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Always in Fashion

Always in Fashion

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Always in Fashion

482 pages
7 hours
Aug 23, 2016


Albert Geiger’s autobiography tells of a lifetime in the fashion industry. From his
humble start as a milliner to his illustrious work in couture clothing, Bert’s many
successes in design are owed to his indomitable motivation to have his own fashion label.
His styles outlived the trends of the times, from the conservative cuts of the forties to
the rebellious “Disco Daze” and beyond. Classic lines and casual elegance distinguished
Bert’s designs, resulting in clothing that was “Always In Fashion.” His story recounts
global excursions in fashion, the love and professional support of his wife Lorraine, the
production and marketing of clothing, and much more. Bert’s autobiography will inspire
young designers contemplating careers in fashion and will entertain fashionistas of all ages
with a tour of style from the last half-century.
Aug 23, 2016

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Always in Fashion - Bert Geiger


Chapter 1

Growing Up in Brooklyn

I don’t like that hat! You’re wearing that same old dress! My mother claimed that these words spouted from my mouth at the age of three as Aunt Kay’s friends arrived for their weekly bridge game. Right from the very start I had the fashion mania, and it never let up. My innate urge to decorate the human body was born in me at the Brooklyn Hospital on July 13, 1922 and was carried home with me to our house in Flatbush. In the 14 years that we lived there, the love of theater, art, and music took a firm grip on me. Brooklyn also gave me the accent that some people can still detect when I ask for a cup of cawfee.

A few subway stops from home took me to downtown Brooklyn’s big department stores like Abraham & Strauss, as well as specialty stores for fine apparel. A few more stops brought me and my mother, who was my companion window-shopper, right to the heart of Manhattan for an orgy of designer clothes at Saks Fifth Avenue or Lord & Taylor. Broadway shows, opera, and concerts were very affordable or even free in those days, as were many museums. Closer to where we lived was the Brooklyn Museum with its wonderful collection of historical costumes, and the huge public library, just a few blocks from our home.

Our three-story early 1900s white frame house stood on a very small lot in Dorchester Park. This was an area of upscale homes on tree-shaded streets. People in our area had maids, and in one case a chauffeur. The nearest apartments were four blocks east on Ocean Avenue, one of the Park Avenues of our borough in the ‘30s.

Six blocks away was Flatbush Avenue, which extended all the way south to Coney Island. It constantly beckoned to me with its bright lights, myriad stores, and most of all its movie houses. There was a cinema just about every four blocks, including the palatial Lowes King with its baroque decor and grand organ.

Five longer blocks north of us was Prospect Park, over 500 acres of beautifully-landscaped grounds designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, of Central Park fame. Despite living in one of the world’s largest cities, I found dirt paths by lakes and streams, wild spaces to explore, even a hidden cave—not to mention the zoo, the botanical garden, the bandstand for free concerts, and on its periphery the Brooklyn Museum. In addition to its historical costume collection, the museum had a concert hall where free performances nourished my growing appreciation of symphonic music.

Free is the key word. So much was free in the ‘30s. (I did pay ten cents several times a week to see a movie.) We were also free of fear; as children, we could walk without our parents to any of these places even after dark, or ride the subway into Manhattan.

Although my cultural and intellectual pursuits were often quite unintelligible to my parents, they always offered me their unconditional love, never wavering in tolerance and support of whatever weird ideas I might adopt. I thrived in Brooklyn, though I felt very much out-of-sync with my peers. By the age of 13, I was definitely committed to becoming a famous designer—maybe of couture, or maybe of costumes for the stage or movies. My parents were unfazed, and supported my passion with subscriptions to Vogue or Harper’s Bazaar for Christmas.

These publications and movie magazines fed my hunger for the glamor and elegance of high fashion and society in Paris, New York and Hollywood, and I filled many scrapbooks with clippings from their pages. There was a scrapbook of fashions, mostly French couture, and one each for accessories and hats. Another was devoted to society events, such as the great Paris balls of the ‘30s and their chic women. Articles and photos concerning the business aspects of the fashion industry made up another. I kept a scrapbook of Hollywood movies and the female stars whose wardrobes and images hypnotized me. Finally, there was my personal scrapbook of articles I had written for the high school paper, plus stories and photos of friends and family. At the same time, I was making sketches of my own design ideas for cocktail and evening dresses and signing them Monex, an invention that I thought had much more class than Geiger.

