Editta Sherman and the Lost Bohemia


Well, I was going to write about something quite different today, but circumstances have changed. I was reading the NY Times obituary page this week (they have the best obits in the world, I think) and learned that Editta Sherman had passed away. And well, it made me sad to hear it and I had to write about it.

I had seen Editta in a documentary film a little over two years ago called “Lost Bohemia.” Now, I’m not normally one to be sentimental about art or to wax lyrical about the creative process. But the movie somehow struck a cord.

Images from a lost world.

It’s about an artistic community that lived above Carnegie Hall. There were artists, photographers, acting coaches, dancers, you name it. Most of those depicted in the film were elderly and had been living in apartments there since the 1940s and 50s. A dispute arose with the property owner, Carnegie Hall itself. Eventually, the Hall made moves to evict the residents from the building so it could convert the space. As you can see in the trailer, Carnegie Hall eventually got its way. The whole last part of the film you get to watch as the guts, literally, get ripped out of the building. You get to watch as artist’s studios with huge South-facing windows, dance studios and work spaces get ripped out and turned into, essentially, cubicles. (The Times obituary called them “educational and rehearsal spaces.” O.K. Fine, whatever.) Eventually, the artists are moved out.

Of course, the Hall’s side of the story doesn’t really get told in the film. And Sherman did get moved into a subsidized apartment as part of her settlement, according to the Times obituary. So, in a certain sense it’s hard to feel bad for them, but the feeling I was left with, frankly, was of loss and outrage. It’s hard to be sympathetic as you watch a large institution move aggressively to evict/remove seniors from their homes.

Anyway, I saw the film when I was about two-thirds of the way through the process of writing my first book, The Library of Lost Books. I had reached a lull, but the documentary just clicked something inside, and that was it. I finished the final drafts of the book and I self-published it a few months later. The film reached inside me and made me realize that art isn’t free, that it always costs something. It made me feel as if art was a conspiracy that only a few of us know about and that it takes a tremendous amount of effort to resist, to go against the flow and create anything of artistic value. The film gave that sudden spur that I needed to focus and finish the work. In fact, I don’t think I’ve been the same since, because it made me realize that creating art (for me, fiction writing) is in an intrinsic part of who I am and that if I want to do it, I have to be willing to fight for it, to confront the forces gathered against it and emerge triumphant.

So, here’s to Editta and the rest of the residents of the “Lost Bohemia.” Just know this: your loss helped a new writer finish his first book and spurs me on even today to bigger and better things. Thank You.

Once more, Eddita’s Times obituary is here and her website also has a biography.

Eddita tells it like it is.

PS. John Turturro makes a short appearance in the film on the side of the residents. I always liked Turturro because he played Barton Fink. His appearance in this film made me love him.

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