(1892-1965) – Born in Hungary. AFLA national sabre champion (1927, ’28). Member, U.S. Olympic team (1928, ’32). Known as the “photographer of the famous” – he was the outstanding portraitist of the 1920’s and ’30’s.
Photographer, fencer. Born in Zseged, Hungary, on February 15, 1892. A talented photographer, Nickolas Muray is known for his commercial images and for his numerous portraits, of some of the twentieth century’s best-known performers on the stage and screen such as Greta Garbo, Charlie Chaplin, and Fred Astaire. He was also a championship-winning fencer who played on the U.S. team at the 1928 and 1932 Olympic Games. The son of a postal worker, Muray studied sculpture for a time before leaving school to go to work as an engraver. After spending a few years in Germany, Muray moved to the United States in 1913, knowing about 50 words of English and carrying an International Engravers Certificate. He settled in New York City, finding work as a color separator and engraver for a Brooklyn company. In his own time, Muray began to study photography. Using a shared studio in New York’s Greenwich Village neighborhood, he started to build his own photography business. Landing his first big break, Muray sold a portrait of actress Florence Reed to Harper’s Bazaar in 1920.Nearly overnight, Muray became an in-demand celebrity photographer, handling assignments from many leading publications. In 1926, Vanity Fair sent him to Europe to photograph the likes of artist Claude Monet and writer George Bernard Shaw. Muray also captured many other famous faces for other projects, ranging from dancer and choreographer Martha Graham to Presidents Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, F.D.R. and Dwight D. Eisenhower.Working with public relations manager Edward L. Bernays, he created many iconic commercial images for Bernays’ clients, such as Lucky Strike cigarettes. In 1930, he was given a contract with the publishing company behind the Ladies Home Journal, which resulted in his creation of the first natural color commercial photograph to appear in a U.S. magazine the following year.Around this time, Muray met Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. The two developed an on- and off-again relationship that spanned a decade. It outlasted his third marriage to Monica O’Shea, whom he married in 1930. In 1937, Monica divorced Muray on the grounds of cruelty according to a report in The New York Times.
During most of their relationship, Kahlo was married to Mexican muralist Diego Rivera who also had a number of extramarital affairs. When Kahlo divorced Rivera in 1939, Muray hoped that he would be able to marry her. Those hopes were soon dashed—she remarried Rivera the following year. Despite his disappointment, Muray remained on friendly terms with Kahlo. He took numerous portraits and photographs of Kahlo over years, some of which used the Carbro technique, a type of carbon pigment process for making color prints which he perfected.During his career, Muray took more than 10,000 portraits and did countless commercial photography projects. He worked on advertisements for such companies as General Electric, Sara Lee, American Cyanamid, and Kraft. In addition to photography, Muray excelled at the sport of fencing. Legend has it that he and artist Jacques La Salle were supposed to fight a duel with rapiers in 1920. On the day of the duel, the two met at the same site where Alexander Hamilton was killed by Aaron Burr in a similar challenge. In this case, however, their alternates decided against bringing the necessary weapons for the duel, and the artists settled their conflict without any violence, according to The New York Times. While that match never happened, Muray was triumphant in numerous other fencing bouts. He was the U.S. saber champion from 1927-1928. In 1928, Muray competed at the Summer Olympic Games as part of the U.S. fencing team. He made the team again for the 1932 Olympics, which brought home the bronze medal in the team competitions in foil and épée events. For the rest of his life, Muray remained active in the sport. He died on November 2, 1965, after collapsing during a fencing match at the New York Athletic Club. He was survived by his fourth wife, Margaret Schwab Muray, and their two children, Nicholas Christopher and Mimi.In 1988, his daughter Mimi donated some of his papers to the Archive of American Art. His work is also part of the photography collection of the George Eastman House. Today, interest in his images remains strong. His portraits of Frida Kahlo are currently being featured in a traveling exhibit. A book published in 2004, titled “I Will Never Forget You…: Frida Kahlo to Nickolas Muray” by Saloman Grimberg, details their friendship from 1931 to Kahlo’s death in 1954. It also serves as a catalog to the exhibition, and is the most thorough reference book to date on Muray’s life.Muray’s work has served as inspiration for many later artists, such as Irving Penn, Diane Arbus, and Annie Leibovitz.
