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Charlotte Fairchild

Time Period: 
5 East 47th Street, New York City


Before her death by apoplexy on the Triangle Bar Ranch in Wyoming, Charlotte Fairchild enjoyed a life that mixed artistic bohemianism with high society comfort. Born Charlotte Houston, she married in 1898 a wealthy Bostonian, John Cummings Fairchild, who indulged her love of art collecting and photography. His death in 1915 revealed a complex of financial difficulties that required Fairchild to find employment to support her three children.

In 1915 she opened a photo gallery on Boylston Street in Boston. Her artistry and social connections enabled her to amass enough cash in three years to move to New York City where she lived at 31 East 60th Street in Manhattan. Her studio at 5 East 47th Street, a stylish, even extravagant, venue, was equipped with a resident parrot (it escaped in July 1918), two of the best oriental rugs in New York City, and a medieval French animal tapestry. These were the material remains of the days of Bostonian splendor.

Fairchild made her national reputation as an artist nearly overnight when, on October 20 & 27th, 1918, the New York Times printed a suite of her photographs of a patriotic World War I tableaux staged by Ben Ali Hagan. Suddenly popular, and socially well-connected, Fairchild became a fixture at New York's debutante balls and society teas. She photographed socialites, but preferred shooting actors and dancers. She was the most frequently published woman photographer in Vanity Fair, having 68 pages devoted to her pictures from 1917 to 1926. The Theatre published Fairchild even more frequently. 

A freethinker with an interest in aesthetic experiments and religious speculation, Fairchild had a penchant for causes and became the focus of a newspaper tempest about the identity of Dr. Orloff Orlow. Orloff, self-appointed head of a Hindu cult, attracted Fairchild's notice early in the 1920s. Fairchild believed Orloff to have been John Orth, the long lost Archduke Johann Salvator of Austria, and made several proclamations to New York papers to this effect. Her pronouncements inspired great public interest and much skepticism. By February 1927 it became apparent that Fairchild was the victim of a hoax.

Later in 1927, Fairchild married the distinguished African-American commander of the 369th Colored Infantry, Colonel George Little. She left with Little for his Wyoming ranch and died five months later, leaving two daughters, Charlotte and Frances, and a son, John C. Fairchild. Noble Sissle lead the Kentucky Choir singing spirituals at her funeral. The auction of her Renaissance and colonial American furniture, rugs, and art garnered over $30,000. Her photography business remained in operation by other hands until the early 1930s as Fairchild Studio.

NOTES: NYT (10-20-1918), A:8E. "Making More Money," Los Angeles Times (3-17-1921), II:2. "Friends Sure 'Orth' Was Lost Archduke," NYT (4-3-1924), 14. "Mrs. Arthur W. Little," NYT (9-4-1927). Vanity Fair (Mar 1915 - Dec 1926). David S. Shields/ALS


Whether theatrical production photography, usually of experimental theater, studio portraiture in which a stunningly dressed solitary individual stood or lounged about Fairchild's sumptuously furnished work space, or plein air dance photography of young, chitton-dressed women in groups in parks, Charlotte Fairchild's images translated well to the print medium. Her outdoor photography had a pictorialist poetry to it, her studio work a clarity of focus and elegance of arrangement that was distinctive, and her production photography a straightforwardness that permitted the ideas of the designer or choreographer to be conveyed unambiguously.