Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Summer at Tiffany by Marjorie Hart


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.

19 comments:

GSL said...

That pic of Judy Garland on their wedding day quite telling...she a blushing bride and Vinny a man with some explaining to do.

rosie said...

I will be getting that book real soon. My favorite era in Manhattan is the 40's & 50's Its amazing that two young ladies with a summer jobs could afford an apt. in NYC at that time.

I think of NYC rents now & if you are just starting out, it will be very difficult unless you get a rent-controlled apt. which is like winning the lottery or are a trust fund baby.

Probably apartments then were in abundance because of WWII. In 1945, as soon as the War ended apartments were very scarce because GI's were coming home, getting married & starting families,

I wonder if they hired female pages after the War ended.

Rosie

susan burpee said...

I read this a few years ago, Jill and loved it. And I love the turquoise cover...truth be told... the cover is partly what caught my eye to begin with.

PinkCheetahVintage said...

This is just making me realize how much I've missed summer reading!!!

hostess of the humble bungalow said...

I read this novel a few years ago and really enjoyed it...
there is something so luxurious inside Tiffany's and the movie with Audrey Hepburn Breakfast at Tiffany's is one of my all time favourites.

Jill said...

Hi GSL, oh you are right. I just looked up their ages on their wedding day. Oh dear. Maybe Judy felt like she needed an older man to protect her from all those wolves in the old studio system? I don't know, I haven't read enough about her. I will have to pick up a bio on her sometime! xx

GSL said...

I don't believe Vinny's age was all that was amiss...

GSL said...

...think Over the Rainbow

rosie said...

Vincente Minelli looked out for Judy. She looked her most beautiful in the movie "Meet Me in St. Louis" which he directed.

There was a terrific PBS documentary about Judy about 5 years back. It explains a lot. One poignant part was her relationship with her Dad, which might explain her attraction to Vincente and some other male relationships.

What a talent.

GSL said...

This is how Minelli and the Studio helped her "look her most beautiful": heavy dosages of amphetamines to lose weight and then barbituates to sleep" a dangerous combination for an already emotionally troubled young woman. She attempted suicide twice when married to VM, the first time reportedly after catching him in bed with another man. I doubt VM was very candid with JG regarding his sexuality which he should have been. Vincente Minelli did not look out for Judy Garland but Frank Sinatra did.

rosie said...

I guess the PBS documentary on her life was all wrong.

GSL said...

The Smart Money always bets on GSL vs PBS.

Jill said...

Hi Rosie! I think the girls lived on Morningside Drive. The apartment was through a friend of Marty's family (I think), but still, they knew they had to scrimp to live there. There's a funny part about their budgets and what they could afford on their Tiffany salaries, which wasn't much. They did take on a third roommate! I think you'd like this book. I don't think Ms. Hart goes into whether Tiffany hired male pages after the war.

Re the Judy Garland stuff. I really know very little about her. I would definitely see that that PBS documentary. I have seen the movie you mention and she was quite luminous in it! I wonder if Netflix has the documentary? I will check.

I hope all is well with you. I am absolutely sweltering in this heat. xx

Jill said...

My dear GSL, I don't know enough about Judy or Vincente to comment but be nice! Also, where's the personal responsibility? So Judy had someone forcing her to take pills? I guess we could say the same of Marilyn too then? I honestly know so little about Judy Garland. From the bios I have read of Grace Kelly and Marilyn Monroe and things I've read/seen about Liz Taylor, I think the studio system as it existed in the 1930s-1950s was tough tough tough. I think it must've broken people and I guess Judy and Marilyn are the sad examples of life under that old system. So beautiful, so talented and died way too young.

I am so sad over the terrible news in the past 24 hours I just want everyone to get along and play nice! xx

Jill said...

Hi Susan! I am so with you, the cover made me so happy just looking at it when I picked it up from the library. And the photo I used in this post is the photo that is now used in the new cover. It is irresistible! xx

Jill said...

Hi Becky, you have no time for reading, I gather you are in NYC! HAVE FUN! Stay cool too the heat is awful today! xx

Jill said...

Hiya Hostess! I was thinking of rewatching Breakfast at Tiffany's just for the party scene, which makes me laugh every single time (and I love Martin Balsam more and more with every viewing). It seems like the perfect summer movie! xx

Data in the Rough said...

I love books and movies that really incorporate jewelry into their story! I am just reading books that are more non-fiction about the designers and jewels, that I will hopefully share soon! Do you like to switch between subjects when reading or will you focus on reading about jewelry for the summer? I'll be back for more great posts and pictures!

Jill said...

Hi Michelle! I wish I was better about reading straight up non-fiction about jewelry but I end up only looking at the pictures ha ha. Can't wait to read your recommendations for jewelry books. I have 2 books going right now--the Grace bio in my sidebar and 'The Beautiful and Damned' by F. Scott Fitzgerald (so so good, that man was just so talented). I continue to be amazed by your terrific IG pictures. They are just the best! xx