Nickolas Muray – Hungarian-American Photographer of Celebrities
During the first half of the 20th century an impressive number of Hungarian artists achieved fame and success in the United States. Particularly distinguished among them were George Julian Zolnay, Vilma Parlaghy (also known as the Princess Lwoff-Parlaghy in deference to her brief marriage to the Russian aristocrat Prince Lwoff), Julio Kilenyi, Alexander Finta and Willy Pogany.
Vilma Parlaghy is generally acknowledged as one of the most talented female painters of the ages. Zolnay acquired the sobriquet “Sculptor of the Confederacy” because of the multitude of statues he executed throughout the South as well as his friendship with Varina Davis, widow of Confederate president Jefferson Davis. Kilenyi, who came to the United States by way of Argentina, is best remembered for the innumerable medallions he designed to commemorate notable events and personalities of American history. Finta was already a renowned sculptor in Hungary and Brazil before settling in the United States. The multi-talented and versatile Pogany was equally at ease in illustrating books, designing stage sets and costumes, painting murals, and executing portraits.
Several photographers also made lasting impact on the American artistic and commercial scene: Andre Kertesz, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Martin Munkacsi and Nickolas Muray. There are more than a dozen books devoted to the artistry of Kertesz, regarded by many as one of the 20th century’s greatest photographers. Already possessing a formidable reputation in Europe when he arrived in the United States in 1934, Munkacsi was New York’s leading fashion photographer of the 1930s and 1940s. Few rank above Laszlo Moholy-Nagy as an influential teacher and abstract artist of the avant-garde in 1930s America.
Muray, often dubbed as “a man for all seasons,” was more than an internationally admired photographer. A skilled fencer, he was the United States national saber champion in 1927 and 1928 and was on his adopted country’s fencing team for the 1928 and 1932 Olympics. As a serious fan of modern dance, Muray wrote insightful reviews and articles for Dance Magazine.
His contemporaries described Muray as a man of energy and charm, glamour and sophistication. A patron of the arts, he was generous and supportive of artists. Despite all the accolades bestowed on him, retained an unspoiled simplicity and kindness. Thanks to his handsome physique, elegant bearing, athletic prowess, natural charm, and innate intelligence, he held an enormous fascination for women.
Born in the city of Szeged on February 15, 1892, Muray and his family moved to Budapest two years later. Young Nickolas studied sculpture, lithography, photography and photogravure at the Graphic Arts School. He furthered his education in Germany and also worked there as a photoengraver. Emigrating to the United States in 1913, he made his home in New York City. Through the International Photoengravers Union he quickly secured satisfactory employment. After spending a few years in Chicago he returned to New York City and remained a resident of the Big Apple until his death.
Given his amiable personal attributes, Muray readily made many friends. Among those he formed life-long ties was the young Mexican artist Miguel Covarrubias, himself a relatively recent arrival to New York. It was Muray who introduced Covarrubias to his future wife, the dancer Rose Rolanda. His friendship with Covarrubias led to close relations with Mexico and a host of Mexican artists.
In 1920 Muray opened a portrait studio in his home at 129 MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village while continuing to work as a photoengraver. The Wednesday evening parties in his studio attracted the leading figures of New York City’s literary, artistic and public scene, among them Martha Graham, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Eugene O’Neill, Jean Cocteau, T. S. Eliot, Langston Hughes, and Walter Lippman. The guests were treated to good food and drinks, stimulating conversation and fencing demonstrations by Muray. The fact that Prohibition was in force did not deter the availability or consumption of alcoholic beverages.
