Shirlie Montgomery: Picturing San José Since 1938

By History San José

"When the big boys start bouncing over the ropes, it's every man for himself, and that goes for girl photographers as well." Shirlie Montgomery, San Francisco Examiner, August 2, 1953

Shirlie Montgomery outside her shop, c. 1958 (1955/1965) by UnknownHistory San José

Shirlie Montgomery

Shirlie Montgomery led a colorful life. Her love of photography, sports, current events and a good time put her in a unique position to document both the historic and the ordinary. From local disasters to high-society gatherings, she captured post World War II culture in Santa Clara Valley. In her quest to capture the moment with her 4x5 speed graphic camera, Montgomery was often adventurous, whether shooting aerial photographs of downtown San Jose or getting close to a blazing fire in her pumps. Later, an assignment to cover a professional wrestling match at the Civic Auditorium led to a multi-year relationship with the sport and its participants. The quality of her images eventually secured her induction as a photographer into the Slammers World Wrestling Hall of Fame. Montgomery passed away in November 2012 at a youthful 94. History San Jose wishes to acknowledge the generosity of Susan and Bob Bortfeld who donated many photographs, documents and personal items from Montgomery's estate. We also wish to acknowledge Robert J. Bettencourt for his generous sponsorship of the exhibit.

Shirlie Montgomery at San Jose High School 20th class reunion (1956-05) by Shirlie MontgomeryHistory San José

A natural talent

Shirlie Alice Montgomery was born on Chapman Street, San José, on June 9, 1918, to parents Rae and Madeline Montgomery. Her artistic and creative abilities blossomed at an early age; Montgomery was a talented dancer who performed with future Hollywood sister actresses Joan (Fontaine) and Olivia De Havilland. In middle school, the local newspaper published her book reviews. Recognizing his only child's interests, her father built a darkroom in their small home. In her late teens, Montgomery began keeping a daily journal; she continued this habit throughout her career to record her appointments with clients. Additionally, she created numerous photo albums of family and friends, documenting her frequent outings to Santa Cruz beach. Never married, Montgomery was known throughout her life as fun-loving and sure of her opinions. Later in life, she enjoyed sipping martinis on her front porch while umpiring neighborhood whiffle ball games, in which she inevitably had the final word. "I was about the only blond in the neighborhood and stuck out, so every time the Queen of the Fairies or the Christmas Angel was being cast, guess who got elected? I've never been able to escape the spotlight." -- Shirlie Montgomery, San José Mercury News, April 11, 1999.

1941 Personal Diary, Shirlie Montgomery, 1941, From the collection of: History San José
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Membership card to the Junior Mercury Herald Club, Shirlie Montgomery, 1930/1940, From the collection of: History San José
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Hotel De Anza, San Jose (1949-08) by Shirlie MontgomeryHistory San José

Nights at the De Anza

Montgomery began her career at the De Anza Hotel on Santa Clara Street, where she was employed to create photographic gifts for hotel guests. After photographing guests as they socialized, she would develop the photos in a small, on-site darkroom, then sell the images to guests as they departed for the evening. Because of the De Anza's reputation as one of "the" places to socialize in San José, Montgomery met many servicemen during World War II, whom she befriended, and photographed. Montgomery's collection includes dozens of letters from young men serving their country overseas, writing to request copies of photographs, or expressing their friendship with the vivacious photographer. "'Flash' was my first nickname! I worked in the San José Camera Shop during the daytime, and took nite-club photos at the De Anza Hotel at night. And 'Flash' was what the service-men called me. Those were the days my friend..." -- Shirlie Montgomery, Unsent letter to a friend, August 1989.

Shirlie Montgomery with servicemen at De Anza Hotel, c. 1945, Unknown, 1940/1948, From the collection of: History San José
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USO dance at De Anza Hotel, San Jose, Shirlie Montgomery, 1941/1945, From the collection of: History San José
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Hotel De Anza coffee shop, San Jose, Shirlie Montgomery, 1947-12-10, From the collection of: History San José
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Shirlie Montgomery with camera, c. 1950 (1945/1955) by UnknownHistory San José

Freelance celebrity

As male photographers left to join the war effort, Montgomery seized the opportunity to work as a "stringer" -- an independent correspondent paid by the job. Her photographs were picked up for publication by the San José Mercury News and the San Francisco Examiner. As a newspaper photographer, she met many local and national celebrities, some of whom hired her for personal portraits. "You meet so many people as a photographer. How else could a poor girl meet celebrities like Eleanor Roosevelt and Liberace? As a photographer, you're in all kinds of worlds, worlds you would never otherwise enter." -- Shirlie Montgomery, Rose Garden Resident, July 10, 2003.

