Bernstein, Aline (1882–1955)

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Bernstein, Aline (1882–1955)

American scenic designer and writer. Born Hazel Frankau on December 22, 1882, in New York, New York; died on September 7, 1955, in New York, New York; first of two daughters of Joseph (an actor) and Rebecca (Goldsmith) Frankau; attended New York School for Applied Design; married Theodore Bernstein, in November 1902; children: Theo (1904–1949) and Edla (b. 1906).

Selected set designs:

The Little Clay Cart (1924); The Miracle (1924); The Dybbuk (1925); Grand Street Follies (several editions from 1923); Ned McCobb's Daughter (1926); Reunion in Vienna (1931); Alison's House (1931); Animal Kingdom (1932); We the People (1933); The Children's Hour (1934); She (movie, 1935); The Last Days of Pompeii (movie, 1935); Days to Come (1936); The Seagull (1937); The Little Foxes (1939); The Male Animal (1940); The Spellbound Child (ballet, 1946); Regina (opera, 1949).

Selected writings:

(short stories) Three Blue Suits (1933); (novel) The Journey Down (1938); An Actor's Daughter (1941); (juvenile) The Martha Washington Doll Book (1945); (novel) Miss Conden (1947); (published posthumously) Masterpieces of Women's Costume of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries (1959).

Aline Bernstein may be remembered more for her love affair with author Thomas Wolfe than for her work as a theatrical designer and writer, perhaps because of the enormous impact she had on Wolfe's short writing career. However, as much as Bernstein's personal life was consuming, her work remained a sustaining force. "It was as worker that this woman was supreme," wrote Wolfe. "The true religion of her soul, the thing that saved her … was the religion of her work. It … took her out of herself, united her life to a nobler image which was external to her and superior to the vanities of the self."

Bernstein's early childhood in New York revolved around her father Joseph Frankau's acting career. Aline, along with her mother Rebecca and younger sister Ethel, alternately toured with him and lived in a boarding house for actors run by her aunt. Family life was cut short with the death of her mother when Aline was 11, and the death of her father five years later. Bernstein wandered from relative to relative, eking out a living by designing and selling greeting cards door-to-door, and by creating hats and dresses with her sister Ethel. As a teenager, Bernstein considered becoming an actress before deciding on a career as a painter. She studied at the School of Applied Design and later with Robert Henri, the leading proponent of the new urban realism, dubbed the "Ashcan School" in the 1930s. A gifted artist and master teacher, Henri nurtured Bernstein's talents and she thrived under his instruction.

In 1902, Aline married Theo Bernstein, a handsome young clerk on Wall Street, whose moderate personality provided balance to her less temperate nature. Bernstein rejoiced in her first pregnancy, without the inhibition common at the time. "I look magnificent," she proclaimed to friends, placing their hands on her

swollen stomach so they could feel the baby move. Theo, Jr. (Teddy), born in 1904, suffered serious heart problems as a child and would die of a massive heart attack when he was only 45. A second child, Edla, was born in 1906 and would later recall feeling distanced from her mother as a youngster: "Mother was principally involved with her own life. She was only really happy when she was working. … It wasn't just something she did to fill out her life … it was her life." Edla credited Bernstein's sister Ethel, who lived with them during her childhood, for providing a steady home life.

After Edla's birth, Bernstein returned to her art studies with Henri, also rejoining his Tuesday night gatherings of artists, writers, and political activists—a salon of sorts—where she formed lifetime friendships with Emma Goldman , George Bellows (with whom she was also purported to have had an affair), Man Ray, and Stuart Davis. Bernstein's reputation for attracting friends was beginning to grow; indeed, it would become almost legendary. Wolfe, who later imbued his character Esther Jack with the same charisma, described it as not merely sexual, but a "richness" of spirit: "People wanted to be near her; she gave them a feeling of confidence, joy and vitality which they did not have in themselves."

Through her sister Ethel, Bernstein found her way into the theater. As a volunteer at the Henry Street Settlement House on the Lower East Side, Ethel enlisted Bernstein to help with the girls' dramatic club, led by Rita Morgenthau and Irene and Alice Lewisohn . Bernstein created costumes for the club's performances, then gradually moved on to props and sets. By 1913, the club had raised enough money to build a permanent theater—the Neighborhood Playhouse—which was the first theater in New York to design and make its own scenery, costumes and props. Bernstein would later say that the profession of "scene designer" began at the Playhouse. Critic John Gassner agreed, and further credited their experimental productions as "revealing resources of taste and style still largely absent in the uptown theatres."

During these early years, Bernstein scrambled to learn more about stagecraft and to incorporate her art training into design for the theater. She picked up a great deal from collaborations with established designers like Robert Edmond Jones, with whom she worked on an early Playhouse production of a 14th-century miracle play, building his extravagantly designed costumes on a shoestring budget. She was accepted into the Saturday morning workshop run by Norman Bel Geddes, who was already receiving wide acclaim for both his sets and costumes. In 1922, Bernstein was invited to work with the celebrated designer Lee Simonson on the elaborate production of Shaw's Back toMethuselah. As difficult and volatile as Simonson was, they became friends and collaborated often on a variety of Theatre Guild productions.

Bernstein remained with the Neighborhood Playhouse through its dissolution in 1927, achieving notice with her designs for The Little Clay Cart and The Grand Street Follies (both in 1924). During the 1920s, Playhouse productions occasionally moved uptown for limited runs, where more people saw Bernstein's work, and producers began to seek her out. In 1925, she executed her most famous designs for the Theatre Guild's first U.S. production of The Dybbuk, by Shloyme Zanvi Rappoport (S. Ansky). Critic Brooks Atkinson compared her sets to "a Rembrandt canvas." Her designs for Ned McCobb's Daughter, rendered for the Theatre Guild in 1926, continue to appear in contemporary anthologies of stage design.

