The Rip Post


PICTURE META ROSENBERG. . .

by Rip Rense
(Originally published in Emmy Magazine.)

          Picture this:
         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.
         Picture this:
         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. . .
         Picture this:
         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."
         Picture this:
         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 less good---
         "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 games handily.
          Quite a picture.

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