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Neil Carl Estern, sculptor of monumental works, dies at 93

July 17, 2019 Mary Frost
In his Brooklyn Heights art studio, sculptor Neil Estern creates a model of his famous sculpture of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. From the book, "Shaping a President: Sculpting for the Roosevelt Memorial." Photo courtesy of Diane Smook

Brooklyn born and raised artist Neil Carl Estern, whose monumental public sculptures can be seen in Washington, D.C., Manhattan and Prospect Park, among other venues, died on July 11 at the age of 93.

He lived with his wife and three children on Remsen Street in Brooklyn Heights for 53 years, where his studio was upstairs. About 11 years ago he moved to a pied-à-terre in Manhattan, and also lived in West Cornwall, Connecticut.

Estern, working largely in bronze, was acclaimed for his depictions of presidents, actors and royalty. Unlike many monumental works of famous figures, his sculptures captured both the strengths and the infirmities of his subjects.

Estern with his nine-foot tall sculpture of Eleanor Roosevelt. Photo courtesy of Diane Smook
Estern with his nine-foot tall sculpture of Eleanor Roosevelt. Photo courtesy of Diane Smook

Estern spent more than 10 years creating what are perhaps his best-known pieces: a massive seated figure of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a relief of Franklin and Eleanor, and a sculpture of their famous Scottish Terrier, Fala, for the FDR Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Estern’s first public commission was a bronze portrait bust of John F. Kennedy for the Kennedy Memorial at Grand Army Plaza, which was unveiled by Robert F. Kennedy on May 31, 1965.

Other works include life-size relief portraits in Prospect Park of park designers Calvin Vaux and Frederick Olmsted; a 3D figure composition “Expulsion from Paradise” owned by the Brooklyn Museum; a sculpture of Eleanor Roosevelt at the National Cathedral in Washington DC; a sculpture of Sen. Claude Pepper, at the Pepper Museum in Tallahassee, Florida; the statue of Mayor Fiorello La Guardia in Greenwich Village; and a relief of Irving Berlin at the Music Box Theater.

Estern created sculptures for several covers of Time Magazine, including J. Edgar Hoover, Prince Charles and Lady Diana and President Jimmy Carter. His work is in many private collections.

Photographer Diane Smook and writer Kelli Peduzzi spent five years documenting Estern as he created the FDR Memorial sculptures, from the scale models in Brooklyn to their bronze casting at the Tallix Art foundry in Walden, New York. Their book, published by Millbrook Press, is called “Shaping a President: Sculpting for the Roosevelt Memorial.”

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“Over a period of almost five years, I made thousands of photographs of Neil Estern working on this historic project,” Smook said in a statement she forwarded to the Brooklyn Eagle on Wednesday. “In each stage of creation, I was struck by the forceful personae emerging out of inert substances. Neil’s concentration was total. The figures, even in armature form, seemed to interact with him and appreciate his perfectionism.”

She added, “Within the final massive nine-foot seated FDR statue, Estern has beautifully captured both the president’s forceful personality and the human frailties he strove to keep hidden. The nine-foot standing Eleanor conveys sensitivity and intelligence.”

Hard working and modest

“He had an incredible gift and he didn’t think anything about it. He just loved doing his work,” Estern’s daughter Tory Estern Jadow, a film director, told the Eagle. “People called him a national treasure, which always surprised him. He was almost like an old-school artisan. He paid incredible attention to detail and had pride in getting it exact and right.”

Jadow said her father had the ability “to infuse his pieces with the personality of the subject. That’s where he stood apart. He was not just a technical perfectionist — there was a huge aura of personality emanating off the bronze.”

Estern got his start as an artist when he took ill at the age of 6 and was bedridden for a short period, Jadow said. His father brought him some clay to play with while confined to bed, and he started making figures. Over the years, his talent became apparent to his teachers, who “funneled him” into art classes and schools.

Neil Estern’s massive sculpture of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in his wheelchair, and his dog Fala in Room Three of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, Washington, D.C. Photo by Carol Highsmith, via Library of Congress
Neil Estern’s massive sculpture of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in his wheelchair, and his dog Fala in Room Three of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, Washington, D.C. Photo by Carol Highsmith, via Library of Congress

After starting a family and needing a steady income, he took a job as a model maker for the Ideal Toy Corp. There he created realistic dolls that became hits, including the life-size Patti Play Pal doll. According to the Wall Street Journal, Patti Play Pal “has gone down in collectible annals as a masterpiece of American vinyl.”

“That’s the one people are still talking about,” Jadow said. “I remember walking with her to the promenade. She was large, like your imaginary friend.”

Other collectible dolls designed by Estern can still be found online. He modeled the heads and limbs, and his wife Anne designed the wardrobes and created the concepts, his family said.

Punched the clock

Jadow described her father as “warm, friendly, kind and open,” and a disciplined worker who “punched the clock,” working from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day, going straight upstairs after breakfast.

“It was like an office for him,” she said.

Estern with the head of Roosevelt. Photo courtesy of Diane Smook

Estern frequently worked with male and female nudes. “He had a love affair with the human form,” Jadow said. When her father was sculpting nudes in his studio, at lunch time “the models would put on a shift and have lunch with my mom and the kids, then go back up.”

When Estern had his work cast in the foundry in Italy, he took his family there for six months at a time.

“It seemed normal to us. I never understood how unusual our lifestyle was until I was 17 or 18,” Jadow said.

Grew up in Flatbush

Estern was born in Brooklyn on April 18, 1926. He was the only son of Molly Sylbert Estern and Marc J. Estern. He grew up in Flatbush near Prospect Park and graduated from the High School of Industrial Art (now the High School of Art and Design) in 1944.

He attended the Tyler School of Fine Art in Philadelphia (a division of Temple University) and graduated in 1948 with a BFA as well as a BS in Education. He also studied at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, and studied and worked for many years in Pietrasanta, Italy.

Estern married Anne Graham in 1948; Rabbi Stephen Weiss presided.

He was president of the National Sculpture Society from 2005-2007 and 1994-1997, and a fellow there from 1987-2019. He was an academician at The National Academy of Design from 1996-2019, and an artist member of The Century Association. He belonged to the Rembrandt Club in Brooklyn.

Estern working on his sculpture of Roosevelt’s beloved Scottish Terrier, Fala. Photo courtesy of Diane Smook
Estern working on his sculpture of Roosevelt’s beloved Scottish Terrier, Fala. Photo courtesy of Diane Smook

Estern’s awards are too numerous to list. They include the Medal of Honor from The National Sculpture Society, 2008; the Maynard Award from the National Academy, 1999; Daniel Chester French Award from the National Academy, 1997; the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation Award for Fiorello LaGuardia statue in 1996; the Mildred Vincent Prize, National Sculpture Society in 1992 and many others.

He is survived by Anne Graham Estern, his wife of 71 years, and three children: Peter (and his wife Lauren Chan), Evan (and his wife Dawn Hathaway) and Victoria Estern Jadow (and her longtime partner, John Gruen), and three grandchildren: Ethan Jadow, Lucie Jadow and Lucas Estern.

There will be a memorial in the fall. Check back for details.

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