Thursday, January 15, 2015

I'll Drink to That: A Life in Style, with a Twist by Betty Halbreich


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!

Bergdorf Goodman.

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.

22 comments:

GSL said...

As I recall, I liked 'Scatter My Ashes..." a good deal more than you did and Betty and Linda Fargo were the stars of the show (along with those Christmas windows) as far as I'm concerned.
I'd love to have a drink with Betty and share our dismay that the iconic Marshall Field's Flagship store has now been desecrated into a Macy's. Jill, Betty and I would be delighted if you joined us for that drink.

Jill said...

Hi GSL! I am still planning to see the documentary a second time. It was the overall editing of that film that drove me crazy, a lot of it did not make sense, but it was a treat to see Betty, Linda, and find out about how the Christmas windows are put together. Oh it would be so great to have a drink with you and Betty. That sounds like so much fun! XO, Jill

Suzanne Carillo said...

I like this woman!

Sounds like an excellent read and most certainly someone I'd get a drink with.

bisous
Suzanne

Coulda shoulda woulda said...

i might share a story soon on my blog about the time she gave me great fashion advice. She was great but I didn't know who she was until i saw the documentary otherwise i would have nabbed her for longer! x

hostess of the humble bungalow said...

I loved the book and found Betty to be honest and genuine....I have yet to watch the documentary but have enjoyed reading her life story.
It would have been fun to be one of her clients!

Chic atanyage said...

I have just started reading it and have just reached chapter 3 I am thoroughly enjoying it. What a character.

susan burpee said...

Well...after all this high praise I should probably buy this book. I love books that offer a glimpse into the world of fashion. Although the passage of the store after hours leaves me cold. It reminds me of my two year tenure, in the 1970's, in the cosmetics department of a very old and traditional department store here in Ottawa. Oh...my aching feet, wearing high heels all day and standing on those marble floors. Not to mention the aching ankles in winter, since our counters were at the front of the store right near the door, where the cold wind blew in off the street. I wore my socks in winter boots one day...my manager was NOT amused. Cosmeticians had to look chic...so no more socks for me! Maybe I'll wear socks while I'm reading this book!

Pam @ over50feeling40 said...

I loved this book, Jill! I could not put it down and how I would love to have a job like hers right now! How much fun that would that be! I also really like your picture...it has been a long time since I was there...great memories.

Jill said...

Hi Suzanne, you and Betty would probably have a lot to talk about. You both have a great eye! XO, Jill

Jill said...

Oh Naomi, please write that post and publish it pronto, I want to read it! XO, Jill

Jill said...

Hey Hostess, there's still time to be one of Betty's clients. Come to NYC and make an appointment with her. I dare you! XO, Jill

Jill said...

Hi Josephine! She really is a character, isn't she. I haven't enjoyed a book this much in a long time. XO, Jill

Jill said...

Hi Susan. Hmmm, I wonder if you'd like this book. I really liked the passages about the store and there are of course quite a few, some funny and entertaining, some that make you roll your eyes at things people do and say, and some, like the one I highlighted, where it's clear BG is very dear to Betty's heart. Her stepfather was a retailer so I bet his love of the store rubbed off on her as a child. I had plenty of time in all my retail stints where my feet were killing me, or the customers were terrible or rude, or I could not stand my coworkers for one minute more, but I tell you, it was always a pleasure to see that store looking so pristine and quiet first thing in the morning before anyone else was there. Sometimes it would be just me on the floor and at that moment I felt like I owned all of New York! XO, Jill

Jill said...

Hi Pam, you know, I'm not sure I would want Betty's job, maybe I know too much about retail at this point to want to do what she does. As for NYC, we are both waiting for you my dear! XO, Jill

rosie said...

Jill,

Read this book just before Joan Rivers passed away & remembered Betty's funny & kind reminisces about Joan, Her memories of Lauren Bacall - not so kind.

Betty's description of Manhattan in the 1950's was what I always thought Manhattan was then - exciting, sophisticated & fun.
At least that was what my mom always said.

Dawn Lucy said...

Adding this book to my reading list! So interesting about the beauty of the store before opening. I worked at Macys (in San Jose) for years and it was a cool time to be in the store, though I'm sure it felt much grander at one of the beautiful old classics in NY!
OXOX
Dawn Lucy
http://fashionshouldbefun.blogspot.com

donna macdonald said...

I read it and loved it too. I had just began my blog about her this morning and I am including quotes that resonated with me too. She is leaving us a footprint to follow Jill!

PinkCheetahVintage said...

Ok, ok, do I need to read this book? You're such a romantic (is that weird??) when it comes to department stores and fashion! I love it! Little bit of a fashion fantasy world for me---I'm often sorting through bins of clothes wondering if I should be wearing protective gloves! Ha!

Jill said...

Hi Rosie, yeah, Betty wasn't so nice about Lauren Bacall, was she? I'm with you, I did enjoy her descriptions of Manhattan in the 1950s! XO, Jill

Jill said...

Hi Dawn Lucy, I bet you will like this book but let me know what you think once you've read it! XO, Jill

Jill said...

Hi Donna! I am looking forward to reading your post on Betty's book, I will head over to see if it's up! XO, Jill

Jill said...

Hi Becky, your comment made me laugh, no it's not weird at all to point out that I am a romantic when it comes to department stores! I really love the old ones that have been around for awhile and are so grand. They are rooted in their past and yet concerned with the present fashions and they are also fashion's front lines and trenches when we find out just what women are willing to spend their hard-earned money on. Department stores are a fantasy steeped in a steely reality and one I find endlessly fascinating! If you read Betty's book, let me know what you think of it! XO, Jill