75 Years ago today, November 22, 1943, Weegee made the photograph known as “The Critic.” In preparation for this day, we’ve looked at Weegee’s published work for the proceeding month. Throughout October 1943 Weegee had only seven photos published in PM, yet the subjects of the photos are diverse, almost all are related to World War Two in some way, and the quality was outstanding. We’ve also looked at his photos made at the Metropolitan Opera’s opening nights for the previous three years. Perhaps during these three years there was an evolution (at least in the published photos) from photographing hats and people from behind, to a direct, more confrontational practice, and from looking for things and people that are different to setting up and largely staging a photo. Of all the gazillions of photos made during the Metropolitan Opera’s opening nights, and opening nights through out the world, for over 175 years, perhaps Weegee’s “The Critic” is the only photo still exhibited, looked at, blogged about, and the most memorable. This is in part because the image perfectly reflects (she’s looking at them, they’re looking at us, we’re looking at her) the timeless contrast of economic disparity and inequality present in life in New York and elsewhere…
The Players: Mrs. Marie Muller Kavanaugh (AKA Mrs. George Washington Kavanaugh), Elizabeth Wharton Drexel (AKA Lady Decies), and an unidentified woman.
Mrs. Marie Muller Kavanaugh (1867-1954) was born in Washington D.C. She attended around 30 Metropolitan Opera season openings. She lived at 10 East 62nd St. She was well-known, featured in many “society” columns (on May 12, 1939, The New York Times reported that Mrs. George Washington Kavanaugh gave a large reception for Lady Decies that featured “masses of roses, gladioluses and other variegated Spring blossoms”), and for many years was photographed at the opening nights of the Metropolitan Opera. Life magazine (January 4, 1937), in an article “Flashlight Night at the Opera,” reported that “No operagoer wore orchids or ermine or diamonds with more verve than Mrs. George Washington Kavanaugh, shown with her daughter, Mrs. Leonora Warner.” Perhaps inspired by “The Critic,” a December 18, 1944 article in Life, “Life Goes to Opening Night at the Opera with Mrs. George Washington Kavanaugh,” (with photos by Marie Hansen and Gjon Mili) we follow Mrs. GWK before, during, and after the opening night. That’s life.
Lady Decies, formerly known as Elizabeth Drexel died on June 13, 1944, in the Hotel Shelton (Lexington and 49th), she was 76. (In 1926 Houdini was submerged in a coffin-like case for 90 minutes in the hotel’s basement pool and Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz lived for several years in the Hotel Shelton.) Lady Decies was the author of two books King Lehr and the Gilded Age (1935) and Turn of the World (1937). She was known for her dinner parties. One of her famous parties was the “golden dinner” – her clothes, the decorations, and table service were gold. Lady Decies outlived her three husbands: John Dahlgren, Harry Lehr, and Lord Decies (John Beresford). She was born in Philadelphia in 1868. (A beautiful portrait of Elizabeth Drexel and small dog by Giovanni Boldini in 1905, from The Elms, a Newport, Rhode Island mansion.) Her funeral service was held at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. (That’s not life.)
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. Mrs. George Washington Kavanaugh was 76 and Lady Decies was 75. “The Critic” was presumably made shortly before 8 PM. It was the opening night of the Met’s 60th season, or “Diamond Jubilee” year. In a salute to Russia the opera was “Boris Godunov,” composed by Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881). Ezio Pinza sang the role of Boris Godunov; the conductor was George Szell. The line to buy standing-room-only tickets began forming at 4:30 AM.
In the audience was at least one man who has been a subscriber to the Metropolitan during the entire six decades of its existence… Though the music held dominion within the auditorium, outside it in the corridors, foyers and entrances the traditional high and low lights of a Metropolitan Opera opening were in evidence. There was the usual popping of flashlight bulbs as photographers sought to catch on the wing the eminent In the worlds of the arts, business, politics, society and the armed forces…
Also unusual for the Opera House was the increasingly large representation of female photographers. In the past there have been disputes between management and male photographers when the latter invaded the auditorium to take flash-bulb pictures. But the girls plied their trade unmolested; apparently the management is too gallant to throw out a lady. (The New York Times, November 23, 1943)
The Times reviewer was beguiled with the large, white horse: “To put the matter bluntly… the most individual and interesting performer in the cast of “Boris Godunoff” on said opening night of the Metropolitan’s jubilee season was the horse… We repeat: the horse was the principal distinction of the evening.” (The New York Times, November 23, 1943)
“The Critic” was first published in the December 6, 1943 edition 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.”
Life, December 6, 1943, pp. 38-39
“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’s account of how the photo was made:
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 a big night for the 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 some 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 picture 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 them and asked them, if, in these critical times, it was appropriate to wear so much jewelry. The older woman first apologized for wearing last years jewels and added the reason she did it was to help morale…
P.S.N.W. Ayer & Son, the big advertising agency who has the account of De Beers Consolidated Mines Ltd., that’s the diamond trust, bought this picture for their files. They examined the photograph with a magnifying glass and said the diamonds were real…
The theatre was jammed so I went into the grand tier where the board of directors of the Metropolitan Opera house have their private boxes and picked myself a nice private box. There was another occupant, a director who kept his high silk hat on. I gave him a couple of dirty looks but he paid no attention to me or to the usher, who was evidently afraid to go near him.
During the 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 with her escort 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, pp. 124-125
The definitive account of how the photo was made can be found in the essential Weegee biography Flash: The Making of Weegee The Famous, (Henry Holt), 2018, by Christopher Bonanos, below is an adapted excerpt:
The Chance Encounter That Wasn’t
This picture made Arthur “Weegee” Fellig’s career. Almost nothing in the photo happened by accident.
By Christopher Bonanos
…From his place on the sidewalk, Weegee signaled Liotta, who released the disheveled woman and gave her a little nudge into the frame. Judging by the photograph, she is reeling, barely able to stand. If there was one thing Weegee knew from being in a scrum of press photographers, it was how to make a few shots very quickly, swapping in sheets of film and flashbulbs as fast as he could. Flash: He caught Mrs. Kavanaugh and Lady Decies as the third woman observed them. Flash, again, a moment later, as the two ladies turned, passed him, and stepped into the lobby, facing half a dozen other photographers with the same tight smiles. Much later, Liotta told the journalist Joyce Wadler that there were three or four bulbs set off, almost too fast for him to parse. That was it. No different from shooting outside police headquarters any day of the week.
Although Weegee had staged the sidewalk encounter, he couldn’t have known quite how perfectly the tableau would square up on film. The two ladies in fur are almost pure white, nearly blown out by his flash. Mrs. Kavanaugh’s smile is taut and paper-thin, the essence of fatuousness; Lady Decies looks quizzical, perhaps a little sour, her mouth pursed. They both face the camera square on. The drunken woman, by contrast, is caught in perfect 90-degree profile, giving her features a sharpness against the nearly black background. Because her clothes are darker, she doesn’t pick up the flash as the bejeweled ladies do. Her coat reads dishwater gray, her hair lank, her scowl dark, her eyes rolling. She seems shorter, too. Weegee wanted a contrast; he got more than he could have asked for.
Adapted from Flash: The Making of Weegee The Famous, (Henry Holt), 2018