San Jose Police Department Identification Card, Shirlie Montgomery, 1953, From the collection of: History San José
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Lou's Village Restaurant, San Jose, Shirlie Montgomery, 1947, From the collection of: History San José
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Max Baer at Lou's Village, San Jose, Shirlie Montgomery, 1946-10-24, From the collection of: History San José
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The Joe Tomasello Band at Lou's Village, San Jose, Shirlie Montgomery, 1946-09, From the collection of: History San José
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Lucille Ball at Lou's Village Restaurant, San Jose, Shirlie Montgomery, 1947-12-10, From the collection of: History San José
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John McEnery introduces Eleanor Roosevelt at Hotel de Anza, San Jose, Shirlie Montgomery, 1947-03-13, From the collection of: History San José
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Richard Nixon campaigning in San Jose, Shirlie Montgomery, 1960-11-05, From the collection of: History San José
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Richard Nixon and wife Pat campaigning in San Jose, Shirlie Montgomery, 1960-11-05, From the collection of: History San José
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Shirlie Montgomery's Photography Equipment (1945/1965)History San José

The Professional

The flexibility of free-lance photography enabled Montgomery to capture over several decades the opening of new businesses, local disasters, memorable events, and social activities. Working from her downtown shop at 354 West Santa Clara Street, she became a visible fixture in San José with her smart attire and 4x5 camera. Her captivating personality opened up numerous work opportunities within the community. Drawing on her artistic talents, Montgomery took pride in correctly framing a scene, or making her subject look their best -- such as adjusting Bill Hewlett's tie during a portrait session. She took a similar approach while in the darkroom. In today's digital age, the talent and patience required for film photography is often forgotten. As illustrated by these images, Montgomery was a professional and perfectionist. "Unlike other photographers, I could tell Shirlie what I wanted in a shot and not have to be there myself. She knew just what I wanted, how to do things right. And she was always properly attired, in dress and pumps." -- Jane McClelland, client of Shirlie Montgomery, San José Mercury News, April 11, 1999.

State of California Board of Equalization Seller's Permit, Shirlie Montgomery, 1950/1960, From the collection of: History San José
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City Sales Tax Permit, Shirlie Montgomery, 1950/1960, From the collection of: History San José
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Cheim Lumber Company fire, Lenzen Avenue and The Alameda, San Jose, Shirlie Montgomery, 1955-04-14, From the collection of: History San José
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Flood at Santa Clara and River Streets, San Jose, Shirlie Montgomery, 1958-04-02, From the collection of: History San José
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Century 21 and 22 theaters, San Jose, Shirlie Montgomery, 1966, From the collection of: History San José
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First and San Antonio Streets, San Jose, Shirlie Montgomery, 1950, From the collection of: History San José
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Letter from San Jose Chamber of Commerce, Shirlie Montgomery, 1966-12-29, From the collection of: History San José
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La Perla Market, Post Street, San Jose, Shirlie Montgomery, 1951-09-29, From the collection of: History San José
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Letter to Montgomery from International News Photos, Shirlie Montgomery, 1955-01-20, From the collection of: History San José
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Letter from Montgomery to "Gene", Shirlie Montgomery, 1954-07-01, From the collection of: History San José
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Nuns attending Mass at O'Connor Hospital Chapel, San Jose, Shirlie Montgomery, 1957, From the collection of: History San José
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Nurses in training at O'Connor Hospital, San Jose, Shirlie Montgomery, 1957, From the collection of: History San José
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Letter to Montgomery from Herm Lenz, Camerandum, Shirlie Montgomery, 1953-07-21, From the collection of: History San José
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IBM Cottle Road plant dedication, San Jose, Shirlie Montgomery, 1958-05-27, From the collection of: History San José
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Bank of California ribbon cutting ceremony, Park Avenue and Market Street, San Jose, Shirlie Montgomery, 1973-04-23, From the collection of: History San José
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Mayor Robert Welsh at Community Bank Building groundbreaking, San Jose, Shirlie Montgomery, 1963-01-09, From the collection of: History San José
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Mayor Hathaway presents horse "Gypsy" with key to San Jose, Shirlie Montgomery, 1905-05-07, From the collection of: History San José
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Wally Raisch at the Paul Masson Champagne Cellar plant, Saratoga, Shirlie Montgomery, 1969-02-05, From the collection of: History San José
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Chinese New Year parade, Valley Fair Shopping Mall, Santa Clara, Shirlie Montgomery, 1973-02-02, From the collection of: History San José
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Cosmetology convention, Rickey's Hotel, Palo Alto, Shirlie Montgomery, 1959, From the collection of: History San José
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Bob Kieve demonstrates flamenco skills, Shirlie Montgomery, 1968-02, From the collection of: History San José
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KNTV Channel 11 host Frank Darien at his final Record Hop program, Shirlie Montgomery, 1963-04-05, From the collection of: History San José
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March of Dimes poster boy with Norman Mineta, San Jose, Shirlie Montgomery, 1971/1971, From the collection of: History San José
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Aircraft and Fleet Vehicles for Radio Station KXRX, 1967, Shirlie Montgomery, 1967-03-07, From the collection of: History San José
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New Year card from Shirlie Montgomery to parents (1950/1960) by Shirlie MontgomeryHistory San José

