Mimi Moscowitz’s Shopping
When her daughter Evelyn was born in 1927, Mimi Moscowitz expected that her daughter would grow up to be a princess. However, becoming royalty didn’t mean sitting on a soft pillow. When it came to Evelyn, Mimi was a strict taskmaster.
It’s worked very well. On the one hand, throughout her life Evelyn has been cushioned by her self-confidence. On the other, she’s never been conceited or snobbish. With good reason– Mimi didn’t indulge her imagination. Her head was never in the clouds. She assumed Evelyn would be the queen of their small domain on and around Flatbush Avenue and that was more than enough. Her idea of reality was what she could see, what she knew, where she walked–her neighborhood. There wasn’t TV to stretch her boundaries. The world outside of Brooklyn was far, far, away.
Later, for Evelyn, after she married Ira, it was Great Neck. The driving force was the same. The key element in her ambition, which worked so well, was what she learned from her mother. At no time did her duchy lie beyond her reach. To be sure, effort was required, compared to her schoolmates, a lot of effort. But Evelyn’s expectations were always within what she knew, which is the secret of a comfortable life, familiar boundaries, that seem just about right.
Towards the beginning of World War II, during training, Ira was stationed in the middle of nowhere, Fort Blanding, Florida. It was the deep south. Off base, more than once, they encountered a sign posted outside lavatories. No dogs, no Negros, and no Jews. Evelyn assumed the sign didn’t apply to her. It was some crazy thing, part of the wacky encounters they were having, at what, for them, was an extended honeymoon. The hicks that lived in Florida were like the natives one encountered in the Caribbean. They and their habits were a fascinating part of a travel adventure.
She looked at their time in Florida like a tourist on vacation collecting vignettes, collecting interesting sights and sounds. The sign forbidding Jews entrance to the toilet wasn’t so much an insult as it was a curiosity– an interesting detail, part of a good story she could tell her friends in Brooklyn about the natives, when she got home. She had Ira pose with her in front of one of the signs, smiling even more than her usual photo-smile. She was tickled by the dirty looks she got from the locals when one of them took that picture, even more when she used the bathroom. Not that anyone staring at them had the nerve to say anything. They rightly imagined she could crush them with a glare. Beauty has that advantage.
In school, she always had similar power over her classmates, from 5th grade on. In the stores, with other customers already there, some longer than her, the shopkeepers always turned their attention to Evelyn. If they asked who was next she would always defer. Fair is fair. But when they would turn to her soon after she entered the store, eager to be of service, even with others around, she considered herself lucky to have come across a nice merchant. Nothing more. She wasn’t aware, more accurately she was oblivious to the fact that she had privileges. When Ira pointed it out to her 10 years into their marriage it wasn’t a surprise. She had noticed, but she saw it as no big deal. It was simply part of her package, like being a brunette or having big green eyes.
Her beauty and confidence were so much a given that it never occurred to her that she was anything other than a usual person. She knew she possessed power. She wanted to maintain it. And that she was prettier than others. But she assumed other people had different powers that worked for them. She had the advantage that while her mother sometimes made mistakes, she couldn’t go too far off in her shopping decisions. Evelyn was that pretty.
That didn’t mean that Mrs. Moscowitz treated shopping for clothes casually. She was just luckier than other mothers. It still took effort. Major effort. But she had a higher baseline. Since everything looked good on Evelyn. the challenge offered Mimi was, could she find something smashing? She was able to aim higher, for Evelyn’s appearance to be spectacular. But the hours it took to reach her goals, were not less than others.
Hour after hour, they performed the proverbial ritual. They shopped until they dropped. Like all of her classmates and their mothers, Mimi and Evelyn labored hard looking for the exact right thing. There were times when Evelyn was ready to cry, times that she did cry. But always her mother was capable of rallying the troops. Evelyn’s tired legs, and exhausted curiosity about what might await them, were handled with military discipline. She had to stuff her discomfort, turn off her whining. All complaints would be ignored until they found their prize.
It was rarely for naught. Although sometimes Mimi bought something that even she wasn’t sure about, bringing it home and hearing her husband Herman’s judgment, could sometimes turn the tide. When he liked it, whatever uncertainty she might have had, completely disappeared.
That wasn’t always necessary. For the predominance of her purchases, Mrs. Moscowitz knew when she had found what she was looking for, a skirt, a blouse, a cute hat, 2 skirts. From the grapevine, she knew which stores had had a fresh delivery, which had been shopped out. They were also able to get in to Mimi’s cousin’s factory and get skirts wholesale. They invariably found something that made the afternoon worthwhile.
