Society photographer Jerome Zerbe (1904-1988) was born of privilege in Euclid, Ohio. He was an originator of a genre of photography that is now known as “celebrity paparazzi.” In the 1930s Zerbe was a pioneer of shooting photographs of famous people at play and on-the-town. However, he differed from his successors in a major way – Zerbe was of the same social class as his photographic subjects, and he arrived at high society parties with his own engraved invitation in hand. He often traveled and vacationed with the stage and film stars he photographed.
Some of his best known images were of Greta Garbo at lunch, Cary Grant helping columnist Hedda Hopper move into her new home, bodybuilder/actor Steve Reeves shaving, playwright Moss Hart climbing a tree, Howard Hughes having lunch at “21” with Janet Gaynor, Ginger Rogers flying first-class, plus legendary stars Charlie Chaplin, Gary Cooper, surrealist artist Salvador Dalí, Jean Harlow, writer Dorothy Parker, boxer Gene Tunney, author Thomas Wolfe and the fabulously wealthy Vanderbilt family.
Zerbe’s mother was Susan Eichelberger*, the child of a successful railroad lawyer in Urbana, Ohio, and his father was a prominent and prosperous businessman, owner of the Ohio and Pennsylvania Coal Company. Two of his uncles were lawyers in Urbana, another the Superintendent of West Point. Jerome’s mother was so beautiful and possessed of such a captivating voice that, while once visiting New York City, she received a serious offer from a theatrical impresario to star in a play, and she accepted. When her parents found out, they dispatched an uncle to return her to the “safety” of Urbana. Her family’s social standing was such that they subscribed to the mandate that a woman’s name should appear in print only three times: at birth, upon marriage, and at death.
*There is a street named Eichelberger in Urbana, Ohio.
Young Jerry 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. A supreme social networker, he gained important social prominence in New Haven, which later would serve him well in New York, London and Paris, where he studied art. Soon after graduation from university he went to Hollywood to try his hand at drawing portraits of famous film stars. He was befriended by Gary Cooper, Hedda Hopper, Cary Grant, Errol Flynn, Randolph Scott, Marion Davies and Paulette Goddard. Soon enough he picked up a camera, photographing stars in Hollywood’s Golden Age as well as mere hopefuls, who, before they became famous, would pose for him with few, if any, clothes.
He was for years the official photographer of Manhattan’s famed Rainbow Room at Rockefeller Center and fabled nightspot El Morocco, the places to see and be seen at the time. Zerbe pioneered the business arrangement of getting paid by a nightclub to photograph its visitors, before giving away the photos to the gossip pages of print media. For over 40 years, Jerome Zerbe traveled the world taking pictures of celebrities, amassing an archive of over 50,000 photographs.
Below: 18-year-old Elizabeth Taylor (center) and first husband Conrad "Nicky" Hilton, Jr. (right) at El Morocco in 1950.
After taking up residence in New York City, he served as art director of Parade magazine and photographer and society editor for Town and Country. Zerbe also contributed photographs to Life and Look magazines and was a Navy photographer during World War II. He was the author of several books of photographs, including Happy Times (1973), which includes his photographs from the El Morocco years. A trip to Paris to photograph estates and country homes (and their occupants) led to a secondary career as an architectural photographer.
In 1988 Jerome Zerbe died at age 85 at his New York City apartment on Sutton Place. Oh, I forgot to mention that Jerome was credited with having invented the vodka martini.
Below: Lovers Cary Grant and Randolph Scott photographed "at home" by Zerbe (1933):
Romantically, Zerbe’s most significant relationship was with syndicated society columnist and writer Lucius Beebe
(1902-1966), who made almost embarrassingly frequent and flattering
references to Jerome in his newspaper column “This New York,” read by
millions each 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 as an openly gay man. When questioned about his sexual
orientation, Beebe (photo below) could slam down his drink and shout, “Go to hell,”
and that would be the end of it.