Experimentation

Long before Photoshop and YouTube, Montgomery experimented with composition and film. Her annual holiday cards exhibit her technique and humor. The video of the 1960 opening day of Candlestick Park was one of her first forays into motion pictures; her collection includes the hand-made title cards.

Christmas card from Shirlie Montgomery, Shirlie Montgomery, 1950/1960, From the collection of: History San José
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Holiday card from Shirlie Montgomery, Shirlie Montgomery, 1950/1960, From the collection of: History San José
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New Year's card from Shirlie Montgomery, Shirlie Montgomery, 1955, From the collection of: History San José
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Christmas card from Shirlie Montgomery, Shirlie Montgomery, 1955/1960, From the collection of: History San José
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Opening Day at Candlestick Park 1960 Giants v Cardinals, Shirlie Montgomery, 1960-04-12, From the collection of: History San José
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"Doris" (1947/1952) by Shirlie MontgomeryHistory San José

Photography Entries at the Santa Clara County Fair

"Whoa!", Shirlie Montgomery, 1947, From the collection of: History San José
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"Go Get 'Em", Shirlie Montgomery, 1947, From the collection of: History San José
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"Hot Rod", Shirlie Montgomery, 1947/1952, From the collection of: History San José
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"Take That!", Shirlie Montgomery, 1947/1952, From the collection of: History San José
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"Elbow Smash", Shirlie Montgomery, 1947/1952, From the collection of: History San José
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Wrestlers, Shirlie Montgomery, 1952, From the collection of: History San José
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Shirlie Montgomery crouching below the wresting ring, c. 1955 (1950/1960) by UnknownHistory San José

In the ring

After World War II and before the expansion of major league baseball to the West coast in 1958, professional wrestling was a popular sport in San José. Weekly matches were held in the Civic Auditorium, on land donated by Montgomery's great-uncle T. S. Montgomery. Shirlie was introduced to the sport by her father Rae. An acquaintance from the Mercury News invited Montgomery to bring her camera to a match. Her action shots soon began appearing in local newspapers, and she became a regular at the press table. The atmosphere was more interesting than the standard studio work most women photographers were doing at the time. The quality of Montgomery's images was recognized throughout professional wrestling, and she became lifelong friends of many in the community. Wrestler Vern Langdon honored her as an original legend inductee at his Sun Valley Slammers Wrestling Gym's Hall of Fame. Surrounded by many good-looking, heavily muscled bodies, Montgomery often remarked, "I like the big boys."

