PM, November 22, 1943, p. 21
Weegee made the photograph known as “The Critic” 71 years ago today, November 22, 1943.
After Weegee made one of the most iconic photos in the 20th century, what did he do? And what other photos did he make that same night?
But first, context: “The Critic” was hardly Weegee’s first foray into photographing an opening night at The Metropolitan Opera. In fact, beginning on December 3, 1940, Weegee’s photos and the narratives of his photographic foraging were an annual end of year feast in PM.
PM, December 3, 1940
Weegee Covers Society
“Last night, at the opening of the Metropolitan Opera season, I rubbed elbows and stepped on toes of the society crowd (and I don’t mean cafe society). On the outside of the opera house on W. 39th St., after the performance, between the mink coats and the high hats, I felt like an Italian in Greek territory. Without a high hat the cops showed you across the street. They gave me dirty looks but I was saved by my press card. The jam was terrific. All the high hats were looking for their limousines. (Picture on Page 1.) It was a battle of the minks and the fur flew. The cops were so polite to the carriage trade it made passing cab drivers cry with envy. The women were young and, oh, so beautiful, and the men were elderly. I think most of the limousines were rented for the occasion. They had that funeral look. The license numbers started with T and the number followed each other like in taxicabs. But I guess the suits and the top hats were their own.” – WEEGEE
PM, December 3, 1940, p. 2
From 1940-1945 Weegee consistently photographed the people at the Metropolitan Opera (and also consistently photographed, although less satirically and more conspiratorially, non-wealthy and often younger, happier, and/or romantic subjects, at movie theaters and circuses). In Naked City Weegee writes: “I like to get different shots and don’t like to make the same shots the other dopes do…” At times he used infrared film to get “different shots,” and sometimes he focused on the differences between opera goers. Perhaps the zenith of a “different shot” that no other dope did, was published, and filled an entire page, in PM on November 29, 1942:, with the title: “Weegee Brings Back a ‘Different’ Picture of Opera’s Opening Night.” There are also photos of Weegee and Mrs. George Washington Kavanaugh gleefully together…
PM, November 29, 1942, p. 14
Weegee Brings Back a ‘Different’ Picture of Opera’s Opening Night
Weegee, the photographer who lives next door to Police Headquarters and who specializes in covering crime, went up to the opening of the opera last Monday night and took this picture. It shows a meeting in the lobby of the Metropolitan Opera House, after the performance of Daughter of the Regiment [Gaetano Donizetti, 1839], between one of the patrons and a bearded man who had been standing there alone during the last act. “As they came out,” Weegee told us, “the high-hatted folks had looked at the old man in amazement; some murmured ‘What a character!’ Then this monocled one came through the door and patted him on the shoulder, asking, ‘How are you, my good fellow?’” The camera caught the man’s quick smile, but he hurried away before Weegee could find out his name. The democratic opera-goer is Dr. Bertram Cecil Eskell ["(1886-1952) a leading New York surgeon and a favorite in theatrical circles"] of the British Consulate. “I bet he must be a Lord,” said Weegee, “and even if he isn’t he surely is an ambassador of good fellowship.” Later Weegee interviewed a traffic cop outside the Met, where the limousines had been parked clear to 5th Ave., two blocks away. “This is their last splurge,” said the cop, “and they must have had to save their gas coupons for it. Some of the cars had two liveried chauffeurs – one to steer and the other to push when they ran out of gas, I suppose…”
PM, November 29, 1942, p. 14
In 1943, The Museum of the City of New York in co-operation with the Metropolitan Opera Guild presented an exhibition to celebrate the diamond jubilee of the Metropolitan Opera House (1883-1943). It was an exhibition of costumes, props, memorabilia, photos, and theatrical odds and ends. The exhibition included treasures, such as the original program from the inaugural production, Faust [Charles Gounod, 1859]. “From the magic property rooms of the Metropolitan Opera House come treasures long such hidden away in dust and cupboards, such as a dented bronze cup from the first Tristan, a rusted swan’s collar from a Lohengrin, a candelabrum from the first presentation of Tosca, a helmet from Aida, Fidelio’s candlestick, a peacock plumed helmet from L’amore dei tre re and many more fascinating relics… and a board from the stage floor so often trod by Caruso, Farrar and their honored confreres. A lamp used prior to electricity at an exit provides a note of nostalgia.” (Brooklyn Eagle, November 21, 1943, p.36).