From whose genes my mania came is a mystery. No one in our family had ever been interested in any kind of creative art. The closest spirit to mine seemed to have been my long-gone Grandfather Geiger, who sold ladies’ corsets in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn. However, in my father there was a strain of music that I may have caught an echo of. He had played the French horn in his Army band during the First World War. He was also a violinist of modest talents, as was only fitting since Geiger means violinist in German. Al played his fiddle at benefit performances for Brooklyn’s St. John’s Orphanage, and sometimes took my younger brother and me along when we were very young. In the early ‘20s he participated in a little band that played local dances, and his violin would also come out of its case at parties to play a few semi-classical tunes by Fritz Kreisler or Victor Herbert. Unfortunately, his playing gradually came to an end as he developed a nasty and incurable eczema on his fingers. I took piano lessons for a few years, but sadly none of my father’s children ever played the violin.

Our family listened together to all kinds of popular and show music, especially on the Lucky Strike Hit Parade that played the ten most popular tunes of the week. My parents’ taste ran no more classical than Andre Kostelanetz and his orchestra. Their favorite melody was They Wouldn’t Believe Me, which was their own love song from pre-World War I days. My brother Jack dwelt in his own world of music, and drove me crazy with what I called his noisy, awful jazz.

But in my own room the radio was always tuned to the symphonic classics on WQXR, or the Saturday broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera. When I was 13, I went to the Met for my first live opera, Gounod’s Faust, and had to stand in the back of the theater because I couldn’t afford a seat. By year’s end I had attended several more productions. A seat in the top balcony cost 50 cents, which was within the budget of my weekly allowance. The following year, again by myself, I saw my first Broadway play, the musical On Your Toes with Ray Bolger and Vera Zorina. Its splendid scenery and costumes, its exciting music, and its choreography made a tremendous impression on me. This musical, as well as the elaborate pageantry of the operas I’d seen, reinforced my dream of being a theater costume designer. Around this time I wrote and produced an old-fashioned melodrama with a villain and a heroine that was performed at the American Legion Hall on Flatbush Avenue. The cast included my brother, some school friends, and myself as the heroine.

The family also had little interest in the kind of books I was reading. I did share my mother’s love of mystery novels. She could often be found comfortably ensconced in her favorite chair with a cigarette in hand, a murder mystery in lap, and maybe a box of Fannie Farmer candies within reach. But as a teenager I read novels such as Gone With the Wind and All Quiet on the Western Front. The latter title plus other war stories such as Journey’s End deepened my horror of armed conflict. I also read many serious plays, and anything I could about Native Americans. Finally, I devoured histories of fashion, as well as Fashion Is Spinach by the then well-known New York designer Elizabeth Hawes. In her book she decried the more outlandish styles that prevailed in the ‘30s, and instead advocated a more classical and conservative approach. Her ideas would influence me greatly once I launched my own career.

My father never really read books except his prayer book, which he studied punctiliously. Inserted in it were many devotional prayer cards, memorial cards for departed relatives and friends, and his own list—in his incredibly tiny handwriting—of nearly everybody he had known who passed away. For their souls he prayed daily. He did peruse the sports page to follow the fortunes of his beloved Brooklyn Dodgers, and took Jack and me to several games at Ebbets Field. The year they lost the pennant, Dad was so heartbroken that we came home from school to find the living room mantle draped in black.

In the mid-’30s I began recording my daily activities in a diary. I listed all the books I was reading, as well as theater, concerts and movies I attended. For the year 1937, when I was 15, 52 books were logged, a number that amazes me in light of all the other activities that filled my days and nights.

Although books, music and theater were so very important in my early life, it was the movies and their famous stars that took the greatest amount of my time apart from school. In 1937, the same year that I read the 52 books, I recorded 203 feature films, for each of which I named the principal actors and made critical jottings like Swell, Punk, or OK. (A few years later my judgments were more intellectual!) In those days one got two movies for the price of one—plus a newsreel, a cartoon, and (on weekends) a serial thriller, which was a film version of today’s television soap-operas. We can thus assume that I entered a movie house only about a hundred times during that year. Occasionally I went to the movies with my parents or my brother Jack, but as my taste developed toward foreign or art films, the gap between our choices widened. Most of the time I was on my own at a movie, opera or museum. Sometimes I did see movies and hang around with several other boys, and even dragged them to the opera or a concert.

