TREASURING SAUL LEITER’S MOODY BLACK-AND-WHITE PHOTOGRAPHS
The artist’s friend and model reflects on old portraits, sharing them with her daughters and Leiter’s dealer.
By Rebecca Mead
Not long ago, Fay Ennis, a retired market-research executive who just celebrated her ninety-second birthday, was telling family members stories from her past, which turned into an occasion for bringing out a box of moody black-and-white photographs. She had posed for them seventy years ago, as a graduate student at Columbia, where Margaret Mead was one of her professors. The pictures were taken by Saul Leiter, who later became well known as a member of the so-called New York School.
At the time, Leiter was an impoverished would-be painter, with a crush on Ennis’s younger sister, Sarah—or so Ennis recalled recently, when she and her twin daughters, Betsy and Susan, took the images to the Howard Greenberg Gallery, Leiter’s dealer. They wanted to show Greenberg and Margit Erb, the director of the Saul Leiter Foundation, what Ennis had squirrelled away in a drawer.
“Saul and I had no romance at all—he was always telling me how much he cared about Sarah,” Ennis said, as she spread out the ten prints that Leiter, who died in 2013, had made at the end of the forties. In them, she is wearing lots of lipstick and dressed in a polka-dot pajama top, looking with sultry, mascaraed eyes into the camera, her tousled hair spilling across a pillow. “I am half exposed, but I never posed nude,” she said. “We were completely Platonic. I was never his muse.”
“You were very cool, Mom,” Betsy, a public-relations consultant, said.
“I got married in 1952,” Ennis replied, firmly.
“I think you are not remembering,” Betsy said. “You were very cool.”
“New York was very cool,” Ennis insisted.
Leiter, who was brought up in an Orthodox Jewish family in Pittsburgh, moved to New York in 1946, when he was twenty-three, and lived on Perry Street. Ennis, who also came from an Orthodox background, moved from Detroit the same year; she lived in a rooming house in the West Nineties. “Detroit was a place you got away from,” she said. They met because their younger sisters were yeshiva friends.
“Saul and I used to spend time going to the galleries on Fifty-seventh Street. If you had any money, you could buy all sorts of things, but we didn’t have any money,” Ennis said. “I remember looking at a painting by Paul Klee that was five hundred dollars. I didn’t have five hundred dollars. Saul came home one day and said, ‘I met an artist!’ He had met Richard Pousette-Dart. He was so excited. He wanted to be a painter, but he always carried a camera.”
Ennis and Leiter’s friendship dwindled, and came to an end in the mid-fifties, after Leiter failed to show up for a dinner invitation extended by Ennis and her husband, Jerome, a psychiatrist. “My husband was very offended, and said, ‘Don’t invite him again,’ ” Ennis recalled. She kept Leiter’s note of apology: “I know this sounds ridiculous,” he wrote, “but I lost the little slip of paper on which I’d written the address.”
Margit Erb had brought her own box of photographs: images of Ennis that Leiter had printed over several decades, and that had been preserved in his archive. One showed Ennis in the polka-dot pajamas. The shirt was falling open, exposing a breast. “That’s me,” Ennis said, slightly cagey. “I don’t think you girls are old enough to see these pictures.” There was a photograph well known to admirers of Leiter, called “Fay Smoking.” It shows Ennis reclining, smoke wafting from her mouth as she regards the camera across the voluptuous landscape of her naked torso. Ennis gazed at it. “I never had any romantic feelings for Saul—maybe that’s why I could do this,” she said. “I must have trusted Saul that he wasn’t going to seduce me.”
Leiter never photographed Sarah, who died of cancer at the age of twenty-one, when she was eight months pregnant. Part of the reason Ennis treasures the images and letters saved in her drawer is that she has so little to remember her sister by. (There are two love letters from Leiter to Sarah.) Seeing the forgotten images from the archive, Ennis had an encounter with another long-lost person from her past: herself. “I didn’t realize I was so uninhibited,” she said, wonderingly.
“Do you remember having fun?” Erb asked gently.
“Oh, yes,” Ennis said.
Erb picked up an image of Ennis leaning against a wall, a blanket pulled up to her chin, her face partly hidden, fixing the camera with a hooded, intelligent eye. “This one was printed in 2008,” Erb said. “He went back and printed you. He didn’t forget.”