Karsh Photo Still Enthralls Vartan Gregorian

WATERTOWN, Mass.—By virtue of his nature and uncalculated fame, Dr. Vartan Gregorian is a man accustomed to sitting in the hot seat.

Dr. Vartan Gregorian admires a photograph of himself taken by Yousuf Karsh in 1991 during a recent visit to ALMA. (Tom Vartabedian photo)

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.

Tom Vartabedian

Tom Vartabedian

Tom Vartabedian is a retired journalist with the Haverhill Gazette, where he spent 40 years as an award-winning writer and photographer. He has volunteered his services for the past 46 years as a columnist and correspondent with the Armenian Weekly, where his pet project was the publication of a special issue of the AYF Olympics each September.
Tom Vartabedian

Latest posts by Tom Vartabedian (see all)


  1. Dear Gregorian…,
    Thanks for Vartabedian to write about you…
    I wrote about you without seeing your face in my new book…July 2011…
    I am completing Yousuf Karsh photo my stanzas from my soul…
    I would love to hear your comments… 

    President O.B Appointed
    Vartan Gregorian*
    To the White House

    I never felt that Barrak would betray Us.
    We suffered worse than slaves.
    We reached from farther than Africa to USA—
    From Anatolia where our ancestors, before Christ,
    Had fortresses, kingdoms, dynasties . . .
    Slaves lived in hope they would be set free . . . but
    Our innocent flesh were thrown in deserts
    Then slogged through rivers to enter Gulf-Sea.
    The Bedouins saved us—
    Showing their innate humanity.
    However, we never lost hope with Siamanto**
    We still could sing.
    We will sing through the hopeful roads
    To our written destiny.
    Everyone knows us from east to west.
    We are born of ‘Honest Rays’
    Our genes are blessed, . . . are
    Talented . . . Kind . . . Generous . . .
    Obama can’t slay Us:
    He possesses true, clever undeniable DNA . . . s . . .
    He reviewed our history,
    We didn’t and don’t make scimitars.
    Instead we have well-documented arts.

    We have lawful poems for everyone
    Who respects human rights . . . Hence!

    June 19, 2009

    * Vartan Gregorian (b. April 8, 1934 in Tabriz, Iran) is an Armenian-American academic, currently serving as the president of Carnegie Corporation of New York. After receiving his dual Ph.D. in history and humanities from Stanford University in 1964, Gregorian served on the faculties at several American universities before joining the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania, where he became the founding dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences in 1974, and the provost in 1978. From 1981 to 1989, Gregorian served as president of the New York Public Library, an eight-year tenure which would prove one of his most lasting legacies
    **Siamanto (Atom Yarjanian): better known by his pen-name Siamanto (1878-Genocided 1915), was an influential Armenian writer, poet and national figure from the late 19th century and early 20th century. Personifying the ideal poet-as-hero. Born in Akn, Western Armenia. Siamanto was educated in Istanbul and studied philosophy at the Sorbonne (Paris). He traveled to Switzerland, Egypt, London, Vienna, and Boston (USA) before returning to Istanbul. He wrote many books: In the Manner of a Hero (1902) and The Invitation from the Fatherland (1903), which showed his own interpretation of European poetic trends at the turn of the century. In his first book, his poems were about the hardships of Armenians living under the harsh Ottoman rule.
    The author, Sylva sings with Siamanto
    In her collected poetry Songs of Searing Desert Storms, 2009
    Doors Still Expects Fearful Knocks”
    Siamanto dreamed
    His dream was true . . .
    He lived in fear
    He was waiting for many frightful guests! (gendarmes)
    For fearful knocks on his door . . .
    Siamanto imagined . . . what they would do . . .
    Refusing to escape . . . yv, and . . .
    Sang his poem:

    “I will leave with a smiling face;
    I can sing on the road to my death”


    ISBN: 97814568-45131
    One of the poem in the book is The Winnerof the Carnegie Price for Poetry, Spring 2009 


  2. What an honor to know of Grigorian.. such pride to have people like him representing Armenian community..

    May God give him long lasting and healthy life..


  3. What a beautiful article about Vartan Gregorian.  Tom Vartabedian did it again.  Nice work Tom, as usual.
    Several people have congratulated me, for my name being mentioned in Vartan Gregorian’s “The Road To Home” a (biographical book). It is indeed an honor. He is a great friend. Our friendship goes way back to the early 1950s.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.