well-received film mini-drama promoting accident prevention, produced by the Farm Bureau Insurance Companies, ancestor of the State Farm Insurance group. The film was released shortly before her graduation.
Milburn Stone, already a professional actor since 1930, went on to fame as the character Doc Adams in the television series Gunsmoke (1955-1975).
From Kate Smith Hour to Pan Am
Also aspiring to success in television acting, then a rapidly expanding field, Hope Ryden relocated to the New York City area. She won a career break as assistant to singer Kate Smith on The Kate Smith Hour, where her work was praised by syndicated critic Earl Wilson for adding “sparkle” to the last year of the show in 1954, but appears to have worked mainly as a model until 1957, appearing in a variety of advertisements and as a “style mannequin” in fashion shows.
At age 30, her dreams of stardom faded, Hope Ryden took a job as a Pan American Airlines flight attendant.
A year and a half later, on October 26, 1958, Hope Ryden was among the crew for Pan Am’s first scheduled jet flight, from Idlewild, New York, to Le Bourget, Paris, with a refueling stop at Gander, Newfoundland.
Among the 111 passengers were mime Marcel Marceau, actresses Jeanne Moreau, Liliane Montevecchi, and Maureen O’Hara, singer Eartha Kitt, writer/politican Pierre Salinger, two-time world heavyweight boxing champion Floyd Patterson, and National Football League Hall of Fame quarterback Johnny Unitas.
Pan Am on the 25th anniversary of the flight, in 1983, flew 14 of the original passengers and seven of the crew, including Hope Ryden, along the same route in the same Boeing 707.
“None of the cabin crew had ever flown on a jet,” she recalled then to The New York Times. “We had many, many more passengers than we had ever seen,” flying on smaller, slower piston-driven aircraft, “and half the time to serve meals. It looked impossible, but it was very exciting. Then jets were associated with fighter planes.”
From Pan Am to newsreels
Jet travel also brought more frequent flights and much shorter layovers for air crews at flight destinations. Hope Ryden had become accustomed to using her multi-day layovers abroad to develop her photography skills. Feeling overworked, she made the return flight from Paris, resigned from Pan Am, became a freelance photographer, and in 1961, recalled New York Times obituarist Sam Roberts, “joined Robert Drew & Associates, a noted documentary production company, where she and her colleagues were in the vanguard of cinéma vérité filmmaking,” as producers of newsreels.
Newsreels were short documentaries commonly shown during the time now used by movie theaters for showing trailers to promote new films.
The “cinéma vérité” style of making newsreels is usually traced to the 1922 Robert J. Flaherty documentary Nanook of the North, which followed the lives of an Inuit family on the Ungava peninsula of northern Quebec, and could be described as a direct, if chronologically distant ancestor of “reality television.”
“Hope Ryden joined Drew Associates in a roundabout way,” recalls the Robert Drew & Associates web site. “She had taught herself photography. Through a friend of a friend, she got an interview with Robert Drew. He hired her on the spot and she spent the next three years at Drew Associates making films,” enjoying significant success even though the newsreel genre was already on the way out as result of competition from television.
“Drew recalled that Ryden had a great eye for a story and was relentless about getting it produced,” the Robert Drew & Associates web site continues. “Some of her most memorable films were Susan Starr, about a young concert pianist and her overbearing mother, and Jane, which followed a young Jane Fonda preparing for a starring role on Broadway, in what turned out to be a flop.”
Mission to Malaya
Hope Ryden enjoyed her biggest success as a documentarian with Mission to Malaya (1963).
“Seeking to combat the growing tide of anti-American sentiment overseas, President John F. Kennedy in 1961 founded the Peace Corps in part to present an alternative vision of the Ugly American stereotype that had taken root in several corners of the world,” wrote critic Rahul Chadna of Mission to Malaya in a 2011 retrospective.
