(1880 - 1955)
Aline Bernstein was the first woman designer to achieve
professional recognition in the American theater. She
was an artist of many talents, who didn't start her stage
and costume designing career until she was in her early
She was born on December 22, 1880, in New York City, the oldest
of two daughters of Rebecca and Joseph Frankau. Her father was an
actor of German-Jewish ancestry and she traveled the acting circuit
with her parents. By the time she was seventeen, both of her parents
had died and her aunt, Rachel Goldsmith, became her guardian. She
lived with her aunt, who had a theatrical boarding house on West 44th
Street in New York City.
She was a talented artist and Tom Watson, a close friend of the
family, arranged for her to receive a scholarship at the New York School
of Applied Design. Here she met and studied with Robert Henri, one
of the most important painters at the time.
She met and married Theodore Bernstein, a Wall Street broker, on
November 19, 1902. They had two children: Theodore, in 1904, and
Edna, in 1906.
Aline Bernstein found time to volunteer as a backstage worker at
the Henry Street Settlement. It was here that she met the Lewisohn
sisters, Alice and Irene, who were producing plays and pageants. She
designed and created costumes for fifteen plays from 1915 to 1924.
She emerged as a major developer of sets and costumes when in 1924,
she designed The Little Clay Cart. She received national acclaim for
her design concepts which were based on Rajput style of miniature
She created expressionistic settings for the Jewish classic, The
Dybbuk, for the Neighborhood Theater in 1925. Her grotesque settings
matched the mysticism of the play. She also made the settings for
the annual Grand Street Follies through 1925.
In 1934, she designed Herman Schulmin's production of Lillian
Hellman's first play, The Children's Hour. This combination of
Schulmin, Hellman and Bernstein stayed together for four more Hellman
plays, from 1934 to 1949.
Bernstein went to Hollywood in 1935 to do two RKO spectaculars, She and The Last Days of Pompeii. She returned to New York and
became active in creating sets and costumes. At age 70, Bernstein was
the recipient of the Antoinette Perry (Tony) Award for her costume
creations for the opera, Regina. Her last show that she designed
costumes for was for the Off-Broadway production of The World of Sholom
Aleichem, in 1953.
She was the first woman admitted into membership of the
Brotherhood of Painters, Decorators and Paperhangers of the American
Federation of Labor in 1926. She was also involved in establishing the
famous Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and she
was the president for the last nine years of her life.
Aline Bernstein died in New York City on September 7, 1955. She
left the theater many new ideas and creations that would help the new
costume and scenic designers with their work. Aline Bernstein didn't
just leave a spiritual legacy but also a materialistic legacy which can be
seen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Sources: This is one of the 150 illustrated true stories of American heroism
included in Jewish Heroes & Heroines of America : 150 True Stories of American Jewish Heroism, © 1996,
written by Seymour "Sy" Brody of Delray Beach, Florida, illustrated
by Art Seiden of Woodmere, New York, and published by Lifetime
Books, Inc., Hollywood, FL.