But my most important friend—the companion who shared and stimulated my aspirations and dreams, and remained my friend throughout life—was William Alfred. He used to announce himself as William Bunyan Alfred, proud of his famous ancestor John Bunyan, author of The Pilgrim’s Progress. Billy and I met in the fourth grade at Holy Innocents Grammar School, where his parents placed him upon their move into a modest apartment on the fringe of my neighborhood, Dorchester Park. His father was a bricklayer and his mother a telephone operator with the prettiest legs on Wall Street. They didn’t have a pot to piss in, Billy used to say, and he told me years later that our spacious home was to him the height of grandeur. We were inseparable companions at the movies, theater, museums, and all kinds of activities at my house. Sometimes we played at being monks in a monastery, but our favorite game was to rewrite and act out parts of movies we had seen. Billy and I loved to listen to my collection of classical records on our old Victrola, or opera on my radio. Writing poetry also became our mutual venture. By the time we graduated from grade school, Billy had moved to another section of Brooklyn and went to a different high school, but our relationship remained close. He went to Harvard as a graduate student in 1947, and spent his career there as a professor of literature. He was also a renowned playwright and poet, Hogan’s Goat being perhaps his best-known play. His autobiography credits me as his introduction to art and music and theater, but I equally insist that it was his enthusiasm and openness that nourished his gifts.

Billy and I viewed our years in Catholic schools very differently from my children. The kids seemed to hate everything about these schools, including their teaching nuns, and being children of the ‘60s they rejected much of what they were taught about religion and morals. On the other hand, Billy and I—and our classmates, as best I can remember—were very happy holy innocents. We loved our teachers, who were members of the Order of the Sisters of Mercy, who had such marvelous names as Sister Mary Imelda, Sister Mary Clotilde, Sister Mary Chrysostom, and our favorite in eighth grade, Sister Mary Aloysia. She was young, intelligent, and very open; we became great friends, brought her books from the public library, and after graduation visited her whenever we were in the area.

I suppose it was my love of history, literature, religion and art that made me feel that I was on an equal footing with my teachers. Although I was at times in trouble for talking in the classroom, I was on the best of terms with most of them, and earned top grades except in math and science classes, where my mind was never fully engaged.

I enthusiastically absorbed the Catholic religion as it was taught in our school in the ‘30s, before the reforms of Vatican II as introduced by Pope John XXIII in the ‘60s, such as celebrating Mass in one’s own language instead of Latin. My father led the way—not only in outward practice, but also in a life free of malice or meanness, and with devotion to his duty in society. My mother’s piety was more relaxed than my father’s; if Dad had not been around, she might have missed Mass occasionally, or even eaten some meat on Friday. Even at an early age, I viewed the faith very seriously, pondering the meaning of the sacraments and of Papal infallibility, for instance. Our nuns at school taught us that sexual expression was strictly limited to the marriage bed. I thus came to believe that any other situation or thought pertaining to sex was a mortal sin that would damn me forever unless I confessed it to a priest as soon as possible. My mother would sometimes accuse me of being awfully prudish, and I certainly was.

Fortunately, even in my teens I could discuss such things as nocturnal emissions and other adolescent sexual puzzlements with my mother. Her advice was always that these things were natural and not to worry about them. It helped a lot, but not enough to unchain me from scruples over the merest hint of pleasure from even touching myself in the bathroom. In my late teens and beyond, these scruples grew into monsters that almost destroyed my mental balance. But in my Brooklyn days, such concerns were easily allayed in the confessional.

As two prudes, Billy and I never discussed anything relating to personal sex. The glory of the human form, however, and my ambition to do it justice in dress, burned undiminished. At 16, when we had moved to Oceanside, Long Island, I commuted to the Brooklyn Museum for life classes so that I could learn to draw fashion models. I was a bit surprised to find out that life meant nudity, but my diary records that I had no dirty reactions.