Photography was but one of the mediums used by the avant-garde artists of the 20s and 30s to create lasting works of beauty and few excelled in it more than Muray. His talents were quickly recognized and appreciated. Commenting on two of his pictures appearing in the August 1921 issue of Theatre Magazine, the New York Times enthused that these “show how far that photographer has traveled in developing his profession into an art.”
After attending an exhibition in which Muray was among the participants, the critic for the New York Times opined that “The portrait heads by Nickolas Muray have special distinction. […] the heads in which Mr. Muray has recorded character with well-distributed accents and subtle modeling […] do best justice to his real and very important talent.”
The New York Tribune, April 11, 1920, applauded Muray for successfully working out “some of the most unusual and almost uncanny camera achievements,” and described his portraits as having “unique character and poetic charm.” The article concluded that “Muray is a skillful analyst of personalities as well as an artist.”
His pictures appeared regularly in virtually all the popular mass-circulation magazines of the day, including Vanity Fair, Ladies’ Home Journal, Harper’s Bazaar, McCall’s, Women’s Home Companion, and Vogue. He photographed countless notables from the artistic, musical, literary, theatrical and political world.
In 1923, Vanity Fair placed Muray at the a select list of “Master American Portrait Photographers,” and three years later, the editors of the magazine inducted him in their Hall of Fame on the basis that “he is now exhibiting photographs of international celebrities in New York,” and that “he is a skilled fencer and prizewinning athlete.”
In 1925, Muray left the Village and established his studio on 50th Street, just east of Fifth Avenue.
By the end of the 1920s he had become one of America’s most successful portrait photographers. The celebrities Muray photographed reads like a Who’s Who in America or a Who’s Who in the World: Calvin Coolidge, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Clarence Darrow, Herbert Hoover, D. H. Lawrence, Claude Monet, Ethel Barrymore, G. B. Shaw, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ferenc Molnar, Willa Cather, Marlene Dietrich, Helen Hayes, and Jean Cocteau.
Although Muray shot thousands of portraits, two in particular have received much attention and have been reproduced in a number of books. One depicts baseball slugger Babe Ruth, regarded as the very embodiment of America’s pastime. The other captures the beauty and indefinable essence of a young Gloria Swanson, the siren of the twenties. According Ben Maddow’s Faces (1977), Muray’s “Gloria Swanson has the pure twenties sex of a girl off the streets; while his George Herman Ruth looks like a portrait of baseball itself.”
Today Swanson is remembered not so much as the vamp of the Roaring Twenties but for her role in Sunset Boulevard as an aging and largely forgotten movie star living like a hermit in a sprawling and seedy mansion. When co-star William Holden, playing an aspiring screenwriter, stumbles into her house and learns her identity, he exclaims: “You used to be big in the pictures!” she snaps back with the unforgettable line: “I’m still big. It’s the pictures that have gotten smaller!”
In wake of the stock market crash of 1929 which ushered in the Great Depression, Muray shifted his creativity to commercial photography. Going to Europe in 1930, he acquired a thorough knowledge of the Carbro color process – a technique capable of yielding vivid colors of unusual brilliance and permanence – and became one of the first professional photographers to utilize color in advertising, fashion and other types of commercial photography. Throughout the Depression, Muray worked steadily for advertising agencies.
During World War II he shared his knowledge of the intricacies of color photography in a course he gave at New York University. Other famous photographers participating in this educational program alongside him included Margaret Bourke-White, Alfred Eisentaedt and Marcel Sternberger.
Like other artists, Muray was a conspicuous figure at a multitude of shows and exhibitions. Commenting on the display of photographs at an exhibition held in 1936, the Christian Science Monitor, October 9, was most favorably impressed by the color photographs displayed, especially the “brilliant and life like” work of Muray. Under the auspices of the Royal Photographic Society, he held an individual show in London, England, in 1938; it was entitled simply “Colour Prints by Nickolas Muray.” In October of 1939 he was one of the main artists featured at the Arts and Industrial Building of the United States National Museum in Washington, DC.
