META ROSENBERG. . .
by Rip Rense
(Originally published in Emmy Magazine.)
A little girl on a morning walk in the
fairy tale Hollywood Hills, circa 1925, chatting with her nice neighbor, a fellow named
Rudy. Rudy. . .Valentino.
A verbally precocious young lady in her
teens working at the beloved Stanley Rose Bookshop in Hollywood, getting chummy with the
likes of Nathaniel West, Jim Tully, John O' Hara. . .
A young woman story editor---the only
female executive---at Paramount, suggesting to Billy Wilder that her friend, Raymond
Chandler, would be best for doing the screenplay of "Double Indemnity."
A middle-aged agent enraging colleagues
by insisting that Wilder was a better directing choice for a script than Frank Capra---and
prevailing. The script went on to become "Roman Holiday."
Picture this: Years later, the same agent
gets her wish to do a TV show about a doctor in a hospital, despite the objections of the
head of ABC, Tom Moore, who said "You can't do that---it's too depressing! People are
dying!" The show: "Ben Casey." Or later, a near rerun of the same scene,
but with a Sid Scheinberg at Universal, resulting in "Ironside". . .
Picture this: Fresh from filming
"Support Your Local Sheriff," James Garner announces he wants to go into TV
series, but only if the lady agent who picked "Sheriff" for him will join up as
executive producer of "The Rockford Files." The lady agent does.
Picture all of this, and you have a few
snapshots from the life of Meta Rosenberg, a woman who succeeded in a male-dominated field
because she was "too arrogant" to notice any condescension or chauvinistic
treatment. (Besides, all the guys seemed to like her.)
But there are some other important
pictures in the life of this bouyant, lovely 86-year-old---pictures that, in a way, are
far more revealing---and these are the pictures that Meta Rosenberg has taken with her
trusty Leica, from the streets of Paris in the 1920s to contemporary Los Angeles.
Late in life, the redoubtable story
editor has discovered a surprise subplot in her own script: seems she was really a
photographer all along.
"Well, I'm not a professional
photographer," she demures, from the living room of her Beverly Hills home of 42
years (built and originally occupied by Fred Astaire.)
But that doesn't mean the work is any
"I'm well aware of that, because I
have an ego," she laughed.
Rosenberg sat easily on a blue-and-white
striped, cushy couch in her living room, suffused in a soft focus of indirect light from
shaded skylights. Several Persian rugs lay strewn about the brick floor, punctuated by
potted plants. The lady was a mix of formality and Sunday afternoon, what with jaunty blue
pullover sweater, tan slacks, pearl necklace, and nifty white New Balance running shoes.
Her hair is still a brunette bob, and her eyes---though beset with macular degeneration
that has cruelly rendered most everything a mere outline---still a flashing green.
She sipped fresh-brewed coffee as
she spoke, her voice yet tinged with the decisive tone of the editor.
"Very early on, in my early
20s, I was taken with good photography that I would see in museums and books. And later,
because I was involved in movies and television, I was accustomed to dealing with things
visually. So it was sort of natural for me to do it myself. So I bought a Leica, which was
smart because it's a good camera. And I just took pictures wherever I was!"
Today, thirty big, ravishing
black-and-white prints are arranged on her walls---fresh from, yes, the first-ever Meta
Rosenberg Photography Exhibition, which was held at the prestigious Peter Fetterman
Gallery in Santa Monica. She was shocked when Fetterman, an old friend who normally
showcases the likes of Henri Cartier-Bresson, proposed the exhibit---which was highly
praised by the Los Angeles Times.
To look at Roenberg's work is to
understand Fetterman's interest. She has a painterly eye---you almost want to refer to her
photos as paintings---and doesn't fritter away endless rolls of film in search of
"just the right shot." Quite the opposite:
"A very famous American photographer
named Imogene Cunningham was being interviewed on television," she said. "She
was in her nineties. And the interviewer said, 'Mrs. Cunningham, it must be wonderful
because you've been here so long and have seen so many technological developments in
cameras over the years.' She said, 'It's not the least important! You either have an eye,
or you don't!' I think it's true. I never take a picture of something that doesn't say
something to me. I don't just record anything. I don't shoot a million, I shoot the one.
And that's it."
Among "the ones" she shot
through the decades:
Portraits of rumpled, day-sleeping
clochards (hobos) in Paris that look like stills from Jean Luc-Goddard films; a little boy
mesmerized by a saxophonist in a Madrid park; a Venice gondolier heading away, rounding a
canal corner (that makes you want to round the corner, too); three little cats in front of
a great stone lion in Venice, Italy; a little girl staring into a Paris pastry shop---but
at a reflection of herself, not the delectables; a head-tilted woman looking at (and
looking like) a head-tilted Picasso bust; and a photo probably as full of meaning as any
ever taken: a dumpy, non-threatening security guard parked haplessly beneath a towering
sculpture of what appears to be Zeus. . .
"He's so small and ordinary,"
said Rosenberg, offering a guided tour of photos she now only sees in her mind's
eye." And that statue is marvelous!"
Then there are the children---her
favorite subject. No, not cutesy poses. There's nothing Hallmark card-esque going on here.
These would be worthy of Diane Arbus; they're almost more short story than scene. There's
the little boy in the Louvre who, when asked (in French) if he would mind having his
picture taken, shouted, "Yes, I would," then ran behind a door, half his
resentful face peeking out. And the little forlorn French girl on the carousel in the
Trullerie Gardens. . .the tryptich of two kids at an L.A. day care center going from
strangers to chums in a matter of moments. . .
Today the shutter is silent, at
least for the moment. Rosenberg is looking into having someone design a telescopic
viewfinder for her camera, as she thinks that will be sufficient to enable compensation
for the limited vision. Meanwhile, the one-time Hollywood High prodigy (she skipped grades
graduated at 15) contents herself with full, rich days, courtesy of her devoted friend and
publicist Ben Halpern---and her "driver," an Armenian immigrant (and one-time
Soviet Army draftee who used to drive missile trucks) named Mike. Together, the unlikely
duo take daily walk in Palisades Park, drink coffee at Peet's, then adjourn to Rosenberg's
home for an afternoon round of chess. The story editor teaches him a few words of English,
tries to explain who Fred Astaire and Raymond Chandler were, and Mike generally wins the
Quite a picture.
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