October 1976. I was way downtown on the Lower East Side looking for inexpensive fabric for what was becoming expanding design projects.
Mimi Judson was suggesting we make fabric purses for her 801 Madison (Avenue) boutique. She said that the only thing a woman needed to carry in an evening bag was a hairbrush, lipstick and emergency cash in case of a need for a quick exit!
That evening Francesca (née Frances) Hershkowitz invited some of us to her apartment.
Frances/Francesca was the niece of radio’s legendary comedian Fred Allen. Decades later, after I’d moved back to Los Angeles, a close friend of mine Sandy Ruben told me an amusing story. Sandy’s husband Aaron had produced The Andy Griffith Show along with other classic television shows from that same period. And Sandy’s first cousin Nat Hiken had been Fred Allen’s star writer! She and Aaron were close to Fred Allen and his wife, Portland Hoffa.
Not knowing that I’d known Francesca, Sandy told me the following story: One night, Allen was visiting the Hershkowitz’s apartment and when leaving, shared the elevator with grammar school friends of young Frances.
… er … Francesca!
As they rode down, one of the little girls nudged another and whispered, “Do you know who that is?”
Fred Allen was pleased and glowing with the thought that even very young girls knew that he was a famous radio personality. But when the little girl asked who he was, the first one said, “It’s Frances’ uncle!”
He was deflated!
Sandy had wonderful stories and it was frustrating that I was no longer in touch with Francesca to share the story!
She had incidentally also told me that Allen’s in-laws, Portland Hoffa’s parents, had been traveling touring vaudevillians and whenever they had a child they named it for the town in which they were playing at the time! So we know where Mrs. Fred Allen was born!
A few nights later, a friend, Mike Jennings suggested I go down to Greenwich Village with him to hear jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams play at The Cookery off of Fifth Avenue.
Mary Lou Williams was a jazz legend having worked, taught or orchestrated for most of the unforgettable jazz personalities of the 20th century!
And here she was, live in the intimate room of The Cookery!
Vogue magazine had called her “The First Lady of the piano” and having started my own life as a serious classical piano student and performer, I had to speak with her during one of her breaks.
I complimented her on her beautiful virtuosic technique and she modestly thanked me. She told me that she had started playing the piano to support her family when she was a very young child.
She recorded an LP with her bassist Brian Torff while at The Cookery in 1975.
In 1983 — she died in 1981 — Duke University established the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture.
In between shopping for supplies I still had to make fabric jewelry with Ric Mendez. Our agent, Laura Kruger, was getting us orders from major stores like Saks Fifth Avenue, and Lord & Taylor ordered a collection of madras necklaces and bracelets that they promoted in their show windows with Ralph Lauren Resort Wear! It was exciting to see some other artist’s representation of them in newspaper ads!
We weren’t getting rich but we weren’t losing money!
My friend Charles Davis was involved with IRT, the Impossible Ragtime Theater, and I went to see one of their events featuring a young woman with the melodious name of Zivia Flomenhaft. She and her husband, Bob Jewett Jr., were singers in a country/rock group called Chenango* and that evening were appearing at the IRT.
*Chenango County, west of Albany in New York State, was the original home of Jewett and his family.
The group was being noticed and New York Magazine wrote an article about the burgeoning scene downtown; and Chenango was featured in it!
So for me, life and activities continued much like they had previously.
I was working at Rick Mendez’s apartment and my friend Ron Welsh stopped by to visit while we worked.
Ron was an actor and had replaced Robert Morse as the star on Broadway of the hit show, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. He was fascinated by the jewelry and even tried his hand making a few. It gave me an idea and subsequently I organized a small beer bust in my apartment of some of my gym buddies. And instead of a guys’ poker game, Rick and I taught them to sew jewelry!
I was shameless!
In the middle of all of this, my mother’s good friend Pauline Rodder came to Manhattan for a visit before going on a cruise on the M/S. Kungsholm.
Pauline invited me to come with her to dinner at the Fifth Avenue apartment of Eliot and Lennie Frankel. Lennie had also been a friend of my mother’s when she lived in Fresno evidently overseeing some vast ranch farmlands that she owned. Now, living high above Central Park on Fifth Avenue, she appeared more appropriately at home!
Eliot owned Lewis Purses, a company that, as he himself said, “copied some of the most prestigious purses in the world!” I mentioned that I was designing fabric evening bags. He was interested enough and invited me to show him some of them!
I was thinking it might lead to something.
It did and a few days later I went to his offices with a sample.
About a month later he showed me a fabric evening bag he’d put into production and asked what I thought of it.
I was thinking to myself, “Think of it? I designed it! That’s what I think of it!”
Being polite and well brought up (and stupid!) I just nodded a silent approval!
After dinner back that evening on Fifth Avenue, Lennie (knowing that Pauline, whose family owned a very high end women’s designer clothing store would be interested) brought out a shoe box to show us some of her jewelry.
Pauline gave a little gasp as Lennie started pulling out diamond bracelets, tutti-frutti matching bracelets and necklace, emerald and Ruby brooches and more.
Eliot said the ones that were less decorative were more valuable because the stones were of a higher quality!
Less art, more business!
A few evenings later I met Ben Bagley for dinner at Joe Allen’s where he introduced me to June Ekman who taught The Alexander Technique, a method of body awareness and stress relief through movement.
Ben had gone through a kind of self-improvement and beautification himself by getting a nose job and wearing contact lenses. It had made a big difference.
Ben was experiencing success with a series of LPs featuring little known works by very well known composers and lyricists performed by equally well known performers, some of whom were not known for singing!
I was impressed that he’d also had Harvey Schmidt illustrate the covers!
Schmidt had been one of my favorite illustrators when I was at UCLA way before he became very famous for composing the music for The Fantasticks and other musicals with his lyricist, Tom Jones.
The show ran for 42 years, the longest-running musical in the world!
Ric had a young friend named Sharon Lamoreaux who was, like him, a dancer. She joined us in our two-man sewing circle and decided that she would also become our so-called office manager/secretary and in that role she’d become “Brenice”! She had felt that “Bernice” didn’t fit “a fashion house” and would be more suitable for a temp-worker, a role she’d also assume when necessary!
So we rolled along and when Hank Mantell came by for a visit we enlisted him too for a few hours!
On November 2nd, Jimmy Carter beat Gerald Ford winning the presidency. The next day I met Pat Shelton at P.J. Clarke’s where we celebrated!