Muray’s achievements in fencing were as impressive as his fame in photography. As a matter of fact, a sports writer once called him one of the twenty greatest fencers in American history. Although his favorite was the saber, he also contended with epee and foil. For several years early in his career he represented the Washington Square Fencers Club before becoming joining the New York Athletic Club and remaining affiliated with that organization until the end of his life.
As a member of the Washington Square Fencers’ Club, Muray took the premier prize in the saber tourney held in New York City in December 1921 under the auspices of the Amateur Fencers’ League of America. One of the newspapers covering the matches praised his “remarkable exhibition of ability with the broadsword.”
On May 20, 1927, now fencing for the New York A.C., Muray won the metropolitan saber championship. In 1927 and 1928 Muray was the senior national saber champion and was selected to the American team for the 1928 Olympic games in Amsterdam. Incidentally, competitors from Hungary took first and second places in the individual saber on this occasion, namely E. V. Tersztyanszky and Attila Petschauer.
Muray was a member of the United States fencing team which overpowered a Canadian squad in December 1930. Because he won all four of his saber matches, a newspaper reporting on the event credited him with being a pillar of the American team.
While Muray scored numerous triumphs on the strip, he is also remembered for a bout which never took place. In September 1920 the bohemians of Greenwich Village – accustomed to the unusual and the bizarre – were agog with rumors of an impending duel with rapiers between Muray and fellow artist Jacques La Salle. Sure enough, on the appointed day, the two men and their seconds traveled to the Palisades – the site where a century earlier Alexander Hamilton was fatally shot by Aaron Burr in the most celebrated duel in American history. But the showdown between the two antagonists didn’t take place because the seconds “forgot” to bring the swords. The seconds thereupon suggested that the men should settle their differences with their fists. However, rather engaging in fisticuffs, Muray and LaSalle shook hands and returned home, chatting amicably on the way.
According to multitude of trustworthy sources, Muray enjoyed a reputation of being irresistible to women. His first wife was the beautiful Hungarian literary figure Ilona Fulop, who also served as editor of the Hungarian Miners’ Journal. Marital problems soon led to divorce. Not long afterward he fell in love with Czech ballerina Desha Gorska. When she rejected his marriage proposal, he found consolation in the arms of her sister Leja and they were married in 1921. Of their union was born a daughter – Arija – on August 11, 1922, followed by an amicable divorce. During the late twenties while he was single, Muray dallied with the noted author Katherine Ursula Parrott. In June 1930 he tied the knot with Monica O’Shea, a young lady in the advertising business. This time the divorce wasn’t amicable; it was downright vituperative and acrimonious. On July 23, 1942 he entered his fourth and final marriage when he exchanged vows with Margaret Schwab. Two children were born of their union: Mimi in 1943 and Nicholas Christopher in 1945.
But of all the amorous encounters experienced by Muray none matched his decade-long on-and-off liaison with Frida Kahlo, who is ranked as one of the foremost artists of the world today.
Born in 1907, three years before the revolution which saw the overthrow of long-time dictator Porfirio Diaz, Frida’s life was shaped by the historical events of the time and by personal misfortunes. Early in childhood she was stricken with polio and as a teenager she was the innocent victim of a horrendous crash between a streetcar and a bus. The accident left her body in perpetual pain and she underwent thirty-two operations from the day of her accident to the day of her death. Eventually she had to wear orthopedic corsets in deference to her damaged spine. Therefore it’s not surprising that she, as no other artist of recent times, translated pain into art.
While convalescing Frida took up painting, demonstrating great talent and gaining admirers for her creations. The style she evolved was based on Mexican folk art. On August 21, 1929 she married Diego Rivera, already an established artist of universal reputation. The marriage of Frida and Diego was tumultuous to say the least. No one has ever offered a satisfactory explanation of the indissoluble bonds that held them together.