“By 1963, the year the film Mission to Malaya was shot, the Peace Corps had already dispersed some 6,500 volunteers across 46 countries. Hope Ryden zeroed in on two of these volunteers—one young woman who was finishing a two-year stint working as a nurse in a remote corner of Malaysia, and another who was to replace her. A rarely screened example of the nascent direct cinema movement of the time, the film functions both as a snapshot of the earnestness of the era, and a cinematic portrait of the idealism of youth.”
Mission to Malaya centered on the Peace Corps nurses trying to save the life of a pregnant Malay woman by administering an emergency transfusion aboard a storm-tossed small boat that was trying to take her to a hospital. Ryden spent much of the filming hiding beneath the improvised surgical table, holding a microphone.
Civil rights movement
Continued the Robert Drew & Associates web site, “It is telling that Ryden was the only female ‘Associate’ at that time at Drew Associates, meaning she was a partner in the company. Ryden spoke privately years later about the difficulties of being a woman in the ultra-competitive world of making films, though she said that Drew was a huge supporter and always focused on her talent.”
Toward the end of Hope Ryden’s time with Drew Associates she concentrated on documenting the U.S. civil rights movement. Her 1963 film Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment covered the confrontation between U.S. President John F. Kennedy and Alabama Governor George Wallace over school desegregation.
The Loving Story
Hope Ryden intended to make a documentary for Drew Associates about Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial couple who were arrested in 1958 for marrying in violation of a Virginia law against interracial marriage.
Ryden and cinematographer Abbot Mills in 1965 collected 40 hours of film with the Lovings, while their case proceeded through the courts.
The Lovings eventually won a unanimous 1967 U.S. Supreme Court verdict that held unconstitutional the miscegenation laws which then still existed in 16 states, had existed in 24 states when the Lovings were charged, and had existed in 38 states as recently as 1948.
But, first changing jobs and then changing careers yet again, Hope Ryden did not complete the project that became The Loving Story (2011) under director and producer Nancy Buirski.
Time Is Short & The Water Rises
Instead, “After she left Drew Associates, Ryden worked for ABC as a documentary producer,” the Robert Drew & Associates web site adds.
“Ryden once described how she learned at Drew Associates to observe and capture real life happening without interfering in it. She took that philosophy into the field as a gifted nature photographer, often spending weeks camped out in the wilds observing animals she wanted to learn and write about.”
Hope Ryden, before 1965, had done little or nothing involving animals, and as a model had even helped to promote fur garments. Her life and outlook changed abruptly, however, when in mid-1965 ABC dispatched her to Surinam to cover the rescue of nearly 10,000 wild animals from the Upper Surinam River in Surinam, South America, in the episode recalled in most detail by John Walsh and Robert Gannon in their 1967 best-selling book Time Is Short And The Water Rises.
(See also Time Is Short And The Water Rises.)
The story began when Jan Michels, the then-secretary of the Surinam SPCA, described in a letter to then-Massachusetts SPCA president Eric H. Hansen how the completion of the Afobaka Dam had begun to inundate 870 miles of dense rainforest, leaving thousands of animals stranded on fast-disappearing small islands and in the tops of trees.
Michels sought funding help for an animal rescue operation modeled after Operation Noah, a now little-remembered and even then obscure rescue operation conducted after the 1958 closure of the Kariba Dam on the Zambesi River in what is now Zimbabwe.
(See also The biggest animal rescue in 10,000 years.)
A formative experience for Hansen, then president of the Humane Society of Missouri in St. Louis, had been witnessing the February 1937 flooding that wreaked havoc along Ohio and Missouri rivers. Hansen had recommended ever since that the humane community should develop disaster response capability.
The Surinam flooding looked to Hansen like a perfect opportunity to show what could be done, on a limited budget, in a situation that could capture the public imagination if successful, but––occurring in a far out-of-the-way location––would scarcely be noticed if the project failed.
