Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Love at first sight and up to the very end

Park Avenue median Cherry blossoms. 3:00 PM. Photo: JH.
Tuesday, May 1, 2018. A cool and grey day in New York with temperatures in the awfully cool lower 50s. Most New Yorkers these days are wondering when it’s gonna warm up. The weatherman says “soon!”

Yesterday morning someone sent me a link to a strory in the East Hampton Star about the deaths of Judith Leiber and her husband Gerson Leiber, who both died within hours of each other this past Saturday at the house in the Springs which is part of East Hampton.

I’d never met Judith Leiber, or her husband. I knew the name of course, and I recall once looking in a window on Madison Avenue at her minaudieres. My interest was entirely in passing – I’d heard the name and the reference to her made by women who admired her or were clients.  Otherwise, I had no sense of her – her age, her looks; if even she was a “real” person or just a “label.”
Gerson and Judith Leiber in 1994 (Credit Sandra Geroux, Courtesy of The Leiber Collection).
But the article yesterday morning by Taylor Vecsey ran a photo of her with her husband in 1994. On first glance, she reminded me of my late great friend Lady Sarah Churchill in height and apparent presence — commanding and vulnerable because of it as well. (Coincientally, she — and Gerson — and Sarah were born on the same year – 1921.)

As you can see, in the photo, Judith is looking at her husband of 72 years who is not tall and commanding, even, in fact shorter than the great lady, but looking up at her through his black frame glasses with a smile of sheer affection, as well as a man’s command. He’s her boy and boy, is he ever! It was the loveliest photograph of a man and a woman of the senior age, or any age, who had lived a long — and just from the looking of the photo — and happy life together. There was respect, affection, admiration, and most importantly, a smile that could easily have led to laughter, very private laughter too.

So, in that one shot, I was fascinated to know something more about these two, and mainly, Judith Leiber.  And what I have learned, most if not all of which is well known, was that she was born on January 11, 1921 in Budapest, the daughter of Helene and Emil Peto.  Her mother was a homemaker and her father was a prosperous commodities broker.

In 1938 with the obvious oncoming political problems with Adolf Hitler and his Nazis,  Emil Peto sent his daughter to Kings College in London to study chemistry. He wanted her to prepare herself for the cosmetics business, as well as be safer in London as the Petos were Hungarian Jews, and Emil was well aware.
A portrait of the family of Emil Peto, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Judith Peto Leiber.
Judith, after finishing at Kings College returned to Budapest as World War II was starting. Through family connections Judith was hired as a trainee in a handbag company called Pessl. It was there that she learned how to cut and mold leather, as well as make patterns, frame and stitch bags. She was a very good student and in time became a master craftswoman. She was the first woman to become a member of the Hungarian Handbag Guild. This was an honor as well as prestigious.

Nevertheless the horror of Hitler was marching forward and taking over much of Europe, and Nazi persecution was already well known. The alternatives for Jews were very limited. Leave, or hide. Emil Peto at that time ran the grain department of a bank. Because it was a job that was needed (by the Nazis also), he was able to obtain a document called a schutzpass that allowed him and his family a safe passage to a house set aside for “Swiss citizens. ” This was was shared with 26 other people. In December 1944, they were moved to a Hungarian Nazi-run ghetto. After the Russian Army liberated Hungary from the Nazis, the Peto family moved into a basement which they shared with 60 people.

With the War ending, now the handbag craftswoman, Judith could see an opportunity. “When I was a young girl,” she recalled years later to a reporter for WWD, “my father used to go to Western Europe on business, and  he would always bring my mother a handbag as a gift. My mother always loved her handbags, and I loved them very much, too. So I decided that I was going to do that.”
Judith Peto and Gerson Leiber's engagement photo by Veres, 1945, Budapest, Hungary (courtesy of the Leiber Collection).
She became the first girl in Budapest to apprentice in handbags. “I thought that it would be a good way to immigrate to the U.S.” Now a professional, Judith worked for several handbag manufacturers. She was one of the few women who could not just design but also make a handbag from start to finish.

Naturally enterprising, she started selling her bags to members of the armed forces. It was during that time that she met an American soldier who was stationed in the city. His name was Gerson Leiber, but known as Gus, an American boy from Brooklyn. “It was love at first sight,” Judith recalled. She engaged him by asking if he knew anyone in the service who would like to rent a room in her parents’ house.

No, he didn’t. But the spell was cast. Soon Gerson was “captivated by this young woman who spoke excellent English.” Their courtship began. A year later, in 1946 they married at her parents’ house in Budapest, and then moved to New York.