Opinions about Frida abound. Julien Levy, the famous New York art gallery owner, viewed her as a kind of “mythical creature, not of this world – proud and absolutely sure of herself, yet terribly soft and manly as an orchid.” French poet Andre Breton once described her art as a ribbon around a bombshell.
Like many deluded individuals of the that era, Frida and Diego joined the Communist party, blissfully ignoring the hallmarks of Communist regimes: genocide, mass murder, forced labor camps, suppression of any political opposition, total control of the media, show trials, complete absence of the remotest semblance of democracy, dictatorship of unscrupulous power-mad bureaucrats, and a long list of other repulsive practices. Now that Communism has been largely dispatched to the sewers of history, imploded by its own lies and contradictions, it’s hard to fathom why anyone with a modicum of intelligence would willingly embrace such degenerate ideology.
However, it was not Frida’s political views or stance on social issues that attracted public attention but her numerous love affairs. She was always candid about these relationship and most of them weren’t serious. According to one of her close friends and admirers, “her affairs were always brief and never deep, none of the men she carried on flirtations meant to her what Diego did.”
Diego also carried on numerous affairs. Years later, in his autobiography Rivera recollected: “I never was […] a faithful husband, even with Frida. […] I indulged my caprices and had affairs.” And evaluating his role as a marriage partner, he confessed: “I found very little which could be said in my favor. And yet I knew that I couldn’t change.” One of his many amorous liaisons involved Frida’s younger sister Cristina.
The lavish movie, Frida, released in 2002, starring Salma Hayek as Frida Kahlo and Alfred Molina as Diego Rivera, totally ignored her long involvement with Muray but dwelt at some length on her fling with Leon Trotsky, a larger than life figure of history.
Born in 1879, Trotsky became imbued with the odious tenets of Communism at an early age. By the time of the Russian Revolution, he was one of Lenin’s principal henchmen. The death of the unscrupulous demagogue in 1924 signaled the start of Trotsky’s struggle with that other acolyte, Stalin, for supremacy of the Party. Stalin proved to be the more adept and craftier practitioner of Communist chicanery. Soon Trotsky was exiled to the Siberian wilderness before becoming a stateless refugee in western Europe. Like other gutter egomaniacs, Stalin didn’t take kindly to any form of criticism. Forced out from France and Norway, Trotsky found sanctuary in Mexico thanks to the kindness of President Lazaro Cardenas. Trotsky’s presence in Mexico unleashed a violent clash among the local Commies. While Frida and Diego offered hospitality and protection to Trotsky upon his arrival in 1937, others remained steadfast worshipers of Stalin.
As indicated in the biopic and confirmed in various diaries, reminiscences and historical tomes, Trotsky, the prophet of the permanent revolution and the self-anointed champion of the oppressed peasants and workers, when not firing off scathing diatribes against the evils of capitalism or berating Stalin for his cult of personality, freely and frequently descended into bourgeoisie decadence with Frida.
The affair between Frida and Muray began in 1931 when he accompanied Covarrubias on a trip to Mexico. The relationship intensified when she came to New York in October 1938 to exhibit at the Julien Levy Gallery. Muray worked with her to make the show as successful as possible. Upon the critical acclaim of her paintings, she became a celebrity in her own right.
Naturally Muray took innumerable photos of Frida over the years. As a matter of fact, he made some of the most intimate and beautiful photographs of her. Frida was particularly attached to one of these and hung it on the wall of her studio in an ornate frame.
Muray’s portraits of celebrities published in the October 1939 issue of Coronet included not only Frida but also Greta Garbo, H. G. Wells and Anna May Wong. “His every picture is a shot at perfection,” proclaimed the accompanying text. Frida sat for a number of other renowned photographers as well. As a matter of fact, the list of photographers she posed for reads like a who’s who of 20th century photography: Edward Weston, Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Gisele Freund, Carl Van Vechten and the aforementioned Martin Munkacsi.