Like most Americans at the time, I was Hollywood-crazed and devoured every movie magazine cover to cover, from the trashiest to Photoplay and even Cinema Arts. My favorite star—who merited a scrapbook of her own—was Marlene Dietrich. Although I could tell that she wasn’t much of an actress, she was nonetheless my supreme goddess, the epitome of glamor and fabulous clothes. Years later in 1980, I saw her at the New York Palace Theater in one of her triumphant concert appearances. As she glided onto the stage, sparkling in a skintight gown of silver sequins and trailing behind her a long white fox stole, she brought back my boyhood vision, and I was not disappointed.

Dancing was another interest of those early years. Alone in our living room, I would sometimes blast on the radio a piece like Stravinsky’s Rites of Spring and dance with wild abandon to my own choreography. But I liked ballroom dancing too. Through several years of grammar school, I attended dancing school twice a week and learned the foxtrot, the tango and more. Several girls from Holy Innocents were my partners at the dance parties we attended. One of them, the very attractive Virginia Graeber, lived in the house directly behind ours, and was more or less my girlfriend. But all girlfriends during my school years—and I had many before I was married—were actually just friends. Other boys probably assumed that there was romance, but there was none until I later fell in love with the woman who became my wife, Lorraine. I saw my many wonderful female friends more as sisters, and ultimately as people for whom to design clothes.

Billy and I spent most of these years ignoring, or trying to ignore, what our peers thought of us. I wrote in my diary once, Why is it that everything I like they dislike, and everything I dislike they like? Billy agreed. We hated sports, although I did play some tennis for a while, as well as ping-pong with my brother in the basement (I mostly lost). But high school gym class was pure torture. Ultimately, our understanding coach put me onto shuffleboard; all by myself on the side of the gym I would shuffle the little wooden disks back and forth till the period was over. In senior year my classmates named me—obviously with tongue in check—treasurer of the school athletic society!

My family—mother, father, and younger brother Jack—was the bedrock of my growing-up years. Although my interests as described earlier were alien to those of the others in my home, we shared a loving family life. We tolerated each other’s idiosyncrasies, except for my father’s problem with alcohol. We ate dinner together every night and talked all the time. My parents consistently offered me the freedom to do my own thing, and were always there for me with love and support.

My mother’s maiden name was Regina Chambers. Everyone except my dad and me called her Queenie, since that was the meaning of her first name. My father Albert called her Honey, so I did too. She was a beautiful woman with a lovely complexion and a charming, slightly uptilted nose. Although rather short and on the plump side, she looked fashionably well-dressed. She was raised on Putnam Avenue in the Brevoort section of Brooklyn just north of Prospect Park. Her mother’s brother, Frank Burns, started the Burns Brothers Coal Company, a big New York City distributing company, where her brothers William and Joseph were executives, and my father a lowly salesman.

As I dimly remember it, a loan by Grandma Chambers to her brother Frank for the business startup created a special relationship that rewarded Grandma and our family materially. The next Burns generation was socially prominent in Red Bank, New Jersey. I never met any of them, but for quite a long time they sent us boxes filled with clothing that they had outgrown or finished with. This was always one of the big events of the year. I photographed my mother modeling one of the fabulous evening gowns, a floor-length chiffon one solidly studded with white beads and with matching jacket. I’m sure I posed in it too, with a pair of her silver high-heeled evening slippers, to get the feel of it. From my earliest days, any kind of dress, costume, jewelry or fabric would find its way onto my body to fantasize my dreams of theater and fashion. I felt no desire to transsexualize myself, but as I entered the fashion world, it was my practice—much to the scandal of some—to test the feel or look of a garment on myself as a model, however inadequate. Years later, when I was making clothes in India, and all the available women were about five feet tall with shoulders the size of American little girls, this step was a necessity.

Each carton of clothes from the Burns relatives also brought children’s suits, jackets and shirts from DePina that made Jack and me by far the most expensively-dressed schoolboys in Flatbush. Of course, wearing clothes from one of the exclusive stores in Manhattan contributed to my illusions of future grandeur, both in society and in the world of couture fashion.

