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Alice MacMahon

Leonetti Memoirs: the 1910s & 1920s


Of the few surviving autobiographies penned by American theatrical photographers, Carlo Leonetti’s typescript Memoirs is distinctive for the range of experiences recounted beyond photography and painting, his dual passions. Leonetti craved variety in his days, and his ninety-nine years packed a range of experiences from bouts as an occupation forces M.P. in post-WW2 Germany, to a stint as a Fokine-trained dancer in Jazz Age Manhattan, and another as a semi-pro opera singer for San Carlo Opera Company in the early 1950s.  Composed in the form of episodes and illustrated with a liberal selection of photographs, Carlo Leonetti undertook its writing circa 1980, when a resident or Tampa, Florida.  His memory was selective.  He thought it impolitic to recall his early connection with leftist painters and magazines, or his illustration work for Masses. There is also the question of how great Leonetti's contribution was to the creation of the English language version of "The Jest."  Edward Sheldon is usually credited as the creator of the adaptation. Sheldon, however, did not know Italian; and the play was more an adaptation than a translation at any rate.  So we confront a mystery.  Because his later years were much occupied with work done for various Reserve Officers associations, Leonetti’s service in the U. S. Military receive protracted treatment.  Travel was Leonetti’s greatest diversion in later years, so the chronicle of his several transatlantic voyages looms large in the telling.

At various points in his life painting predominated over photography in terms of his artistic work.  From 1913 to 1922 he was an oil painter foremost. From 1922 to 1929 photography provided his livelihood.  In the 1930s painting again assumed centrality in his imagination.  Only Charles Albin underwent a similar oscillation in his art.   The following extracts present those episodes in the Memoirs narrating his work as a photographer.  They appear by permission of Basil Leonetti, Carlo’s grand-nephew.  He has also graciously provided scans of the images that accompanied the typescript.  This presentation constitutes the first publication of Leonetti’s autobiographical musings. 


Episode No. 4  1913

The Art Students League of New York City, organized in 1875, was the hunting ground for theatrical producers and talent scouts.  Young theatrical students had a better chance of getting try-outs than if they had an agent.  The schools in art, in dancing, music, etc., was where the producers looked for talent.

In 1913, at the age of 18, I enrolled at the Art Students of New York City.  I had a morning class, because I worked at Dryden’s doing posers in the afternoon; at night I worked at Loft’s Ice Cream Parlor, scrubbing counters and floors.  They would look me in at closing time, for security reasons, then unlock the doors at 7:00 in the morning.  Then I went home for a few hours of sleep, because at 9:00 I had to be at the League.  The circle continued.

One of the first and most lasting friendships I found was Chris Buchheit, the all around Superintendent.  He fixed everything that went wrong; he made all of the adjustable easels for all of the classes; racks to hold the fresh paintings that were in the process of completion, and many other things.  The Secretary, Mrs. Gillen, took a liking to me and did many favors for me.  It was a privilege to have as teachers these famous men:  Frank Vincent DuMond, Robert Henri, George Bridgman, and Kenneth Hayes Miller.  In each class I was the monitor.  During all of my connections with schools I have never had to pay a cent for tuition.

Most of my fellow students became famous, and even became teachers at the League later.  The League is still located on 215 West 57th Street, and occupies a three story building, formerly the National Academy of Design.  The Art Students League gave its students lea-way for doing any type of art they chose.  They would acquaint themselves with the work of the teachers, then choose which one they wished to study with.  The system  has prevailed to this day, and there is hardly a famous artist but who studied at the League at some time or other.

John and Lionel Barrymore studied there, and did creditable work.

When a new student had no preference he was placed in a class that had been losing money.

Episode No. 6  1919

I still continued my lessons at the Arts Students League and my weekly work with the National Guard and of course my photography.  In addition to all of these activities I took part in a number of movies.  One of them was ‘Broken Blossoms’ with Richard Barthelmes and Dorothy and Lillian Gish.  I was the Chinese fruit peddler, and I still have my costume. I wore it to a costume party a few years ago, and as my wife and I approached our hostess and host they asked, “Where is your husband?” My wife replied: “He’s right here.” The host looked past the Chinese that stood in front of him and said:  “Where? I don’t see him!”

When movies decided to move to California I chose to remain in New York City.  At about that time I acquired a team of Alaskan Huskies which I used in the movies.  How I loved those dogs! And how they loved me! I housed them on the roof of the apartment building where I lived.  Mala, the lead dog was my “First Love.”