When Mimi and Evelyn got home all other activities ceased. Mr. Moscowitz might have been reading the newspaper, or doing paperwork for his business. But the task at hand was far more important. And pleasurable. She had Evelyn run to her room with the shopping bags, and try each thing on. She, along with Herman, waited eagerly for her return.
“Ta-da,” Evelyn cried out as she entered. The cream silk blouse was as perfect as it was in the store, the dark green skirt the same. The moment Evelyn entered the room, she knew what she sought. Her father’s delighted eyes were reward enough for their efforts.
On a great day, if they had discovered one item after another that was just right, as Evelyn modeled each garment their pleasure was multiplied several fold by Mr. Moscowitz’ reaction. They usually knew beforehand. Both anticipated he would celebrate their successful undertaking with them and he invariably did. But you never know until you know. Detail by detail, the tailoring, the fabric, the color– he reinforced his wife’s judgment. “Stunning” was the word he used a lot. He almost never used that word in any other context. Hearing it from his lips, Mrs. Moscowitz looked over to her daughter as if to say “see”. “I told you.” –erasing any doubt one of them may have had at the store.
Sometimes, Mimi would step forward, and pull in a waist here, the shoulders there. Herman had great confidence in his wife’s seamstress abilities. She had once worked for him. So the result was a sure thing. When Evelyn joined them for breakfast before school, the altered garment was part of the joy both of them derived from adoring Evelyn. They knew she was beautiful, but now, with this outfit, they were reminded of how beautiful. The day, brand new, God seemed to have given his blessing. It was part of the explanation for the spirited way Mr. Moscowitz applied Mimi’s marmalade on his toast. They praised Evelyn effusively, unhesitatingly, but they both knew it would be sacrilegious to say out loud their secret conviction, to openly proclaim that God was the reason for their good fortune.
All was, of course, not perfect. Success would have been meaningless if it hadn’t been won battling their handicaps. She had to operate within her price range. Herman would have a conniption if he found out they paid too handsomely for an item they brought home –even if it were a treasure. It would immediately not be a treasure, on price alone. There was a soft boundary. Respecting the extreme effort she and Evelyn had just made, Mimi sometimes felt justified fibbing about the cost. Just a little. Frequent practice perfected that ability. Herman may have occasionally suspected that he wasn’t getting the facts, but he never challenged her.
For those living in the country, the first warm day in the spring is glorious. The sun is bright. The birds are tweeting. It was no different for Mimi and Evelyn in Brooklyn. Certain days were wonderful. Mimi never bought anything just because it was on sale. But if she found something she loved and it was on sale–that made the day wonderful.
It helped that Evelyn’s parents shared the same perspective about shopping. They came from the same background. They grew up a block away from each other. Shared values made it easy for them. Unlike modern marriage with its emphasis on tolerance of each other’s differences, there was nothing to explain, nothing each of them had to learn about the other’s expectations. At least when it came to shopping, no changes were expected of either of them. That was true of a good proportion of other characteristics they brought to their marriage. The marriages went smoothly because their families had so much in common, same rules, same rituals, same habits. Perhaps Mimi’s mother used more onions when she made a pot roast, and her Friday night soup was saltier than Mr. Moscowitz’ mother’s beloved chicken soup that he treasured growing up. But these were specifics of no great importance. Of course, the newly married had to make many adjustments to the stranger they now lived with, and sometimes those adjustments were impossible for either or both of them, but, at least when it came to shopping, Herman’s family’s ideas were identical to Mimi’s family’s ideas.
When she truly found a bargain and it was beautiful, when Evelyn tried it on for Mr. Moscowitz, and he was similarly happy, Mimi took enormous satisfaction, not only because it looked great, but because it cost so little. She knew how much pleasure he derived from that detail. So did she. It was little different than the excitement a fisherman feels when he has caught a giant trout and happily poses for a photograph with his catch.
“A dollar fourteen for that blouse. A dollar fourteen! Can you believe it?” They both looked in wonderment, like a miracle had occurred. After Evelyn took that blouse off and put on something else, Mr. Moscowitz examined every detail of the bargain, expecting to find some defect in the stitching, a small tear, something that would explain its price. When he could not find anything wrong, Mimi also examined it closely. She realized how lucky she had been, which reflected well on her. They both knew her luck derived from her hard work, her tireless devotion to finding this and similarly perfect clothes. Yes, she had been lucky, but it was a deserved reward.
