Sonja & Edward | February 9, 2007 | Danville Express | |

Danville Express

Cover Story - February 9, 2007

Sonja & Edward

Love sees artists through wartime and political turmoil

by Dolores Fox Ciardelli

A baby boy named Edward Biberman was born in 1904 in Philadelphia to a dressmaking magnate, originally from Kiev.

In 1910 a little girl named Sonja Dahl was born in Shanghai to a Swedish father and a Russian mother.

In 1936, they met in Los Angeles, they married, and their love spanned 50 years, until Edward died in 1986.

"As the Persian poet Omar Khayyam wrote, 'The moving finger writes; and, having writ, moves on,'" quoted Sonja Dahl Biberman, 96, last week. This is how she likes to think of their love story.

The walls at her home in Danville display starkly beautiful paintings by Edward, a renowned modern artist. On her shelves are figures created by fellow students in the Clay Arts Guild where she sculpts four afternoons a week. In her study are three small clay women dancing frantically, looks of anguish on their faces.

"These are my furies. I sculpted them when I found out I could no longer drive," said Sonja, who has limited eyesight.

Other sculptures of hers show women trying to get out of boxes.

"Edward told me in the '70s, 'Why don't you give up your professional work and do something creative?' The moment I touched clay I knew he was right," Sonja said.

Their story was recently made into a film titled, "A Brush with Life: The Art of Being Edward Biberman," directed and produced by Jeff Kaufman. Two things defined Biberman's art, it states: That he decided to be a realist, rather than an abstractionist; and that he moved to California.

The film includes interviews with Sonja in her home and with her daughter Sonee (Sonya) Schaal as well as footage from an interview done with Edward.

Edward Biberman was expected to work in the family business. But since he had graduated from Wharton business school two years early, at the age of 19, he convinced his father to let him study art for a couple of years to see if he could make a go of it. He rented a studio in Paris where he made friends with the great modernists but began to find his style in realism.

"I quickly decided abstractionism was not for me," said Edward in the film.

He also recalled participating in Paris life "rather fully." Sonja said seeing photos of him as a dandy surrounded by love demoiselles made her jealous but he assured her although they were fun, they were not very intelligent.

He went from Paris to Berlin, then the intellectual and cultural center of Europe but found himself living in a neighborhood that turned out to be a "Nazi nest." He began to feel a sense of dislocation and realized that he belonged in America. He moved to a studio on 57th Street in New York, and his paintings were shown at all the galleries.

"I was very fortunate," he said.

A striking stylized portrait he painted of Katherine Cornell led the janitor to make disparaging remarks, according to the film, but when Joan Crawford saw it, she asked him to paint her. He also painted dancer and choreographer Martha Graham, whose work he loved; she did not sit still to pose for him but rather kept dancing as he "crystallized the quality of her figure."

After the stock market crash in 1929, Edward's father's business went downhill, and his father ended up committing suicide.

"I had the feeling something had to give," said Edward.

After observing the suffering during the Depression, he began to address the injustices in the world.

"He knew history and politics and what was happening in the world," Sonja said in the film. He admired Diego Rivera and other social artists of the time for their ability to communicate with people.

"He felt responsibility as an artist," said Sonya. "He saw things needed to be talked about, and changed."

In 1935, he bought a car and drove to Hollywood. He stopped in New Mexico to stay at a ranch and paint, and worked alongside Georgia O'Keefe before continuing West.

"I fell very hard for California," Edward said. "The fog rolling in from the Pacific. The sun shining down. It was a shattering visual experience, one I'll never forget."

Sonja, meanwhile, had grown up in China and attended British schools for girls. She later had an American stepfather.

"When I came to this country I was thrilled to see not only that women were thinking about important things but they were doing something about them," Sonja said.

She joined the Anti-Nazi League in Los Angeles, whose members included many writers and actresses, while she worked in public relations.

"It was very, very exciting. They did a wonderful job educating people about the horrors of Nazism," Sonja said.

They also helped Germans defect, including author Thomas Mann.

One evening, she went to a friend's home to hear a speaker, a German general who had defected from the Nazi army. She became aware of "this handsome young man," artist Edward Biberman.

"I felt like I was a still life of some sort, the way he was looking at me," she remembered.

During a question-and-answer period after the talk, Edward asked intelligent questions, she said, but he sometimes also answered them, making her think he might be a bit of a showoff.

"He asked me out to dinner," she said. "He was extremely intelligent, very polite. I was enjoying it."

She had been married twice and had a 3-year-old daughter, Sonee.

"So I was a little on the cautious side but I was certainly interested," she said.

Sonja found Edward to be "understanding, compassionate - and passionate."

In the film, his niece recalled, "There was no one like Sonja. She was sparkling, with a dry wit."

"She was a loving and lovely woman," Edward said.

