Editor’s Note: Editta Sherman, an Italian-American photographer, often referred to as the Duchess of Carnegie Hall, died on Nov. 1 at the age of 101. She had long ties to the Vineyard. The following interview with her was published in the Gazette in December 1988.
In a circle of celebrities, the flamboyant Editta Sherman has made a name for herself as a photographer.
She returned to the Vineyard last weekend to spend the Thanksgiving holiday in Oak Bluffs with her family, a gathering of three of her five children and six of her eleven grandchildren. It was not only a reunion with her family but a return to the place where she began her career as a portrait photographer 44 years ago.
The last time she visited the Island was in 1961 when she was commissioned to photograph her friend Max Eastman.
This year the visit was an opportunity to visit the home of her son Lloyd Sherman. It was a time to recall, for close friends, the rough road to Carnegie Hall, years of photographing the famous and a few stints of her own before the camera. Mrs. Sherman has paraded in garish outfits for fashion photographers and took a bit role in the Andy Warhol film The Detective.
In some New York cliques Mrs. Sherman earned the title Duchess of Carnegie Hall, where she has operated her business since 1949. The list of photo credits from Studio 1208 include Henry Fonda, Carl Sandburg, Marlon Brando, Herman Wouk, Tyrone Power, Aldous Huxley, Anthony Quinn and William Buckley, to name a few.
The roots of her success started at birth. The Vineyard was one of many steps along the way towards recognition in New York, but the origins of this great career go back to Philadelphia and a portrait photographer named Nunzio Rinaldo. He was Mrs. Sherman’s father.
“I remember helping him in the darkroom,” she said. “He did professional portraits and weddings.”
She and her husband Harold T. Sherman moved to Edgartown in 1944 with their five children because of Mr. Sherman’s failing health. He was an electrical engineer, a holder of several patents, and a former president of Black Hawk Sound Corp. The doctors advised a long vacation on the Island.
“We came here that first summer in 1944,” she said. Recognizing that money was needed to support the family, Mrs. Sherman said she took what had been a hobby and went into business.
“I set up,” recalled the elderly woman who had a shawl that once belonged to Greta Garbo draped around her shoulders. “We rented a house in Edgartown. It was a big house. I rented some of the bedrooms to summer people to make up the rent. Rent was exorbitant.”
A dining room became a studio. The pantry became a darkroom. “In that season we made over $3,000. So we bought this little house.”
The house they bought was on South Water street in Edgartown. Mrs. Sherman remembers one cold night when the whole family had to sleep in one bed to keep warm.
As the business grew, she rented a studio above what today is the Edgartown Hardware Store. Back then the hardware store was the post office.
“My husband made all the contacts. He started out riding a bike. My first sitting of a celebrity was Frank Morgan, the movie actor. My husband followed him around into a bookstore. He said: ‘How about coming to our studio? My wife is a photographer and she would like to take some photographs.’”
Unlike most photographers of the day Mrs. Sherman felt more comfortable using a bulky camera that rendered a sharp, crisp picture. One camera produced an 8-inch by 10-inch negative. Another larger camera produced an 11-inch by 14-inch negative.
It was through her contacts on the Vineyard that she met author W. Somerset Maugham, painter Thomas Hart Benton, writer and philosopher Max Eastman and Leopold Mannes, the inventor of Kodachrome film. Each was photographed. Her celebrity list continued to grow.
“We went to New York and found a studio at Carnegie Hall. It was on the 12th floor. Coming back to the Island became impossible,” she said.
Her husband died in 1954 and Mrs. Sherman took over the family and continued at the studio.
“It was difficult being a woman photographer,” she said. “I didn’t always get the assignments.” But her personable approach made up for the lack of fair treatment and she broke into the stuffy world of New York city.
The vibrant woman attributed the success to her energy and friendliness.
“When an actor usually walks into a room everyone freezes. Joseph Cotton came into my studio. He came in with his agent. He froze. He was just not cooperative. I just didn’t know how to make him relax. I had him sit down right away. I said ‘Would you like to have a glass of orange juice?’ He came out of himself. All through the sitting he was very, very friendly,” she said.
From many of her clients she has collected letters of appreciation.
B.C. Forbes, founder of Forbes Magazine, wrote on a book to Mrs. Sherman: “To my artistic friend with this Scottish wish: May you have many, many laughs on your way through life always at other people’s expense.”
Mrs. Sherman has a philosophy of a photographic portrait.
“The eyes are important. They reflect the soul, you know. I always concentrate on the eyes and let everything else go out of focus. The smile is important too. To get the personality of a person you must have the smile, otherwise you get them looking very stern and very stiff,” she said.
Mrs. Sherman said she was once hired to take a picture of George Keith Funston, the president of the New York Stock Exchange. The large 11-inch by 14-inch camera with red bellows and giant lens stood on a stand. “I wheeled this thing into his office. He said he was only going to give me five minutes. I was rushing. I was nervous. He was watching me.
“Then he said ‘Don’t worry. I am enjoying this.’”