“I’m a very difficult personality—as you probably can tell.”
Sitting in New York power-lunch haunt, Michael’s, Rose Hartman is hungry—hungry for life, to be sure, but also for the plate of seared scallops on a bed of fava beans and creamy morel mushrooms in front of her, with a side of asparagus, followed by citrus panna cotta, all greedily consumed.
On the cusp of 79, she’s burning with ambition.
She is also judgmental, acerbic and occasionally unforgiving—“a Rose with thorns,” as sociocultural historian and Daily Beast contributor Anthony Haden-Guest describes her in The Incomparable Rose Hartman, a documentary about her four decades as a celebrity and fashion photographer (not, repeat not, a paparazzo) chronicling the highs and lows of New York’s club and party scene from Studio 54 onward.
“You’re a ballbuster,” the movie’s director, Otis Maas, tells her to her face in one scene, in which Hartman is making a stink about the way he’s doing his job, just before he advises her to “shut the fuck up.”
Hartman, who toiled as a substitute English teacher in the New York public schools for a decade before turning to photography full-time, thinks of her vocation as “entering a world, but not being in the world,” as she says in the film; she goes “on safari in the Chiffon Jungle,” her coinage, “where I find the most extraordinary subjects.”
Hartman’s photo of Bianca Jagger on the white steed—taken at Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager’s famous nightspot where in 1977 Mick Jagger hosted a celebration of his then-wife’s 30th birthday—remains the iconic image of a long-lost age.
Busy promoting the movie (of which she’s an executive producer) when not hitting the society galas for Highendweekly.com and working on her fourth photo collection—portraits of stylish ladies in a sidewalk café, which will either be titled “Across the Table” or “Check, Please!”—Hartman ambles tentatively into Michael’s with the aid of a cane.
“I’m supposed to have foot surgery,” she confides, apologizing for her tardiness and blaming the Uber driver who not only seemed deeply and annoyingly confused about the identity of his passenger, she complains, but also found every traffic jam between her voguishly decorated West Village apartment (her rent-controlled home for the past 50 years) and the Midtown Manhattan restaurant favored by media types, fashionistas, and the odd mogul or two.
“I am, shall we say, physically challenged. But generally I’m very fast,” she adds, noting that she swims for 40 minutes every day in the Equinox pool near her home. “I would have happily taken the subway. But now, with the cane…”
Pixie-ish with short, spiky, silvery-blond hair, Hartman is swathed in dark velvet (a classic ensemble by Gabrielle Carlson) accented by a bulky woolen gray scarf that almost looks alive; she has dark piercing eyes (the vision in her right eye upgraded to near-perfection by recent cataract surgery), and speaks in fastidiously pear-shaped tones, a patrician accent that belies her plebian upbringing on New York’s Lower East Side.
For a cameo appearance in the documentary, her younger brother, Marcus, tawks in a thick Noo Yawk patois when relating an anecdote about how their parents—a father she adored who died young, and a cold, distant mother with whom she never connected—stopped taking young Rose to the theater out of embarrassment for the girl’s habit of confronting noisy audience members with an imperious “DO YOU MIND?”
“I was born in Beth Israel Hospital, but I started my life on 9th Street and Avenue C,” Hartman says. “I was very fortunate, because I was very bright. I went to Hunter College Junior High and Hunter High School, where I studied Spanish, Latin, and English, and I had a speech teacher—and I paid attention. So the way I speak is the way I’ve always spoken. It hasn’t changed.”
Hartman’s eyes appraisingly take in her surroundings.
“We’re certainly here on the right day,” she declares, pointing out Fashion Week doyenne Fern Mallis accepting a massive chocolate birthday cake a few tables away—“she’ll probably take it home with her,” Hartman predicts—and novelist-about-town Jay McInerney standing and bending over to administer kisses at the next-door table occupied by, as Hartman says, “the ladies who lunch.”
Aside from Sharon Bush and Lady Gaga’s mom Cynthia Germanotta, they include McInerney’s heiress-wife Anne Hearst and Anne’s sister Patty—now a socialite and the owner of a Westminster Dog Show champion, formerly a kidnap victim-turned-bank robber for the Symbionese Liberation Army.
Twelve feet away, Hartman spots former Chanel president Arie Kopelman lunching with former Us Weekly editor Bonnie Fuller.
In due course Hartman spies a chic brunette of a certain age, swanning through the dining room.
“That woman is stunning on every level,” she says approvingly, “and she has the perfect bag. She has an alligator bag, which is probably a $20,000 bag. I’m sure she keeps it locked up.”
A couple of other ladies fare less well under Hartman’s pitiless gaze.
“I’m sitting in this room, and I’m looking at that woman who’s on her cell phone talking, and then I’m thinking, why is this woman in that rose-colored outfit? It’s inappropriate. It’s not suitable for her. It’s not right for her body. This is going through my brain.”
Another woman glides by in a full-length leather turquoise coat. Hartman eyes her with distaste. “I could never stand turquoise.”
Ultimately Hartman’s gaze settles on a table 30 feet away near the dining room entrance, where the immaculately suited and flawlessly tanned George Hamilton is breaking bread with his very close friend, Palm Beach socialite and Broadway producer Terry Allen Kramer.
“George Hamilton is incredible—are you kidding me?” Hartman gushes over the eternally handsome actor who, at 76, has a thick mane of dark hair (strategically silvered at the fringes) and a miraculously taut chin line not to be found in nature.
“He will never deteriorate!” Hartman pronounces—prompting her lunch partner to remark, no doubt tastelessly, that when the time comes, George will look marvelous in an open coffin.