Hansen dispatched then 24-year-old cruelty investigator John Walsh to see what he could do. Walsh’s sole evident qualification for the job––as he said himself––was having kept pet snakes. Nonetheless, Walsh and the local help he recruited over the next few years rescued more animals than any disaster relief operation before the Indian Ocean Tsunami (2004-2005) and Hurricane Katrina (2005). Along the way Walsh established animal rescue as a high-profile international cause.
Hope Ryden produced one of the documentaries that made Walsh famous. The experience convinced her that she wanted to spend the rest of her life photographing and writing about animals.
The Prior Mountains wild horses
But Hope Ryden still had little direct experience with either animals in general or horses in particular when ABC sent her in 1968 to Lovell, Wyoming, to cover a Bureau of Land Management wild horse roundup in the Prior Mountains.
“A group of Lovell townsfolk bucked, saying the horses belonged there,” recalled Billings Gazette reporter Allison Batdorff in 2005.
“It was getting vindictive. It sounded like a range war,” Ryden remembered. “I had to ask––which was it, trespassing horses or a national treasure?”
Ryden decided to approach the horses to see for herself.
The horse singer
“They had been chased by so many mustangers that they spooked from a mile away,” Ryden recalled in 1982 to Christian Science Monitor staff writer Diane Casselberry Manuel.
”Eventually, I found that they would accept me if I first let them know I was there and then quieted down and stayed put. So I started singing to them from a long way off, as I approached the herd.”
Ryden followed the Pryor Mountain mustangs, later made famous by Cloud book series author and videographer Ginger Kathryns, for much of the rest of her life.
“The broadcast on the plight of the Pryor horses attracted the county’s attention,” wrote Batdorff. “That year, Secretary of State Stewart Udall created the Wild Horse Refuge in the Pryor Mountains. The 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act soon followed.”
Hope Ryden eventually produced seven books about wild horses, beginning with America’s Last Wild Horses (1970), along with many other books about even more skittish and persecuted animals including coyotes, bobcats, and beaver.
“You have to be very, very quiet”
“For two uncomfortable years Hope camped in remote areas of Wyoming and Montana,” remembers the Project Coyote web site, “observing and photographing the elusive coyote in an effort to discover the truth behind the ignorance and misinformation that has plagued this much-maligned animal for over 200 years. Out of this research she wrote God’s Dog: A Celebration of the North American Coyote (1972), which is considered the classic treatise on the subject.”
“You have to be very, very quiet to see animals, and you have to realize that you never see an animal that hasn’t seen you first,” Ryden told Casselberry. “I have to be taken for granted by animals, just as they might take another species for granted.”
Seven weeks in a van
Wrote Casselberry, “After tracking coyotes through two winters in Yellowstone National Park, she went one spring to the National Elk Refuge in search of a den of young pups. She knew that coyotes would never accept a human figure near their dens, but she sensed that they had become accustomed to vehicles. So she drove a bright yellow paneled van into the middle of a clearing near a den she’d spotted and stayed inside it for the next seven weeks, taking pictures of the yearlings with a 1,000-meter lens through a curtained-off door.
Said Ryden, ”I never got up near the front windows and I never let them see me. I discovered that the coyote acts just like the wolf, that it has a social organization, and that when one litter of pups is born, the other animals tend it. That showed that they control their own populations by restricting their litters. It was terribly interesting to watch.
“Never stopped talking”
“I lived like an astronaut in that particular instance,” Ryden finished. “After seven weeks, when I came out of my van, I went to a party in Jackson and just never stopped talking.”
Ryden had already helped to persuade the New York state legislature to name the beaver the official state mammal, accomplished in 1975, when with naturalist John Miller she undertook the research at Harriman State Park that became Lily Pond: Four Years with a Family of Beavers (1989). Miller became her husband.
Ryden in late career returned occasionally to film making, producing Cinéma Vérité: Defining the Moment (2000) and A President to Remember (2008), about John F. Kennedy.
Miller survives her, as does her brother Ernest Ryden, also a longtime resident of Cape Cod.