To set the scene: November 22, 1943 was a partly cloudy and cold Monday; three days before Thanksgiving. Weegee was 44 years old. “The Critic” was presumably made shortly before 8 PM. It was the opening night of the Met’s 60th season, or “Diamond Jubilee” year. The opera was Boris Godunov, composed by Modest Mussorgsky.
The cast on November 22, 1943 included:
Boris Godunov………..Ezio Pinza
Prince Shuisky……….Alessio De Paolis
Feodor………………Thelma Altman [Debut]
Boyar in Attendance…..Emery Darcy
Set designer…………Alexander Golovine
Set designer…………Alexander Benois
Costume designer……..Ivan Bilibine
The General Manager was Edward Johnson.
The above, and much more information, (including a review by Virgil Thomson(!) of this production of Boris Godunov) about many of the Metropolitan Opera’s productions can be read on the Metropolitan Opera Association website.
Speaking of reviews of this production, here are excerpts from four professional critics:
RUSSIAN HISTORY IN ITALIAN
Moussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov,” which opened the fifty-ninth season (or “Diamond Jubilee” year) of opera at the Metropolitan Opera House last night, is an ideal work for such an occasion. Like “Aida,” it is more a pageant than a play; also, like that other dependable opener of seasons, it is musically beautiful all over. One can come in late or leave early, or get stuck outside for a scene, without losing anything important to the continuity. One misses some good music, but there is always plenty more of that…
Virgil Thomson in The New York Herald Tribune.
From the Metropolitan Opera Association
The Metropolitan “first night” in the second year of the Second World War had more chi-chi than is usual in times of national – and international – stress. The place was packed. The audience was a most cordial and fancily got up one, and — incidentally – the opera was “Boris Godunov” which has not always been given inaugural honors.
Dispensing with the business of the social pageant and getting down to the business of discussing the opera, the night was cold outside and the performance was cold inside. Last seasons’s Borises were much more alive and warm and heartening…”
Robert Bagar in The New York World-Telegram
From the Metropolitan Opera Association
The Met’s Opening ‘Boris’ Is Field Day for Big Cast
To celebrate the opening of its Diamond Jubilee season Monday night, and to signalize the growing friendship and admiration for Russia that the metropolitan shares with everyone else, the opera chosen was Boris Gudunoff. It was an admirable choice in every way. For not only is Boris probably the greatest of Russian operas, but it makes – as no other opera does so well – a major character out of the common people (emphasis mine)… [Boris] shows compassion, understanding and respect for ordinary folk… generally apathetic first-night audience… In, fact it’s good to see the whole company back, and Mondays night’s audience saw quite a large percentage of it. Under vigorous but firmly controlled direction of George Szell it gave an exceptionally fine account of itself.”
Henry Simon, PM, November 24, 1943
Metropoltan Opens Diamond Jubilee With Moussorgsky’s Boris Gudunoff
In a fitting and proper gesture toward Russia, the Metropolitan Opera Association opened its Diamond Jubilee celebration with Moussorgsky’s Boris Gudunoff last night. How important either the gesture or the opera was to the capacity audience could not be readily determined, but the opening itself was quite so. The crowd was considerably dressier and gayer than a year ago; the extracurricular activities among the photographers as flashy as usual. The audience took a long time to warm up to the performance; but then it hardly fitted in to the mood or the nature of the occasion.
