Biographies & Memoirs

Murray Korman: The One Big Name

By

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Synopsis

Murray Korman’s meteoric rise to fame and fortune was equaled only by his rapid fall into relative obscurity. A budding artist in the early years of the 20th century, by the 1930s Korman turned to the camera as his primary tool for artistic expression. Through talent and determination, he eventually owned two of the most prosperous studios in New York City and was labeled by The New Yorker magazine as “The One Big Name.” The Hollywood Magazine said “Perhaps in the entire country there is not another male who is on speaking terms with so many beautiful women.” But poor business management combined with competition and the shifting sands of the New York fashion scene sent Korman’s career into a tailspin. He died in 1961, poor, alone, and his massive portfolio scattered and virtually forgotten.

Against all odds

In contrast to his diminutive stature and defying all odds, for most of three decades, Murray Korman was a larger-than-life figure in the entertainment world and among the social elite of New York City. Short and stocky at about 5’4” and 148 pounds, with hair that “eddies around his ears and down his neck, like an unemployed actor’s” and often referred to as disheveled, Korman earned international respect and praise for his skill with a camera. Photo Arts Magazine, October 1952, stated that he is “by far the most fabulous of entertainment’s star-makers. Korman in the studio is a marvel to behold. No photographer, no artist, ever worked with a surer knowledge of his medium than Murray Korman, ... his name is a by-word in entertainment.”

To truly appreciate his eventual rise to fame, and his accomplishments, one has to first look at the circumstances that shaped his world. To label it difficult would be a gross understatement. A feature article in The New Yorker magazine, October 1934, noted that “Korman...has brilliantly overcome the obstacles of a humble background.”

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Nineteenth-century America was a country in rapid transition. Mere decades earlier a bunch of rag-tag colonists had shocked the civilized world by going toe-to-toe with the most powerful nation on earth, finally gaining their independence from Britain. The end of that conflict was only the beginning of a long, difficult struggle to build a nation, gain economic stability, and find acceptance among other nations of the world. Few were the adventurous, brave souls who cared, or dared, to leave the comfort of their European homes and estates to seek life in this new, wild country. 

But with an enviable wealth of natural resources and a self-sufficient, pioneering-spirited population, by the mid-1800s progress was significant; America was growing and standing strong. But in spite of significant gains, by all accounts the world’s governmental and economic powers were still to be found in nations scattered across Europe and Asia. And then came America’s Civil War, all but destroying any effort made to set America on equal ground with other nations. The very core of the union was threatened, setting America back decades in her progress.

But the end of that conflict, and the final years of the century proved to be a turning point for this fledgling democracy as the wheels of America’s industrial engine began turning. By 1900 the United States had surpassed England as the leading industrial nation on earth. America’s “Industrial Revolution was, and still is, the greatest engine of change in the history of humankind.”

Opportunities presented by this booming economy, coupled with conflicts in Europe that would eventually erupt into World War I, fueled a wave of immigrants to America’s shores the likes of which the world had never seen. Promise of security and hope for a better life was the siren song that proved irresistible to a Ukranian by the name of Solomon “Sol” Korman. Following the death of his wife in 1907, and left with five young children to raise, Sol made the fateful and difficult decision to leave them behind, travel to America, and try to forge a new life for his family.

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Born Moritz Korman on March 16, 1902, in Kamianets-Podilskyi, Ukraine, Murray was the youngest of Soloman’s five children; three sons and two daughters. Murray was only five years old when his mother died and his father, “who operated a small grain mill and peddled a little homemade vodka on the side,” emigrated to New York City. No record exists to explain why he came alone nor who kept the five children in his absence, but it can easily be assumed that five-year-old Murray’s world was turned upside down. It would be a few years later before Murray and his siblings joined their father. A 1942 interview with Murray shared insight that raises more questions about the circumstances of his immigration: “We were smuggled out, political reasons. Something about selling liquor.” 

Soon after being reunited, the Kormans settled on Ludlow Street in New York City’s Lower East Side neighborhood in the borough of Manhattan, joining a great wave of Jewish immigrants from Russia, Poland, and Eastern Europe that had begun in the 1880s. According to one source, by 1894 the population in the Lower East Side “reached an astonishing 986 people per acre—one-and-a-half times that of Bombay, India!” This influx continued until approximately 1920, creating the backdrop for Korman’s life. And so it was within a few short years that Murray was transported from a childhood hometown with a population of approximately 40,000, to one of the largest metropolitan areas in the world.

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Sol Korman brought into this melting pot a penchant for self-employment that not only sustained him and his young family but allowed them to prosper. For several years he worked at seasonal occupations such as vending fruit in the summer and shoveling snow in the winter. Then, undoubtedly taking advantage of the great human resources around him, Sol began a small but successful garment manufacturing business. Though there are no records to verify it, surely Sol’s children were “employed” in his business in some capacity. And just as certainly, a young Murray was influenced by his father’s entrepreneurial spirit.

The Korman children were enrolled in school and Murray found himself in New York City’s Public School 13, then later Public School 160. And as with most of his early childhood, some clear assumptions can be made. Regarding his entry into the American public school system, surely he struggled to learn the language. At this time in history, English was not as universally accepted and taught as it is in the 21st century so it’s doubtful Murray was taught English before coming to America. This, and the difficulties it represents, could very well be a major factor in his early exit from public school and his less than favorable opinion of school.

