I first became aware of Betty Halbreich, longtime personal shopper at Bergdorf Goodman in Manhattan, when I saw the documentary Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s in 2013. Asked what she would be doing if she weren’t still working, the tart-tongued octogenarian pursed her lips and said without missing a beat, “Drinking.” I had to laugh, a lot—who says stuff like that, in this day and age?
Well Betty, that’s who. She clearly believes in telling it like it is, which made her memoir, I’ll Drink to That: A Life in Style, with a Twist (with Rebecca Paley), such fun to read. Finally, an autobiography written by somebody old enough to have actually lived a very full life and what an interesting life it’s been! From her youth as an only child in a well-to-do family in Chicago during the Great Depression to her years as a Park Avenue housewife and mother in Manhattan in the late 1940s and 1950s (boy, doesn’t that sound like fun) to working for the secretive and aloof fashion designer Geoffrey Beene and how she got her start at Bergdorf’s, Halbreich never comes off as precious about it, but nevertheless her book is an account of her journey to become a fully-realized, independent woman.
|Love this picture of Betty in a leopard coat.|
Because I love reading stories about New York City at different times in history I savored this book like a box of the richest, most decadent truffles, which maybe aren’t good for your waistline but are definitely necessary for your head! There were two passages in particular, in a book filled with terrific passages, that struck home with me.
The first, after Betty completed a lengthy and expensive wardrobe refresh for the wife of a rich Dallas developer, who said,
“ ‘Betty! But we aren’t done. I need a fur coat!’
“A fur coat? I didn’t care if she lived in Alaska, let alone Texas, I couldn’t. I just couldn’t. A fur coat was the kind of big-ticket item most salespeople kill for, but it only gave me a case of the school stomachs. Memories of my old life returned as I pictured her unpacking all her purchases at home. Where was she going to hang everything? What was he going to say? No, no, no. Not on my watch. Closets can be too full. There is a point of saturation.
“‘Aren’t you thrilled with what we’ve done?’ I asked. ‘Because I am.’
“She had bought a new and extensive wardrobe for the season. Need, however, meant something incomplete. This wasn’t about need. Nobody goes naked. ‘It’s enough for now. There’s always a tomorrow!’”
God love a salesperson who has this attitude because I tell you, so few of them do. I’m with Betty, there is indeed a point of saturation! You can most definitely have too many things in your closet, too many clothes, too many shoes, too many bags!
The other passage I loved:
“As I walk back out, my crankiness is abated by the hush of the empty store, a privilege of access that in all my years here has never lost its thrill. The clothes placed on the correct racks and shelves, the floors freshly swept, and the neatly folded shopping bags waiting like elegant writing paper; it is everything I imagined as a little girl wondering what Marshall Field’s was like when nobody was around.”
I weep, that paragraph is so beautiful, and I know exactly what she means. I felt the same way during my time at the 59th Street Bloomingdale’s. When you walk the first floor before the store is open and it is so clean and neat and gorgeous, with its black and white tiles in the semi-dark since the lights have not yet been turned up to their brightest before the customers come in, it is a unique and special treat that not many people are afforded and one I never took for granted. Betty is right, those old grand department stores are something else when no one is there, and it’s like being in a dream!
I don’t know if I’d have the bravery required to step into a dressing room with Betty while she sized up my style and gave me advice on what I should be wearing (hold me, I’m scared!), but meet her for a drink and a talk? Count me in.
If you read I’ll Drink to That, let me know what you thought of it.