Hunting for a candid photo of Bugsy Siegel in police custody or Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall at the circus?
Dace Taube is the woman to turn to. As curator of USC’s Regional History Collection, she is the guardian of more than 2 million images that provide a visual history of Los Angeles and its newsmakers.
From the outside, the vast collection is not much to look at. Most of it is stored in dark gray, acid-free cardboard boxes stacked on metal shelves at USC’s Doheny Memorial Library.
But lift the lids and inside are resin-coated passports to the Los Angeles of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A crown jewel of the collection is the photo “morgue” of the Los Angeles Examiner.
“Photographs are amazingly resilient. They’ve been stapled. They’ve been folded. They’ve been marked up, but the information is there,” Taube said.
Researchers writing books or working for television shows like A&E’s “Biography” routinely tap Taube for photos that ran in the Examiner between the 1930s and 1961.
The most frequent request is for images and clippings about the murder of aspiring actress Elizabeth Short in January of 1947. Dubbed “The Black Dahlia,” Short’s severed body was discovered in a vacant lot in the Leimert Park section of the city, just south and west of the university. Her killer was never caught.
“I had a woman call once and ask about the [Black Dahlia] materials,” Taube said. “She said, ‘You know, my father killed her.’ We had a very interesting conversation.”
Other popular requests are for gangland figures like Siegel and Mickey Cohen or film personalities, preferably in a candid setting.
“There was always a need to know these people off the screen,” Taube said. “Now we know more than we ever wanted to about personalities, but in those days it was very structured and the studios were concerned about getting the right images out.”
So a shot of Bogart and Bacall with their son in public is rare. So is one of Marilyn Monroe in court or an exhausted Elvis Presley sacked out on a table after a concert at the Shrine Auditorium.
Aside from the Examiner’s 1.2 million photos, USC’s Regional History Collection includes 23,000 photographs of Southern California taken between 1890 and 1960 donated by the California Historical Society. There are also 500,000 negatives from the collection of Dick Whittington, a photographer who documented the region’s commercial development from 1925 through 1960; and the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce Collection, which covers 1890 through 1960.
“Any book that’s been published in the last 10 years about Los Angeles will probably have images from our collection,” Taube said.
Kevin Starr, a USC history professor and the California state librarian, worked closely with Taube in 2001 while writing his book, “Embattled Dreams: California in War and Peace, 1940-1950.”
“If she weren’t working for USC right now, we’d have to go out and recruit her,” Starr said. “She combines comprehensive knowledge with a philosophy of total service.”
Taube managed to track down some tough-to-find photos for Starr – images of gangsters in 1947 and women working in aircraft factories during World War II.
She has organized the collection so it’s “workable,” Starr added, and is helping USC become a major presence in California studies.
“USC is only beginning to realize what Dace Taube has known for years: It has one of the major collections in the state,” he said.
A mother of two USC graduates, Taube became a librarian after stints in secretarial work. She immigrated to the United States from Latvia in 1949, grew up in Washington D.C., and moved to the Golden State in 1968.
“Much to the dismay of my children, I went to San Francisco, but I was not a flower child,” she said with a chuckle. “I was very conservative. I worked for Bank of America.”
She met her husband there. They moved to Los Angeles in 1970 and had two children, a boy and a girl. Taube came to work for USC in 1986 and became the collection’s curator two years later.
Back then, the collection was housed in a building off campus.
“The third floor was filled to the hilt with bound volumes of the Los Angeles Examiner. They were deteriorating, decaying volumes. I gulped and said, ‘Uh, I think I’m interested,'” she said. “That’s how I started.”
It’s “the hunt” that keeps Taube intrigued. Navigating her way through millions of images to find one that nobody knew existed is like solving a complex puzzle, she said.
But she is also part of an elite group of librarians scattered across the city who watch over collections like the one at USC. Her counterparts work at places like the Los Angeles Public Library, the Huntington Library and UCLA.
“We all know enough about each others collections to say, ‘Well, I don’t have it, but I know Carolyn does.’ We do a lot of that.” Taube said.
“We all get together once in awhile and talk about how our collections are doing. My colleagues laugh because I refer to them as ‘my photographs.'”
But while the pursuit of knowledge may be part of what Taube loves about her job, it really comes down to one simple thing.
“It’s just ever so much fun!” she said.
Contact Usha Sutliff at (213) 740-0252.