But it was during his time in public school that Korman’s creative bent and love of art was first documented. During the brief period he attended public school in America one former teacher noted that he “drew caricatures of the teachers and made a general nuisance of himself.” “All I wanted to do was make pictures. I enjoyed school. They had free chalk,” Korman admitted.

But Korman’s apparent carefree approach to school was in stark contrast to his work ethic and drive to succeed, very likely modeled after his father’s. Murray took full advantage of the opportunities America offered. As a youth, he sold newspapers, designed rugs, and painted dolls. It’s this third occupation that proved most rewarding, jump-starting a successful career in the creative arts and photography.

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It was 1909 when Rose O’Neill’s Cupid-like Kewpie doll character first came on the scene as an illustration for Ladies Home Journal. Its subsequent popularity resulted in Kewpie Kutouts, the first two-sided paper dolls printed in Woman’s Home Companion in 1912. That same year, a New York distributor of dolls, toys, and novelty items, George Borgfeldt & Company, approached O’Neill about developing a line of original Kewpie dolls and figurines and offered to “help her keep up with the overwhelming demand for Kewpie merchandise.” A 17-year-old art student, Joseph Kallus, was hired to create the first models and molds of Kewpie dolls and novelty items, which were then mass-produced in Germany. These, too, were an immediate hit. But the onset of WWI brought an end to doll production at the German factories. In response to this setback, Joseph Kallus founded the Rex Doll Company and began the production of dolls in New York City in 1916.

This was the first of many unique, almost providential, sets of circumstances that afforded Murray Korman the chance to achieve his American dream. It was as if around every corner opportunity would knock, and Murray entered without hesitation. The same year that the Rex Doll Company opened its doors, Korman, only 14 years old and in the eighth grade, landed a part-time job with the company, painting faces on Kewpie dolls. He excelled at this craft and was soon offered $50 a week to work full-time, an offer too good to refuse. And so he dropped out of school during his eighth-grade year, to pursue full-time employment. 

He soon proved to be gifted with management skills that matched his artistic talents. Within a short time, Korman had 20 “daubers” working under him. But his good fortune did not stop there. Due to his “brisk efficiency and all-around skill, the factory decided to let out all the painting to him on a contract basis, and he set up his own shop.”

In 1919, Korman decided to further his artistic career and enrolled in night classes at Cooper Union to study art, something he continued for three years. As was the pattern for most of his life, he excelled and after his first year of “freehand” was promoted to “third year.” He also began to land some freelance jobs sketching illustrations for local newspapers, all the while continuing to paint Kewpies. 

Fresh out of Cooper Union in 1922, Korman landed a job as a sketch artist for the New York publication Morning Telegraph. While there, “one of his pet jobs was to cover the theatre openings with his facile pencil and sketch-pad.” (This was during an era when staff sketch artists were the equivalent of today’s staff photographers.) Already enchanted by the world of entertainment, this job fueled his aspirations to become a leading “publisher” of its legion of beautiful women.  

Finally in 1924, though making a handsome sum of $300 per week, he quit the doll painting business to pursue a full-time career as a sketch artist and painter./ As one journalist said, “he left dolls in favor of the more exciting but less remunerative profession of newspaper illustration of, as one might suspect, beautiful women in New York.” 

In 1928, the same year Korman submitted his petition for naturalization, he was working as a sketch artist for a Spanish language newspaper, La Prensa. And his short-lived comic strip, “Poor Paddy” was appearing in some New England papers.

Korman’s next opportunity came from the New York World newspaper (a local paper with a 1931 circulation of 313,000) with Broadway as his specific assignment. His artistic talent had also captured the attention of Emile Gauvreau, a local newspaper editor who gave him several freelance assignments for his publication, The New York Graphic. 

Prompted by these continued successes, Korman opened a portrait studio. The studio’s first high-profile job, and at the time, Korman’s most significant, came when Florenz Ziegfeld commissioned a large sketch of the entire Ziegfeld Follies cast for publicity purposes. For this, he was paid the handsome sum of $300 and the door to artistic success was opened wide. Soon other theaters were knocking on his door requesting publicity sketches of their stars. He also found himself doing personal portraits for celebrities as well as clients in the music business wanting portraits for the covers of their sheet music. There were even requests for magazine illustrations, most notably one for Edgar Allan Poe’s The Balloon Hoax, published in the August 1927 issue of Aviation Stories and Mechanics magazine.

By now the allure of Broadway held him captive, particularly the beautiful stars of the theater stages. As Korman simply stated, “Theatre fascinated [me] more than newspaper work.“ 

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It was early 1906 when the headlines of The World Magazine cover read “12 New Americans a Minute.” That’s the equivalent of over six million immigrants annually competing for the American dream. It was at about this same time Korman began his quest for that dream. Though still very early in his career, Korman had already defied the odds. Surely for every person who attained even a modicum of success, hundreds fell short. But Murray had found success–– and he had only just begun.


About the author

a late-in-life history buff, i love a good book that opens my eyes to life on this planet long before i came on the scene. this passion, along with a love of family, prompted me to write a book in 2007 documenting my father's WWII experiences. i've since written several other books. view profile

Published on December 01, 2020

20000 words

Genre: Biographies & Memoirs

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