This Vintage Photo Reveals a Secret Behind One of the World’s Most Famous Images

"Lunch Atop a Skyscraper" is one of the best photos of all time. Was it all fake?

construction-workers-beamGetty Images/Bettmann

When brothers-in-law Matty O’Shaughnessy and Sonny Glynn left Galway, Ireland in the 1920s, they traded a decade of violent uprising and Civil War for the world-famous opportunity of New York City. Little could they know that, within a few years, a cataclysmic Depression would leave one in four New Yorkers unemployed, and send Matty and Sonny dangling their boots 840 feet above Manhattan in one of the most famous—and mysterious—photographs of all time.

According to filmmaker Séan Ó Cualáin, whose documentary Men At Lunch attempts to uncover the secrets of the famous “Lunch Atop a Skyscraper” photo taken in 1932, Matty and Sonny are two of the 11 immigrant workers taking a midair meal atop the nearly-completed RCA building at New York’s Rockefeller Center. Living relatives have identified Matty as the man on the far left of the beam, bumming a light from his neighbor; Sonny Glynn allegedly anchors the beam’s right side, wearing a cap, gripping a bottle, and staring grimly into the lens.

“When [Matty’s son Patrick] O’Shaughnessy saw the image, he said that was the picture his father always spoke about,”  Ó Cualáin told The Irish Voice, “but at the time it wasn’t an important photograph.”

A second, rarely-seen image captured on the same day may reveal why: “Lunch Atop a Skyscraper” was in fact one of many staged photographs taken on September 20, 1932, as part of a publicity stunt set up by Rockefeller Center. Here’s the photo you didn’t see:

construction-workers-restingGetty Images/Bettmann

[pullquote]“The image was a publicity effort by the Rockefeller Center.” [/pullquote]

“The image was a publicity effort by the Rockefeller Center,” Ken Johnston, former chief historian for Corbis Images, revealed. “It seems pretty clear they were real workers, but the event was organized with a number of photographers.” Bringing a little more rain to the parade, The New York Times theorizes that the famous beam was probably not even dangling disastrously above open air, but that a completed floor of the RCA building waited just a few feet below.

But this, as with all theories about “Lunch Atop a Skyscraper,” is only that: a theory, impossible to prove and one of many. More than 80 years later, most of the famous lunchers remain unidentified while competing family claims trace their origins back to Ireland, Sweden, Slovakia, and the Mohawk Nation via Canada. Even the photographer’s identity has stirred controversy; the shot was falsely attributed to daredevil photographer Lewis Hine for years before receipts and behind-the-scenes photos proved it was Charles Ebbets, photographic director for Rockefeller Center’s development, behind the camera.

In the end, maybe it’s the very mystery surrounding “Lunch Atop a Skyscraper” that makes it so enduring nearly a century later. (Corbis, before being bought by Getty Images, called “Lunch Atop a Skyscraper” their best-selling image, beating out famous shots of Einstein and Martin Luther King.) And amid all the theories, claims, and attempts at debunking, we viewers know this for sure: whoever the men on that beam really were, they were the Sonny Glynns and Matty O’Shaughnessys who risked everything for a new life in the new world. They are the immigrants who built our America—and through this photo, they remind us that it was their America first.

Originally Published in Reader's Digest