Neil Estern, 93, sculptor who depicted strength yet fragility of FDR
Neil Estern, a sculptor whose magnum opus was the 9-foot statue of Franklin D. Roosevelt that stands at the president’s memorial in Washington, a work designed to capture FDR’s strength and resolve late in life while hinting at — but not trumpeting — his physical infirmity from polio, died July 11 at a hospital in Sharon, Conn. He was 93.
The cause was renal failure, said his son Evan Estern. Mr. Estern lived in West Cornwall, Conn., and New York City.
Mr. Estern belonged to the corps of sculptors who are called upon, when the time comes and the necessary funds have been raised, to cast the likeness of some famous person in bronze — rendering that person a fixture not only of history but also of an urban landscape.
‘‘He tried to capture . . . more than a likeness — an energy, something that he felt really conveyed the sense of the subject,’’ Gwen Pier, executive director of the National Sculpture Society, said in an interview. ‘‘And I think that really comes through in his work, and that was what made him more than a craftsman and made him really a great artist.’’
He began his career as a toy maker, designing, along with his wife, the life-size Patti Playpal doll in the 1950s. The proceeds from that creation, which the Wall Street Journal once described as ‘‘the doll that has gone down in collectible annals as a masterpiece of American vinyl,’’ allowed Mr. Estern the freedom to study sculpture for extended periods in Italy.
He returned to the United States, where one of his early major commissions was a bust of President John F. Kennedy installed at the Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn in 1965, fewer than two years after Kennedy was assassinated.
Mr. Estern’s other subjects included Fiorello H. La Guardia, the New York mayor who presided over the city from 1934 to 1945. He sculpted Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape architect considered a father of New York’s Central Park; the composer Irving Berlin; and, for a cover of Life magazine, the long-reigning FBI director J. Edgar Hoover.
‘‘I represented Hoover as a Roman emperor — as if it were a marble carving,’’ Mr. Estern said years later in an interview with the sculpture society. ‘‘It was a caricature and emphasized a bit of what I thought was his evil side. It is a subtle, unconscious thing.’’
Mr. Estern was best known for his sculptures of Roosevelt, first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and their dog Fala at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial located in the capital near the Tidal Basin.
The memorial — a series of ‘‘rooms’’ with sculptures and reliefs by various artists representing phases in Roosevelt’s life and presidency — was more than four decades in the works. Leading up to the memorial’s dedication in 1997, there was heated debate about how best to represent the 32nd president.
Crippled by polio in 1921, Roosevelt could not walk without assistance when he was 39 but largely succeeded in concealing the extent of his disability from the public during his lifetime. Some disability rights activists wanted the memorial to portray him in a wheelchair to reveal the obstacles he had overcome. Others regarded any representation of Roosevelt’s disability as an insult to his memory.
‘‘You do not memorialize a man by imposing on him an identity that he himself rejected,’’ columnist Charles Krauthammer, who was paralyzed in a swimming accident, wrote in a commentary at the time.
Mr. Estern was tasked with depicting Roosevelt in 1944, a year before his death and at the end of the 12 years during which Roosevelt led the United States through the Depression and World War II.
‘‘My sharpest, clearest memory of FDR is a man in a cape, toward the end of his life, at once vulnerable and yet strong, in failing health and at the same time, the hero,’’ Mr. Estern once commented.
He depicted Roosevelt seated in a chair with small casters that was modeled on a wheelchair the president used at his residence in Hyde Park, N.Y. Roosevelt is cloaked in a cape that allows one thin, bony knee to protrude, nodding at but not drawing attention to his paralysis. His Scottish terrier Fala sits loyally near him.
‘‘I think my portrait shows his strength, but something about his illness, a sense of strain, the weight of the world at that point in his life,’’ Mr. Estern told the Associated Press. ‘‘I tried to suggest the willpower it took to overcome the pain and the stress. . . . I was kind enough not to make him too worn and weary. I didn’t want him to look as robust as he had been earlier, but I didn’t want him to look totally exhausted.’’
In addition to the sculpture of Roosevelt, Mr. Estern contributed a statue of Eleanor Roosevelt to the memorial. Wearing a modest coat, she stands in front of a seal of the United Nations, where she helped craft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
‘‘At each stage of creation, I was struck by the forceful personae emerging out of inert substances,’’ wrote Diane Smook, a photographer who followed Mr. Estern’s yearslong work on the memorial for the book ‘‘Shaping a President: Sculpting for the Roosevelt Memorial’’ by Kelli Peduzzi. ‘‘Neil’s concentration was total. The figures, even in armature form, seemed to interact with him and appreciate his perfectionism.’’
Neil Carl Estern was born in Brooklyn on April 18, 1926, to parents of Russian Jewish ancestry. His mother was a homemaker, and his father was a second-generation luthier, or maker of stringed instruments, who later became engaged in labor relations in the toy industry.
Mr. Estern graduated from what is now the High School of Art and Design in New York, where La Guardia was his commencement speaker.
‘‘During his speech he paced and gestured, emphatically telling us what a wonderful life we were going to have,’’ Mr. Estern recalled years later. He called upon those memories for the creation of his statue of La Guardia unveiled in Greenwich Village in 1994, which shows the mayor mid-step, mid-clap, and seemingly mid-sentence, over the objections of some critics who would have preferred a more sober pose.
‘‘He was always railing against something,’’ Mr. Estern told The New York Times, ‘‘some injustice or corruption.’’
Mr. Estern graduated in 1948 from what was then the Tyler school of fine arts in Philadelphia. In addition to the statues for the FDR memorial, Mr. Estern made a sculpture of Eleanor Roosevelt displayed at Washington National Cathedral. His bust of Kennedy was resculpted and rededicated in 2010.
Mr. Estern leaves his wife of seven decades, the former Anne Graham of West Cornwall; three children, Peter Estern of Honolulu, Evan Estern of Falls Village, Conn., and Victoria Estern Jadow of West Cornwall; and three grandchildren.
Reflecting on his life’s work, Mr. Estern said he found fulfillment in creating artwork for the public square, rather than for rarefied galleries filled with obscure art and art critics contorting themselves to explain it.
‘‘Art,’’ he once told the Times, ‘‘wasn’t meant to be a mystery.’’