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
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
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.
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 be and see seen at the time. Zerbe pioneered the business arrangement
of getting paid by nightclubs 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.
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 could slam down his
drink and shout, “Go to hell,” and that would be the end of it.
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.
Sources: Wikipedia, New York Times
Below: Cary Grant and Randolph Scott photographed "at home" by Zerbe (1933):