Capturing a Hero For Posterity

(Library Of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division)
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Sunday, April 27, 2008

When Zaida Ben-Yusuf (1869-1909) appeared in Manhattan in 1896, the better sort of people there right away took notice. The new arrival, after all, was 26 and unattached, notably exotic, stylish to a high degree, talented, and bold. Her unusually mixed parentage (her father was Algerian, her mother from Berlin) added to her exoticism. Her stylishness was seen in her salable creations -- the most fantastic ladies' hats. And her wardrobe was impeccable. Also she took photographs of the rich and famous. They were stylish, too.

But Ben-Yusuf died at 40, and was pretty soon forgotten.

A dashing piece of chivalrous art-historical detective work -- by scholar Frank H. Goodyear III of the National Portrait Gallery -- has now retrieved her from obscurity. "Zaida Ben-Yusuf: New York Portrait Photographer," her first show in a century, is at that museum through Sept. 1. After she photographed Theodore Roosevelt, then the governor of New York, in 1899. she wrote:

I found him one of the most nervous subjects I had ever had. His face seemed to get tied up in knots, then he tried to look pleasant, and the result was so funny that we all laughed, and decided that he had better be serious.

"I'll imagine I'm discussing embalmed beef," he said with a rather vicious emphasis on the last two words, as his teeth clicked together. The results were not much better than when he tried to smile . . . I began to feel a little desperate . . . Suddenly he said, with an amused twinkle in his eyes:

"Miss Ben-Yusuf, you evidently have the military instinct." I absently asked him, "Why?," for my mind was entirely on my work, and when he said, "Because you give such decisive orders," it occurred to me that I had told him to "brace up," or something equally dreadful.

-- Paul Richard

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