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Altina Schinasi, Jewish New York heiress of a tobacco fortune, lived almost the entire span of the 20th century. The documentary Altina — directed by her grandson Peter Sanders, with footage shot by her sons, produced by her grandchildren, and apparently largely paid for with her money — is a joyful portrait, although it doesn’t leave out some blemishes.
Altina’s inheritance surely allowed her to pursue an artistic life (and four marriages) that less moneyed women wouldn’t have dared. Sanders’s film is a bit workaday, and it’s almost funny how straightforward and deadpan Altina is in her interviews — it’s her life that was brim-full of pizzazz.
Altina herself is full of surprises, and the film ramps up slowly as details emerge. She invented the now-iconic “cat’s eye” glasses that made eyewear fashionable for the first time ever and foreshadowed her gifts as a sculptor. She was also a generous political force, helping Jewish refugees escape the Holocaust, aiding people against Joseph McCarthy’s Un-American Activities campaign, and getting involved early on in the struggles of Martin Luther King.
In this portrait, we are treated to an acquaintanceship with a woman in an almost constant search for a creative life, and that might be its most moving feature. At a time when expectations of women were rigid and limiting, Altina allowed herself to make choices that seem to have opened doors to both a seemingly fearless creativity and true love.