Belasco had given up on marriage. Her first husband, father of their two children, died of a heart attack at 42. The next man she fell for also died young of a heart attack. A third died shortly after they split. “I decided I was a jinx,” she says. “Stay away from men! They’re gonna die soon.”
Besides, she was invested in her career as an accountant and loved life in Manhattan, moving only after retirement to be closer to her first grandchild.
Desfor was also a New Yorker. He’d been studying at Brooklyn College when an older brother invited him to visit the Associated Press offices to see what he did as a photo retoucher; in 1933, Desfor got a job there, too, working in the darkroom for $15 a week. He studied the photographers and got a camera of his own. Soon, he was sent on assignments and moved to bureaus in Baltimore and Washington before taking overseas postings. In his 47 years with AP, he would cover five wars and win a 1951 Pulitzer Prize for his photos of the Korean War, including one of of refugees crawling over a tattered bridge.
He and Clara were driving home from New York in 1994 when they were in a crash on the New Jersey Turnpike. Four days later, he was wheeled from his hospital room to be with her as she died.
For the next year, Belasco and the others didn’t see much of Desfor. On top of grief, he was grappling with physical injuries that required rehabilitation. Eventually, he started coming back to the pool. And because he doesn’t cook, he was in the market for dinner companions.
“He was taking out all the women who were available in the group,” Belasco recalls. “I think I was the last one. . . . He was complaining that nobody was bringing him casseroles — that’s the usual thing when there’s a widower, everyone brings a casserole . And there was one man in our group who was getting casserole after casserole, butMax wasn’t getting any, so he was very upset.”
They started going out regularly and found that while they were very different in some ways — he likes football, she prefers opera — they enjoyed each other’s company. “We got along extremely well. Besides which, she can cook — so that was important,” he says with a wink.
“I don’t know why he put that ‘besides which,’ part,” she retorts from the living room of their apartment. “That should’ve been the top of the list!”
The two developed a teasing rapport and comfortable routine. They met each other’s children, traveled to Japan and South Korea and decided to share an apartment.
“We got along well with each other’s associates,” she says. “And we had fun.”
By 2000, they would often refer to each other as husband and wife. (“ ‘Girlfriend,’ seemed ridiculous to us,” she says.) Their friends and relatives wondered why they didn’t marry, but to Belasco and Desfor, it didn’t seem necessary.