Beebe also wrote 35 books, and I just now got around to reading one that's been on my Kindle for well over a year: The Big Spenders: The Epic Story of the Rich Rich, the Grandees of America and the Magnificoes, and How They Spent Their Fortunes (1966)
Written in florid, effusively dated language, this was Beebe’s last (35th) book, detailing how über-rich Americans blew through their vast fortunes in rather eccentric ways. Part of the fun of reading this is being introduced to characters now long forgotten. We all know the peccadillos of the Astors and Vanderbilts, but Beebe introduced me to Mrs. Kate Moore (1846-1917), an heiress from Pittsburgh, who became one of the leading figures in Paris high society, especially among the expatiate Americans. She entertained lavishly, and she commissioned the great society portraitist John Singer Sargent to paint her several times. Sargent wrote to Henry James about her in 1884, “I am dreadfully tired of the people here and of my present work, a certain majestic portrait of an ugly woman [Mrs Kate Moore]. She is like a great frigate under full sail with homeward-bound steamers flying.”
Beebe’s comment about this inveterate social climber, who bought her way into society, “(she) departed from life as she would from the Ritz, handing out tips to everyone.”
Then there’s Spencer “Spec” Penrose (1865-1939, owner of Colorado Springs’ Broadmoor Hotel), who maintained active membership in the Pacific Union, San Francisco’s most exclusive and expensive gentlemen’s club on the top of Nob Hill, as long as he lived. When asked why he remained a member of a club he never used, he replied, “My God, man. I might want a drink out there.” The idea of drinking in public never occurred to him, and the thought that he might not want a drink at any place, any time, was equally unthinkable.
After graduating last in his class at Harvard, he was enticed to Colorado in the 1890s by his Philadelphia neighbor Charles Tutt, and Spec was soon engaged working in Tutt’s real estate offices in Cripple Creek. He and Tutt went on to make unfathomable fortunes in gold, copper and mineral milling. So flush with cash, Penrose once left himself a note on his bedside table not to spend more than a million dollars the next day. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
“Penrose made a personal assay of Cripple Creek, a howling wilderness and suburb of hell whose Myers Avenue was the widest-open red-light district anywhere outside Butte, Montana, and whose three booming railroads were daily rolling up the hill with palace cars filled with additional girls, madams, hard-rock miners, anarchists, three-card monte men, tippers of the keno goose, whiskey salesmen, confidence-game artists, eastern capitalists, newspaper reporters, and real estate speculators. Penrose liked what he saw.”
Once he had left Philadelphia and resettled to Colorado in 1892, “the only criticism anybody had was of Spec’s clothes. He wore beautifully tailored riding breeches and English boots that cost $100 a pair. Apprised that the community considered him a dude in some respects, Penrose at once sent East for a suit of evening tails and a half dozen opera hats and started dressing for dinner. There were a few catcalls at first, but most of the roughnecks who took exception to his attire were out of the hospital as good as new in two or three weeks.”
After being rebuked by the management of the fabled Antlers hotel in Colorado Springs for riding his saddle horse up the front steps and into the lobby bar, Penrose’s gesture of retaliation was to build the Broadmoor Hotel in 1918 (at the then cost of $3,000,000), all the while stealing from The Antlers the hotel manager and its chef de cuisine, paying them double the salary they had been making at their former employ.
“Once in the 1930s Spec stopped briefly in Philadelphia to see a friend and visit his birthplace at 1331 Spruce Street. It had not been occupied for years, and not a piece of furniture had been moved in over a half century. An ancient butler met the master at the door as though he had only left that morning. A venerable cook appeared to get her orders for dinner. Penrose had kept it that way as a sort of family shrine, a memorial to his youth impervious to the hostile winds of change.”
Upon his death in 1939, Penrose’s $125,000,000 fortune was the largest sum ever filed for probate in the Rocky Mountain region.
If you are fascinated by this sort of thing, this is your book. The Big Spenders. Available in e-reader formats.
Role models of greatness.
Here you will discover the back stories of kings, titans of industry, stellar athletes, giants of the entertainment field, scientists, politicians, artists and heroes – all of them gay or bisexual men. If their lives can serve as role models to young men who have been bullied or taught to think less of themselves for their sexual orientation, all the better. The sexual orientation of those featured here did not stand in the way of their achievements.