Neil Estern, Sculptor of Monumental Public Works, Dies at 93


In the late 1950s, just as the doll Barbie was making her debut as a teenager with unrealistic physical dimensions, Neil Estern invented Patti Playpal.

Where Barbie stood less than a foot tall, Patti, measuring 36 inches head to toe, was life-size, as far as a 3-year-old was concerned. And unlike the idealized Barbie, Patti looked like most any female toddler — an all-vinyl companion who could share real clothing and imaginary adventures with a human playmate.

The Playpal line proved enormously popular; today collectors buy them for hundreds of dollars and even more.

Within a few years, Mr. Estern had turned from toymaker to full-time professional sculptor of monumental works, working out of a studio in Brooklyn Heights. But as he did so he maintained his commitment to verisimilitude, whether depicting a charismatic President Franklin D. Roosevelt or an effervescent Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia of New York, his impetuosity in full flower.

Mr. Estern, who created sculptures of some of the nation’s leading public figures, works that can be seen today in major cities, died on July 11 in Sharon, Conn., not far from where he lived in West Cornwall. He was 93. His daughter, Victoria Estern Jadow, said the cause was renal failure.

Twice president of the National Sculpture Society, Mr. Estern rejected the cultural snobbery of colleagues who suggested that art couldn’t be very good if it was understandable to the average museumgoer.

“Art wasn’t meant to be a mystery,” he told The New York Times in 1996.

His other public works, mostly cast in bronze, include sculptures of Eleanor Roosevelt, at the National Cathedral in Washington; Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, installed in one of their creations, Prospect Park in Brooklyn; Irving Berlin, at the Music Box Theater in Manhattan and at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington; and Senator Claude Pepper, at the Pepper Museum in Tallahassee, Fla.

Mr. Estern also created the bronze bust of John F. Kennedy in Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn; several busts of public figures, President Jimmy Carter among them, that appeared on the cover of Time magazine; and the composition “Expulsion From Paradise” at the Brooklyn Museum.

Probably his best known work is his 8-foot-11 figure of President Roosevelt, found in one of four outdoor rooms at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in West Potomac Park in Washington.

Roosevelt, who lost the use of his legs to polio, is seated in a chair, like the one with tiny wheels that he used at his Hudson Valley home in Hyde Park, N.Y. His Navy cape covers one leg and his floppy trousers the other, suggesting a withered limb beneath. Mr. Estern depicted him as a wartime president unhobbled by his disability but close to death.

“My sharpest, clearest memory of F.D.R.,” Mr. Estern once said, “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.”

He worked on the Roosevelt project for more than a decade. It also includes a separate statue of Eleanor Roosevelt and another of the president’s beloved Scottish terrier, Fala.

Diane Smook, a photographer, documented the creation of the Roosevelt sculptures for a book by Kelli Peduzzi, “Shaping a President: Sculpting for the Roosevelt Memorial” (1997).

“In each stage of creation, I was struck by the forceful personae emerging out of inert substances,” Ms. Smook said in a statement after Mr. Estern’s death. She said the completed sculpture captured “both the president’s forceful personality and the human frailties he strove to keep hidden.”

The memorial was dedicated by President Bill Clinton in 1997. Its other rooms hold sculptures by Leonard Baskin, Robert Graham, Thomas Hardy and George Segal.

The La Guardia sculpture, inspired by a stem-winding speech that the mayor delivered at Mr. Estern’s high school graduation, portrays La Guardia in mid-stride, mouth open and gesticulating vigorously.

The bronze statue was based on a plaster model by Mr. Estern for a commission years earlier by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey for La Guardia Airport. Funds ran out, and the airport statue was never realized.

Some Greenwich Village residents preferred a more statesmanlike version of La Guardia created by a local resident, John Bennett. But Mr. Estern’s model was embraced by the community board and the city’s Art Commission and dedicated in 1994 on the east side of La Guardia Place.

Neil Carl Estern was born on April 18, 1926, in Brooklyn to Marc J. and Molly (Sylbert) Estern. His father, a son of Jewish parents from Russia, had immigrated from Turkey, where he had made and repaired string musical instruments in Constantinople. The elder Mr. Estern, who spoke nine languages, became a labor mediator in the toy industry. Neil Estern’s mother was of Austrian descent and born in the United States.

Raised in Flatbush, Neil was only 6 when he molded his first clay creations from a lump that his father had brought home to distract him while the boy was confined to bed during a brief illness.

He graduated from the High School of Industrial Art (now the High School of Art and Design), and earned a bachelor of fine arts and a bachelor of science degree in education in 1948 from the Tyler School of Fine Arts (now the Tyler School of Art and Architecture), which is based at Temple University in Philadelphia. He also studied at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia and in Pietrasanta, Italy.

In 1948 he married Anne Graham, who survives him. In addition to their daughter, he is also survived by two sons, Peter and Evan; and three grandchildren.

Mr. Estern found early success designing dolls; the Patti Playpal line, for which his wife assembled the wardrobe, was created for the Ideal toy company. But he longed to see the great monuments of Florence and Rome that he had studied in art history classes.

“After graduation, I began to make dolls and quickly rose to the top of that field,” he said in 2004 in an interview with the National Sculpture Society to be published this summer in Sculpture Review. “That supported my sculpture and enabled me to go to Italy.”

He received his first public commission in 1965, he recalled, after the Kennedy family had declined an offer by the Brooklyn borough president to install an eternal flame in honor of the assassinated President Kennedy. The family decided that one such flame, at Arlington National Cemetery, was enough.

Instead, Brooklyn officials selected Mr. Estern’s design for a bronze portrait bust of Kennedy on an oblong marble plinth, which now stands in a circular court in Grand Army Plaza.

While he strove for realism, Mr. Estern acknowledged that his work was also influenced to a “subtle, unconscious” degree by his personal feelings about the subject.

When Life magazine commissioned him to illustrate a cover story in 1971 about J. Edgar Hoover by Tom Wicker of The Times, titled “The Emperor of the FBI,” Mr. Estern represented Hoover as a Roman potentate carved in marble.

“It was a caricature and emphasized a bit of what I thought was his evil side,” Mr. Estern said. “There are some innate elements, some vibrations that person is sending out that I absorb and want to get into the sculpture. Something below the surface is going to make that piece of sculpture unique.”

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