For the last few months I have been working with Judi Garner of the Jewish Heritage Center, here at NEHGS, on an exhibit of twentieth-century Jewish photographers and their subjects, and we are finally finished. The photos are framed and hung; the labels have been written, proofed, and attached to boards; a short show catalogue has been created; and my lecture has, largely, been written…
Tonight I will speak here in Boston on the show and its subject: Mitzi Hajos (pron. Hoy-uss), a Broadway chorine who became a one-name star along the lines of Cher or Madonna. Through photos of Mitzi, and the images taken by contemporary photographers of Broadway and Hollywood stars, we can trace the changing aesthetics of theatrical portraiture and the growing influence of the flickers – the photoplay – the movies that were, increasingly, produced in California.
There is an art to a show like this. First and foremost, we considered which photographers, and which portraits, to include. Some of the original photographs that it seemed important to include were in poor shape, and for them we created posters to replace the damaged image. Most of the photos are 8x10s, but what about 10×13 or 11×14 prints? – did they have the presence to be hung in groups instead of being placed inside a case?
We ended up with three horizontal cases, where you stand before them and look down at the images and their labels, as well as a two-level vertical case where we could place a variety of images and open photo books. There are also three free-standing posters and separate groupings of three and six photos – all displaying the work of Herman Mishkin and his sister Marcia Stein, Maurice Goldberg, Ira D. Schwarz, Nickolas Muray, Ruth Harriet Louise, and others.
In addition to Mitzi, the show includes images of George Jessel, Miriam Hopkins, Otis Skinner, Elsie Ferguson, John Garfield, and Colleen Moore. Mischa Auer is present, seated on a bed of nails, while Max Baer is shown in fighting stance in a 1933 photograph by Clarence Sinclair Bull. Carl Van Vechten’s Paul Muni is a question mark, eclipsed in studio darkness, while the mysterious Ethel Sager – in an image by Ben Magid Rabinovitch – dances in a cruel light.
Appropriately, for a genealogical society, the show is about connections and influences, including the family kind. Herman Mishkin and Marcia Stein are siblings; Hollywood star Carmel Myers and photographer Ruth Harriet Louise are cousins; Nickolas Muray photographed Mitzi and, perhaps, served as Louise’s mentor in the long-ago days before she went west to MGM as the first, and last, woman to head a Hollywood portrait studio.
But if their names elude memory, the faces in the show do not. The photographers, as well as their subjects, deserve the credit for capturing – for expressing – the glamour we associate with old Hollywood (and the even older Broadway).
More information on Mitzi! Jewish Photographers and Stars of Broadway and Hollywood, 1910–1940 may be found here.