Aline Bernstein was the first woman designer to achieve professional recognition in the American theater. She was an artist of many talents, who didn't start her stage and costume designing career until she was in her early forties.
She was born on December 22, 1880, in New York City, the oldest of two daughters of Rebecca and Joseph Frankau. Her father was an actor of German-Jewish ancestry and she travelled the acting circuit with her parents. By the time she was seventeen, both of her parents had died and her aunt, Rachel Goldsmith, became her guardian. She lived with her aunt, who had a theatrical boarding house on West 44th Street in New York City. She was a talented artist and Tom Watson, a close friend of the family, arranged for her to receive a scholarship at the New York School of Applied Design. Here she met and studied with Robert Henri, one of the most important painters at the time.
She met and married Theodore Bernstein, a Wall Street broker, on November 19, 1902. They had two children: Theodore, in 1904, and Edna, in 1906.
Aline Bernstein found time to volunteer as a backstage worker at the Henry Street Settlement. It was here that she met the Lewisohn sisters, Alice and Irene, who were producing plays and pageants. She designed and created costumes for fifteen plays from 1915 to 1924. She emerged as a major developer of sets and costumes when in 1924, she designed The Little Clay Cart. She received national acclaim for her design concepts which were based on Rajput style of miniature painting.
She created expressionistic settings for the Jewish classic, The Dybbuk, for the Neighborhood Theater in 1925. Her grotesque settings matched the mysticism of the play. She also made the settings for the annual Grand Street Follies through 1925.
In 1934, she designed Herman Schulmin's production of Lillian Hellman's first play, The Children's Hour. This combination of Schulmin, Hellman and Bernstein stayed together for four more Hellman plays, from 1934 to 1949.
Bernstein went to Hollywood in 1935 to do two RKO spectaculars, She and The Last Days of Pompeii. She returned to New York and became active in creating sets and costumes. At age 70, Bernstein was the recipient of the Antoinette Perry (Tony) Award for her costume creations for the opera, Regina. Her last show that she designed costumes for was for the Off-Broadway production of The World of Sholom Aleichem, in 1953.
She was the first woman admitted into membership of the Brotherhood of Painters, Decorators and Paperhangers of the American Federation of Labor in 1926. She was also involved in establishing the famous Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and she was the president for the last nine years of her life.
Aline Bernstein died in New York City on September 7, 1955. She left the theater many new ideas and creations that would help the new costume and scenic designers with their work. Aline Bernstein didn't just leave a spiritual legacy but also a materialistic legacy which can be seen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
This is one of the 150 illustrated true stories of American heroism included in Jewish Heroes and Heroines of America, © 1996, written by Seymour "Sy" Brody of Delray Beach, Florida, illustrated by Art Seiden of Woodmere, New York, and published by Lifetime Books, Inc., Hollywood, FL.
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Last updated 19 October 2006