Evelyn wasn’t any different than the other girls in the neighborhood. Their mothers took them shopping with the same determination and expectations. Sometimes they found a nicer outfit than Evelyn’s. When confronted at school Evelyn could comfortably acknowledge it as a fact, but it spurred her and her mother on. Someone else’s success set a new standard. It guided Evelyn and her mother as they tried to find, at the very least, a blouse with equal pizazz. Victory was never beyond their grasp. They might find something nicer. Much nicer.
Fortunately her competitors never threatened her throne, at least not for long. Even when she couldn’t replicate or surpass their victory, the image her classmates had of Evelyn could not be altered . She was a certainty for prom queen. Her place at the top could not be removed by the temporary success of a nicer purchase.
The importance of fashion in Evelyn’s Brooklyn was not unique. Jewish neighborhoods all over the city were similar. Today it is hard to imagine that the Bronx could inspire the young Ralph Lipshitz, (eventually named Ralph Lauren). But the Bronx was very different during Lipshitz’s youth. The Grand Concourse, one hundred and eighty foot wide, with a line of trees separating the roadways was built to echo the Champ Elyse. In the thirties and forties, and still in the fifties, the Grand Concourse was considered the Jewish Park Avenue, an elegant destination for the successful.
The fierce standards of Jewish expectations effected every facet of a young person’s life, their character and especially their accomplishments. As adults we might be amused by the self- consciousness of a teenager getting ready to go out, but there was a basis in reality. A stroll on the Grand Concourse served as a crucible for their persona. Shame or praise were the cauldron that shaped their tastes. You didn’t stroll on the Concourse unless you were dressed to kill.. Every detail mattered. You might as well be dead if you were not up on this season’s look.
Particularly now, fifty years after the Jews fled, when drugs, muggings and violence replaced its fancy aura, if you weren’t from the neighborhood, few would believe its former existence. It is hard to imagine a milieu in high school, where a handsome guy like Ralph Lipshitz, dressed to the nines was as admired as a quarterback at a Texas high school. He was the son of an immigrant house painter. After school he worked at Alexanders, not to save money for college. He needed the money to dress right.
The arc of Ralph Lauren’s life is an interesting study of the transformation that was taking place in America. Jewish families are said to honor learning and intellectual pursuits. Ralph Lauren began high school at Marsha Stern Talmudic Academy. Limudei Kodesh classes are taught in Jewish(Talmud), Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) and Halkha studies including Gemara (Jewish law). These classes comprised the morning session of the day. In the afternoon the school was secular. After 2 years he switched to DeWitt Clinton High School.
Before they arrived there, De Witt Clinton students were infused with the high expectations that their immigrant parents imagined for them. Their dreams meant everything to them. It didn’t have to be said. Their children understood that for a good many of them, whether their parents considered their lives successful or not, had much to do their accomplishments
The high school took it from there. Its Latin Department was legendary. Its campus was adjacent to the Bronx High School of Science. Standing out from the noise and chaos of the city, together they were sometimes compared by admirers to the Sorbonne. Sounds silly now, but then? It wasn’t just Ralph Lauren that brought a little class to Dewitt Clinton. Fashion photographer Richard Avedon went to De Witt Clinton. The New York Times said that Avedon’s “fashion and portrait photographs helped define America’s image of style, beauty and culture for the last half-century.”
Spawned in a cultural pressure cooker, De Witt Clinton High’s graduates shot out of their background to fame and glory. Neil Simon went to De Witt Clinton. So did Richard Rogers. Bruce Jay Friedman, , William Kunstler, (the attorney of 60’s radicals) and Robert Altman (the 60’s photographer). Judd Hirsh, Irving Howe, Lionel Trilling, Avery Fischer, George Cukor. All were children of that culture. And not just among the Jews. Burt Lancaster went to De Witt Clinton. So did James Baldwin and Sugar Ray Robinson. The outsized hunger of Jeremy, CC’s boyfriend, and his compatriots in Brooklyn and the Bronx drove him on as it did them. Ralph Lauren was not understated about where he planned to soar. In his yearbook he described his ambition as becoming a millionaire. He imagined a better world in the Hamptons, a world of Wasps and designed accordingly. As much as his designs don’t look like Jewish clothes, he could not have existed if he came from a different background than Mimi Moscowitz. They shared the same assumptions. Same for Donna Karan, Calvin Klein, Anne Klein, and the myriad of Jewish designers. Clothes make the man. And the woman. Ralph Lauren would not have existed if he wasn’t part of this world.