My mother had attended teacher’s college, and taught only a few years in a Brooklyn public grammar school when in 1919 she married my father, Albert Anthony Geiger Sr. He had just been released from the Army, having served in France with the rank of Musician 1st Class, and played the French horn in his 306th infantry division. Queenie immediately became a full-time housewife. Their first child, a daughter, died at birth. I came along on July 13, 1922, and was christened Albert Anthony, Jr. after my father. Since he was called Al, I was Bert. My brother Jack (John) was born a year later.

Soon after their marriage, my parents moved into our house at 451 East 16th Street in Flatbush, along with Grandma Chambers and my mother’s older sister Kay. All the bedrooms were on the second floor; Grandma and Aunt Kay slept in the front bedroom, while Queenie and Al had a nice-sized back bedroom that adjoined the one my brother and I shared. There was only one bathroom upstairs, but each bedroom had a closet with a running-water sink that made life less hectic. On the third floor was the maid’s room and bath, and from as far back as I can remember we had various live-in maids. Peggy was our cheerful Irish maid, whereas Pinky was fat, black, roguish, and like a second mother to us. She later would come to visit us in the mid-’30s when we could no longer afford a maid.

My recollection is that Queenie always had time for us, and for the many social activities that kept our house constantly aglow with guests. Her sister Kay had many affluent friends who lived quite glittery lives—at least in the pre-Depression years. The Fitzpatricks, for instance, had a 100-foot yacht with staterooms like an ocean liner. Another good friend was Floss Baker, heiress to the Baker Shoe money. I remember being in her huge formal living room, encircled by an elaborate balcony and having at one end a huge organ with golden pipes soaring to the two-story-high ceiling. Aunt Kay was a heavy bridge player, and our living room was often set up with three tables for an afternoon bridge session. During these glamorous years, the girls would never appear in less than dress, hat, gloves, and all the proper accessories. That was when, at age 4, I stood in our hall and started making those remarks about what they were wearing.

Queenie also played bridge and was friendly with these women, but she had her own smaller group of intimates. When Kay died after a breast cancer operation in the early ‘30s, the bridge parties came to an end. A few years earlier, Grandma Chambers passed away with a bad heart, and my mother and father moved into the front bedroom. At that time my mother’s cousin Lily Cooke became part of the family for a few years. Aunt Lily and I became even closer once she rented her own apartment in 1936, not far from our house. For a while she was my number-one movie companion.

My father steered clear of the social whirl surrounding Aunt Kay, but he was a party person nonetheless. There were some raucous ones in those Prohibition days, when gin was made in the bathtub. Some of the parties were downstairs in our basement whoopie room, which was furnished with a bar and benches. Both our parents would drink heavily down there. One time Al, in a very drunken state, slid down the cellar stairs as a joke, and upset my mother a great deal. For many years, his level of drinking was a real problem for the rest of us, especially my mother. Often he would come home from work very intoxicated. He would not abuse anyone, but just be non-functional for the evening.

This behavior was extremely disturbing. I began to hate my father at times for causing my mother such grief, and Jack and I both urged her to leave him. However, it was evidently a problem she could live with, and I too managed to remind myself continually of the commandment to love thy father. Al was always the faithful breadwinner. The coal and oil that he sold were strictly for home consumption, and I remember that his area was the East New York section of Brooklyn. He would head out that way every morning in our four-door Plymouth to service his customers, who at that time were mostly immigrant Jews from Poland and Russia.

In the middle of the melting pot, people of our middle-class white Catholic society had a pervasive but subconscious prejudice against anything or anybody foreign. Father used to make fun of the old Jewish mamas who would sit on their front steps in East New York wearing very obvious wigs—a popular custom at the time—but ethnic intolerance was never heard at our dinner table. We did at times use slang words for blacks, Italians, Asians and others who lived beyond Dorchester Park and attended other schools; it was years before we realized how offensive they were. Father would never take us to a Chinese restaurant because he was sure the kitchen would be filthy. But on the whole, we were taught compassion and tolerance towards people of any race or religion, and I am very grateful for that. Most of my life in fashion would be in association with Jewish manufacturers, salesmen, and buyers; my dear mentor and backer, Matti Kreisberg, was the son of Jewish immigrants from New York’s Lower East Side. Asian Indians would come into the picture much later.

