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Art Star

How Edith Gregor Halpert made the modern gallery

Eve M. Kahn
November 01, 2006

In 1926, a young wisp of an Odessa-born Jew, a cigarette ever present in her manicured hand, began turning up on the doorsteps of art galleries around New York. Her name, Edith Gregor Halpert, was mostly made up (she was born, we think, around 1900 as Ginda Fivoosiovitch).

The ambitious Mrs. Halpert told dealers she was curious about their business, and they answered her questions about standard receipt formats and insurance policies. She called herself “a little girl from Odessa,” and delivered that line “with her hands on her hips and a shimmy,” according to a newly released biography, The Girl with the Gallery: Edith Gregor Halpert and the Making of the Modern Art Market by Lindsay Pollock, who writes a column on the art market for Bloomberg News.

Edith’s gallerist-mentors lived to regret spilling trade secrets to this high-cheekboned, blue-eyed brunette flapper. By the early 1930s she was grossing $100,000 a year at a Greenwich Village venture called the Downtown Gallery. Bluebloods like Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, Newport heiress Edith Wetmore, and Vanity Fair editor Frank Crowninshield were shopping at Edith’s and enjoying the slumming thrill of peering into the speakeasies near her West 13th Street rowhouse. She wangled exclusive or semi-exclusive rights to works by important American modernists (Max Weber, Marsden Hartley, Ben Shahn) as well as talented but now-obscure second tier (Abraham Walkowitz, Bernard Karfiol, Peggy Bacon).

Mention Halpert’s name now to art dealers or collectors and most will draw blanks. She died of a brain tumor in 1970, a hard-drinking, forgetful, litigious, embittered, and sometimes paranoid recluse. But her nervy early methods of running a gallery live on.

In her heyday uptown dealers mostly flogged dubious Old Masters and fine French furniture. She set out to introduce contemporary American art to the masses, whipping up multi-dealer public art shows, allowing her customers to pay on installment plans, and hounding museums into acquiring and displaying her wares. Her boozy parties were legendary.

“My rackets,” she called her business in a 1960s interview. But she wasn’t a huckster. In many ways, she was a quintessential left-leaning immigrant, fighting for the rights of the oppressed, an heir to her forebears’ anti-Czarist sentiments. She cut into her profits by subsidizing starving painters like Charles Sheeler and Stuart Davis, and her idealism comes through in her correspondence with close friends. “I haven’t done right by my artists and American art,” she fretted in a 1941 letter to a lover, written after a brief illness kept her from work.

But business was in her blood: Her father Gregor (source of her made-up maiden name) was a prosperous grain broker, and Halpert and her sister Sonia each had a nanny. When Halpert was a toddler, Gregor died of tuberculosis and her mother Frances (née Lukowowick) moved the family to Harlem, insisting the girls speak English, rather than Yiddish or Russian, at home. Halpert helped out at her mother’s struggling candy store on Madison Avenue at 105th Street, and probably never graduated from high school.

At 14, having adopted the name Edith Georgiana Fein, she started taking night art classes at the National Academy of Design. Soon after, she joined the People’s Art Guild, a short-lived artists’ union (1915-1917) that brought Jewish artists’ work to Lower East Side settlement houses and cafeterias. By 17 she was supporting the family as a fashion illustrator for department stores. She visited galleries run by the few mavericks—Alfred Stieglitz and Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney—interested in recent American work. She went, she explained toward the end of her life, “wherever artists could be found, seen, or respectfully heard, and attended every meeting that was free.”

In 1918 she married Sam Halpert, a Fauve-influenced painter (and Bialystoker born Smuel Galprin) nearly twice her age. An artist friend named Leon Kroll told her she had little talent, so she burned her art supplies and reinvented herself as a marketing executive and efficiency advisor for garment manufacturers. She earned $16,000 a year, while Sam sold about $800 worth of paintings annually. He blamed her for his failures, and later bitterly called her “Lady Duveen,” after Joseph Duveen, the Jewish art dealer who hawked so many Old Masters to robber barons. In 1925, Edith quit working for a few months, hoping to save the marriage by playing wife. After a particularly boring summer vacation at a Maine artists’ colony, she left Sam (they finally divorced in 1930) to start a gallery.

She bought an early 1800s townhouse at 113 West 13th Street, at the northern fringe of bohemian artists’ country, and moved into the top-floor apartment. The New York Evening Post Literary Review soon gushed that the gallery “presented so attractive an appearance that one reviewer found it hard to leave.” She commissioned a glass-roofed backyard addition from Donald Deskey, the interior designer who later designed Radio City Music Hall, stocking it with murals and sculpture from Downtown Gallery artists. Edith kept the place open until 11 p.m., six days a week, and changed shows at the breakneck pace of one every three weeks.

Customers of every ethnicity, persuasion, and class were welcome. Her male assistant was young, gay, and black, and although she wasn’t observant, she could still take on “a more kibbitzy voice” with her coreligionists, Pollock says. (Many of her artists and collectors were Jewish immigrants like her, aggressively assimilating, replacing their ancestors’ faith with a fervor for high culture.) Newbie collectors could buy monographs or lithographs, and Halpert had her artists’ designs licensed for affordable housewares and accessories: silk scarves, alabaster jewelry, drinking glasses, wallpaper, copper ashtrays.

When the Great Depression scared even the wealthiest collectors away from contemporary art, Halpert changed tactics. She started dressing as “a helpless, frumpy matron,” Pollock writes, trawling the New England and mid-Atlantic countryside for folk art: weathervanes, cigar-store figures, chalkware roosters, ship figureheads. She especially liked eerie, powerful, unfussy pieces that seemed to foreshadow modernism. The Rockefellers were still acquiring this material—Abby Rockefeller Jr. was setting up a folk art museum in Colonial Williamsburg—as were Henry and Edsel Ford. (Halpert knew about Henry’s anti-Semitism, but cheerfully feigned indifference in order to close deals.) She helped organize splashy exhibits at Rockefeller Center and Grand Central Terminal, and briefly took a job in Washington, D.C., helping the Federal Arts Project choose grantees.

Halpert started losing her edge as early as 1940, when she tired of bohemia and moved her gallery and home to East 51st Street. Not many of her postwar signings caught on, with the exception of Jacob Lawrence and Stieglitz’s stable (including Arthur Dove and Georgia O’Keeffe), which she took over after his death in 1946. In the 1960s, her taste began to diverge even more dramatically from the marketplace. The Pop artists and Abstract Expressionists were, she thought, being coddled by foundations, novelty-craving curators, and star-struck collectors “who stand there and catch the next picture that comes off the easel.” Her friends and artists drifted away. When she couldn’t find anyone to dine with, according to one former staffer, she spent her evenings “obsessively arranging and re-arranging her bureau drawers, rolling her many pairs of stockings perfectly and re-folding exactly her underwear and nightgowns.” Only one artist, a Hawaiian-born painter named Ruben Tam, showed up at her funeral.

She had coyly promised her collection to several museums, but at the last minute she revoked her will and died intestate. A niece and a nephew unloaded more than 200 of Edith’s best pieces at a 1973 Parke Bernet auction, clearing $3.6 million.

Only a few institutions—the Whitney, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum—have kept Edith’s former holdings on regular display. The Museum of Modern Art’s 2004 renovation relegated her American modernists to a corridor along the elevator banks. “It’s as if they’re the poor stepchildren of the collection,” Pollock said recently. “I get very defensive about her and her artists. When people told me they remembered this difficult woman, I wanted to say, ‘But if you’d only known her when she started out! She was a pistol! She was amazing!’”