The Roothberts: photos and philanthropy
Among the most generous and locally least-known Ridgefielders of the 20th Century were Albert and Toni Roothbert, a modern art collector and a leading fashion photographer, who lived on Topstone Road for many years.
Together they aided many organizations and causes, and established a fund that has provided fellowships to more than 1,000 talented college students over a half century after their deaths.
Born in Germany in 1874, Albert Roothbert came to the U.S. in 1902 and became a partner in a Wall Street investment firm. In 1925, at 50, he retired and began studying and collecting modern and Oriental art. (Some of the works he owned were later donated to major collections, such as at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.)
He also began looking for ways to improve society, an effort that eventually led him and his future wife to found the Roothbert Fund.
Baroness Antonie “Toni” von Horn was born to a prominent family in Germany in 1899. Around 1920, she opened a photography studio in Heidelberg. While in New York on an assignment, she met the editor of Vanity Fair who recommended she pursue a career in New York.
She did, and soon became a leading fashion and advertising photographer in the 1920s and 30s, working for Vanity Fair, Vogue, and Harper’s Bazaar and at her own studio. She was one of the first woman photographers to gain a national and international reputation, Her many celebrity portraits included Greta Garbo, Eleanor Roosevelt, Ginger Rogers, Cole Porter, Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert, and Jean Harlow. Her photograph of Albert Einstein has been called the best ever made of him.
Alas, few originals of her work exist because her plates and negatives lay in damp storage at a Topstone Farm outbuilding and were discarded after she died.
Albert and Toni married in 1937. She closed her studio and never took another picture.
In 1958, they established the Roothbert Fund to aid “students motivated by spiritual values, who can satisfy high scholastic requirements and are considering teaching as a vocation.” More than 1,000 young men and women have become Roothbert Fellows.
The fund also has awarded grants for special projects, including creating a library for the college-bound program at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for women in nearby Westchester County.
Toni was also interested in the mentally handicapped and gave her 216-acre farm in Copake, N.Y., to Camphill, a program for adults with special needs. She also helped to secure Albert Schweitzer’s assistance for Camphill.
Albert Roothbert died here in 1965 at age 90, leaving money to create a Ridgefield High School scholarship fund as well as a sizable grant to the Ridgefield Library. Toni died here in 1970 at 71. —Jack Sanders