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Aline Bernstein (December 22, 1880 – September 7, 1955) was an American set designer and costume designer. She and Irene Lewisohn founded the Museum of Costume Art. Bernstein was the lover, patron, and muse of novelist Thomas Wolfe. Aline Bernstein was the first woman in the United States to gain prominence in the male-dominated field of set and costume design. The industry’s reluctance to accept women into its ranks was certainly evident when, in 1926, as the first woman to be granted membership in the United Scenic Artists Union she was sworn in as “Brother Bernstein.”
She was born in 1880 in New York City, the daughter of Rebecca Goldsmith and Joseph Frankau, an actor. Joseph was a cousin of London cigar importer Arthur Frankau and thus, by marriage, of novelist and art historian Frank Danby, whom Aline recalled visiting as a child when Joseph Frankau was performing in London. Her family was Jewish. By the time she was 17, both of her parents had died and she was raised by her aunt, Rachel Goldsmith. Goldsmith had a theatrical boarding house on West 44th Street in New York City.
Between 1916 and 1951, Bernstein would do set design, costuming, or both for 51 productions.
Bernstein was a theater set and costume designer for the Neighborhood Playhouse on the Lower East Side, volunteering her work to make her name.
In 1926 she struggled but prevailed in becoming the first female member of the designers union. This membership opened up opportunities for Broadway commissions. However, as a woman, she still found that it was much easier to find work as a costume designer rather than as a set designer. Her career ran in phases; early on, she focused largely on costume design. After about 14 years of work, in 1930, she was able to move into set design. For about a decade, she primarily did set design work, only to return to costume design again around 1940 for the final phase of her career.
In the 1930s she also began to write, with two books published by Knopf, a highly respected publisher at that time. She was personal friends with Arthur and Blanche Knopf.
Her first book, Three Blue Suits, helped to more firmly establish her as a designer in New York. The book included a series of three stories in which three very different men wear the same blue serge suit. The details regarding how each man wears – or drags (the jacket on the floor) – his suit, reveal aspects of each man's character in subtle ways. A common trope among costume designer is that costumes, if they are good, should ultimately not be noticed. In contrast, the blue suit stories reveal Bernstein's ability to discern how critical details of costume evoke, and interact with, a character, and ultimately her skill as a costume designer at making this happen effectively.
Some of her publications include:
In 1950, Aline Bernstein finally won some hard earned recognition. In 1949 she had designed costumes for the opera Regina. The music and libretto were written Marc Blitzstein but based on the play The Little Foxes by Lillian Hellman, a play for which Bernstein had previously designed costumes. Although that production of Regina (it would be regularly revived in the 20th century) only ran for a month and a half, Bernstein won a Tony for her costume design in 1950.
Aline married Theodore F. Bernstein, a Wall Street broker, on November 19, 1902. Bernstein and her husband had two children: Theodore Frankau Bernstein (1904–1949), and Edla Cusick (1906–1983). In 1925, Bernstein began an affair with a young playwright, Thomas Wolfe. Though she and her husband remained married, Bernstein and Wolfe had a volatile love affair that lasted a number of years. Wolfe, who was 18 years younger than Bernstein, counted on his lover for financial support and artistic inspiration. It was after she encouraged him to attempt writing novels that he produced Look Homeward Angel. Under the writer’s influence, Bernstein wrote and published a collection of short stories and two novels, including the best seller Miss Condon. Wolfe and Bernstein both wrote fictionalized accounts of their relationship, Wolfe in “The Web and the Rock,” and Bernstein in “The Journey Down.” When the affair ended badly, Bernstein attempted suicide.
During the course of her remarkable career, Bernstein designed sets and costumes for more than one hundred plays. After decades of work in the theater, she embarked on a successful academic career. During the last fifteen years of her life, Bernstein taught and served as a consultant in theater programs at Yale University, Harvard University, and Vassar College.
Bernstein died on September 7, 1955, in New York City, aged 74.
In the 2016 biographical drama film Genius, Bernstein was portrayed by Nicole Kidman, while Wolfe was portrayed by Jude Law.
My published books:
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