She was the big Italian mamma who always made lentil soup in her darkroom. Referred to as ‘The Duchess of Carnegie Hall’, Editta Sherman was a flamboyant dresser who left strict instructions that she look marvelous even in death, being dressed in a white vintage wedding gown she bought as a lark just before she passed away.
To Editta Sherman and her husband/business partner Harold, the dream of coming to Manhattan and finding a place to live under $200 a month appeared in a newspaper ad in 1949. The hidden jewel penthouse #1208 in Carnegie Hall had originally been Andrew Carnegie’s office when he built the Tower over the Hall intending it to be occupied by working artists. The roster of names who lived and worked there over the years was impressive: Marlon Brando, Leonard Bernstein, Norman Mailer, Agnes de Mille, photographer Bill Cunningham.
The Shermans and their 5 children moved into their rent regulated 12th floor studio where Editta photographed some of the most famous people in the world including Henry Fonda, Ava Gabor, Andy Warhol, Yul Brenner, Cary Grant and Salvador Dali. She used a wooden 8x10 Kodak camera documenting her subjects’ moods and character using subtle light and shadow compositions in her large negatives.
Her husband Harold, a diabetic and blind, passed away at 50 years old, five years after they moved into the Carnegie Hall Towers. Fortunately, Editta was already supporting her family with her portrait photography which was being used in theater posters, magazines and newspapers.
In 2007, the Carnegie Hall Corporation began gutting and remodeling the studios in order for the spaces to be converted to educational facilities for young musicians. The seven rent controlled tenants still living in the Towers included Editta and her feisty neighbor Elizabeth Sargent, a poet and cancer survivor. In spite of receiving numerous eviction notices, the two scrappy elderly tenants who called the Carnegie Hall Tower their home since the 40s refused to move.
Said the Duchess, ‘I’ve lived here so long my memories of people I’ve photographed are here. I plan to celebrate my 97th birthday next July in this apartment I’ve called home for 58 years.’
Finally, after three years of eviction proceedings followed by financial settlements, which Ms. Sargent nor Ms. Sherman could discuss for legal reasons, the residents left the building.
‘I’ve become more famous than ever living at 881 Seventh Avenue. It has been more than an address and I don’t know how it’s going to work out now that I’m not living there any longer.’
Covered in sequins, Editta Sherman celebrated her 100th birthday with an exhibition of her greatest work at 25CPW Gallery in midtown Manhattan.
She passed away a little over a year later on November 1, 2013 at 101 years young.