The Duchess and the Camera

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The New-York Historical Society showcases the photographs of Editta Sherman, eccentric resident of the Carnegie Hall studio towers


  • Editta Sherman in 2011, at age 99. Photo: Marco Scozzaro.

  • Editta Sherman (1912–2013). Donald Shirley, undated. Gelatin silver printNew-York Historical Society, Gift of Kenneth Sherman. Shirley, a pianist and composer, was one of the residents of Carnegie Hall.

  • Editta Sherman (1912–2013). Joe DiMaggio, undated. Gavelux print. New-York Historical Society, Gift of Kenneth Sherman.

  • Editta Sherman (1912–2013). Betty Smith, ca.1949. Gavelux print. New-York Historical Society, Gift of Melisande Sherman.

  • Editta Sherman (1912–2013). June Carter Cash, undated. Gelatin silver print. New-York Historical Society, Gift of the children of Lloyd R. Sherman.

  • Editta Sherman (1912–2013). Pearl Buck, 1955. Gavelux print. New-York Historical Society, Gift of Kenneth Sherman.


Bill Cunningham, the late New York Times street photographer, anointed her the “Duchess of Carnegie Hall.” Longtime neighbors in the studio apartments atop the famed music venue on West 57th Street, Editta Sherman (1912-2013) and Cunningham can be seen hamming it up for the camera in a short film at the museum’s new show devoted to Sherman’s celebrity portraits.

Fittingly housed in the new Center for Women’s History on the 4th floor, the more than 60 works pay tribute to a woman who had to hustle to make a living off her photos in the postwar, pre-feminist era when men ruled the field and female portrait photographers were scarce.

As curator Marilyn Satin Kushner said: “She became a professional photographer not because she necessarily wanted to, she was raising her five children. But when her husband became ill and had to quit his job, she went out and made money with her husband, in photography. And when he died in 1954, she did it all by herself. She was a woman who succeeded in what she did in a man’s world.”

But Sherman was no ordinary working girl. She was an artist and unabashed bohemian with a big personality — partial to feather boas, large hats and dressing up in vintage clothing, a penchant famously on display in Cunningham’s photo book, “Facades” (1978), in which she poses in period costume in front of the city’s historic architecture.

She held sway in Studio 1208 for 61 years, living and working in a sky-lit, 900-square-foot aerie, where she photographed the likes of Tyrone Power, Joe DiMaggio, Marcel Marceau, Christopher Plummer, Carl Sandburg and Jackie Mason — before being evicted in 2010 to make way for rehearsal space and educational programs.

Fellow-evictee Josef Astor lived in Studio 845. He made the show’s film, a mash-note cobbled together from outtakes from his 2010 documentary, “Lost Bohemia,” about the gutting of the legendary artists’ enclave, which saw Mark Twain, Marilyn Monroe, Andy Warhol, Marlon Brando, Leonard Bernstein, Lee Strasberg and many more pass through.

“I wanted this gallery to be full of Editta, which is why we asked Joseph to do this film,” Kushner said. “And I wanted her personality in this space, because I heard so many stories about Editta. I wanted that all to reverberate.”

Her voice from the film reverberates throughout the room as visitors eye her glam photos, most black-and-white throwbacks to the 1940s and 1950s, with women in pearls and men in jacket and tie holding cigarettes and giving off smoldering looks.

Stars of stage and screen predominate, but Sherman also photographed writers and editors (Pearl Buck, Betty Smith, Norman Cousins), musicians and composers (Aaron Copland, Donald Shirley, June Carter Cash), and intellectuals, tastemakers and models (John Kenneth Galbraith, Amy Vanderbilt, Veruschka). The pictures were typically used on book jackets and in promotional materials for plays, films and television.

Born Edith Rinaolo to Italian immigrants in Philadelphia, Sherman learned to take pictures from her father, Nunzio, a wedding photographer. In 1935, she married Harold Sherman, an audio engineer and inventor. After complications from diabetes forced Harold to leave his job in 1943, the couple set up shop in Edgartown on Martha’s Vineyard, where Harold courted the clients and Editta took the photos. One of her first celebrity customers was Frank Morgan, the wizard in “The Wizard of Oz,” fresh off his yacht.

The Shermans subsequently relocated to New York in 1946 and rented a series of workspaces in Midtown before snagging a penthouse studio at Carnegie Hall in 1949 with a view of Central Park.

The Dutchess’ process was a decidedly low-tech affair: she used a large view camera from the 1930s and made prints in her cramped kitchen-cum-darkroom, where she served up pasta to Astor while he filmed her (“It’s delicious,” he said). She charmed the pants off her clients — “my stars,” she called them. And they charmed her. In the film, she cackles about Tyrone Power’s powers of seduction and claims he was quite flirtatious.

Astor: “Do you think Tyrone Power had some ulterior motive?”

Sherman: “Oh, yes he did. Oh, yes he did. Yes he did.”

Her eccentricity and theatricality are at full blast here. On screen, she boasts of her performance at Carnegie Hall at age 50 of solo ballet “The Dying Swan” — a feat only a tad diminished by the jokey fact that she took the stage when the theater was closed. (Cue guffaws from visitors watching the movie.) More clips of her en pointe dance moves can be seen in a mini-film marking her 100th birthday at the show’s entrance.

Sherman’s works are brilliantly lit, sympathetic portraits. As she once commented, “When I photographed an actor like Raymond Massey, or a poet like Carl Sandburg, or a conductor like Leonard Bernstein, I tried to photograph what I admired about them.”

She connected with her subjects, so much so that, as the curator said, “These people who sat for her didn’t sit for her but with her. There’s a bit of Editta in every one of these photos.”

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