Basque Fact of the Week: A Basque in Lunch atop a Skyscraper

Lunch atop a Skyscraper is one of the most iconic photographs ever taken. Taken in 1932, it features 11 men casually eating their lunch while sitting upon a crossbeam dangling above New York City. The photo was a publicity stunt, taken to promote the construction of Rockefeller Center. Even so, much about the photo remains a mystery: Who was the photographer? Who were those 11 men? This last question has spurred a lot of speculation. There is now enough evidence that the second man on the left, the one lighting the cigarette of his coworker, was a Basque from Bizkaia — Ignacio Ibargüen.

Lunch atop a Skyscraper, 1932; photo from Wikipedia.
  • Ignacio “Natxo” Ibargüen was born in Balmaseda on November 4, 1899, the sixth child of Ignacio Ibargüen Urrutia and Micaela Moneta Luzuriaga. He left home in 1919, heading for Argentina, possibly to avoid fighting in the Rif War. However, Argentina wasn’t to his liking, so he made his way to England, serving on an English ship. This took him not only to Bristol, where he made his new home, but to other ports around Europe, including in Russia.
  • In the early 1920s, Natxo made his way to the United States, where he met Esperanza Ojinaga. They married in the mid 1920s and had four children: Tomás, Shirley, Daniel, and Louise. The family made their home in New York City, in Brooklyn to be exact. Natxo died in 1957.
  • While it is now near-impossible to definitively prove who the men in the photo were, there is abundant circumstantial evidence that the second man from the left was Natxo. Other pictures were taken that day — one showing the group considering an American football and another where the guys are listening to a radio — that more clearly show a man who has been identified as Natxo. Natxo’s connection to the iconic photo was only realized when his son, during a trip to visit family in the Basque Country, saw a copy of the photo and told his Basque family that the second man was his father.
  • Of the 11 men, only a few have been identified with any certainty. The men on each end are thought to be immigrants from Ireland, though the last man has also been said to hail from Slovakia. At least one other is thought to be from Newfoundland while another is a thought to be a Native American from the Mohawk tribe. There is even doubt about who took the photograph — it was only in 2003 that Charles Ebbets was finally given credit. And, while it does seem reasonable to conclude that the second man is Natxo, there are other claims as to the man’s identity.
  • The photo itself has its own story. It was taken to advertise the new building. While the girder the men are sitting on hangs some 800 feet above the city, it was suspended directly above a finished floor, so any fall, while still dangerous, wouldn’t have taken anyone to the street. It was one of several photos taken that day but became famous when it was published in the New York Herald Tribune on October 2, 1932.

Primary sources: Harresi Kulturala Elkartea, who have a series of articles detailing what is known about Natxo and the photograph; Lunch atop a Skyscraper, Wikipedia. A special thanks to Koldo San Sebastian and Eneko Sagarbide whose postings on Facebook alerted me to this story.

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