In the mid-’30s we could no longer pay to have a household maid, so Queenie took over all the cooking and housework. The third floor was then remodeled into a very satisfactory rental apartment. Our tenants were an intellectual and very unorthodox Jewish couple, Bert and Mickey Wechsler, and their two young children, Lenore and Bert Jr. We all became lifelong friends, but my mother and Mickey particularly bonded.

My brother Jack and I were opposites. He was into sports, rough games, and all kinds of normal boy things. When we played cowboys and Indians together, he was the cowboy with the gun, and I had to be the Indian chief in a feathered headdress with bow and arrow.

In 1936, thirteen years after my brother Jack was born, a double miracle took place. Queenie at the age of 41 became pregnant with my sister Regina, and my father promised to stop drinking too much. Drinking still went on, but it became a pleasant social occasion without the traumas that had been part of the scene for so long. Al kept his promise, but after my mother died and only my sister was living at home, he evidently became a silent drinker, privately and unobtrusively consuming enormous amounts of rye whiskey. I never realized this until Regina told me after he passed away some nine years following my mother.

My childhood was not entirely lived in the city. Summer meant renting a house at the beach. When Grandma was alive, we had spacious homes directly on the water in Maine near Boothbay Harbor or in Bayshore out on Long Island. By 1929, when she was no longer with us, we took respectable cottages a block or so from the beach in Bayhead, New Jersey. Here we had great ocean bathing with a beautiful white sand beach, and a bay a few blocks distant where Jack and I could fish. When Aunt Kay died and our fortunes seemed to shift for the worse, we still got out to the beach. For several years we rented the upstairs of a modest house in Bayport, Long Island from darling old Mrs. Weeks. We had our bikes and could ride the half-mile to Great South Bay to swim or visit my father’s sister Tess, her husband, and six sons in the next town.

My father could be with us only on weekends or his vacation, but the sand and sun and sea air got into all our blood, and when we moved from Flatbush to Oceanside, Long Island in 1937, we still managed to go summer beaching. Oceanside was a misnomer for a town four miles from the ocean and eight miles from the beach at Point Lookout, which as residents of Nassau County we were entitled to use. It was also 30 whole miles from my beloved city. Now I could only reach it in my father’s car, on the Long Island Railroad, or via a more arduous but less expensive bus and subway. Fortunately, there were late-night trains, even after midnight, so I got into Manhattan almost as much as I had from Brooklyn.

My mother, busy with housework and the care of my lively and adorable little sister Regina, found time for involvement with the PTA, Veterans of Foreign Wars, and other civic activities. Jack and I were the typical scrapping brothers, so different in our interests but always friends in the end. Together we all shared evenings in front of our new television, the first on our block in 1939.

I wasn’t very happy about following what seemed like a mass exodus from Brooklyn to the South Shore of Long Island. I had just finished ninth grade in the diocesan all-boys high school, St. Augustine, taught by the Christian Brothers. Surrounded by males, I didn’t feel as comfortable as in grammar school, but I held my own and was still receiving the highest marks in the class. I had a new friend there, Eddie Burke, who felt equally out of place in this raw male world. His problem was an overwhelming inferiority complex due primarily to his frail, short body and a terrible facial eczema that was with him all his life. We had little in common except our love of opera, and both of us had impressive vestiges of our boy soprano voices (I had long sung in the church choir). We would sing along, standing far behind the open-air audience, when the Goldman Band played something like One Fine Day from Madame Butterfly in Prospect Park. I felt compassion for Eddie’s shyness and pulled him into my doings and friendships as much as I could. He in turn somewhat eased my own sense of isolation.

Oceanside in the ‘30s was not a chic place to live. It was very ordinary and lower-middle-class. I couldn’t understand how we could leave our spacious home in lovely Dorchester Park for a three-bedroom, two-story white frame house on a treeless corner lot in a raw new suburban development. It was the middle of the Depression, but my delusions of grandeur had us on a beautiful estate with wrought iron gates in posh old Brookville on the North Shore. During the many years we lived in Oceanside, the comedown was always in the back of my mind. I was especially conscious of it later on when I started making hats and had to invite my customers there.

