History and Mission | About the Founders | Board of Directors | Fellows' Projects


About Albert Roothbert | About Toni Roothbert

Antonie von Horn Roothbert
By Charles van Horne

One of the first woman commercial photographers of this century, Antonie "Toni" von Horn Roothbert was also a social activist and benefactress. Her work lives on now primarily through The Roothbert Fund, which was created and shaped by Albert Roothbert, her husband, and Toni during their lifetimes.

Family and Predecessors
Antonie von Horn was born on March 31, 1899 in Mannheim, Germany. Her family had deep roots in Brunswick (a.k.a. Braunschweig) in northern Germany, where for several generations various members of the family were Mayors, Senators and/or Consuls of this important member of the Hanseatic League. When that was disbanded, more recent ancestors of Toni extended their service to the state as members of the military, for example, in commanding a regiment of Royal Hannover Guards to fight with Wellington at Waterloo and in helping to organize the Danish army. Toni's paternal grandfather commanded one of three battalions that fought at nearly all the front line battles of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1871.

This grandfather apparently had a dislike for, or at least was of two minds about many aspects of the military. He educated his oldest son (Toni's father), as a merchant in the tobacco business. In any case, this rather more enlightened attitude was not of great help: the business involved a great deal of trading with Holland and other countries, including the United States, and it fell on hard times during the First World War: assets in Holland were expropriated due to the German connection and the German side suffered from association with the Dutch.

Toni's father died in 1916 when Toni was 17 years old, and the family business was sold. Toni and her mother moved to Hamburg to stay with Toni's now married sister and her family and Toni went to study photography at the Kuntsgewerbeshule (the School of Applied Arts) in Hamburg.

Career: Society and Fashion Photographer
Toni von Horn graduated from the Hamburg in the early 1920's, and set up a studio in Heidelberg near where she had grown up. At this time, her work came to the attention of Otto Kahn, the industrialist, who invited her to the United States to take photographs of his estate. While in New York she met Frank Crowninshield, the editor of Vanity Fair (and a founder and the first Secretary of the Museum of Modern Art) who reviewed her photos and recommended that she stay in the United States to pursue her career.

During the 14 year period from 1923 when she came to the United States until 1937 when she retired from the photographic scene, Toni von Horn established herself as one of the most active and well-known society and fashion photographers in New York. Her regular editorial work at Vogue, Vanity Fair, Harper's Bazaar, her repetitive shoots for the most sought after advertising accounts like Bergdorf Goodman and the soap companies, and the portraiture conducted from her studios establishes her as a prominent professional at a time that many consider to be among photography's most dynamic and dramatic periods. Indeed she was one of the first women to operate in this field at the level of Edward Steichen, Adolf de Meyer and George Hoyningen-Heune, among others, and the only one to operate as an equal in direct competition with them.

Toni formally joined Conde Nast publications (which included Vogue and Vanity Fair) in the fall of 1930 where she was the first woman in the Conde Nast stable of the most famous photographers of the day, including Steichen and Hoyningen-Heune, among others. Her ease of entry to society and other exclusive occasions could not have been hurt by the fact that she was the Baroness von Horn. Indeed a title seems to have assisted a great number of society and fashion photographers active between the wars, including de Meyer and Hoyningen-Heune, although she appears not to have pushed this background directly.

During her career, Toni produced photos for Vogue in 1930 and 1931, for Vanity Fair during 1930 through April 1932, for Harper's from February 1932 through January 1935 and provided some images again for Vanity Fair starting in July 1934. In addition to her fashion shots, her images for Conde Nast include portraits of Paulette Goddard (before she married Charlie Chaplin), Ginger Rogers (before Fred Astaire), Joan Bennett, Claudette Colbert, Clive Brook, Gloria Swanson, Robert Montgomery and Cole Porter, among others. Her work also included photographs of other notables, such as the famous (at the time) portrait of Albert Einstein, taken in 1932 shortly after he moved to the United States.

Arguably, Toni's best work was done for Harper's and included images of Marlene Dietrich, Eleanor Roosevelt, and numerous images of society luminaries, with family names like Astor, Vanderbilt and Biddle, and princesses and the like from Europe. Her key advertising clients included Bergdorf Goodman (her photos for the Fur Salon were a regular and prominent feature in all these magazines for several years,) and the other department stores such as Henri Bendel, Saks Fifth Avenue, Bonwit Teller and I Magnin. She also did advertising and promotional work for Chanel, Camay and Lux soaps, Ipana, Kodak and Lucky Strike.

