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Memories of a Home in Carnegie Hall

Photographer Editta Sherman, 98, reluctantly gives up her longtime studio apartment to make way for expansion at the New York landmark

For Editta Sherman, living and laboring in New York's Carnegie Hall was a dream come true. The 98-year-old photographer, who has snapped a host of celebrities, fit in with the cadre of artists in the landmark building's spacious loft apartments, where high ceilings inspired many to greater heights.

Starting in 1949, Sherman made Studio 1208 her home and creative space, which she adored in a rent-controlled place.

A few years ago, Carnegie Hall decided to expand and renovate. The tenants fought long and hard to stay, but eventually had to vacate. Sherman, known as the Duchess of Carnegie Hall, recently settled for an undisclosed sum, and now the conversion of remaining studios into music and art classrooms will proceed.

Moving can be unsettling at any age, but even more so when you're nearing 100. This past summer, around her birthday in July, Sherman began the big transition. For six subsequent weeks, she went back and forth, archiving stacks and stacks of her work.

That prized portfolio includes portraits of Leonard Bernstein, Yul Brynner, Salvador Dali, Henry Fonda, Eva Gabor, Angela Lansbury, Andy Warhol and hundreds of other luminaries, preserved with her gigantic century-old Eastman camera on a stand.

Some of the black-and-white images hang in Sherman's current apartment, furnished with the antique sofa and armchairs from her studio. Peering through the large windows that overlook Central Park, she sees bright yellow taxis steam by and hears horses clip-clop as people embark on carriage rides. "But," she laments, "I'm not happy here."

A home like no other

What she wants is a working photography studio so she can continue her business, says Melisande Sherman, 67, of Staten Island, N.Y., the youngest of Editta's five children, four of whom are alive. That would be a room not only with a view, but also with 12-foot ceilings and great natural lighting for taking photographs, like the one she had. "Her art is her identity," her daughter says.

Philanthropist Andrew Carnegie had envisioned the studios for artists of all sorts — from painters to dancers to violinmakers. They took up residence above the concert hall, where classical composers, jazz legends, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and many more took the stage.

Back in the '40s, the Philadelphia-born Editta was a young wife and mother who came across an ad that promoted inhabiting Carnegie Hall day and night. Hmm, she thought, "What kind of a place is that — to work and live in a concert hall?"

Her husband, Harold, "went to see what it was all about. He came home and said, 'You know, it wouldn't be a bad idea to get into that for a while.' "

Harold, an audio engineer, was eight years Editta's senior. In his 30s came a diagnosis of diabetes, followed eventually by blindness and kidney failure. He died at age 50.

Still going strong

Editta continued to appreciate her own good genes. (Her Italian-immigrant parents had lived into their 80s. Italian was her first language, and to this day she's fluent in the spoken and written word.) Reflecting on her nonagenarian status, she also attributes it to a positive outlook and a healthy lifestyle. Instead of a bed, she sleeps on a rectangular table, topped with a vinyl pad. She also takes a multivitamin daily and clocks 15 minutes on an at-home aerobic trainer — "in the morning or afternoon, when I feel like it."

Her distance vision is sharp, too. Cataracts removed, she relies on reading glasses. She likes novels, as well as biographies and autobiographies of the Hollywood stars she captured on camera. Many of her portraits have graced book covers. She continues to take pictures, and soon she hopes to turn her life's story into a book.

"She doesn't quit," Melisande Sherman says. "She's always thinking of more projects the whole time. She always has new ideas."

The grandma of 25 also enjoys cooking. Above Carnegie Hall, her homemade lentil soup warmed neighbors' hearts. "I'm famous for it," she explains, "because I've been making it for some sick people." After simmering a big pot, she would divvy up the contents.

With her Italian heritage, her other specialty is tomato sauce. Van Johnson, the "boy-next-door" American actor and dancer who died in December 2008, was sold on Sherman's secret recipe. He penned a letter foretelling her ascent to heaven with that splendid sauce.

Not yet. She's got more living — and photographing — to do.

Susan Kreimer is a writer in New York.