The first 16 years Judith was in New York, she worked for different accessory brands. In 1953, while working for Nettie Rosenstein, a prominent designer/marketer of women’s fashion, Judith designed and created the pink rhinestone bag that Mamie Eisenhower carried to Ike’s inauguration.
Mamie Eisenhower's Judith Lieber purse.
That caused a big stir in the handbag business and with the fashionable ladies. Judith Leiber became well known in New York for crafting a bag from start to finish working in many styles with many materials.

However, the singular creation, the beaded minaudiere would make her famous. In 1963, she and Gerson started their own business, Judith Leiber.  Gerson, who was an abstract expressionist painter, lithographer and sculptor, always contributed ideas to his wife’s work. Now, while he was continuing his own career, he also ran the business side of the new firm.

Judith’s original idea for her best known top of the line bags were “a variation on the solid gold evening bags women once carried. They were timeless and classic,” and also expensive. Solid gold, women had to keep in a vault when not carrying to a party. Judith had another idea: putting rhinestones on brass, beginning with partly beaded bags, and the full beading. And they didn’t require a bank vault.
The Chatelaine, the first crystal minaudiere Judith Leiber ever designed.
Another of Leiber 's 3,000 minaudières.
Introduced in 1967, these became mini-marvels made in the US, each requiring weeks of handwork and thousands of crystals. “My mania,” Leiber told Vogue, “is to do a bag that looks as good empty as it does stuffed.”

They took the form of everything from peacocks to piglets and penguins, from cats, to lions, rabbits, frogs and dogs. Inspiration might come from Faberge or Mondrian, sparkling with 5,000 to 8,000 rhinestones and even semiprecious stones.
Peter Rogers handled Judith Lieber's first ad campaign. Each ad was a story within itself. When it appeared, the ducks in the water sold out immediately at Neiman Marcus.
She created other luxurious bags too: such as exotic skins such as ostrich, alligator, whipsnake and frogskin. But the minaudieres were the major part of the business favored by the society ladies, the beautiful people, movie stars, celebrities, first ladies, and fashionistas such as Pat Buckley, Queen Elizabeth, Greta Garbo, Oprah Winfrey, Elizabeth Taylor, Claudette Colbert, Anne Bass, Barbara Walters. Many, such as Beverly Sills had a large collections. The bags were featured on television, in shows such as "Sex in the City."
Black Alligator Box with Rigid Black Rhinestone Handle, 1970s.
Wine Alligator Satchel with Double Lock Frame, 1979. White Python Double Envelope Bag with Shoulder Strap, 1979.
Natural Shell with Gold Plated Lid and Drop-in Chain, 1979.
The designs often took on weird shapes (a bunch of asparagus, a Hello Kitty head). She gave each First Lady one of her minaudieres as a gift, and presented First Ladies Barbara Bush and Hillary Clinton with bags in the form of their First Pets, Millie and Socks,
She said it took about five years to train beaders to spangle her bags. But the industry was shrinking fast. “Years ago, with immigration, you could hire talented people from Italy, Germany and Hungary. Now no one knows how to make a bag from start to finish. It’s all section work.”

In 1973, ten years after she and Gerson started Judith Leiber, she became the first woman in her field and the first accessories designer to win a Coty. In 1980, she was given a Neiman Marcus award, and in 1986, she won the Spirit of Achievement Award from the N.Y. Chapter, National Women’s Division, Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University.

In 1993, she sold her company, retiring in 1998. Samantha De Tillio, curator at the Museum of Arts and Design  (MAD), of the exhibition “Judith Leiber: Crafting a New York Story” recalled her as “a visionary designer, craftswoman of exemplary skill, and a fierce businesswoman. She leaves behind a legacy that transcends fashion; she broke new ground and raised the glass ceiling for women designers and entrepreneurs.”
Exhbition view of “Judith Leiber: Crafting a New York Story” at MAD.
In 2009, the Leibers set up a museum for her handbags in East Hampton. Her bags are also in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Dallas Museum, the Museum of the City of New York and the Smithsonian.

Despite their 97 years, the passing of Gerson and Judith Leiber, on the same day – an ideal time for the couple – came as a shock to friends and community. They were well known in the East Hampton world. They'd built a small museum for their collections of works. They were very friendly members of the community and admired almost like historical landmarks not only for their achievements but also for their brilliant partnership that began at the end of an historical tragedy and blossomed in a new world and a new life together for the following 70 years.
 

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