Pal Laszlo Ratkai was a man of many names, Daddy, Bobby, Gramps, Grumpygrampa, Laci, Paul, Monsieur Paul, Monsieur Radkai, and in the past few years, he even reverted at times to the original spelling of his family name, Ratkai. He was also a man of many shades, a colorful personality, with a huge range of interests well beyond the scope of the camera lenses with which he earned his living. He enjoyed music, art, cooking, company, corresponding with family and friends, and felt at home in any number of divergent topics, from photography, to acting, to botany (his thumb was very green), to reincarnation, to politics, even theology (among the latest books he read was Elaine Pagels' Origins of Satan).
He was born Pal Laszlo Ratkai on August 2, 1915, in Budapest, in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His father Marton Ratkai was a well-known actor, his mother Kornelia died when he was eight months old. In late 1934, he shipped out to the USA, where his older brother Gyuri (George) was already living with his wife Helen, arriving in January 1935. Though he considered acting as a career, it was photography that really caught his eye. It was in that field that he concentrated his acute sense of observation, his knowledge of people, his compositional talent and his brilliant sense of humor, which could be gentle or biting, depending on his mood. Ernest Hemingway wrote him once: "You have the only lens that shows how often my nose was broken."
Paul Radkai won prizes, earned kudos, led an exciting, creative life that took him and his family from New York to Paris and then to London, but those who knew him more intimately knew that in spite of his innate talents, he was not a man of many elbows. No sooner did he cross the 65-year mark than he bought himself a little house in Chavin near Argenton-sur-Creuse in central France, and led the down-to-earth life he had secretly coveted all along
He never let age catch up with him. He kept on reading, writing, informing himself of daily events, making his chocolate truffles and jams, fig/walnut being the latest creation, and berry wines, and naturally his cards with pressed flowers, which he raised to an art form. Hefixed up his little house, chopped and stacked winter fuel, and kept in touch with the seasons. He became a familiar figure around Chavin and Argenton, and a beloved one as well to many. Mr. Paul was an exotic character, yet he never lorded his life's experience over his neighbors and new friends, never dropped names and looked down upon those with less cosmopolitan lives. Though he could appear irrascible, his basic instinct was hospitality expressed most often by a Gargantuan meal prepared without any theatrics. His children and friends were spread around the globe, but he maintained contact with them through long letters with humorous descriptions of his environment, acerbic comments on the political scene, reports on his daily life, often a joke or two. He was, to say the least, quite a character.
Even at the hospital of Sainte-Feyre near Gueret, where he was recovering from a heart attack suffered on October 26, 1997, he continued to draw all sorts of people into long conversations, write letters (by hand, not with the old and familiar typewriter), and walk about the halls "droit comme un i," as they say, straight as an "i." The doctors who treated him were surprised at how youthful his body had remained for a man of 82, the nurses treated him above and beyond the call of duty, but he himself sensed the end coming: "For the first time, I feel my age." Yet he still found the strength to make quips about the bland food he was forced to eat, or find apt descriptions for people (the nurses who took his blood he called the "vampires," and the gymnastics teacher became Mr. Legree, the slave-driving planter of Uncle Tom's Cabin).
He was supposed to go to America, invited by his daughter Gabrielle Shreiner. Marton, his son, was to pick him up on December 5th, and take him a week later to the airport. On December 4th, however, he suffered cardio-pulmonary arrest, and after a seventeen-day struggle, his body quietly gave out on December 21, 1997 at 7.25 in the morning.Those who knew him well, will realize what a blessing this was, for he valued his independence and freedom of movement above anything else.
He was cremated in Limoges on December 26, a quiet ceremony attended by Gabrielle and her husband Scott, his sons Marton from Germany and Michael from Hawaii, his neighbors Genevieve Arment and Jaqueline Bardon, who were among his closest friends in the past years. His ashes were strewn in the Loire River, as he had requested.
And because we are disobedient but loving children, we placed a few spoonfuls at the foot of the kiwi tree he planted next to his house.
We would appreciate any testimonials, be that old photos or anecdotes about or by Paul Radkai, from his friends and acquaintances for the purpose of compiling a scrapbook in his memory. Please send material to