by Kati Heng
Three cheers for the tough old broads.
I’ll Drink to That, the new memoir from Betty Halbreich, the 86-year-old woman who’s become famous during her 40 years working as a personal shopper at NYC’s Bergdorf Goodman (shopping’s mecca for the uninitiated) is an utterly thrilling read, written crisply and cleanly by a woman on whom it appears decades of reading Vogue have shaped into a completely gorgeous writer.
I have a strong desire to throw the word ‘legend’ in here, but Halbreich specifically said in the book she hates that word (in relation to herself, at least). Fact is: for so many, Halbreich is Bergdorf Goodman. She’s the star of that 2013 documentary Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf Goodman, a look into the cult of BG, how its fans are more loyal to the store than to most are to their alma maters. (She’s also going to be the inspiration for Lena Dunham’s new HBO show, which ARE YOU EFFING KIDDING ME I cannot wait to see).
From girlhood it seems, Halbreich had a preternatural instinct for dressing herself and dressing herself well. Living a plush life in a rich Jewish community in South Chicago, Halbreich learned early on the importance of well made, lasting clothing. Yet, something her upbringing couldn’t teach her, the girl always knew how to stick out from the crowd. As her mother would say (and I quote loosely), “If the other girl’s were wearing scarfs around their heads, Betty put hers around her waist.”
Flash-forward to adulthood. Halbreich quickly marries an even richer, even-more on-the-scene man with roots in New York City. The fashion is amplified. No longer can she wear the same thing to two different social events. Now it seems, there must be a new dress for each party. The marriage though, isn’t a happy one, leaving Halbreich attempting suicide as it unravels and spending time in a mental institution to sort things out.
Days – literally, days- after leaving that institution, she starts her job at Bergdorf Goodman. Plucky enough to stand up to it’s snottiest customers and honest enough to let a woman leave without spending hundreds on a piece that wouldn’t suit her, Halbreich’s talent is quickly recognized, even though she’s not actually been fulfilling all the duties she should as a salesgirl, seeing as she nearly refuses to use the register. Thus, the creation of her own department, “Solutions,” as they call it. Women come in with a problem, in need of a specific look or piece; Halbreich provides the solution.
You know how there is probably one thing that every person is really actually born to do? It’s so enormously satisfying to read the story of a person who is actually doing, and has been for decades. Halbreich didn’t simply create/found the Solutions department at Bergdorf; she essential is the solution to many a woman’s dressing woes.
From the introduction to the end, Halbreich walks us through the typical days in her shoes (which, I could not help but appreciate, never show toes. FINALLY someone else who understands my deep-seated aversion to flip-flops!!). Woman come in, seek Halbreich’s assistance, leave with wisdom and hints as to dressing, and – but only if they truly find something they look stunning in – leave with the perfect piece. One completely admirable thing about Halbreich: she can tell a woman simply in need of “retail therapy,” not in need of new clothes, from a mile away. She often offers that therapy and keeps the clothes on the rack.
And when there is a woman who truly needs something, Halbreich delivers. I imagine her mind working a bit like a computer system – she seems to have an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the store, walking through it each day and noting items/designers and pieces that have been moved around. Sort of like a dewy decimal system on clothing, if you need to find something, refer to her. Furthermore, though, she can tell what will suit each woman. Basically, she’s a living breathing Match.com for women and their clothing.
Who are these women, anyway? Everyone from costume designers (she’s help curate looks you’ve seen in Woody Allen’s movies as well as on Sarah Jessica Parker circa Sex & The City) to celebrities to everyday New York City women, sometimes even a bride or two.
Note here, and this is terribly sad yet touching: Halbreich was a great fan (and friend) of Joan Rivers, another one of her loyal customers, and writes freely about her adoration for Joan. It was so strange reading this book in the days after Rivers’ death – unlike the magazines picking up her story as it was hot, Halbreich included this ode to her friend months before she could have known. Timely, yet unintentional, I think this may be the best tribute (even if it wasn’t meant to be) to Rivers I have read so far. And – as a further testament to the women’s mutual respect for each other, Rivers’ blurb on the back of the book is perfect: “”I would trust this woman with my life—closet!”
Anyway, this isn’t a book about fashion, or why Bergdorf Goodman is holy or why you must buy designer (Halbreich herself often relates the desire to cut the tags out of clothes to curb her client’s label obsessions); this is simply a book about a woman who is doing what she was put on this earth to do, who has changed women’s lives and shaped the film and fashion industries by doing it.