The introduction to the catalogue for the Julien Levy Gallery exhibition was penned by none other than Andre Breton and he also arranged for an exhibition of her work in Paris the following year. She sailed to France in January 1939. The organization of the exhibition left much to be desired and consequently was neither an artistic nor a financial success. She was angry and bitterly disillusioned by the French Surrealists: “You have no idea the kind of bitches these people are,” she wrote to Muray in one of her letters.
But for Muray himself she had nothing but the warmest and strongest feelings. Addressing him in her usual fashion as “My adorable Nick,” she wrote on February 16th : “I miss you with all my heart and blood […] I adore you my love, believe me, like I never loved anyone else – only Diego will be in my heart as close as you – always.”
In a letter penned on the 27th of the month, she gushed: “My lover, my sweetheart, mi Nick – mi vida, mi nino, te adoro.” And implored him “don’t kiss any body on the couch in your office. […] Don’t make love with anybody, if you can help it. […] All my tenderness and all my caresses to your body, from head to your feet. Every inch of it I kiss from a distance.”
While Frida was involved with Muray, Diego wasn’t idle either. Conducting a torrid affair with actress Paulette Goddard, he also shared domicile with the pretty painter Irene Bohus. Rumor had that Diego would soon marry Irene. But that came to an abrupt end when her mother found out what was going on. Interestingly enough, Frida developed a close and lasting friendship with Irene despite Diego’s infatuation with her.
Frida’s discontent with Diego culminated in divorce. But the mysterious bonds tying to each other remained.
Muray was well aware of Frida’s situation and predicament when he wrote: “I know how unhappy you were, how much you needed your familiar surroundings, your friends, Diego, your own house and habits. […] You have done the only logical thing for I could not transplant Mexico to New York for you and I’ve learned how essential that was for your happiness.”
Frida’s respect and appreciation for Muray and his support never wavered as indicated by this outpouring: “The only thing I want, is to tell you with my best words, that you deserve in life the best, the very best, because you are one of the few people in this lousy world who are honest to themselves, and that is the only thing that really counts.”
The liaison with Muray petered out because none of her lovers could compete with the deep attachment she felt for Diego. But her involvement with him was more than a casual fling, and the end of the affair left her deeply shaken.
Frida and Diego remarried on December 8, 1940. Although any romance between Muray and Frida was over, their friendship remained until Frida’s death. She passed away on July 13, 1954. The official cause of death was attributed to pulmonary embolism but there was strong evidence suggesting that suicide was involved. Frida called death “an enormous and very silent exit.” Recognition of her artistic gifts and accolades bestowed on her did not cease with her death; in 2001 the U.S. Post Office issued a 34-cent stamp honoring her in 2001.
Diego died in 1957, the same year as long-time intimate friend Miguel Covarrubias. On July 14, 1958 the Frida Kahlo Museum opened in her hometown of Coyoacan. Muray’s portrait of Frida, her favorite portrait, hangs in Diego’s bedroom. Her paintings currently command the highest prices of any artist, living or dead, in the Western Hemisphere.
Despite the losses of these friends, Muray continued to maintain ties with Mexico, particularly with the artist Rufino Tamayo whose larger-than-life charcoal sketch of Muray rivals Covarrubias’ caricatures of him.
World War II allowed Muray to showcase another one of his talents and passions: flying. He served as a flight lieutenant in the U.S. Civil Air Patrol. Early in the war he had to cope with a devastating personal tragedy; his beloved daughter Arija died after a brief illness on September 19, 1941, just days after her 19th birthday.
As the 1950s begun Muray was nearing 60 years of age. Despite the relentless march of time, he maintained a vigorous work schedule and remained committed to fencing, even continuing to participate in tournaments.
