In contrast to his diminutive stature, for most of two decades Murray Korman was a larger-than-life figure among the social elite of New York City. Born Moritz Korman in 1902 in the Ukrainian city of Kamianets Podilski, Murray was the youngest of five children. When he was only five years old his mother died. That same year, 1907, his father emigrated to New York City. The exact date of these two events is unknown so it is not clear if his mother’s death was prior to or after the father’s immigration. Further, sources are contradictory as to when Murray came to America. One source records 1907 as the year Murray immigrated while another reads “Korman and his parents emigrated in 1912.” Still, a third source notes that the five children followed their father “a few years later.” Though not an exact date, this last time frame corresponds with the information the author received during a 2013 interview with Roberta Satro, a niece of Murray and heir to his estate. When asked, Roberta said “the children followed several years after their father.” Roberta also verified that Murray’s mother died prior to the family emigrating, contradictory to the one source that mentions Murray’s “parents” immigrating.
Murray was soon enrolled in Public School 13, then later Public School 160, where his creative bent and love of art was first exhibited. During the brief period he attended public school in America one former teacher noted that he “drew caricatures of the teachers and made a general nuisance of himself.” But Murray’s carefree approach to school was in stark contrast to his work ethic and entrepreneurial attitude. He took full advantage of the opportunities for success that America offered. As a youth he sold newspapers, designed rugs, and painted dolls. It’s this third occupation that proved most rewarding, jump starting a successful career in the creative arts.
By the time he was in the eighth grade Murray landed a part-time job as a kewpie doll artist, painting faces on dolls at a local factory. He excelled at this and was soon offered $50 a week to work full-time, an offer too good to refuse. And so, Murray dropped out of school during his eighth grade year, at the age of 14, to pursue full-time employment. He soon proved to be gifted with leadership skills that matched his artistic talents. Within a short time Murray had 20 “daubers” working under him. And his good fortune did not stop there. Due to his “brisk efficiency and all-around skill, the factory decided to let out all the painting to him on a contract basis, and he set up his own shop.”
It was about this same time, in 1917, that Murray decided to further his artistic career and enrolled in night classes at Cooper Union to study art, something he continued for 5 years. He also began to land some freelance jobs sketching illustrations for local newspapers, all the while continuing to paint kewpies. Finally in 1924, though making a handsome sum of $300 per week, he quit the doll painting business to pursue a career as a sketch artist and painter.
According to one source, Murray’s “artistic life” began “as a cartoonist for the New York World with Broadway as his specific assignment.” Murray’s sketches captured the attention of Emile Gauvreau, a local newspaper editor who gave him several assignments for his publication, The New York Graphic. Prompted by this success, he soon opened a portrait studio on Broadway. The studio’s first high-profile jobs came from Florenz Ziegfeld. Murray was commissioned to make a large sketch of the full Ziegfeld Follies cast for a newspaper, for which he was paid $300. This project opened the door for many others.
Murray’s initial foray into the world of photography was due more from necessity of keeping pace with the demand for sketches, and less a desire to change his artistic medium. Everything about Broadway moved at a hectic pace and Murray soon found that the best way to keep up with his workload was to sketch from photos as opposed to sketching from real life. And though a talented sketch artist, Murray soon concluded that, “in most cases the photographs were far superior to the resulting sketches.”
Though the request for sketches from the Broadway crowd were pouring in, his “financial intake was small.” His sketches created for newspapers, were soon sold to the subjects to increase his income. To carry this idea one step further, Murray had the idea of taking photos of the sketches to sell to the performers who always needed extra pictures for professional purposes. Ever the entrepreneur, Murray quickly realized there was greater business opportunities and more money to be made in photography than sketches. In 1926 he collaborated with a photographer to combine his many business connections with the photographer’s skills. Within six months Murray had gained enough knowledge of the technique necessary with the camera to open a photography studio of his own at 41 West Forty-sixth Street. The emphasis of his business quickly turned from sketches to photos — and successes were immediate. In the latter months of 1929, when many other photographers were closing shop, Murray rented a larger place on the fifth floor of a building at 701 Seventh Avenue. It was only a matter of a few years before an article in The New Yorker magazine referred to Murray’s business as “probably Broadway’s most successful studio.” His studio, that started in a small room in a hotel, soon filled three floors of the Mayfair Theatre building.
