July 27, 1904 – Jerome B. Zerbe:
Once I asked Katharine Hepburn to come up from her place at Fenwick, a few miles away, and pose for some fashion photos for me. She arrived with a picnic hamper full of food and wine for the two of us. I snapped her just as she came to the door.
Zerbe was a chronicler and photographer of high society and the jet set in the middle of the last century.
He was born into a wealthy family in Euclid, Ohio. As a kid, Zerbe was driven to public school in the family limousine, which got him beaten up by bullies. He survived well enough to make it through Yale, graduating in the class of 1928. After graduation he went to Hollywood, where he got work drawing portraits of famous film stars. He picked up a camera, photographing stars as well as mere hopefuls, who, before they became famous, would pose for him with few, if any, clothes.
In the 1930s Zerbe was a pioneer of shooting pictures of the beautiful and famous at play and at events. He was one of those who in the 1930’s pioneered the type of photography adopted decades later by the paparazzi: candid shots of socialites and entertainers out-on-the-town and eager to be seen. He is different from his successors; Zerbe was of the same social class as his photographic subjects, and he had been invited to those high society parties. He didn’t need to hide in the bushes and ambush a celebrity, Zerbe vacationed with the stage and film stars he photographed.
He began his career as art editor of Parade magazine in Cleveland from 1931 to 1933, before moving to New York City to work as a photographer for Town & Country magazine.
He helped turn El Morocco into one of the world’s most famous nightclubs, the soul of the glamorous Manhattan that burst forth in the 1930s with the effervescent repeal of Prohibition. The stars came out at night, danced to George Gershwin and Cole Porter, and dined under white palms, framed by the celebrated zebra-striped banquettes.
El Morocco was the favorite spot ofEthel Merman and Errol Flynn, and the super-rich of American and European society mingled with showbiz figures in a high-octane fizz that stayed bubbly for more than 50 years. The scene’s last bastion was at 307 East 54th Street; El Morocco moved there in 1961 from its original address a block away. Today, a luxury condo building stands on the ashes of the old shrine to nightclubbing.
His photography became one of the elements on which cafe society thrived. He pursued his willing subjects from New Orleans to Palm Beach to Paris, London, Cuernavaca and all the of fashionable places in between. One of the world’s premier society photographers, he was never a frenetic paparazzo and never tried to catch a celebrity at a momentary lapse into the unflattering.
In the mid-1940s the Hearst newspapers became one of his main outlets. He was feature writer for the Sunday Mirror until 1958 and wrote a column for The New York Journal-American.
Zerbe’s first camera was a Brownie. He studied art in Paris before becoming a photographer.
In World War II, he served in the U.S. Navy as a chief photographer’s mate and recorded the defeat of Japan. He was awarded a Bronze Star for his work.
Some of his best known images were of Greta Garbo at lunch, Cary Grant helping gossip columnist Hedda Hopper move into her new home, bodybuilder/actor Steve Reeves shaving, playwright Moss Hart climbing a tree, Howard Hughes having lunch with Janet Gaynor, Ginger Rogers flying first-class, plus Charlie Chaplin, Gary Cooper, Paulette Goddard, Salvador Dalí, Jean Harlow, Dorothy Parker, boxer Gene Tunney, writer Thomas Wolfe and the fabulously wealthy Vanderbilt family.
In 1935, there was a party for Salvador and Gala Dalí where guests were invited to come dressed as a dream or a nightmare. Gala Dali came dressed as the Lindbergh baby. There was outrage, but Zerbe claimed that he just took the pictures and was not responsible for the behavior of the celbs.
Zerbe pioneered the business arrangement of getting paid by a nightclub to photograph its visitors, before giving away the photos to the gossip pages. For over 40 years, Zerbe traveled the world taking pictures of celebrities, amassing an archive of over 50,000 photographs. A trip to France led to photographing estates and country homes and their occupants and brought him a secondary career as an architectural photographer.
In 1988, Zerbe died at his New York City apartment on Sutton Place, he was 85 years old. Oh, I forgot to mention, Zerbe is credited with having invented the vodka martini. His radical cocktail first appeared in a 1951 book, Bottoms Up, and was dubbed the ”vodkatini”, so we have him to thank for that.
Zerbe had a longtime romance with syndicated society columnist and writer Lucius Beebe (1902-1966), who made embarrassingly frequent and flattering references to Zerbe in his newspaper column This New York, which was read by millions every morning. Beebe was so wealthy and possessed of such a confident personality that he became one of the first members of high society who lived openly as a gay man. When questioned about his gayness, Beebe would slam down his drink and shout, ”Go To Hell”,” and that was that. Beebe made so many flattering references to Zerbe in his newspaper column that rival columnist Walter Winchell suggested that Zerbe should change the name to “Jerome Never Looked Lovelier”.
Beebe wrote 35 books, including epically titled The Big Spenders: The Epic Story Of The Rich, The Grandees Of America And The Magnificoes, And How They Spent Their Fortunes (1966), detailing how über-rich Americans blew through their vast fortunes in rather eccentric ways.
Beebe had more than one steady boyfriend. Besides Zerbe, the was also Charles Myron Clegg Jr. (1916 – 1979) was also a writer and photographer In 1940, Clegg met Beebe while both were house guests at the Washington, D.C. home of Evalyn Walsh McLean. The two developed a personal and professional relationship that continued for the rest of Beebe’s life.
The pair lived in New York City, where both men were part of the same prominent café society circles that Zerbe photographed. Eventually tiring of that social life, McLean and Beebe moved in 1950 to Virginia City, Nevada, a tiny community that had once been a mining boomtown. There, they reactivated and published the Territorial Enterprise, a 19th-century newspaper where Mark Twain was a reporter. Beebe and Clegg shared a renovated mansion in the town and owned a private Victorian railroad car. In 1961, they purchased a home in San Francisco. They continued the writing, photographing, and traveling until Beebe’s death from a heart attack in 1966. Beebe left the bulk of his $2 million estate to Clegg, with a provision for T-Bone Towser II, their dog. Clegg committed suicide in 1979, on the day that he reached the precise age at which Beebe had died.
Zerbe wrote El Morocco Family Album (1937); The Art Of Social Climbing (1965), and The Pavilions Of Europe (1976), among other books.
I like that his obituary in the New York Times concludes with “Mr. Zerbe never married”. That was the paper’s euphemism for “gay” before the 21st-century.
He is currently the subject of Life of the Party: Jerome Zerbe and The Social Photograph a exhibit at Yale’s Beinecke Library.