WATERTOWN, Mass.—By virtue of his nature and uncalculated fame, Dr. Vartan Gregorian is a man accustomed to sitting in the hot seat.
Of all the positions he’s held, all the accolades he’s received, all the speeches he’s given and notables he’s encountered throughout his academic lifetime, nothing has rattled his heart more than the time he posed for Yousuf Karsh.
The year was 1991 and Gregorian was president emeritus of New York Public Library. This would be his second encounter with the great Armenian photographer from Ottawa, whose lens immortalized some of the greatest individuals on this planet.
“It proved to be a nerve-racking experience,” he recalled. “It took hours before he actually took the picture, making sure every last detail was in place. He was impatient because I was growing impatient. Although I’ve been photographed by several other prominent photographers, having Karsh take my picture was very special because we were both Armenian.”
The setting shows Gregorian with one hand on books and another in his pocket, smiling against a backdrop of library shelves. By his name reads the inscription: “Academic, Educator, Recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.”
Of the 25 subjects currently on display at the newly refurbished Bedoukian Gallery inside the Armenian Library and Museum of America (ALMA) in Watertown, only one individual remains alive.
Gregorian got to see his own portrait hung on the wall—two decades later—next to Ernest Hemingway and Eleanor Roosevelt. The privilege was undeniable.
“It was a humbling experience that day when he showed up at the library with his gear,” recalled Gregorian. “He ran the picture in his ‘Legends’ book. Being the only Armenian included in those pages was humbling.”
Few if any of the subjects, including Winston Churchill, were able to get two photo commissions out of Karsh. The first time they met was in 1981 when Gregorian was provost at the University of Pennsylvania.
Even then, Karsh proved a taskmaster with the sitting.
“It took four, maybe five hours before he was done,” Gregorian traced back. “Looking at my photo now being displayed at ALMA, it’s living proof that we all age—and unfortunately decline.”
At the time of the grand opening Sept. 16, Gregorian was engaged elsewhere and couldn’t attend. He picked a Sunday afternoon in early October when the museum was launching an art exhibit by impressionist Martin Barooshian. The two notables were floors apart, each greeting their own constituents, and never did get to meet that day.
Gregorian had a flight to catch and was in Geneva days later attending a conference as president of the philanthropic Carnegie Corporation of New York. At an age when most are retired, he also remains a trustee of the Museum of Modern Art, the American Academic in Berlin, the Institute for Advanced Study, and Brandeis University, among other institutions.
Nearly 70 honorary degrees have come his way.
The Iranian-born academic served as president of Brown University for nine years before Carnegie. His New York Public Library tenure extended eight years and proved one of his most lasting legacies.
When he arrived there in 1981, the library faced deficits and a deteriorating architecture. Eight years later, the operation budget had doubled, 400 new employees had been hired, the buildings were cleaned and restored, and $327 million had been raised.
Over the years, Gregorian grew to admire Karsh’s work and held him in the highest esteem. They had met on other occasions and the respect turned mutual.
“Although he was proud to be Canadian, Karsh was equally proud to be Armenian,” said Gregorian. “I admired his erudition as well as his modesty. He treated everyone as if they were the only person who counted in the world. Even Churchill couldn’t defy him when he took the cigar out of his mouth.”
Gregorian further described Karsh as “profound and humorous.”
“He had no identity crisis,” Gregorian added. “He knew who he was and his mission in life. He had a rich inner life as well as a wonderful profession, and he loved and admired his wife Estrellita. They were a great couple who complemented each other. It was a joy to be with them.”
The gratitude of seeing his photograph displayed with other venerable brings overwhelming pride to Gregorian. It was as if he were being immortalized next to immortals.
In a letter written to board chairman Haig Der Manuelian, he thanked ALMA for its leadership and its initiative toward keeping Armenia’s legacy alive in America.