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Jerome Zerbe (July 24, 1904, Euclid, Ohio – August 19, 1988) was an American photographer. He was one of the originators of a genre of photography that is now common: celebrity paparazzi. Zerbe was a pioneer in the 1930s of shooting photographs of the famous at play and on-the-town. According to the cocktail recipe book Bottoms Up (1951), he is also credited with inventing the vodka martini.
Zerbe differed from the common paparazzo in a major way: he never hid in bushes or jumped out and surprised the rich and famous he was photographing. Rather, Zerbe often traveled and vacationed with the film stars themselves. As one biographer stated, Zerbe never rode in a rented limousine, and his coat pocket always had in it an engraved invitation to the high-society events.
"Once I asked Katharine Hepburn to come up from her place at Fenwick, a few miles away, and pose for some fashion photos for me," Zerbe recalled in his book Happy Times. "She arrived with a picnic hamper full of food and wine for the two of us. I snapped her just as she came to the door."
In a career that spanned more than 50 years, Zerbe's library held well over 50,000 photos. Some of his well-known images were of Greta Garbo at lunch, Cary Grant helping columnist Hedda Hopper move into her new home, Steve Reeves shaving, Moss Hart climbing a tree, Howard Hughes having lunch at "21" with Janet Gaynor, Ginger Rogers flying first-class, plus legendary stars Charlie Chaplin, Gary Cooper, Salvador Dalí, Jean Harlow, Dorothy Parker, Gene Tunney, Thomas Wolfe, and the Vanderbilts.
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Zerbe claimed to be the first – and only – society photographer. He was for years the official photographer of Manhattan's famed nightspot El Morocco, the place to be and be seen, whether you were Humphrey Bogart, John O'Hara, or Ed Sullivan. Zerbe pioneered the business arrangement of getting paid by the nightclub to photograph its visitors, then turning around and giving the photos away to the gossip pages. Today, the practice is a common public relations stunt.
In the 1930s, Zerbe was the partner of the society columnist and writer Lucius Beebe. Beebe made so many flattering references to Zerbe in his newspaper column, This New York, that rival columnist Walter Winchell suggested that Zerbe should change the name to "Jerome Never Looked Lovelier."
The gay scene was documented in the 1930s by Jerome Zerbe, who spent "three gay months" (his words) in the movie colony. Fascinating are his many photos of Cary Grant and Randolph Scott, attesting to their involvement in the gay scene: Scott arriving at a party at Zerbe's apartment, several lovely poses of Grant in a bathing suit. Zerbe's photographs of the Countess Dorothy di Frasso's party in the summer of 1935, however, remain the most intriguing. The writer Brendan Gill would recount a tale as told to him by Zerbe, in which the countess, known for her malicious sense of humor, secured recording devices to the undersides of all her garden benches. On the day of her party, the wily countess nailed some pretty incriminating tales from her unsuspecting guests. Zerbe's photographs documented the party, and reveal the guests to have all been part of the "sophisticated" clique. Although Cary Grant arrived with perennial date Betty Furness, he posed jauntily with William Haines, George Cukor, and Clifton Webb; Claudette Colbert mugged playfully next to Marlene Dietrich, refuting for posterity charges that they barely knew each other. In one shot, Zerbe captured Colbert taking home movie of Dietrich. A few weeks later, the countess invited the same group back for another party. Gill reported: "She played back for them the indiscreet conversations they had carried on in the supposed privacy of the garden. The prank was not well received." Indeed Photoplay's pseudonymous "Cal York" (perhaps at this point the gay writer Jerry Asher) reported that di Frasso received five urgent (York's emphasis) pleadings from unnamed persons to not play the recordings at her next party, or ever again.
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