Shirlie Montgomery photographing wrestler, San Jose Mercury News, 1953/1958, From the collection of: History San José
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San Jose Civic Auditorium Wrestling Exhibition, Unknown, 1963-04-24, From the collection of: History San José
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Crowd watching a wrestling match at San Jose Civic Auditorium, c. 1955, Shirlie Montgomery, 1950/1960, From the collection of: History San José
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Crowd watching a wrestling match at San Jose Civic Auditorium, c. 1955, Shirlie Montgomery, 1950/1960, From the collection of: History San José
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Angelo Cistoldi wants a word with Mike Sharpe, Shirlie Montgomery, 1953/1958, From the collection of: History San José
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Ben Sharpe protests his brother Mike being tossed out of the ring, Shirlie Montgomery, 1953/1958, From the collection of: History San José
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Sandwich board displaying Montgomery's photographs, c. 1955, Shirlie Montgomery, 1950/1960, From the collection of: History San José
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Crowd watching a wrestling match at San Jose Civic Auditorium, c. 1955, Shirlie Montgomery, 1950/1960, From the collection of: History San José
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Bobo Brazil puts a headlock on Lou Thesz, Shirlie Montgomery, 1953/1958, From the collection of: History San José
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Crowd watching a wrestling match at San Jose Civic Auditorium, c. 1955, Shirlie Montgomery, 1950/1960, From the collection of: History San José
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Tiny Mills versus Ray Eckert at the San Jose Civic Auditorium, Shirlie Montgomery, 1953/1958, From the collection of: History San José
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Multi-tasking at the San Jose Civic Auditorium, Shirlie Montgomery, 1953/1958, From the collection of: History San José
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World Heavyweight Champion boxer Joe Louis keeps the peace, Shirlie Montgomery, 1953/1958, From the collection of: History San José
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Invitation to Slammers Wrestling Gym Grand Opening, Shirlie Montgomery, 1989-09, From the collection of: History San José
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Shirlie Montgomery at Slammers Wrestling Gym with Award, Shirlie Montgomery, 1989, From the collection of: History San José
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At the Ringside Bar (1953/1958) by Shirlie MontgomeryHistory San José

The Ringside Bar

Former wrestler Glen Neece opened The Ringside Bar at 307 North First Street, San José, in 1951. Angelo Cistoldi, another wrestler, became co-owner shortly thereafter. On the walls were many framed images of Montgomery's wrestling photographs, as well as photographs of patrons of the Ringside who descended on the bar after matches at the Civic Auditorium throughout the 1950s. With her trusty 4x5 camera on the ready, Montgomery was able to capture the moment, returning each week with the prior week's images. "The Ringside became my father's means of support for the family when he was done with wrestling. The highlight was on nights of the fights the wrestlers would come into the Ringside after the matches and mingle. There were names such as Gorgeous George, The Sharp brothers Ben and Mike, Leo Normalini, Dean Detton etc. It was there that Shirlie Montgomery hung out and took pictures of all the wrestlers and the going ons." -- Angi Cirigliano, Daughter of Angelo Cistoldi.

Lou Thesz behind the bar at the Ringside, Shirlie Montgomery, 1953/1958, From the collection of: History San José
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St. Patrick's Day at the Ringside Bar, Shirlie Montgomery, 1953/1958, From the collection of: History San José
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The Torres brothers with friends at the Ringside, Shirlie Montgomery, 1953/1958, From the collection of: History San José
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Ben and Mike Sharpe, Shirlie Montgomery, 1953/1958, From the collection of: History San José
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Shirlie Montgomery lifts wrestler Tuffy McCrae, Unknown, 1953/1958, From the collection of: History San José
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Wrestler weight training with local fans, Shirlie Montgomery, 1953/1958, From the collection of: History San José
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Boy Scouts with pro-wrestlers Little Beaver and Little Panther, Shirlie Montgomery, 1953/1958, From the collection of: History San José
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Posing on the way to the ring, Shirlie Montgomery, 1953/1958, From the collection of: History San José
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Pacific Coast champion Enrique Torres, Shirlie Montgomery, 1953/1958, From the collection of: History San José
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Elks youth baseball with wrestlers Tiny Mills and Hombre Montana, Shirlie Montgomery, 1953/1958, From the collection of: History San José
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Six-foot five-inch Mike Sharpe lifts lovely ladies, Shirlie Montgomery, 1953/1958, From the collection of: History San José
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Primo Carnera and Glenn Neece, Shirlie Montgomery, 1953/1958, From the collection of: History San José
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Carried in style by Ben and Mike Sharpe, Shirlie Montgomery, 1953/1958, From the collection of: History San José
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Credits: Story

Exhibit created by History San José Collections & Exhibitions staff and volunteers. The physical exhibit was previously on display at the Leonard and David McKay Gallery at the Pasetta House in 2014.

Thanks to donors and sponsors Robert J. Bettencourt, and Susan and Bob Bortfeld.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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