For the next nine years Murray’s business thrived as he became a master of “cheesecake” photography, a style that “conspicuously emphasizes a woman’s femininity.” According to an article by Robert Lewis Taylor in The New Yorker entitled The Pleasant Art of Cheesecake, “Korman has no peer.” The scene at his studio was “something out of a Hollywood script – prop and kleig lights in wild disarray, beautiful women thronging the waiting rooms from 10 a.m. until midnight, and the maestro dashing from one studio to another.”
Murray’s clientele was primarily from the theatrical district: actors, actresses, and entertainers. One source noted that “he numbers every cabaret in town among his clientele.” For this reason, it was noted that “perhaps in the entire country there is not another male who is on speaking terms with so many beautiful women.” Newspapers all over the country came to recognize him as an authority on beauty. So much so that he was once called to testify in court on a case involving a popular Broadway showgirl, Eileen Wenzel, who was disfigured in an automobile accident. ( When the judge asked “… as a photographer of beauty, to define that quality described as beauty” Murray responded, “Well, it’s perfect features, plus complexion and charm, … and an expression — an expression your can’t acquire. You are born with it, but may lose it.” Eileen was eventually awarded $900,000.)
In stark contrast to this studio that catered to Broadway, in 1938 Murray started a second business with the intention of accommodating the “carriage trade.” Opened at the height of his success, this East Side studio on the second floor of a building at 534 Madison Avenue was the result of Murray’s confidence that he could improve on portraiture that was appearing in local papers of New York’s cafe society. And his impact was felt immediately in the New York City photography scene. According to one publication, “Society photographers are a little concerned about the inroads [Korman] is making on their business. Many cafe society buds, it seems, prefer the glittering products of the Korman mill to the more dignified ‘portraits’ which convention used to dictate.” Where the Broadway studio was characterized as chaotic, disheveled and frenzied, the Madison Avenue studio was relaxed and sophisticated. And so, for almost two decades, Murray simultaneously ran two of New York City’s most popular studios.
Not long after the opening of his second studio Korman landed possibly his most publicized and enduring project. The 1939 World’s Fair opened in New York City, where one of the most popular attractions was the Dream of Venus pavilion designed by Salvador Dalí. Renowned photojournalist Eric Schaal was called on to photograph the actual exhibit, but Korman was hired to shoot publicity photos, under the art direction of Dalí. According to Christine Trotter in Murray Korman with Salvador Dalí, Dream of Venus, “Murray Korman was best known for creating glamorous images of aspirning and established entertainers; his photographs were commonly used in promotions. In the context of the Dream of Venus, Korman’s work has been contrasted with Horst’s photographs, which are situated in a more artistic realm.” Trotter goes on to say, “Korman’s popular appeal and distinctive lighting were joined with Salvador Dalí’s imaginative, esoteric, and startling expressions to create an intriguing set of images for the Dream of Venus.”
Paralleling Murray’s professional success, his social life was in full swing. One of his favorite nightspots was El Morocco where he hosted many expensive parties; And with the fame came popularity. Years later a family member recalled that “Murray would show up at [our] apartment with a show girl on each arm, someone from the cafe society, or a millionaire. Women from all walks of life wanted to marry him — Broadway and cafe society alike.” It was only much later in life, in his mid fifties, that Murray would tie the knot with a teenage showgirl named Pat Farrell.
It was in the late 1950s, that Korman’s fortunes turned, both quickly and tragically. Poor business practices among other circumstances resulted in the closing of both studios. Murray and his new bride eventually left New York for California where he spent a few years trying to establish himself. He also called on his business connections to try and break his wife, Pat, into the movie industry, eventually succeeded in landing her a small role in a dance showcase film.
Neither the marriage nor the California foray lasted long. In less than two years the marriage ended and Murray found himself back in New York forming a partnership with Gil Ross Studio at the Concord Hotel in the Catskills. He eventually joined the Kreigsman Studio in 1959 and worked there until his death in 1961. According to his obituary, Murray died on the job, presumably doing what he loved most – photography.
By all accounts Murray’s artistic gifting and entrepreneurial skills earned him an enormous amount of money, as well as fame and fortune. Sadly he died penniless and virtually alone.
Article by Clyde Adams – 11.8.2014