He was among the some 200 contestants drawn from all parts of the United States who participated in the eight-day grand finale of the 59th National Championships of the Amateur Fencers League of America in the ballroom of the Hotel Roosevelt, New York City, in January 1950. Dr. Tibor Nyilas, who learned the rudiments of the sport in his native Hungary, marched off with his third title in the saber despite losing to Muray in the final round-robin series.
In April 1952 Muray competed in the Metropolitan saber championship at the New York Athletic Club and qualified for the final round-robin. He managed to triumph over Jose R. de Capriles, a former national three-weapon titleholder and ex-Olympian, who in turn lost to Dr. Nyilas, the eventual champion.
Following the conclusion of the open saber competition at the New York Athletic Club in December 1952 Muray presented the medals named in his honor. At the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto in August 1953, Muray, now past his 60th birthday, was a member of the United States squad which captured the epee, foil and saber titles.
He served as fencing director-judge at the Pan-American Games in 1955 and fulfilled the same role at the Olympic Games in Melbourne in 1956.
During these years Muray maintained his studio at 18 East 48th Street while his residence, at 230 East 50th Street, was but a few blocks away. Despite his busy work load and recreational activities not to mention attending to the needs of his family, he became involved in two profound scholarly endeavors. In the first of these, he acted as the official photographer for Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research on an eight-month around-the-world expedition.
The project was spearheaded by Dr. Paul Fejos, a fellow Hungarian, whose career was every bit as colorful as Muray’s. Born in Budapest in 1897, he received his medical degree from the Royal Hungarian Medical University. Upon coming to the United States after World War I, he found employment as a bacteriologist at the Rockefeller Institute. From 1926 to 1930 he directed films for Universal pictures and MGM; his first two movies The Last Moment and Lonesome, were among the most highly praised of 1928. According to discerning film critics, Lonesome deserves to considered as one of the classics of the period. From 1934 to 1941 he directed several ethnographic and film expeditions to Madagascar, the East Indies, and Latin America. Dr. Fejos was the recipient of a multitude of awards and honors from several countries, and also served at one time as vice-president of the prestigious New York Academy of Science.
The other project involved the lavish book Pre-Columbian Art, Robert Woods Bliss Collection, published in 1957. The reviewer for the American Journal of Archeology, July 1958, was totally enthralled by Muray’s superb pictures. He rhapsodized that “the backbone and perhaps the reason of the book are the 270 illustrations, […] Seldom has one seen such exacting photography. It must have been a rare pleasure to the well-know commercial photographer, Nickolas Muray, to work with such an exquisite collection, inviting a variety of experiments in exposure, color, and dramatic lighting.”
While fencing at the New York Athletic Club on February 9, 1961, Muray suffered a heart attack. Most fortunately for him, fellow sportsman Dr. Barry Paul Pariser, a young resident surgeon at Kingsbridge Veterans Hospital and himself an outstanding swordsman who qualified for the 1956 and 1960 Olympic fencing squads, rushed to his aid. Using a borrowed pen knife, he cut open Muray’s chest and kept the heart beating by massaging it for nearly an hour. Muray was then taken to Roosevelt Hospital where he received additional medical attention, this time by more conventional procedures. Though he was in critical conditional, Muray responded well to treatment and recovered sufficiently to be discharged on March 12.
The medical setback did not diminish or restrain his love for fencing. He continued his participation in the sport and acted as a fencing adjudicator at the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo.
He was one of the prominently displayed exhibitors at the Third International Photography Fair held in New York City’s Coliseum in April of 1964. Encompassing Carbro color prints as well as black-and-white pictures, his display featured prominent personalities from various fields taken by him in the 1920s and 1930s. In covering the event and especially Muray’s works, the New York Times of April 15 reproduced his images of such theatrical and entertainment giants as Al Jolson, Greta Garbo, Noel Coward, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, Frederic March, Helen Hayes, Katherine Cornell, and Fred and Adele Astaire.
