If you are looking for a good book for the season, I highly recommend the memoir Summer at Tiffany by Marjorie Hart. I first learned of it in February when I saw the author’s cameo in the documentary Crazy About Tiffany’s. I was intrigued enough to hunt down the book at my library and learned it was published in 2007.
Marjorie and her best friend and sorority sister Marty head to Manhattan from Iowa for the summer in 1945. While there, they try to get jobs at Lord & Taylor, the department store on Fifth Avenue, with no luck. Knowing they couldn’t stay in the big city if they didn’t have money to pay the rent, they take a gutsy chance trying to find summer positions at Tiffany & Co. With the help of an important reference, and after a hilarious interview (hilarious for the reader, nerve-wracking for the girls), they are hired as the store’s first female pages, jobs normally given to young men, who are in short supply because of World War II. Their new jobs require them to wear silk jersey dresses with full skirts in Tiffany blue and wait for the salesmen to call upon them to ferry jewelry or watches around the store. The salesmen would let them know they were needed by rapping a diamond ring that they each wore against a glass counter!
|Tiffany & Co. in 1940. Photo courtesy of the New York Public Library.|
Set against the backdrop of a city in flux and a world at war, I found it an entertaining and fascinating account of Manhattan in 1945. The city’s descriptions reminded me a bit of The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath—it is interesting to see what an outsider gets perfectly right about New York, having coming from a different part of the country—and I loved reading about Tiffany in the 1940s, as well as the surrounding stores, to learn what’s changed and what’s stayed the same. And then there was this gem, when Marjorie and Marty make their way to their new place of employment via the subway for the first time:
“We emerged with a throng of people, and made our way to Fifty-seventh Street and Fifth Avenue. Near the employees’ entrance I stopped dead. On the door of the building next to Tiffany’s was a discreet sign: MAINBOCHER.
“‘Ohmygosh, isn’t that—’
“Marty moved closer to look. ‘It is!’
“Mainbocher was a leading fashion designer, and the designer of the Duchess of Windsor—or her couturier, as Vogue would have it. Anyone old enough to turn a page in Life magazine knew the duchess’s style: the fitted suit with the matching off-the-face hat, the satiny tea gown with the beaded bag, the classic tailored dress with the thin-strapped heels. From her filmy lingerie to her lush sable coat, Wallis Simpson wore the famed Mainbocher label.”
I did not know Mainbocher was right next to Tiffany’s, but it makes sense, and how fun to read what a young American girl from Iowa thought of Mainbocher—and the Duchess of Windsor—in 1945!
I loved reading about Marjorie and Marty’s adventures, from dating midshipmen stationed in the city while they awaited orders, to sniffing brandy with the manager and salesmen on the third floor of Tiffany’s on a rainy day, to seeing Judy Garland sweep into the store with her new husband Vincente Minnelli—both there to select a piece of jewelry each as a wedding present from the studio.
|Judy Garland and Vincente Minnelli on their wedding day, June 15, 1945.|
Woven throughout these stories are details of the United States at war—the rationing of supplies, the blue star flags hanging in windows to signify households with young men fighting overseas, the telegrams notifying those families when some of those men were missing or killed in action.
Marjorie and a friend were in Times Square for the announcement of the end of World War II on August 14, 1945. What a remarkable place to be during one of the most important historical moments of the twentieth century!
|Crowds in Times Square on VJ Day, August 14, 1945. Oh the humanity! Wikipedia photo.|
And of course it was so fun to read about the jewels Marjorie got to admire, and sometimes model, during her stint at Tiffany & Co. I had to include a photo of the caliber of work being produced by the company, just before the war. This is a glorious collection of aquamarine and diamond clip-brooches and earrings, set in yellow gold, circa 1940. I weep! The pieces were owned by Marian Haven Wickes and the page comes from the April 2013 auction catalog “Important Jewelry” by Doyle New York.
|Tiffany & Co. jewels, circa 1940, from a Doyle New York catalog “Important Jewelry,” April 2013.|
Summer at Tiffany is a charmer—with a touch of the bittersweet—perfect for New York City lovers, admirers of jewelry, and all who hold Tiffany in high esteem!
If you’ve read this book before, let me know what you thought of it.