We moved at the end of June 1937, after Jack’s graduation from Holy Innocents. We enrolled for the fall semester in the big Oceanside High, an easy walk or bike ride from our house. I had some trepidation about a public school with no nuns or brothers or teaching of religion. However, the coed classes suited me nicely, and most of our teachers were women, with whom I developed as much empathy as with the sisters at Holy Innocents. I quickly discovered an enormous number of activities besides sports, and in a very short time got involved in most of them. I joined the Glee Club, the Debating Society, and the Service Club, where I was the only male among 30 girls and was later elected president. I was also very active in the Masque Society as actor, director, costume designer and officer. But joining the staff of the Sider Press, the weekly student newspaper, was undoubtedly the most crucial step for my future in fashion.

I wrote all kinds of articles for the paper, from gossip and reporting what students were wearing at the proms, to serious editorials counseling the United States to stay out of the approaching war. At the same time, I conceived the idea of interviewing fashion or theater celebrities for a new column. The subject was hardly pertinent to a suburban high school where sports were the leading topic, but somehow the powers above went along with the idea. I started writing letters to request meetings with celebrities such as actor Raymond Massey, as well as Lily Dache, one of America’s leading hat designers. My requests were granted and the interviews were printed.

I also interviewed Elizabeth Hawes, a New York custom fashion designer, and she gave exciting clarity to my own leanings. In her book Fashion Is Spinach, published in 1938 and a bestseller, she preached an underlying style of integrity and simplicity in contrast to faddishness, which she considered an ever-changing and frivolous approach to dressing. My mind accepted this credo wholeheartedly, and I became intrigued with the vision of someday establishing a classic designer company that would produce timeless styles for women.

My crowning interview was with the famed couturier from Paris, Mainbocher. This man, an American from Chicago who went to Europe to study opera, became the editor of the French edition of Vogue. He later opened a couture salon making clothes for some of the world’s most chic women. His fame reached its height in 1936, when he designed the wedding dress for Wallis Simpson’s marriage to the Duke of Windsor. By 1939 he employed 350 people in Paris. His collections were reported by all the leading fashion publications, and I had of course clipped many illustrations of his designs for my scrapbooks. When World War II broke out in Europe, he felt it necessary to return to the States with the plan of finding financial backing to reopen his salon in New York. When I read in late 1939 that he had arrived and was staying at the Waldorf Hotel, I wrote immediately to request an interview. He replied Yes, informing me that it would be his first since returning to this country. My ecstasy was beyond measure! The date was set for November 4, and I decided to bring Billy along to share my good fortune and take notes.

It was a remarkable coming together that lasted about two hours. We talked fashion, his career, and my desire to follow the same path. The conversation then turned to literature and Billy’s poetry. It seemed that Mr. Bocher was personally acquainted with the famous American author, Gertrude Stein, who lived in Paris and with whom Billy had been in correspondence. We left the hotel in a state of euphoria, pledging to keep in touch. The interview was published, and from that time on both Billy and I were pen pals with Mr. Bocher.

Given my interest in fashion, art, and theater, it was natural that my friends in those high school days were mostly girls. Two of them were close friends and neighbors who lived on the next block to ours, and they became constant companions and great buddies. Betty Baskerville was a grade ahead of me at Oceanside High. It was she who would bring my future wife Lorraine and me together. Though short and roly-poly like her darling mother, father and two brothers, Betty was very pretty. She also had a joyful disposition. It was such fun to gather at her house during my time in Oceanside—including the early years of Lorraine’s and my marriage—for soft drinks (no alcohol in this circle of friends), cake and raucous singing around her upright player piano. We went to the movies a lot, sometimes Dutch and sometimes my treat. She loved to wear black cocktail dresses with rhinestone-trimmed sheer net yokes, and the highest-heeled shoes. But the latter made any festive occasion an intense physical agony for her. A disastrous trip in those torture shoes to the World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows made clear that Betty was an unsuitable companion on my jaunts to the city due to her inability to walk longer distances.

My other dear friend was Frances Cuddihy, who lived on the same block as Betty. She did become a partner in my city adventures, sometimes along with Billy. Fran had Irish good looks: black hair, lovely dark eyes, and a perky snub nose. It was with her that I launched my first venture in the fashion world. As a high school junior, I came up with the idea of making

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