Magazine article The New Yorker

Cool Mom

Magazine article The New Yorker

Cool Mom

Article excerpt

Cool Mom

Not long ago, Fay Ennis, a retired market-research executive who just celebrated her ninety-second birthday, was telling family members stories from her past, which turned into an occasion for bringing out a box of moody black-and-white photographs. She had posed for them seventy years ago, as a graduate student at Columbia, where Margaret Mead was one of her professors. The pictures were taken by Saul Leiter, who later became well known as a member of the so-called New York School.

At the time, Leiter was an impoverished would-be painter, with a crush on Ennis's younger sister, Sarah--or so Ennis recalled recently, when she and her twin daughters, Betsy and Susan, took the images to the Howard Greenberg Gallery, Leiter's dealer. They wanted to show Greenberg and Margit Erb, the director of the Saul Leiter Foundation, what Ennis had squirrelled away in a drawer.

"Saul and I had no romance at all--he was always telling me how much he cared about Sarah," Ennis said, as she spread out the ten prints that Leiter, who died in 2013, had made at the end of the forties. In them, she is wearing lots of lipstick and dressed in a polka-dot pajama top, looking with sultry, mascaraed eyes into the camera, her tousled hair spilling across a pillow. "I am half exposed, but I never posed nude," she said. "We were completely Platonic. I was never his muse."

"You were very cool, Mom," Betsy, a public-relations consultant, said.

"I got married in 1952," Ennis replied, firmly.

"I think you are not remembering," Betsy said. "You were very cool."

"New York was very cool," Ennis insisted.

Leiter, who was brought up in an Orthodox Jewish family in Pittsburgh, moved to New York in 1946, when he was twenty-three, and lived on Perry Street. Ennis, who also came from an Orthodox background, moved from Detroit the same year; she lived in a rooming house in the West Nineties. "Detroit was a place you got away from," she said. They met because their younger sisters were yeshiva friends.

"Saul and I used to spend time going to the galleries on Fifty-seventh Street. If you had any money, you could buy all sorts of things, but we didn't have any money," Ennis said. "I remember looking at a painting by Paul Klee that was five hundred dollars. …

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