“Never put a rat on your back.” I was five years old, hurtling through the subway station in New York, on the way to the garment district with my father when he gave me my first lesson in fashion. He was referring to muskrat or squirrel, furs that he regarded as beneath his contempt.
My father was a dandy, hair slicked back like George Raft’s, fedora turned down on all sides like Warner Baxter’s in the movie 42nd Street. The lapels of his double-breasted suit were hand stitched and his shirts were pale blue or white on white, white with an almost invisible pattern. On this day he wore a gray overcoat with real pearl buttons.
As we sat on the subway, my father pointed out the defects of the clothing of every woman in the car. Many men are said to undress women with their eyes; my father was exactly the opposite. A fanatic about women’s clothes, he wanted nothing more than to dress them to perfection.
At an early age he changed his name from Abe to Jack, and his mother, my Bubby, indulged him in his whim. My grandmother had been widowed at the age of 21 when my grandfather died of tuberculosis contracted in steerage as they escaped from Odessa and Tsarist Russia. Jack became the focus of his mother’s attention and love, and though she had many offers to remarry, she spurned them all. One suitor suggested that they lose Jack in a public park, leaving him to fend for himself. Another reminded her that they would live in a state of perpetual honeymoon if she would turn Jack over to the Hebrew orphanage. But no man could compete with her son, my father.
Once, at the movies, the young Jack had watched Constance Bennett lean against a grand piano covered with an embroidered silk shawl that ended in a cascade of white fringe. Jack badgered my grandmother to buy such a shawl for the dining room table. Who on Orchard Street on the Lower East Side possessed an item of such luxury? But Jack drove his mother crazy until she went to Orloff, the silk merchant who sold remnants from fire sales, to obtain a shawl. They also had a Persian rug, delivered “right off the boat” from a shady dealer.
Jack met my mother when she was 16, a study in monochromatic browns. On their first date she wore a brown blouse and a long brown skirt. Her hair was brown. Though she had flawless skin, the colors she selected did little to enhance it. Jack couldn’t stand women with “markings” such as moles, freckles, or, heaven forbid, a pimple. If my mother passed the skin test my father saw entire areas that needed his aesthetic touch.
Jack wasn’t conventionally handsome, but his height of six feet, his clothes, and his quick wit distinguished him from other young men. His ritual was to take his dates to my grandmother’s restaurant and then to the apartment, where they were overwhelmed by the Persian rug, the lavishly embroidered table shawl, and the fact that my father was a “City College man.”
The latter was more of a talking point than a reality. Jack attended classes sporadically at City College, while dreaming of Broadway musicals, of vaudeville at the Palace, and of the latest movies. Though he resided on Orchard and Canal Streets, his taste, his vocabulary, and his street smarts came from the movies. In addition, he was an omnivorous reader and talked knowledgeably about the theater, politics, and H.L. Mencken, the columnist. He liked to boast that he could sweet-talk women from 6 to 60. He started to work in women’s fashion when he was 15.
My mother struck a special chord in his sophisticated soul. She was shy, almost inarticulate, and she came from a family of 12 children, where she had to care for the rest of the ever-growing brood. But she had incredible green eyes and long, long legs.
Almost the first thing that my father demanded of my mother in my Bubby’s living room was that she lift her skirt, as if she were auditioning for a chorus line. Blushing, confused, she held up her skirt to her calf, then, at a nod from my father, to her knee. “What gams,” he exclaimed. “I could have you on Broadway in three months!” The very next day Jack took her to Pandy’s Beauty Parlor on Clinton Street and held her hand as he instructed Pandy on the honey-blond color he desired. The day after that he brought her an entire new outfit, down to her shoes. Within the year they married and moved into Bubby’s apartment.
Jack supervised every bit of clothing that my mother purchased. He despised dresses with buttons in the back, hated green with my mother’s complexion, advised her that she could wear black only if she offset it with a white jacket or white fur, and instructed her never to put her hands in her suit pockets — they were decorative, not intended to carry oranges. Jack despised costume jewelry, gaudy earrings, bracelets, and lapel pins.
At home, my mother never wore a so-called housedress or flat-heeled shoes. When Jack came home, he expected to see his wife in high heels to show her incredible legs and silk dresses with swirly skirts. Her coats were always lavishly trimmed with fur. In two Doris Day movies, Pillow Talk and Lover Come Back, Doris Day wears a tweedy coat with a vast lynx collar. My father bought my mother a copy of that very coat. Far from protesting Jack’s molding her to his taste, my mother reveled in his fanatical attention. She saw it as a sign of love.
Once, a dealer sold my father a fur jacket made from patches of seal. Every time Jack looked at it he winced at his mistake. For a while it lay on my parents’ bed and I loved to take a nap in it. But in a moment of rage, Jack threw the jacket out the window on the Orchard Street side and a passerby made off with it. Jack never mentioned the jacket again.
This article is part of the Father's Day issue. To read additional articles from this issue, click here.