“Do you really think that was funny? I do not think so,” Hartman chides. “But you might be right, darling. He must have the best plastic surgeon on the face of this earth.”
The subject of cosmetic enhancement naturally leads to a discussion of Hartman’s photographic encounters with the presumptive Republican presidential nominee and his various wives and women over the years.
Hartman repeatedly photographed Donald Trump with his first wife Ivana, was on hand for his Plaza Hotel wedding to his second wife, Marla Maples, and has frequently pointed her camera (either a handy Lumix point-and-shoot, a cheaper version of a Leica, or a more elaborate and professional Cannon) at Donald and Melania during various events at Trump Tower touting one Trump brand or another.
“I don’t have a brilliant comment to make about him,” Hartman says about the reality show billionaire. “I think he’s very self-involved, very narcissistic, very insensitive to anybody else’s feelings. At the same time, he might win the presidency!”
She adds, dismissively, “He always wears that same blue suit and red tie and white shirt—which is so boring to me.”
Hartman says that Donald and Ivana, a former competitive skier from Czechoslovakia, made for an attractive couple—although she always dressed too loudly, favoring bright pink, and garishly caked her face with too much makeup. And when Hartman brought her camera to Trump’s wedding to Marla Maples, “I knew it [the marriage] wouldn’t last.”
The current marriage seems more successful.
“I think Melania is gorgeous,” Hartman says of the former Slovenian model and possible future first lady of the United States. “Not semi-gorgeous. Gorgeous!…I think her life improved when she left her country. I have no idea. Did she sell her soul to the devil? I don’t know, but it doesn’t look like she’s complaining.”
Hartman adds: “I have photographed his daughter Ivanka, and she is very smart and very together…I look at her now and she is very beautiful—exquisite. I could go through her face with you—her nose, her chin—starting when she was 12 or 13 years old. When she was young she had a little tiny chin, like the chin of her brother. But is that important?”
Meanwhile, the documentary—featuring interviews with Donna Karan, Carolina Herrera, Simon Doonan, and other denizens of the fashion world—depicts a life lived vicariously amid the smart set: Andy Warhol and Lou Reed, Jagger and Jerry Hall, David Bowie and Iman, among many others. (Rich celebrities are different from you and me, but they are more than capable of wallowing in the banal. At Michael’s, Hartman recalls encountering Hall, Bowie and Iman years ago at a waterfront restaurant on the island of Mustique, and listening in on their conversation. “I expected words of wisdom, but you know what they were talking about? ‘I’m sooo happy that we can finally get CNN!’”)
The Incomparable Rose Hartman, which traces her career from her first glitzy assignment—the 1976 wedding of Papa granddaughter Joan Hemingway to restaurateur Jean Denoyer in Sun Valley, Idaho—makes no effort to airbrush out the nasty bits: her occasional rages, her penchant for elbowing people out of her way, or the fact that she has chosen a solitary, sometimes lonely existence over the companionship of marriage and family.
Hartman says she didn’t think to demand editing changes to make her seem more relatable or sympathetic, even though parts of the film clearly drive her to distraction.
In one scene, former ballet dancer and Broadway actor Mark Morales—a gay man with whom Hartman was romantically involved in the Studio 54 days, during which he says he was bisexual—takes the opportunity to psychoanalyze her.
“I think it’s her anger that drives her to do so much,” Morales, now retired, 61 and living in North Carolina, tells the camera. “Angry that her father died. Angry that she didn’t have a good relationship with her mother. Angry that she felt she was less privileged than other people. And, goddammit, she was going to make up for that by entering into this glamorous world and conquering it…
“To this day, she’s that way, and it comes across to people as pushy, presumptuous, ostentatious and all that, but underneath that it’s just this angry little girl who needs to have her way. ‘Do not fuck with me.’”
At lunch, Hartman says: “The man who said that—did you see the photos of him when he was young? Did you make the connection? He was so handsome. He let himself go.
“He’s been out of my life…I was crazy about him. We would dance. He was beyond handsome. But is it correct to lash out at someone like that? I never want to speak to him again, because honestly what he said was so absurd.”
Over the phone, Morales says that many years ago, when he left New York to pursue career opportunities in Los Angeles, Hartman believed he had abandoned her, and despite efforts to keep in touch, they ultimately lost contact.
“I could lose 20 pounds, but I feel like I’m in really great shape and holding it together pretty well,” Morales says with a laugh. “I still think about Rosie every day.”
At the end of four hours of on-camera interviews a year ago in New York, Hartman showed up and for the first time in a quarter century, they sat on a sofa together and reminisced about the old days.
“At some points we started to cry a little bit,” he recalls. “When we were finished, I walked Rosie to the subway and I said, ‘I want to thank you for all you’ve given me. I love you, and I think about us all the time, even now, and I wonder if we can reconnect and have a friendship.’ And she looked at me and said, ‘I’m not interested.’ It was like somebody had stuck a knife in my heart.”
At Michael’s, Hartman declares, “We’re not going to go through every subject who spoke about me. I know their backstories. They’re very jealous that there’s a film about me, blah, blah, blah.”
She says she doesn’t regret her choice to live on her own, and that she treasures her close friendships with a small coterie of artists, writers and the editor at her photo agency, Getty Images.
“I had different boyfriends, usually European, but I would never think of marrying them,” she says, confiding that she isn’t dating anyone now. “I was always free-spirited. I would never want to be a mother. I never wanted children. My photos are my children.”