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Ruth Gilbert, 97; late bloomer with a camera, host to glitterati in Paris

Times Staff Writer

Ruth Mayerson Gilbert, who bought her first camera at 62 and produced remarkable photographs over the next several decades in one chapter of a fully engaged life, died Saturday at a hospice in Monterey, Calif. She was 97.

Gilbert had been in declining health for the last few years, according to her daughter Carla Gilbert, and died of respiratory failure.

Though photography was the basis for her renown in the latter half of her life, Gilbert was also a dynamic hostess during much of the three decades she lived in Europe. Adjectives such as “warm and relentlessly charming” would show up in newspaper articles describing her in any context. Friends would say she was “relentlessly curious and thirsty for life.”

The wife of an economist, Gilbert bought her first camera at an airport in Asia in 1972. It was a Yashica and, because she didn’t know how to load the film, the first three rolls came out black, she told The Times in a 1992 profile included in a series on Californians 80 and older who were leading vibrant, interesting lives.

But less than 10 years after that comic start, her work was being championed by noted photographers.

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Through their help, a portfolio of her work was published in Zoom, the influential European photography magazine. The images from a series called “Sight Unseen” focused on the butchers of the Rue de Seine in Paris. Several of the photos ended up in the collection of France’s equivalent of the Library of Congress: the Bibliotheque Nationale.

Writing years later in The Times, critic David Pagel noted that “Gilbert’s butchers have the presence of angels. They seem to inhabit a weightless and timeless world in which every one of their movements is guided by a power greater than their own.

“Their faces, when they are visible, express a trance-like serenity, a sense of self-loss that is both frightening and desirable,” Pagel wrote in reviewing a retrospective of her work in 1992 at the Jan Baum Gallery in Los Angeles.

In explaining her vision as a photographer, Gilbert told The Times: “I don’t go for what’s traditionally considered beautiful. I think what I’m looking for is the spell that charges the commonplace with beauty and mystery. I’m interested in what makes the ordinary strange and wonderful.”

Gilbert was born Ruth Mayerson in Philadelphia on Dec. 10, 1909. Her father was a skilled woodworker who designed for homes and businesses.

After working her way through the Moore College of Art and Design she set out to be a teacher, but it was the height of the Depression and jobs were difficult to find. To make ends meet, she ran a federal Works Progress Administration-sponsored puppet theater and worked as a swimwear model and a nude model for artists before eventually landing a post on a junior high school faculty.

Her life quickly changed after she married Milton Gilbert, an up-and-coming Philadelphia economist. They moved to Washington, D.C., when he was named chief of the National Income Division of the Department of Commerce.

The Gilberts had three children, and after World War II the family relocated to Paris, where he became director of economics and statistics for the Organization for European Economic Cooperation.

While Milton Gilbert was crunching numbers and writing influential books on monetary policy, his wife was planning gatherings at their Paris home. It became a salon that attracted well-known celebrities of the day, including Fred Astaire.

“We had two Beckstein grand pianos which often ended up being played until 3 or 4 in the morning,” she told the Monterey Peninsula Herald some years ago. “Isaac Stern and Itzhak Perlman were regulars. The best thing is you never knew who would show up.”

After picking up the camera in 1972, she studied a series of Time-Life books on the technical aspects of the craft. As her body of work grew, she was accepted into prestigious workshops conducted by leading European and American photographers.

Her photos from “Sight Unseen” and other projects were shown around the world in private galleries or museums and sometimes in exhibitions under the auspices of the U.S. Information Agency.

After her husband’s death from a heart attack in 1979, she returned to the U.S. and resumed a friendship with Daniel Mazia, an eminent cell biologist who is credited with fundamental insights into mitosis, the process by which cells divide. They had met when they were in their 20s in Philadelphia.

From the early 1980s until Mazia’s death in 1996, they lived together in a Monterey beach house.

Their deep appreciation of cooking and culture made their home a stimulating gathering spot for an eclectic collection of artists and scientists. And she continued to be an engaging hostess, introducing dine de tetes -- dinner parties at which guests would wear self-made whimsical hats -- to many of her new friends, most of whom were half her age.

Into her 80s, she still swam in the chilly water of Monterey Bay and took brisk walks along the beach. She continued to live independently until a few months before her death.

In addition to her daughter Carla of Solana Beach, Gilbert is survived by her son, Arnold of Longbranch, Wash.; another daughter, Sheryl of Chevy Chase, Md.; and three grandchildren, Sabrina, Ned and Dylan. Services will be private.

jon.thurber@latimes.com


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