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Erte; Versatile Artist and Designer


Erte, the versatile and prolific artist whose Folies Bergere costumes and Harper's Bazaar magazine covers set a lavish tone for the 1920s and whose art deco prints continued to sell well into the 1980s, died Saturday in Paris. He was 97.

Spokesmen for Cochin Hospital refused to state a cause of death. Friends said he had been hospitalized three weeks ago after returning from a vacation trip to the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean.

During his productive life, Erte designed costumes for the street, stage and screen, painted, made lithographs, sculpted in wood and metal, crafted jewelry and designed sets for opera, ballet, nightclub shows and films.

He became famous for his fine-lined, elongated sketches of slender women in luxurious gowns and cocoons of fur, often accompanied in their glamorous high-tech settings by stylized greyhounds, leopards and panthers.

The artworks became familiar fare in American art galleries--in Los Angeles, they were often shown at the Circle Gallery and the Richard Mann Gallery. Lithographs from his famous alphabet series featuring the elaborately adorned "Erte woman" accent the walls of the Westwood Marquis Hotel, where Erte celebrated his 90th birthday.

His graphics, paintings or sculptures are also prominent in the homes of Barbra Streisand and Cher and lesser-known celebrity admirers. And his continuing popularity won him nicknames as the "Father of Art Deco" and "Mr. Art Deco"--titles that he disdained.

"I do not like to be called 'Mr. Art Deco,"' he once told the Los Angeles Times. "I contributed to that movement. But I also contributed to surrealism. I do not understand it."

Born to an aristocratic family Nov. 23, 1892, in St. Petersburg (now Leningrad), Russia, young Romain de Tirtoff designed his first dress--an evening gown for his mother--at the age of five. He emigrated to Paris in 1912 to work for fashion houses and adopted as his professional name the French pronunciation of his initials, Erte (Air-tay).

His Harper's Bazaar covers from 1915-37 made him a favorite in the United States, and he was lured to Hollywood in 1925 by a contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer to design costumes and sets for movies and to "Paris-up" studio actresses.

"I came to this country," he said then, "because I realize that from Los Angeles the films may do more toward establishing fashions than any other influence in the world. It is because they speak the international language of the eye and reach the masses."

He stayed seven months, then left in a huff.

While he was in town, Erte informed California women that their skirts were too short and men that their clothes were too drab, complained about actress Constance Bennett's prominent shoulder blades, and threw Lillian Gish out of his workroom when she demanded that her costumes for a role as a poor girl be fashioned out of silk.

"Hollywoodland is a terrible place," he said on his way back to Paris. "Stupid and dull. I met some charming people, but on the whole it is terribly dead. If they have wild parties they have them in the houses with the window shades drawn."

Erte broke his contract, he told reporters, because MGM kept rewriting a script, forcing him to design new sets and costumes for each version, then demanding he start over--50 costumes plus sets in three weeks.

Over the years, Erte designed costumes for George White's "Scandals" as well as the Folies, Dutch-born actress Mata Hari, who was better known as a German spy, American-in-Paris Josephine Baker, Sarah Bernhardt, Isadora Duncan, Joan Crawford and Anna Pavlova.

Erte's personal fashion choices leaned toward lavender and mauve. When he first appeared in Los Angeles in 1925, he wore a "boudoir costume" of gray crepe de Chine pajamas with rose borders and a gray and fuchsia crepe dressing gown. For his first day at MGM, he chose lilac shoes.

At a gallery opening here in 1979, he wore a lilac shirt and tie, a mauve-toned suit and white snakeskin shoes and belt. "I want to be an individual always," he said.

His vigorous good health and longevity were almost as celebrated as his legendary productivity.

"I have been very fortunate," he summed up his career and life in a Times interview during a series of parties for his 90th birthday, which included a retrospective exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution.

As a nonagenarian, he continued to work daily in his Paris apartment with its view of the Eiffel Tower, surrounded by a bevy of Burmese cats and turtledoves and the strains of Beethoven and Schubert. He concentrated in his later years on jewelry, clothes and sculptures. Retirement, he said, would kill him.

"So many artists have to wait until they are dead before they can enjoy the fruits of their labors," he told The Times seven years ago. "I have been so fortunate all my life, and I am so grateful to the people who have appreciated my work."

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