In early 1932, Toni moved to Harper's Bazaar, and, instead of being number two in New York, she was featured as the principal New York photographer, the counterpoint to Baron Adolph de Meyer based in Paris. A few months after Toni joined, Carmel Snow also moved from Conde Nast, where she had been Editor of American Vogue, to Harper's Bazaar, initially as Fashion Editor. Carmel Snow was given the mandate to thoroughly rejuvenate Harper's and she proceeded to put her stamp on the magazine in the form of a general makeover. This was to begin a period when Harper's became "one of the most fervently admired magazines in America. Its coverage of fashion, the arts and the contemporary scene was consistently more lively and more imaginative than Vogue's; its graphic design and layouts were more elegant; and its reputation for hiring the best photographers and giving them relatively free rein was a frequent embarrassment to the rival publication."1

Toni von Horn's decision to give up photography in 1937 must have been very complex and we can only speculate about the reasons, rationalizations, catalysts and emotions involved. Certainly her marriage at age 38 to Albert Roothbert, at 63 considerably her senior, brought new attachments, horizons and its own share of expectations.

So why is Toni so unknown in the history of photography? Why does she receive only minor (even if they are generally flattering) mentions in the two published histories of fashion photography and women photographers? No museum curators or dealers seem to have ever heard of her. Many events conspire: when she left the field, she never really took another photo, and very few of her original images from her peak production years have survived. In many ways she was ambivalent about her work, and, by the time photography began to be taken seriously as a medium of art in the late 1960's, she was the last to care or engage in self-promotion. Her plates and negatives lay in damp storage in an outbuilding at Topstone Farm and were discarded after she passed away, probably without a thought. When the first serious books on photography during this period were compiled, the easiest records to access were those at Conde Nast, and clearly, Toni's most original and modern work had been at Harper's, which had neglected its files. Besides, Toni signed her work as "Tony von Horn" or "von Horn" and most researchers did not connect her work with that of a woman, prominent in "a man's business" so early on.

 

Marriage to Albert Roothbert, Becoming a Spiritual Activist
Needless to say, there were other sides to Toni besides her photography. Toni's interests (in many cases, "passions") in bio-dynamic (i.e., what we today call "organic") farming, purchases of farms and different parcels of real estate, seeds to Albert Schweitzer, and macrobiotic diets all were interrelated. Her spiritualism expressed itself through interests at one time or another in Buddhism, Theosophy, Meher Baba, Rudolf Steiner, Bahai and the Quakers. The general theme through all of this was an active, high-minded person, committed to pursuing ends to the extreme, if necessary, to achieve her goals.

While a photographer, Toni had bought a country place in Thomaston, Northern Connecticut, called Moosehorn Farm. After she married Albert, she apparently sold it but, thereafter, spent quite some time searching out real estate and farms that might be converted to biodynamic disciplines. One of her searches led her to Copake in upstate New York, and to the founding of Camphill Village, a very special community for mentally handicapped children and young adults, the first of its kind in the United States.

"The Camphill way of life has developed out of the belief that each person, with or without handicap, is a unique spiritual being entitled to lead a full and purposeful life in freedom and dignity. The task of Camphill is to create the special conditions in which people with handicaps can learn to live with their limitations rather than suffer from them, and to discover, develop and realize their abilities to the fullest extent."2

Toni had bought a 216-acre property called Sunny Valley in Copake with intention to convert it to bio-dynamic principals. Her search for a manager led her to the former owners who had previously established a school for mentally handicapped children at the farm. Although they had since moved to Pennsylvania, they had been in touch with Dr. Konig, the founder of the Camphill movement to see about setting up one of his communities in the United States. Toni ceded the Sunny Valley property to Camphill, and in the early 1960s Carlo Pietzner and his wife came to head it up, together with Hartmut von Jeetze, the first farmer at the Village. In subsequent years, Toni also helped to secure Albert Schweitzer's assistance for Camphill and to assist in purchasing a farm contiguous to Sunny Valley that was to double the size of the community.

Toni's interest in organic farming had roots in her great concern over the proper use of the environment and the direct impact this could have on one's health. When in the early 1960s, George Osawa, the "father" of macrobiotic diets in the West, came to New York, she was among the very earliest of supporters. Besides attending the unforgettable rice dinners in New York, all who knew her then remember how that she embraced the diet, with characteristically full intensity, for herself, Albert and all who shared her table.

Toni had sincere interests in or at least flirted with a wide variety of spiritual figures and alternative religions: Buddhism, Theosophy, Krishnamurti, Rudolf Steiner, and possibly (almost certainly!) others. After World War II, she was attracted to Meher Baba whose objective was to bring all religions together. Baba announced in 1952 that he was the reincarnation of the Avatar and Jesus Christ and then established an ashram at Myrtle Beach, where Toni also purchased a house. She admired the writings of Kahil Gibran, one of whose credos was "don't trust any organized religion." She was certainly comfortable comparing or debating the merits of many religions, but it is also hard to identify any one that was closest to her own inner spirit. However, during these years, Toni joined a group called the Wider Quakers, which Albert in his later years identified as the religious group to which he felt closest. Perhaps Toni and Albert were drawn to the Quakers because this religion's history and roots are based in Western civilization, while, in many of its ways, it is almost Eastern. Pendle Hill, the Quaker retreat outside Philadelphia, of course, became the site of the Roothbert's annual retreats.

One of the interesting questions for the Roothbert Fellows is to identify the influence of Albert on Toni's interests and hers on his. Albert's writings show him to be a high-minded person throughout his life. Notwithstanding his formal baptism into the Christian faith, he also seems to have despaired of the divisiveness of man's structured religious and other (in the 1930s) self-organized boundaries. He questions: "How can we build an enduring peace, if every individual wants to continue his own pet aversions and intolerances?"3 and " How can we raise the level of our spiritual life?"4

As for Toni, there seemed always to be a distinct pattern to her style: attraction to many ideas, pick out the pieces that resonate with her own personal vision, active personal involvement to get it going and done, all capped by Toni's own style of encouragement to ensure that the people on the project kept on track. Toni was in her element when in the midst of action. The realm of pure contemplation was less appealing to her, and I suspect this was one of the greatest differences between Albert and her.

Final Years: Building the Roothbert Fund
The first three grants of the Roothbert Fund were made in 1959. Grants were made to more than 30 Fellows before Albert passed away in October, 1965. While Toni clearly had an important hand in the original concept and development of the Fund (which was originally called the Toni and Albert Roothbert Fund) and was a member of the Board of Directors, she did not try to play a central role in setting its direction. Memories of early participants in the Fund place her in the role of "hostess" to the group, but not above expressing a bit of exasperation at some of the decisions made by the "men" who made up the Board at that time.

The Fund was smaller then, most meetings were held either in the New York apartment on 48th Street or at their country home at Topstone Farm in Ridgefield, Connecticut. Her energy and style contrasted somewhat with that of Albert, who, by then in his late eighties, had lost the better part of his hearing. She was better able to keep in touch with the Fellows (several of whom were women), or even their spouses, and it is from these beginnings that the concept of "Fellowship" came into being.

When one looks at the underlying motivations and overall objectives of the Fund, it is important to remember that Toni and Albert had no children. They had married late and almost certainly never intended to have any. Both had been very successful in their professional lives and, while they lived modestly, they also lived a life of relative economic comfort, surrounded by great art (paintings by Seurat, Modigliani, Matisse, Derain, Stella, O'Keefe, Bluemner, and sculpture from China, Egypt and Africa, among others) and able to support the causes they felt deserving. But they felt a desire to offer something that would directly represent "an investment in the nation's most important raw material, its spiritual resources, at the point when such an investment is most helpful."5

In a sense, the Roothbert Fund was Toni and Albert's legacy to the world. If Albert had the vision and the original spirit to create a unique fund, after he departed and the burden fell upon her, Toni worked to help the adopted child stand on its own two feet and walk, if not run. She felt it was necessary to give the Fund shape, for it to reflect her/their view of the world as it should and could be. And to do this Toni had to bring the Fund forward, to bring it more into the world as an active presence for change.

Toni immersed herself in the Fund for the five remaining years that were given to her. She was greatly concerned to preserve Albert's vision and channeled her energy to translate the original ideals of the Fund into a greater degree of activism (ever true to her own temperament!). From her correspondence and private notes, one can see her preoccupation with spreading Albert's vision of spirituality (for example, in writing notes to members of the Board quoting certain works that Albert had annotated), and with reinforcing the Fund's spiritual principals in conversation, letters and activities:

Phil McKean, an early Roothbert Fellow, notes that the kind of philanthropy practiced by the Roothbert Fund was way ahead of its time. He remembers Toni as one of the first people he had met who answered the question, "How can we make a difference?" not only by funding, but with personal commitment to provide education and values that would endure. Everyone who knew Toni at this time remembers the engaging manner in which she sought out original thinkers who might help the Fund through their own actions or through referrals of scholarship candidates.

Many have vivid recollection of how Toni delved into the innermost workings of a person's ambitions, and how she constantly endeavored to bring more people into the circle. And as the number of grantees grew, she put special attention into tying this new family together, essentially creating a Fellows program. The annual reunion dinners of the Fellows and Directors that had been held in New York or at Topstone became weekend retreats at Pendle Hill. Smaller, more informal meetings were held to introduce new Fellows to older Fellows, luncheons were organized with guest speakers, groups attended seminars and attended dinners afterwards, outings were made to Camphill. Minutes of Pendle Hill, and even certain of the meetings, were produced and mailed to participants. Lowell Livezey's suggestion that a newsletter be established was endorsed and carried out. Indeed many of the traditions of the Fund began in this highly productive period.

By 1970, the Fund was growing at the rate of 20 new grantees each year. Two-thirds of the grantees were graduate students, 40 percent were women. The total number of Fellows exceeded 100. Toni was deeply aware of the organic nature of such a project. The President's Report of 1970 noted that Toni kept in touch with nearly every one of the Fellows. Many of her written communications on spirituality quote Albert, a writing with which both he and she were familiar, or the by-laws of the Fund. But her activities began to explore new territory for the Roothberts. Her interest was to ensure the perpetuation of the Fund's activities, and she felt the activity of Fellowship was the way to strengthen the group. Toni was a person who, once she had done something for you, didn't want you to forget it.

Although Toni's mainstream efforts were to support the Roothbert Fund's scholarship efforts, she also struck out in other directions, equally spiritual in purpose, but less institutionalized than granting scholarships. For example, her funding of a community project being undertaken by a Harlem Prep Roothbert Fellow directly from her own account acted somewhat as a catalyst in her seeking ways to support the goals of the Roothbert Fund with grants other than scholarships.

Toni's personal philosophy is found in a pamphlet entitled "The Spiritual Outlook of the Founder." It is interesting that, whereas the by-laws to the Roothbert Fund refer to spirituality as a central element of the Fund without defining it or giving direction on how to apply it, Toni went to great lengths to explain herself:

"Only in reverence for life can man find his true place in the world that God has created and continues to sustain. In a world in which technological and scientific development narrows our vision of life, our appreciation of nature, and, through the ease of obtaining material goods and physical diversions, draw us away from God, we must continuously seek to open the spiritual windows of our soul to the vast meaning and significance of God's...presence in all things.

"...In all projects to be undertaken..., the over-riding purpose of an increase in spiritual awareness is to be a guiding principle. By spiritual awareness is meant an alertness to the life-giving force of the universe, a sensitivity to the divine which is caught up in the secular and everyday, and an openness to the creative and constructive opportunities of our human existence.... It is the hope of the founder to consciously and meaningfully manifest in all the activities of the Topstone Fund the presence of God and a clear pure reverence for life."

Toni became aware of her illness approximately a year before she died in December, 1970. At her death, Toni left the bulk of her estate to the Roothbert Fund, the effect of which was to double the size of its endowment. In her will, Toni specified her wish that these funds be used to strengthen the Fellowship, a fitting use for someone who had devoted so much of her time to this purpose.

Now 25 years later, the number of Fellows approaches 1000 and Pendle Hill still provides an important opportunity for fellowship among grantees, new and old. If Toni were still with us physically, no doubt, she would exhort us, challenge each person individually in that shrill voice of hers to "do more, be more" than what we currently are, and hopefully she would write now, as she did about one grantee, "another Roothbertian who has done well." Certainly, more than the photos, Camphill or the Funds, it was that engagement of life that should be inspiration for us all.

 


Charles van Horne is the great-nephew of Toni von Horn Roothbert, and serves as President of The Roothbert Fund.

Illustration: Jane F. Century

1 Kazanjian, Dodie and Tomkins, Calvin, Alex: The Life of Alexander Liberman, 1993: Knopf and Co., NY, p. 114
2 "What is Camphill?" Camphill Association of North America, date uncertain.
3 Roothbert, Albert, "No Real Peace Except from Within", April 1944, printed in A Remembrance of our Founder, by Carl Solberg, The Roothbert Fund, New York, 1994.
4 Roothbert, Albert, "How Can We Raise the Level of Our Spiritual Life?," October 1948, same source as above.
5 Solberg, Carl, "The Roothbert Fund, Its Program, Background and Development," New York, July 1963.

Top of page
About Albert Roothbert
History and Mission | About the Founders | Board of Directors | Fellows' Projects



Home | About The Roothbert Fund | Scholarships | For Roothbert Fellows | Contact us