After they were married, Sonja would sometimes go to hear him teach in a lecture hall at the Art Center College in Pasadena where he taught from 1938-1950. She enjoyed hearing comments by the young women, who didn't know she was his wife. After hearing their praise, they might ask if she knew them and she would reply, "Yes, I sleep with him."

Sonja said she and Edward found property they could afford in the Hollywood Hills, directly under the "O" in the landmark sign.

"We brought a bottle of champagne, drank it and poured some into the ground," she recalled in the film. "It had lovely views."

Edward's brother Herbert had come to Hollywood, to work in films, and he was also active in the Anti-Nazi League. His wife, Gayle Sondergaard, won the first supporting actress Oscar for "Anthony Adverse."

At that time, anyone in America who was anti-Nazi was called a red, a Communist, Sonja recalled.

"Whatever they were, they were on the right side and we were happy to have them," she said. "When World War II broke out, there was no time to gloat, there was too much to do."

Edward became a corporal in the state guard, and Sonja joined the Women's Ambulance and Defense Guard.

"They made me a lieutenant colonel, much to my surprise," she recalled. "That was fun, to be a lieutenant colonel when he was a corporal."

During these four-and-a-half years, Edward said, he painted fewer than a dozen paintings, as he worked for the war effort.

"When the war ended, there was a wonderful sense that we'd won it all together," said Sonja.

But on its heels came the Cold War.

"Idiots were again talking about war as a solution to the problems we were facing," said Edward. "It was horrendous."

He taught a painting class for wounded soldiers. But he also became friends with and painted Paul Robeson and Dashiell Hammett, who were in the files of the House Committee on Un-American Activities and named as alleged members of the Communist party.

Then Herbert Biberman was sent to prison for refusing to cooperate with the committee.

"We were astonished, after what we'd been through," said Sonja.

Edward spent the next five months working with a committee to get Herbert out on parole. He and Sonja helped with Herbert's legal fees, although they did not have much money.

When Edward began to paint again, Lena Horne was a subject, making Sonja wish she could stay at home while he painted the most beautiful woman in America. He also loved painting urban landscapes.

"He felt architects were extremely gifted," said Sonja. "Sometimes people would look at his paintings and say, 'I've passed that a million times but never saw it before.' He loved that."

Sonee married and had three daughters when her husband mysteriously disappeared, so her family moved in with Edward and Sonja for a few years.

"There we were - five women and Edward," recalled Sonja. "It was miraculous how well it worked."

She and Sonee went off to work each day, and Edward had rules for the little girls, ages 4, 5 and 6.

"He'd let them come into the studio and told them they could sit on the second step but couldn't come in unless he invited them," said Sonja. "He'd take care of the house, and he'd have dinner ready. He felt women were just as important as men."

Through the years Edward continued to paint long hours.

"At 9 in the morning he would be at the easel. He devoted himself to painting," Sonja said. "Then afterward, he cleaned up, and we'd sit and talk, and enjoy the view from downtown Los Angeles to the seas."

In 1985, Sonja said she noticed a small lump on his neck. He had the lump removed but was given only about a year to live, despite chemotherapy. He spent five days in a radiation room, and the doctors said that was all they could do for him.

"I said, 'Can I bring him home?'" said Sonja. "He had a bed by the window. After two days, he turned and looked at me, and he died, peacefully."

Sonja had kept her maiden name until Edward died, but then she became Sonja Biberman to keep his name alive.

"It's a love story," Sonja agreed. "I don't think we ever quarreled. And you could call it respect, not just love."

She recalled one time they were about to paint the living room together and she was afraid they might bicker when it came time to choose colors.

"I said, 'Let us now hug and kiss each other and then get to work,'" she recalled. "And it worked."

Producer Jeff Kaufman said he had wanted for some time to make a film on Edward, whose works he had always admired at the home of Suzanne Zota, who represents the Biberman estate.

"I've known Suzanne for 20-25 years and every time I'd go to her house, I would look at Edward's work and be blown away," said Kaufman.

He mulled over how best to approach a subject with so many facets.

"I'm interested in seeing what deep inside an artist inspires the work," Kaufman said. "A lot of people want to separate the two."

He telephoned Sonja Biberman and they talked about 20 minutes.

"Then I knew: It's going to be a romance," Kaufman recalled.

"It's a love story and so much more," he added. "He's a rare visionary artist whose private life lived up to the high standard of his work. It's a wonderful love story, which also reflects on him."


Like this comment
Posted by Andree Thompson
a resident of Walnut Creek
on Feb 12, 2014 at 9:10 pm

Sonja was one of my favorite students in my sculpture classes in Walnut Creek, and became a wonderful friend as well. She is missed, but lived a full and valuable life, an inspiration to all of us. It was my pleasure and honor to be her friend and teacher. Andrée Thompson

Posted by Name hidden
a resident of Blackhawk

on Jun 5, 2017 at 4:11 pm

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