Popular Baltimore Photographer Was A Presidential Portraitist

January 25, 2009|By JACQUES KELLY | JACQUES KELLY,jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

Baltimoreans' photos filled a showcase window at the old Read's drugstore at Howard and Lexington streets for nearly 40 years. Photographer Leon A. Perskie opened here in 1934, as the celebrated pharmaceutical retailer was opening its doors at a new building. Little signs directed patrons to a third-floor studio, above Read's counters and balcony restaurant.

Until I got a call from his son, I never knew that the man behind the caption "photos by Leon Perskie" took the last formal, official photographic portrait of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Perskie went on to make portraits of Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. His son, Jay Perskie, who continues the family business, photographed the Jimmy Carter administration in the 1970s.

Leon Perskie came to Baltimore after marrying a Baltimorean, Leah Kupersmidt, a Sinai Hospital nurse he had met at Atlantic City. She got sand in her camera, he offered help, and a romance blossomed.

His father, Jacob, had a photography business on the celebrated New Jersey resort's boardwalk and built up a substantial clientele, which included a young FDR, who in the 1920s was considering a run for governor of New York. He needed an official photograph. Roosevelt was so successful a candidate that he needed more - in 1932, 1936 and 1940. Leon would assist his father with heavy equipment and the glass-plate negatives.

Jacob Perskie died in 1941, but the Roosevelt campaign wanted another photo for the 1944 election, when the president was in poor health. Leon received a call from Paul Porter, the Democratic national publicity director, and was told, "Be in Baltimore. On Sunday. Be ready with your equipment. And quiet, quiet about it."

The Sun's account "Mysterious Summons Proves Call to Photograph President" was published nearly a month after the request came. In the news story, Perskie said he was told to leave Baltimore immediately and drive to a Poughkeepsie, N.Y., restaurant. He arrived at 12:15 a.m. Monday, Aug. 21, 1944, and saw a Secret Service man examining the license plate on his car. They spoke to each other and he was instructed to drive to a Rhinebeck, N.Y., hotel, where a room had been booked for him. He spent the night, and the next morning, a secret service man called for him and drove the photographer to Hyde Park, the Roosevelt home. Because it was wartime, Perskie's equipment was checked thoroughly. He was told to select a room to make the picture. He chose the library, and soon Roosevelt appeared.

"I don't know how long he sat for that portrait, but he sat a long time. I made several takes - and I can say without reservation that he is the most patient man I ever had sit for a picture," Perskie told a Sun reporter. "He puts you at ease immediately. After a few minutes you forget your subject is the President of the United States."

Perskie left Hyde Park, telegraphed his wife, "MISSION SUCCESSFULLY COMPLETED. WILL BE HOME ABOUT TEN O'CLOCK. LOVE. LEON." He developed the photos at a darkroom in his Sequoia Avenue home. The prints were distributed to the press in September 1944, and FDR died at age 63 the next year.

Leon Perskie gave up his Howard and Lexington studio in the 1970s and died in Baltimore in 1982.

His son, who acted as his equipment carrier for Kennedy and Johnson photo shoots, has a Belair Road studio. He won the job of doing both the Jimmy Carter inauguration and its parties, as well as formal portraits of the Cabinet members.

"To me, it's like doing a wedding, because the president is marrying the country for four years," Jay Perskie said.

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