As a recognized designer, in 1924 Bernstein applied for membership into Local 829, the Brotherhood of Painters, Decorators and Paper-hangers, of the American Federation of Labor. Although there was annoyance over the union's refusal to distinguish artist from mechanic, the union was demanding such rights for designers as full program credit, pay for extra work, and permanent ownership of their original designs. It was also enforcing restrictions on what a nonunion designer might do in the theatre, making work for outsiders scarce. Bernstein was turned down for two years; she was finally admitted as the first woman member in 1926. The set designers eventually formed their own arm of the union, the United Scenic Artists.

During the 1920s and '30s, Bernstein also worked as the resident designer for Eva Le Gallienne 's Civic Repertory Theatre, during which time she designed costumes and scenery for five Lillian Hellman plays, including The Children's Hour (1934), which introduced the new playwright to the American theatre and broached the then daring subject of lesbianism, and The Little Foxes (1939). Bernstein also designed the costumes for her first movie, She, starring her good friend Helen Gahagan Douglas . "Her clothes for me were simply superb," said Douglas. "They were almost breathtakingly creative, and yet absolutely perfect technically—but then, that was Aline's genius." Bernstein worked on a second movie, The Last Days of Pompeii, but her respect for the movie industry was largely limited to its technology.

Bernstein first met Thomas Wolfe in 1925 while on a shipboard return from Europe, where she had done some architectural research for The Dybbuk. Coincidentally, Wolfe's play Welcome to Our City was being considered by the Neighborhood Playhouse, and Bernstein had carried a copy of the manuscript overseas to Alice Lewisohn. Despite a 20-year difference in their ages—Bernstein the elder at 44—their attraction was overwhelming, and the love affair that followed lasted until Wolfe's untimely death in 1938. Although the relationship was torturous for Bernstein and left her suicidal, she brought what little order there was to Wolfe's life, and his genius flourished. Ironically, the waning years of the affair also unleashed Bernstein's own writing ability. Her analyst suggested that she express her feelings on paper, and writing became a new creative outlet. She produced a number of published and extremely well-received works, beginning with Three Blue Suits. Her later novel, The Journey Down, was deemed "breathtaking" by one reviewer. Poet May Sarton provided one of Bernstein's most gratifying reviews: "I was up all night reading your book," she wrote. "It is a beautiful piece of work, with the intensity, texture and peculiar sustained excitement of a poem."

The relationship between Bernstein and Wolfe is documented through the character of Esther Jack in Wolfe's The Web and the Rock (1939) and You Can't Go Home Again (1940), and in Bernstein's own short stories and novels. Biographer Carole Klein recounts Theo Bernstein's reaction to her affair and credits him with a near saint-like compassion: "He never wavered in his devotion and his profound conviction that Aline was a uniquely precious person—with a nature so rare and so much larger than other people's that she required extraordinary sustenance."

In 1937, Bernstein concentrated on plans for a costume museum. After initial consultations with Lee Simonson and Irene Lewisohn, she leased a loft on 46th Street and devoted every spare moment to the new project, collecting clothing from friends, antique stores, and people throughout the world. She equipped her museum with a library of books on period apparel and on paintings and sculptures of the time, so that broad spectrums of culture could be viewed. In 1939, Bernstein was able to expand the museum with the gift of a suite of rooms in Rockefeller Center and a sizable monetary contribution from Nelson Rockefeller. In 1944, the museum found a permanent home by merging with the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

During the 1940s, Bernstein taught costume design and was a production consultant at Vassar College, which she considered one of the richest experiences of her life. Throughout her career, Bernstein also took on a number of young designers as assistants, including Russell Wright, Sointu Syrjala, and Irene Sharaff . She continued to design; her later work included the biographical study of Harriet Beecher Stowe called Harriet, starring Helen Hayes and directed by Elia Kazan. Bernstein also designed the ballet The Spellbound Child, a fantasy with music by Maurice Ravel. In 1949, while still recovering from the death of her son Teddy, Bernstein threw herself into designs for Regina, a musical of The Little Foxes, with music by Marc Blitzstein, for which she won the Antoinette Perry ("Tony") Award.

In 1950, at age 70, Bernstein worked on The Happy Time for Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein, who threw an elaborate birthday party for her backstage at a Broadway theatre. In spite of the infirmities of her age and the progressive deafness she had endured since 1922, she did four productions during the 1950–51 season, including Arthur Miller's adaptation of Ibsen's An Enemy of the People. In 1953, she was asked to help stage and costume The World of Sholem Aleichem, which critics praised as a sensitive recollection of the old days on the Lower East Side of New York City.

Bernstein suffered a stroke in 1953, which was less severe than the one Theo experienced a year earlier but debilitating nonetheless. Although she continued to see occasional visitors, most of her prolonged illness was spent alone with Theo, in the care of her sister Ethel and Peggy Murphy , Bernstein's housekeeper for many years. Although she could no longer walk, and he could not talk, the bond between wife and husband apparently tightened. Aline Bernstein died on December 7, 1955. Her funeral was described by Murphy as "a grand party," which Bernstein no doubt would have appreciated. Theo lived on with Ethel until his death in 1958.


Boardman, Gerald. The Oxford Companion to American Theatre. NY: Oxford University Press, 1984.

Klein, Carole. Aline. NY: Harper & Row, 1979.

suggested reading:

Wolfe, Thomas. Look Homeward Angel. NY: Scribner, 1929.

——. Of Time and the River. NY: Scribner, 1935.

——. The Web and the Rock. NY: Harper and Brothers, 1939.

——. You Can't Go Home Again. NY: Harper and Brothers, 1940.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts