Yale Exhibit Shows Work Of Jerome Zerbe, Class Of ’28, And America’s First Paparazzo

May 28, 2019

A Yale University graduate was one of the first celebrity photographers, known to us now as the paparazzi. Photographer Jerome Zerbe is the subject of a new exhibit at Yale’s Beinecke Library.

Zerbe didn’t coin the term paparazzi. That came from the 1960 Fellini movie “La Dolce Vita.” But Beinecke curator Timothy Young says Zerbe is often considered the first paparazzo. He came to Yale from a wealthy Ohio family.

“At Yale, he wasn’t a stellar student unless you counted party-giving as a major. His talent was gathering people together, meeting as celebrities and taking photographs of his friends.”

Zerbe went to work in the 1930s as the on-site photographer for New York City’s glamorous El Morocco nightclub. The owners asked him to document the club’s stylish and famous clientele. The club paid him, and he gave the celebrity photos away for free to the gossip mags. It was a unique arrangement.

“So this is a way that we’re getting tons of free publicity and branding El Morocco as the go-to place to be seen. All the markers of glamour and celebrity coalesce around El Morocco,”

Zerbe took candid photos of Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, Dorothy Parker and many others. He was distinct from the paparazzi who followed him in one big way, though. His subjects actually wanted their pictures taken.

“Zerbe knew these people. He had been circulating in their ranks already. He seemed to have been plying this as if it was a friend of theirs taking a photograph of them.”

Young says the trick didn’t last. Zerbe’s subjects in the late ‘30s often had their hands in front of their face in that classic no-photos pose.

Zerbe’s photos can be viewed at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library through August 12.