During my early days in the theatre I was fortunate enough to associate with John Barrymore, ‘the Great Profile.’ I translated an Italian play “The Jest”, by Sam Benelli, for John Barrymore.  During the months we worked on it we became very close friends.  He was performing at the Plymouth Theatre on Broadway, and would take me with him for his shows.  I would stand in the wings and worship him in action.  I studied his diction, his body movements and facial expressions.  When movies went to Hollywood John Barrymore went with them, and I lost a good friend.  He had a roof garden on the roof of his apartment on West 8th street, and a pet vulture.

It was really true that he scrounged around in garbage cans for spoiled meat to feed his vulture.  Another good friend I had was Johnny Weismuller of Tarzan fame.  We met at the swimming pool at the YMCA, off Columbus Circle, and he taught me the various styles of swimming and diving.  While playing water polo I broke my nose—badly—the doctors had to remove part of the bone.  I have a memento of that Johnny sent me—a salt shaker! Imagine!


Episode No. 7  1920-22

I found a place to live with Jean Liberte another artist, on 115th street East, in a frame house with an out door toilet.  He lived upstairs and I lived down stairs.  That is where I began developing photographs.

I began taking voice lessons in 1920 from Francis Toree in New York.  He insisted that I be a baritone, like himself.  It was 1920 when I met Don Dickerman, and we two organized the famous Pirates’ Den in Greenwich Village.  So we located an old livery stable, no longer in use, but still held the smell.  We rented it for a small fee, cleaned it out, and began furnishing it.  It was a three story building with a freight elevator, which we used for an orchestra.  Don had been making cut-outs of pirates in costume,  and wondered if there might be a market for them.  That is how we thought of having a Pirates’ Den.  Our ‘elevator’ would go from floor to floor and play for the diners on each floor, for those who wished to dance.

Michel Fokine was my dancing teacher, and he taught me much.  So Don and I had a floor show, and brought in popular stars.  I was a singing waiter in a Pirate’s costume and a parrot on my shoulder.  Among the stars were Rudy Vallee who actually got his start at the Pirate’s Den.  Another waiter and myself had an act—we fought a duel with real swords.  I still have a scar from one of the cuts I received.  Roger White was the orchestra leader, and he became famous with performances at our Pirate’s Den.  One night the elevator started falling, and without thinking I grabbed the ropes, but it broke the fall of the elevator.  It blistered my hands and it took some time to heal them. 

I don’t remember the date, but at one of theatres, after the show, I found a hundred dollar bill, and with it I bought the best camera I could find, and began taking photographs of the Broadway Stars—the Dennis-Shawn dancers, Ted Shawn, Ruth St. Denis, Will Rogers, Three Black Crows, Anna Pavlova the Ballerina, May West, Marlina Detric [sic], Carnera, Jack Dempsey, etc.

I had a dance number on the same billing with these famous actors and dancers.  Because of my busy schedule I had to develop the films at night, instead of sleeping.  My first real large order came from Lady Diana Manners who took the lead in the 1923 production of “The Miracle.”


A Stage Play



Producer:  Max Reinhardt, from Salzburg, Austria.

Staged in 1923 in New York City, for 365 performances.

The Century Theatre was effectively converted into a cathedral, for Morris Gest’s production of ‘The Miracle,’ a religious legend spectacularly staged by Max Reinhardt.  (He didn’t speak a word of English. He had to work through an interpreter.) The play was one of the theatrical events of the year.  Lady Diana Manners of London, played the Madonna, Rosamond Pinchot (Daughter of Gov. Gifford Pinchot), was the Nun, Orville Caldwell the Knights.  Others in the cast were Rudolph Schildraut, Schuylar Ladd, Werner Krauss, and Fritz Field.

I played several parts in this play, so the Miracle as become an important place in my Memoirs.

The story began with an outdoor scene where the Madonna was healing lepers, gathered at the front of her pedestal.

Michel Fokine had one of his famous dance numbers, including several dancers including myself.  I remember, in one of the performances—part of the center stage floor was a semi-transparent green glass, and while we were dancing on it, it partly broke and had to be repaired during the performance while we continued with our dance number.  The repairing was done from below the stage floor, by George Zorn. 

As part of the remodeling the theatre entrance was removed, and huge cathedral doors were installed. I also remember the theatre seats were removed and replaced by regular church pews. 