On the evening of November 2, 1965, Muray was fencing at the New York Athletic Club when he suddenly collapsed from a heart attack. Unlike in 1961, there were no miracles – he was dead before any form of medical assistance could be rendered. His death was announced in the New York Times along with a well-deserved recapitulation of his career as a photographer and fencer.
In 1967 the book The Revealing Eye: Personalities of the 1920s containing 170 of Muray’s portraits with the text provided by Paul Gallico, a close friend, was published. Calling the book a scintillating volume, the critic for the New York Times paid homage to Muray as a photographer “who made significant contributions in past eras to the pictorial history of the United States.” The book was actually started by Muray but he didn’t live to see it finished; it was completed through the dedicated efforts of his wife Peggy.
A decade later Muray’s Celebrity Portraits of the Twenties and Thirties, with an introduction by Marianne Fulton Margolis, appeared in the bookstores. The reviewer for New York History magazine called it “a striking display of twentieth century celebrities.”
In 1978 Muray was inducted as a member in the Fencing Hall of Fame. Incidentally, he is by no means the only Hungarian-born member of this select group; others are Lajos Csiszar, Istvan Danosi, Csaba Elthes, Eugene Hamori, Aladar Kogler, Dr. Tibor Nyilas, Paul Pesthy, and Nicholas Toth.
Collections of Muray’s works repose at the International Museum of Photography, George Eastman House, in Rochester, New York; the Museum of Modern Art in New York City; the American Museum of Photography in Philadelphia; The National Portrait Gallery and the Museum of American Art; and the Royal Photographic Society in London, England. There are close to 25,000 of his images preserved at the George Eastman House. The majority of the prints are black-and-white portraits of notable persons from the 1920s.
Starting July 1, 2007, and lasting until the end of September, the Fine Arts Center in Colorado Springs held an exhibition entitled “Frida Kahlo Through the Lens of Nickolas Muray.” Nearly 50 photographic portraits of Frida – never before displayed – comprised the showing. The exhibition was also displayed in other parts of the country, including the Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo, New York; the Gulf Coast Museum of Art in Largo, Florida, and Aurora University in Aurora, Illinois.
Muray’s quintessential photo of the immortal Babe was among the photos displayed in one of the sections of the exhibition “Seeing Ourselves: Masterpieces of American Photography from George Eastman House Collection” held at the State Museum in Albany, New York, in March through May of this year.
Given Frida Kahlo’s exalted current status in the art world, there is a tendency to overlook Muray’s accomplishments as an artist and athlete and relegate him to a mere footnote in Frida’s life. Any such trend must be reversed for he deserves all the recognition he has earned throughout his distinguished career and is a memorable figure in his own right.
NOTES: Muray is included in an array of biographical dictionaries, among them ICP Encyclopedia of Photography (1984) and Macmillan Biographical Encyclopedia of Photographic Artists and Innovators (1983). Muray himself wrote a number of autobiographical sketches which are held in the Nickolas Muray Papers collection at the Smithsonian Institute’s Archives of American Art in Washington, DC. The Covarrubias Circle: Nickolas Muray’s Collection of Twentieth-Century Mexican Art from the University of Texas Press under the general editorship of Kurt Heinzelman is a recent informative monograph revolving around Muray. Books about the private life and artistic attainments of Frida Kahlo easily number over one hundred. Most of them touch on her relationship with Muray. For example, Frida, A Biography of Frida Kahlo by Hayden Herrera, a most definitive account of her life, contains much about their liaison, while I Will Never Forget You . . . Frida Kahlo to Nickolas Muray, Unpublished Photographs and Letters (2005) by Salomon Grimberg is devoted entirely to their affair.
I would like to express my heartfelt thanks and appreciation to Mimi Muray Levitt for her invaluable comments and generous permission to use photographs of her late father.