Behind the Lens, Inside the Mind. The Life of Frederick Eberstadt
By Manuel Villa
1992 was a symbolic year for Frederick Eberstadt. Having graduated from the masters program in social work at Columbia University, he eagerly looked forward to his dream career as a psychotherapist. It was also the year he received his first social security check.
Born in 1926, age was one contrast he had with his mostly younger fellow students, but by far not the only one. Although the majority belonged to a different generation, in all likelihood they all knew who Audrey Hepburn was; unlike Eberstadt however, probably none of them had ever met her, let alone posed by her side to be immortalized in one of Richard Avedon’s classic fashion images. Surely, they all had attended the occasional cocktail party, but doubtless not one hosted by Andy Warhol. And he was probably also the only one who, after surviving a crippling major depressive disorder, decided to leave behind a decades-long career as a fashion photographer and photojournalist to become a psychotherapist.
The tall, affable 94-year-old likes to be called Freddy. Anyone who felt transported to the avant-garde New York from the 50s and 60s when entering his East Side apartment would not be out of place. After all, Eberstadt and his wife, Isabel, were part of that social group. “My friends are obsessed with him!” says Kate Eberstadt, 29, his granddaughter. “They just think he is so stylish. He speaks in a way that is of a different time. It’s like a piece of history, and people love being around him.”
The son of a legendary banker who played important public roles during and after the Second World War, the significance of his father’s status, a troubled relationship with him and the times when Eberstadt grew up, all resulted in a youth rich with unique anecdotes, as well as complicated memories.
Not many 10-year-olds — or people of any age, for that matter — can say they were at a luncheon party, sharing a table with the wife of Alan Dulles — the director of the CIA during the Bay of Pigs invasion — and hear her casually comment she was sure everyone knew somebody who had murdered someone. “I thought that was the coolest thing I have ever heard!”, Eberstadt laughs.
When he was 15, he was expelled from school for smoking. “And by smoking, I mean tobacco in those days,” he chuckles. As fate would have it, he was spared an otherwise inescapable scolding because, a few days after his mischief, an emergency required his father’s unconditional attention: Japan had just attacked Pearl Harbor and he was soon called to assist in the war effort.
Drafted by the navy a few years later, in 1945, Eberstadt was due to be sent to Camp Pendleton — the West Coast base where they trained U.S. Marines for service in World War II — making his deployment to the Pacific all but imminent. He never made it. Hiroshima and Nagasaki made sure of that.
Instead of being shipped to Iwo-Jima — or Iwo-To, its proper name in Japanese — he ended up at a base in Charleston, South Carolina, becoming what is known as a “dry-land sailor,” an unflattering term for those in the navy who never served overseas. Not that Eberstadt minded it: Dry or wet, he was a breathing sailor, as opposed to a dead one.
His short stint in the navy was followed by a choppy path at Princeton University, from which he dropped out several times before finally leaving for good, never finishing his undergraduate studies at the Ivy League institution.
It was during his 20s when it began dawning upon him that “everything in our household was focused on my father’s career,” Eberstadt says. It had never occurred to him that there could be ways to live his life where his father was not the most important element in it.
Having had such revelation, but unsure what to do next, he convinced his father to lend him 1,500 dollars and took off to Europe for an adventure trip. He had the time of his life.
Squeezing his budget tightly, he managed to trot the Old World for six months, instead of the two he had originally agreed to with his father. But it was a Faustian deal. Upon his return, he had to find a way to repay the debt, so he had no choice but to agree to work for a year at the investment bank his father built from scratch. It would not be a joyful period for him. “He was a control freak,” he says.
He rotated every one of the bank’s areas. It was a rich, if complicated, experience. Trading was just too tense an environment. “It gave me colitis,” he half-jokes. Research was interesting, with all the intricacies of equity analysis and investment proposals. Salespeople “were full of baloney.” But overall, to his surprise, he found the financial world interesting in many ways. “If life had been somewhat different, I might very well have been a businessman,” he conjectures. “I think I may have been fairly good at it.” But that was not something he was willing to consider, at least not if that implied working with his father. “He chose this very different life,” says Eberstadt’s daughter, Fernanda Eberstadt, 59, a novelist and essayist. “A social life, a life of parties, artistic friends.”
His debt settled, Eberstadt left his father’s company and started searching for jobs. In 1952, he landed one at NBC as a TV show unit manager, a “kind of housekeeping job for entertainment shows,” as he describes it. Being at NBC would bring him in constant contact with many of the established names in the celebrity world of the following decades. He witnessed the beginning of the careers of, among others, Gena Rowlands, the multi Emmy and Golden Globe winning actress; Dominick Dunne, the Hollywood producer who would later write about how the rich and famous interact with the American criminal legal system; John Calley, producer of works that would become staples of pop culture during the 1970s such as “The Exorcist” and “Superman.” Some would become lifetime friends.
In the summer of 1954, he met Isabel Nash, future author and New York socialite, daughter of the humorous poet Ogden Nash and the woman Eberstadt would marry.
It was a blind date. Isabel and her roommate had organized a small drinks reunion at the New York apartment they shared. The plan was for Eberstadt to attend the brief party and, after it was over in the early evening, for the two of them to go out on their date.
Ironically, the person Eberstadt originally had a date with that night was not Isabel, but her roommate. But shortly before the party started, she let him know she had to cancel. The roommate had in exchange set him up with Isabel for the evening date. She didn’t explain why she had to cancel it, but during the reunion the reason became obvious to Eberstadt, when she and one of the attendants, an attractive young man, were suddenly nowhere to be seen. “I’m not so stupid that I didn’t realize he was a better date than me,” he laughs.
Irony was not ready to call it a night just yet. It was getting late and one of the guests, another young man, remained in the flat with Isabel and Eberstadt. “I waited around for this guy to leave,” he recounts. As time ran its course, however, something began becoming clear. The other young man who would stubbornly not go home was also waiting for Eberstadt to do just that. The reason? Isabel indeed had a date that night, only not with Eberstadt, but with him. It turned out Isabel’s roommate never let her know she was supposed to have a date with Eberstadt that night.
Realizing the situation they had been thrown into, they all burst in laughter. Nobody, however, was shocked. “We all knew her [Isabel’s roommate],” Ebersatdt laughs. “She wanted to get out of having a date with me without me getting sore at her. If you knew her, you wouldn’t be that surprised.”
Probably unimaginable today, but in 1950s New York it was hard to get dinner that late, so they ended up going to Lindy’s. The three of them.
Not two months later, the anecdote-rich, triangular first date had led to a marriage engagement — this time involving only Eberstadt.
They were married in November of that same year. He was 28; Isabel had just turned 21. “We’d know each other for a very short time before we got married and nobody gave us more than 18 months,” he says. Indeed, their marriage didn’t last 18 months, but 52 years, until Isabel passed away at the end of 2006, after a long battle with illness.
Eberstadt seemed to have found his place. Their first child, Nicholas, was born a year after their marriage. Fernanda, their daughter, would be born five years later. Eberstadt loved family life, he had a steady job and the couple enjoyed being part of New York’s social life. It felt like the path was being paved right in front of him. But it would not end up leading at all where he thought it would.