Aline Bernstein was the first woman in the United States to gain prominence in the male-dominated field of set and costume design. The industry’s reluctance to accept women into its ranks was certainly evident when, in 1926, as the first woman to be granted membership in the United Scenic Artists Union she was sworn in as “Brother Bernstein.”
The daughter of an actor, Bernstein spent her childhood surrounded by members of the New York theater community. Though she had an obvious talent for drawing, she hoped to pursue a career as an actress. Both of her parents died by the time she was in her late teens, and she spent a difficult time in the care of her drug-addicted aunt. Soon, however, a family friend intervened, helping Bernstein get a scholarship to Hunter College’s School of Fine Art. There she began a course of study that would include work with painter Robert Henri. She developed considerable skill as a portrait painter.
After she married a successful stockbroker, Bernstein began to volunteer backstage at a friend’s small theater group. As the group grew into a prominent “off-Broadway” company, Bernstein had many opportunities to design and create sets and costumes. By the mid 1920s, Bernstein had developed a reputation as an imaginative designer whose subtly suggestive sets and costumes complemented perfectly the scripts and characters they supported. She began to work with prominent companies such as the Theatre Guild and the Civic Repertory Theater. Her most significant design projects of this period were for productions of the classical Indian play, The Little Clay Cart, and the Jewish folktale, The Dybbuk. As her work received greater notice by critics and audiences, fellow designers began to copy her style.
In 1925, Bernstein began an affair with a young playwright, Thomas Wolfe. Though she and her husband remained married, Bernstein and Wolfe had a volatile love affair that lasted a number of years. Wolfe, who was some twenty years younger than Bernstein, counted on his lover for financial support and artistic inspiration. It was after she encouraged him to attempt writing novels that he produced Look Homeward Angel. Under the writer’s influence, Bernstein wrote and published a collection of short stories and two novels, including the best seller Miss Condon. Wolfe and Bernstein both wrote fictionalized accounts of their relationship, Wolfe in “The Web and the Rock,” and Bernstein in “The Journey Down.” When the affair ended badly, Bernstein attempted suicide.
During the course of her remarkable career, Bernstein designed sets and costumes for more than one hundred plays. After decades of work in the theater, she embarked on a successful academic career. During the last fifteen years of her life, Bernstein taught and served as a consultant in theater programs at Yale University, Harvard University, and Vassar College.