Hey Kerouac: Robert Frank's Elevator Girl Comes Forward 50 Years Later

This may be one of the coolest photography stories ever.

And not just because it involves the antics of Robert Frank and Jack Kerouac. Ever wonder where the subjects of iconic images are today or, more importantly WHO they are? Here’s one with an answer. And Twitter, Facebook and newspaper classifieds weren’t needed to find out.

You may have heard of Frank’s book, The Americans, considered to be the most vital photography book since World War II. It followed Frank’s 10,000-mile journey across more than 30 states over nine months in 1955–1956. It resulted in 767 rolls of film—more than 27,000 images—and more than 1,000 prints. Frank’s goal: To uncover the true America behind the shiny, happy facades. What was really going on with Americans? Alienation, angst, and loneliness ended up being dominant themes.

To celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the book’s publication, the San Francisco MOMA exhibited the show Looking In: Robert Frank’s “The Americans” by presenting the book’s 83 images in the same order in which they were published. Shortly after opening, The SF Chronicle reviewed the show and published the “Elevator Girl” image that was written about when Jack Kerouac (beat writer and poet; author of On The Road) penned Frank’s book introduction. Kerouac took a particular liking to an image of a young women who worked as an elevator girl in a Miami hotel. He wrote about her at the end of the introduction.

Sharon (maiden name Goldstein), at 15-years-old, was the elevator girl at Miami's Sherry Frontenac Hotel. Robert Frank's famous image is called "Elevator — Miami Beach, 1955." Collection Philadelphia Museum of Art, purchased with funds contributed by Dorothy Norman, 1969. Copyright Robert Frank.

Sharon (maiden name Goldstein), at 15-years-old, was the elevator girl at Miami's Sherry Frontenac Hotel. Robert Frank's famous image is called "Elevator — Miami Beach, 1955." Collection Philadelphia Museum of Art, purchased with funds contributed by Dorothy Norman, 1969. Copyright Robert Frank.

Kerouac’s poetic words went like this:

To Robert Frank I now give this message: You got eyes.

And I say: That little ole lonely elevator girl looking up sighing in an elevator full of blurred demons, what’s her name & address?”

Now back to the SF MOMA. And an average guy named Ian Padgham, the museum’s marketing and communications assistant. One day in August he did an “employee” walk-through of The Americans with the curator. It’s a special priviledge afforded to staff, where they sometimes hear great stories about the exhibits. On the walk, he heard a yellowed paper with Kerouac’s original typed introduction was found. Apparently, it was sort of an inebriated-induced stream of conscious ramble (probably much like this posting, minus the drinking). While it differed from the final copy, the final line about the elevator girl was still in there. Drunk as a fish is wet and all. Lucky for Frank, he rewrote it.

Inspired after his tour, the museum assistant returned to his desk, planning to twitter on the elevator girl’s identity, when the phone rang– reeling in the real non-artful world into full focus. He didn’t pick it up. He wanted to stay dreamy. Keep Frank’s images in focus. Stay inspired.

It rang again. No. No. It rang again. He decided to be a good employee, although he was just about to let voicemail handle it.

“Hello! My name is Sharon,” said the voice on the other end.

. . .and I just saw my picture in the Chronicle —I was the girl in the Robert Frank elevator picture!”

Holy guacamole! (That’s me saying that).

So, stars aligned and later that day Sharon Collins, now from San Francisco, came into the museum.  They went to the galleries with photography curators Corey Keller and Lisa Sutcliffe, talked about Sharon’s life, and even went into one of the museum’s elevators and updated the pic.

A half-century later, Collins poses in a MOMA to recreate of the scene.

50 years later, Collins poses in a MOMA elevator to recreate the scene.

Amazingly, up until 10 years ago, Collins had no idea that photo was taken for the book. As an elevator girl she said hundreds of tourists snapped shots all the time. She was kinda used to it. But a decade ago she visited the SF museum and was drawn to a particular photo, not knowing why. In an interview with NPR she said:

I stood in front of this particular photograph for probably a full five minutes, not knowing why I was staring at it,” she says. “And then it really dawned on me that the girl in the picture was me.”

However, until this summer day in 2009 she never knew that she was not only photographed by one of the greats for all posterity, but written about by another one of the greats. The girl in 1955 had more depth than her innocence immediately portrayed. Maybe it was loneliness, maybe it was dreaminess. But Frank and Kerouac knew it, if no one else did. And it made her, the perfect muse.  —Alysha Sideman

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