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Series III: Professional Files, 1922-1994
Series IV: Personal Files, 1936-1994
At a Glance
This collection is arranged in 6 series.
Scope and Content
Collection contains papers related to Leo Lerman's professional life as a writer, magazine editor-- including a long-time editor with Condé Nast. Nast working with publications such as Vogue, House & Garden, and Vanity Fair. The collection contains correspondence, subject files, editorial and professional files, and research notes as well as personal materials photographs.
Much of the material was preliminarily organized and annotated by Stephen Pascal, Lerman's long-time assistant and the editor of The Grand Surprise: The Journals of Leo Lerman. Mr. Pascal has provided dates and contextual information for much material in the collection, and any such notes found in the papers should be assumed to have been generated by him, with the assistance of Gray Foy and Richard Hunter.
Using the Collection
Rare Book and Manuscript Library
Restrictions on Access
This collection is located off-site. You will need to request this material at least three business days in advance to use the collection in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library reading room.
This collection has no restrictions.
Terms Governing Use and Reproduction
Single photocopies may be made for research purposes. The RBML maintains ownership of the physical material only. Copyright remains with the creator and his/her heirs. The responsibility to secure copyright permission rests with the patron.
Identification of specific item; Date (if known); Leo Lerman Papers; Box and Folder (if known); Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University Library.
About the Finding Aid / Processing Information
Columbia University Libraries, Rare Book and Manuscript Library
Papers processed 2010-2011 Carrie Hintz
Finding aid written 04/18/2011 Carrie Hintz
Gray Foy Papers processed by Patrick Lawlor 10/31/2013
2011-04-20 xml document instance created by Carrie Hintz
2016-02-03 xml document instance revised by Catherine C. Ricciardi
2019-05-20 EAD was imported spring 2019 as part of the ArchivesSpace Phase II migration.
History / Biographical Note
Leo Lerman was a major figure in post-war New York City arts and letters who wrote and edited for publications such as Mademoiselle, Vogue, Playbill, and Vanity Fair. He loved the theater, opera, and dance, and this interest in the arts led him to have friends across the performing and fine arts. His famous parties were dotted with major literary figures, publishers, actors, opera singers, ballet dancers, and artists.
Lerman was born in East Harlem to Russian and German Jewish immigrants (Samuel Lerman and Ida Lerman, nee Goldwasser) in 1914. He spent his youth in Harlem and the Jackson Heights neighborhood of Queens surrounded by his tightly-knit family which formed part of a community of Eastern European Jewish émigrés in New York at the time.
His life-long interest in theatre and the arts began as a child, and he spent most of his time growing up writing poetry and reading novels. He attended Newtown High School in Elmhurst, Queens and, upon graduating, decided to pursue a career in theatrical design and management. The 19 year old Lerman won a scholarship to the Feagin School of Dramatic Arts in 1933. He spent a year at the Feagin School before leaving to pursue theatrical work, but while he was there he made a number of lasting friendships, including Richard Hunter who, a few years later, in 1936, would become his lover, and who remained a life-long friend.
After leaving the Feagin School, Lerman took a job at Grossinger's Playhouse in the Catskills for three summers. At Grossinger's, a summer resort, Leo performed theatrical duties that ranged from managing the stage to sweeping it. This experience whetted his appetite for theatrical work, and Lerman soon began to work on Broadway where he was a fixture for nearly a decade, acting, stage managing, and designing sets and costumes. He was President of the Scenic Artists Division of America, Costume Division for two years from 1938-1939. In addition to his theatrical work he had a brief movie career with a part in the film The Troublemaker.
Lerman loved the theatre, but had always harbored literary ambitions. He began writing for magazines in the early 1940s, writing his first piece for Vogue in 1942. He soon became a contributing editor at the magazine, a title he would keep until 1972 when he was promoted to features editor. While Lerman was working as a contributing editor for Vogue, he was also writing for, among other publications, Harper's Bazaar, Dance Magazine, House & Garden, The Atlantic Monthly, New York Times Book Review, and The American Scholar, and acting as the children's book editor at the Saturday Review of Literature. Despite his ongoing relationship with Vogue, Lerman remained a free-lance writer during this period, as, indeed, he would for the rest of his career.