As things went last night, the presentation of “Boris” was one of good intentions than of achievement… As it was, this was a plodding performance somewhat passively received… Perhaps it was openingnightitis. Whatever it was, this performance was a letdown. The anticipation was a fully justified, based on last seasons accomplishments. From a spectator’s point of view, the performance was colorful, quite in the tradition of grand opera. The bright spot in the show was the chorus, which of course, is all-important in this opera…”
Brooklyn Eagle, November 23, 1943, p. 9
“The Metropolitan Opens With A Russian Opera
Except for the horse that almost ran away with the tenor in the fourth act, the opening of the Metropolitan Opera in New York City on Nov. 22 was like most openings. The Met had proclaimed a Diamond Jubilee to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the opera house and had broken precedent by starting with a Russian opera as a tribute to the U.S.S.R. But this hardly changed things. There was the same old self-conscious glitter and the same fashionable people arriving too late and spending too much time at the bar. There was the same dispute among newspaperwomen over which there were more of – ladies in mink or ladies in ermine. There was the same old smell of camphor hovering over the fancy furs.
The opera was Modeste Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, greatest Russian opera, which tells of a Russian czar who was driven mad when the Russian mobs, which had enthroned him, finally turned against him. The solemnity of the occasion, was disrupted by a stage horse that didn’t like the tenor astride him, insisted on turning its back to the audience while the tenor sang bravely on. Nobody worried about the mishap. The Met management viewed the crowded house and its heavy reservations, happily predicted a fine season for itself.” Life, pp. 38-39
Weegee and Life are in tune, adopt the same tone, or, to mix metaphors, on the same page with respect to making fun of the flashy opening night wealthy opera patrons and both sympathized with the working class music lovers. And Weegee and Life invoke the smell of opening night – camphor and smugness. (And perhaps the context of a well-performed Boris Godunov is an appropriate opera to criticize wealthy and presumably uninterested opera patrons…)
“The Critic” was first published in the December 6, 1943 of Life. The caption was:
“The fashionable people were laden with jewels. Most bejeweled was Mrs. George W. Kavanaugh and Lady Decies whose entry was viewed with distaste by spectator.”
After photographing Mrs. George Washington Kavanaugh and Lady Decies outside the opera house, presumably on 39th St., Weegee photographed Mrs. George Washington Kavanaugh and Lady Decies in the lobby of the opera house, from behind.
Then Weegee went up to the standing room only section and made at least two photographs, one with regular 4×5 film and flash and another with infrared film.
The other Weegee photo in the Life page spread is directly opposite “The Critic” and is captioned:
“The plain people waited in line for hours to get standing room, listened intently and, as always, showed better musical manners than people sitting in boxes.” Life, p. 39
Probably Weegee’s most famous image, and certainly his most widely published, was taken for PM, but never appeared there… In a recent interview, Louie Liotta, a photographer who acted as Weegee’s assistant, recalled that Weegee had been planning this photograph for a while. Liotta, at Weegee’s request, picked up one of the regular women customers at Sammy’s on the Bowery at about 6:30 p.m. With a sufficient amount of cheap wine for the woman, they proceeded to the opera house. When they arrived, the limousines owned by members of high society were just beginning to discharge their passengers. Weegee asked Liotta to hold the now intoxicated woman near the curb as he stood about twenty feet away from the front doors of the opera house. With a signal worked out in advance, Weegee gave the sign to Liotta, who released the woman, hoping all the while that she could keep her balance long enough for Weegee to expose several plates. [I am aware of only one negative.] The moment had finally arrived: Mrs. George Washington Kavenaugh and Lady Decies were spotted getting out of a limousine. Both women were generous benefactors to numerous cultural institutions in New York and Philadelphia, and Weegee knew that they were well known to every newspaper in New York. Liotta recalled the moment he released the disheveled woman: ‘It was like an explosion. I thought I went blind from three or four flash exposures which Weegee made within a very few seconds.’ PM paid Weegee five dollars for the photograph but did not publish it, since the editorial board thought it was not appropriate to show such lavish jewels and furs during wartime. Weegee had also sold the out-of-town distribution rights to Acme Newspictures, which circulated it with the caption, “She is aghast at the quantity of diamonds in evidence at a wartime opening of the Met but the bejeweled ladies are aware only of Weegee’s clicking camera.”… This contrast of images, the rich with the jewels, and the well-mannered “plain people,” was exactly what Weegee was striving for in all of his photography. The incongruence of life, between the rich and poor, the victims and the rescued, the murdered and the living – his photographs had the ability to make us all eyewitnesses and voyeurs. The first time the photo appeared with the actual title, The Critic,” was in Weegee’s own book, Naked City.
