Jerome Zerbe has been called the first paparazzo, but don’t think of him in the modern sense, says Timothy Young, curator of modern books at Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library on Jerome Zerbe has been called the first paparazzo, but don’t think of him in the modern sense, says Timothy Young, curator of modern books at Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library on Wall Street in New Haven.
The new exhibition, “Life of the Party: Jerome Zerbe and The Social Photograph,” is part of an archival gift of 50,000 images by Zerbe given to Yale by collector Frederick Koch — now displayed for the public in glass cases on the ground floor of the library, with related materials in mezzanine cases.
Before Zerbe, print portraits of royalty or screen actors were “highly mediated ... like official portraits that were handed out,” said Young at a recent preview of the exhibit. “Catching people in the midst of actually going in parties ... starts in the 1920s and ’30s. Zerbe is often called ‘the first paparazzo’; but he is very different from the later paparazzo, like Ron Galella, who was sued (for his intrusions) ... because Zerbe knew these people.”
A Yale grad in 1928 who came from a well-to-do family, Zerbe was best at gathering friends for parties and photographing cafe society in the 1930s. After a stint in Cleveland working for a magazine, he made his way to New York City where he became on-site photographer for the hip El Morocco club as Prohibition was ending.
The El Morocco’s heyday was also during the Depression; Young said the photos of the rich and famous (Clark Gable, Gloria Swanson, Carole Lombard) were “sort of a balm; they gave a sense of this aspirational life.” The photos were given away to newspapers and magazines.
The open photo albums in the cases show hundreds of well-dressed nightclubbers in casual (for that era) moments. Most are seated-and-smiling shots, not posed like portraits but hardly candid by today’s standards. The techniques Zerbe used, however, were adopted by paparazzi in later decades.
But a few of the images do expose awkward or even tasteless moments from parties of that era. In 1935, there was a party for Salvador and Gala Dali where guests were invited to come dressed as a dream or a nightmare.
“And so, Gala Dali comes dressed as the Lindbergh baby — a doll that’s been cut up into pieces,” said Young, pointing to the stunning photo. “This hit the news; people freaked out as you would imagine they would. And several people told Salvador Dali, ‘You need to make a statement; you need to apologize.’ And of course Dali said, ‘I’m a surrealist; you never apologize for surrealism.’”
Zerbe’s photos also include many from his stint in the Navy during World War II. Those include images of explosions and death and even a photo of Ernie Pyle, the Pulitzer Prize–winning American journalist and war correspondent, a week before he was killed.
Zerbe, who is credited with inventing the vodka martini, went on to become the society editor of Town and Country Magazine, write a book called “The Art of Social Climbing,” live in Hollywood and build a home in Deep River called Windsong where he entertained the likes of Katharine Hepburn in the modern era. He died in 1988.
Also on the mezzanine of the Beinecke are cases that play off of or contrast with the celebrity photo theme, including photographers who were documenting other visions of American social life in the mid-20th century: Margaret Bourke-White; Weegee; Carl Van Vechten; Harry Adams. There’s a mirror-backed case for this Kardashian era where one can take a photo that becomes a selfie.
And there’s a smaller exhibit, “Michael Childers: Author! Author!,” with portraits of literary types such as Gore Vidal, Carrie Fisher and Gloria Steinem displayed (appropriately) on the glass walls of the rare-books stack that is central to the Beinecke.
Sunday hours at the library, by the way, have been added for summer so you can wander into the Beinecke seven days a week.