In 1948, Lerman accepted a position as a contributing editor for Mademoiselle-- a job that he kept for the next 26 years. While working for Mademoiselle he wrote the influential "Something to Talk About" column that solidified his reputation, which he had been building as a writer for Vogue, as a cultural tastemaker with a keen sense for emerging trends and new talent.
Condé Nast bought Mademoiselle in 1960, formalizing and strengthening Lerman's long-standing relationship with the media organization. Though he continued to work on non-Condé Nast publications (notably, he was editor in chief of Playbill from 1950-1982) most of his magazine work centered around Condé Nast publications where he continued to work as a contributing editor for Mademoiselle and took in the role of features editor at Vogue-- a position he held for eleven years from 1971-1983. It was in 1981, while working as features editor at Vogue, that Lerman hired Stephen Pascal as his assistant; Pascal worked for Lerman and as an editor and writer for Condé Nast for years, and edited Lerman's journals for publication after Leo's death.
Lerman left Vogue in April of 1983 to take the helm of the newly revived Vanity Fair. Condé Nast had revived the publication, out of print since 1935, in February of 1983 under the leadership of Richard Locke. However, after three issues it was clear that the magazine was not headed in the direction Condé Nast had hoped and they brought Lerman on as editor. The position was, in some ways, a dream job for Lerman, and he reinvigorated the magazine focusing on arts and culture coverage and publishing high-caliber literary fiction. The time and effort of running a magazine, however, coupled with his recurring health problems, proved too burdensome for Lerman and he only remained the editor-in-chief until December of 1983.
His departure from Vanity Fair occasioned a transition to a position as editorial advisor at Condé Nast-- a position he would keep for the rest of his career, and one that suited Lerman exquisitely. In this capacity he was able to draw upon his far-reaching interests and talents and his impressive social network to guide work on all of Condé Nast's publications. This also gave him the time and freedom to do more of his own writing, including writing profiles for House & Garden, as well as signing a deal with Random House to pen his memoirs, an ambitious project that was never completed.
His memoirs were not the only book project that Lerman undertook over the course of his career. Early in his writing life he penned two children's books--Leonardo da Vinci: Artist and Scientist in 1938 and Michelangelo: A Renaissance Profile in 1942. He spent years working on an unrealized history of Sotheby's auction house, and authored the massive history of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Museum, 100 Years of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1969, for which he won a Lotus Club Award. He spent a summer at Yaddo in 1946 working on a biography of Isabella and Beatrice D'Este. Though that book never came to fruition, he made many lasting friends at Yaddo, including Truman Capote and Carson McCullers.
His interest in the arts led to a number of projects throughout his career. He served as consultant on theatre to the National Arts Council and to the New York State Council on the Arts; and, for seven seasons, he wrote the program notes for the New York Philharmonic Symphony's Saturday Morning concerts.
As prolific and impressive as Lerman's professional work was, in many ways he is best remembered for his social life. He started hosting weekly Sunday night parties as a young man at the apartment he shared with his partner Richard Hunter on E. 88th St., and later at his flat at 1453 Lexington. Though these events were by no means lavish affairs, Lerman's wit, expansive personality, and graciousness as a host drew crowds that read like a who's who of New York at the time. Leo entertained often, and almost always with his partner, artist Gray Foy, by his side.
Lerman and Gray Foy first met at one of Leo's famous parties in 1948 while Foy was an art student at Columbia. Shortly after meeting Gray moved into Leo's beloved brownstone at 1453 Lexington, a home that they shared until 1967 when their landlords sold the building. They then moved, along with their collections of books, furniture, ceramics, and objets d'art, to an apartment in the Osborne in Midtown Manhattan. Lerman and Foy remained together until Leo's death of pulmonary failure on August 22, 1994.