Among the many parts I played were: an Acolyte, a Bridesmaid, a musician, a dancer, etc.  I had to make lightning changes of costumes, and Red Foxx, my dresser, was always ready with the next costume. (Yes the same Red Foxx who has the popular television show “Sanders and Son.”)

The play ran for one full year, then Otto Kahn, the financier, closed the show for financial reasons.

The aftermath of the show was:  Lady Duff Cooper returned to London, Max Reinhardt returned to Austria, Morris Gest lost his mind completely, Rosamon Pinchot committed suicide, and I set up a fantastic photograph studio, staring with an order from Lady Diana Manners for 1000 prints of her photograph.

Part of the cast went on the road with the show, but I couldn’t go with them because I was so involved with photography and other things.


Episode No. 9  1924 to 1930

Between 1924 and 1930 my photographic business was going full speed.  It was fully established before I went to Macy’s.  I was listed as an executive in charge of the photographic department.  The arrangements were $100.00 weekly for one year.  They gave me carte blanche on materials for building the department.  The area was 100 feet by 60 feet, with one wall white and smoothe, one with the entrance to a house, an office, dark, reception room with tropical fish.  I was on the job there 24 hours a day.  Many celebrities came for photographs—Nelson Eddy, Marlena Detric [sic], Harold Lloyd, Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, and many stunt fliers.  When my contract was up I returned to my own studio at 63 West 46th Street.

I had many advertising accounts.  Bratten, Barton & Durstine & Osborne, Blackman, J. Walter Thompson Agency, Etc.  I had about twenty live models.  The magazines rated me as the best theatrical photographer, I was highest among the Advertising Agencies.  I gave huge parties.  Girls from the Earl Carroll Vanities attend my parties.  John Robert Powers sent his girls to me for my opinion of them.  At one time I entertained the entire cast of “Kid Boots” with Eddie Cantor.  Many celebrities came to my parties—H. L. Mencken and many actors and actresses.  My income was much larger than at Macy’s. My charges were from $100.00 to $500.00 for a single picture.

When the stock market crash came I lost $2000.00 in my bank account  The loss affected me very little, as I was more interested in turning out works of art than making money.  I refused to lower my prices.  I preferred to quit business.  I sold some of my equipment and advertising accounts.  However, I continued with photography for magazines, and kept my studio on 46th Street, and my living quarters at an apartment on 8th Street.

I gave an exhibition of my photos at the New York Photographers Club.  It was well received.  Some of my colleagues could not understand how I was getting $100.00 for a single copy of my photos—let along $500.00 They were figuring ten cents for the paper, five cents for the film and fifteen cents for the developer.  They thought ‘What a Profit!’ for a single print! But my photographs were ART! My photographs represented knowledge and experience.  Actually I was rendering personal service and my work was more than well received.  From Dorothy Gray alone I was paid $500.00 for one print of the 3 faces, and several beauty creams that I gave to the elevator boy to give to his girl friend.  My work appeared in Vogue, Vanity Fair, House and Garden, and many other publications.        

I received a Bronze Medal Award at the International Exhibition of Pictorial Photographers in 1927 in Pittsburgh, Pa. It was a portrait of the etcher Joseph Pennell.  I have kept a print of it throughout these years—through fire, hurricanes , and termites. 

I also still have a print of May West, Marlena Dietrick, Lady Diana Manners, Ruth St. Denis, Ted Shawn, Anna Pavlova the ballerina, also the Denishawn Dancers.  Another photographic print that has withstood the ravages of time is one of myself and Vera Markova doing an interpretive dance for the Greenwich Village Follies in 1920.  After sixty-five years it is still as fresh as the day it was developed. 

In 1923 I photographed the instructors at the Art Students League, and, as Susie the model said:  “none of them are beauties!”  They were George Bridgman, Frank Vincent DuMond, Allen Tucker, Joseph Pennell, Anne Goldwaite, Robert Henri, and Thomas Fogarty and Boardman Robinson.

While I was still at Macy’s, May West walked up four flights of stairs to have me make her photograph.  She remarked, “All my life I’ve been asking men to come up and see me some time, but I never thought I’d ever ‘come up to see a man! Well, here I am, but make it snappy! This girdle is killing me!” (That was in 1924) Also, while at Macy’s I photographed Eleanor Roosevelt, and when she looked at it she said “Well! This has really made made my day!”