Miles Barth, Weegee’s World, pp. 26-27
Chapter 9 The Opera
The crime teletype machine was quiet at police headquarters… so I decided to sneak away and go to the opening of the opera. I watched the last minute rehearsal. I had no invitation but my press card was enough. War or no war, the Rolls Royces, big and shiny, kept arriving. Some had two chauffeurs with the usual gas ration sticker in the windshield. I guess if they ran out of gas one would steer while the other one would push.
I took stock of the situation. It was a cold night. Inside the warm lobby about two dozen photographers were lined up Wolf Gang Fashion. If one flashed a bulb all the others did too. It was like a game of “follow the leader.” This is big night for cameramen, with the papers and syndicates sending only high class photographers who know society to cover because before a paper will publish a photo of the opening night the subject’s name must be listed in the Social Register.
I like to get different shots and don’t like to make the same shots the other dopes do… so I went outside into the street. I started talking to a cop. On stories I always make friends with cops… gangsters… prostitutes, etc. A nice Rolls Royce pulled up… I waited ’till the occupants got out and snapped the picture. I couldn’t see what i was snapping but could almost smell the smugness. I followed the women into the lobby, where the other photographers then snapped their pictures too. I knew then that I had photographed real society so I asked the two women their names and made them spell them out too. Reporters gathered around hem and asked them, if, in these critical times, it was appropriate to wear so much jewelry. The older woman first apologized for wearing last year’s jewels and added the reason she did it was to help morale…
During intermission I went into the packed salon to watch what was going on. Cameramen were shooting fast and furious. Press agents, seeing my camera, pointed out notables to me but I refused to waste film or bulbs as I don’t photograph society unless they have a fight and get arrested or they stand on their heads.
One woman dressed in ermine was pleading for a ham sandwich. Another couple was saying it was “well done.” I don’t know whether they were talking about their Thanksgiving turkey or the opera.
Weegee, Naked City, 1945, pp. 124-125
A little more than a year and a half after the photo of “The fashionable people were laden with jewels. Most bejeweled was Mrs. George W. Kavanaugh and Lady Decies whose entry was viewed with distaste by spectator” was published in Life, it appeared in Naked City as “The Critic.”
In the operatic Naked City Weegee condenses four years of photographing at the Metropolitan Opera into a twelve page visual narrative of a single opening night. (And repeats the amusing gas rationing, chauffeur duet anecdote…) Weegee’s recounting of how he made “The Critic” is relatively consistent throughout almost 25 years of repeating it.
On same day that “The Critic” was photographed, and Boris Godunov was performed, Berlin was being bombed. The Cairo Conference was occurring with “President of the United States Franklin Roosevelt, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Winston Churchill, and Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek of the Republic of China.” And Lebanon received its independence from France.
By the time Boris Godunov was completed, and perhaps while Weegee was in the darkroom, processing his film and making prints, Berlin was heavily bombed. A few headlines from The New York Times for November 23, 1943: “Ruined Berlin Afire After 2d Bombing; U. S. Planes Smash At Toulon and Sofia; 4 Japanese Destroyers Sunk In Battle” and “Zoo Animals Roam Berlin Streets; Heat Of Fires Fells Pedestrians.” Coincidentally the Deutsche Oper Berlin ” [the Berlin] opera house, was destroyed by a RAF air raid on November 23, 1943.” And of course, twenty years later, on November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated…
Bravo Weegee! Bravo PM! Bravo “The Critic!” Bravo Unidentified “disheveled” woman!