Young Lifshitz’s passion for fashion was part of a secular transformation happening all over the city. At sermons everywhere, the rabbis railed against the allure of tinsel town, but they couldn’t hold back the tide. In subsequent Jewish neighborhoods like Great Neck, the antenna for style continued to remain high. It was a repeating cultural given. It must have seemed an eternal reality.
At the Fresh Meadow Country Club in Great Neck, Mrs. Rivers was the final arbiter of good taste. She sat at a table, at the entrance to the dining room, always in the same seat. No one can remember anyone else sitting there. The Aztecs, the Romans, the Greeks all had their legendary entries, as did the Palace of Versailles. As each woman entered they were scrutinized by Mrs. Rivers. Her reaction was more important than the meal they came for, than the table hopping, gossiping, and kibitzing that would follow. In the moment that women entered, nothing else in their life mattered as much. This was what all the shopping, and preparation was for.
The judgment was finished in a flash. A smile, Mrs. Rivers’ eyes sparkling and you’re there. Her lips turned down and you’re in hell. Who originally set her up as the supreme arbiter is unknown. She had the talent. She had a sharp eye for what is right and wrong with the outfits women wore. She had a sharp tongue and a quick wit, but perhaps the best explanation for her 20 year reign was the look on her face when she didn’t like what someone was wearing. It overpowered anything else that might be going on in the room. That look could be devastating. Or her approval could be a reason for celebration. When she liked an outfit, everyone agreed.
To an outsider it might seem like a parade of high fashion. Most of the women, however, got neither high praise nor ridicule. They were satisfied if what they wore was simply acceptable. It was good enough for the family to relax and enjoy their afternoon. But when Mrs. Rivers was aroused, positively or negatively, she was incapable of being silent about what she thought. Sometimes her voice could be heard throughout the dining room. It wasn’t that she was so loud. Everyone recognized her voice from out of the din. They wanted to hear her verdict right away. She usually hit the nail on the head about what is right and what wrong.
When a new outfit was wrong, she could cut you in half. When something like that happens, by the end of the day, everyone has scrutinized the unfortunate victim again and again, confirming the original verdict.
And it’s not just for that afternoon. For years after, people talked about Mrs. Herman’s hat, which Mrs. Rivers described as a fruit bowl. It made Mrs. Herman a laughing stock. Another evening, everyone remembered what she said about Mrs. Silverstein. “Her pupik’s bursting out of her midriff.” For years what jumped into people’s minds when they saw Mrs. Silverstein were those words. That is, until she had a heart attack and died.”
Without pausing for a moment, out of respect for Mrs. Silverstein, they all plowed forward. No one blamed Mrs. Rivers. Death came years after her comment. But when she died everyone remembered Mrs. Rivers’ indictment and wondered if it could have contributed to her death. The verdict was no, but the fact that it was the first thing everyone thought of when they talked about Mrs. Silverstein confirmed the ferocity of Mrs. Rivers power, and the accuracy of her judgment.”
What qualified Ashkenazi Jews to be experts in finding and selecting beauty is a mystery. There was no history of it being a particular emphasis in the Schtetl. Well not quite. Maimonides referred to a section of the Talmud (Brakhot 57 b) “Three things increase a man’s self esteem, a beautiful dwelling, a beautiful wife, and beautiful clothes.” Two industries were created in America, enormous industries, as a consequence of the seriousness of Schtetl Jews’ love of beauty.
That they came to dominate fashion should be a surprise, but not completely. Jews were tailors in the old country so making clothes came naturally. But what qualified them to create Hollywood, selecting extraordinarily beautiful women and handsome men and making a fortune off of it. Was it the advice of Maimonides? Doubt it. It’s a mystery. Whatever the explanation, the passion of American Jews for beauty, brought them industrial might not only in America. But all over the world.
The narrative for success doesn’t change over the years. Fierce determination. The mother of Diane Furstenberg, (nee Halfin) gave birth to her 18 months after she survived a concentration camp. Furstenberg has spoken broadly about her mother’s influence in her life, crediting her with teaching her that “fear is not an option.” Victory is the best revenge. Her friend Lauren Bacall, from the Bronx had the same attitude. “You just learn to cope with whatever you have to cope with. I spent my childhood in New York, riding on subways and buses. And you know what you learn if you’re a New Yorker? The world doesn’t owe you a damn thing.”
One year after marrying a German prince and becoming a German princess, Diane Furstenberg decided that having a German title was not enough. Not nearly enough. Besides she needed her own money. She entered the fashion world. She was not going to fail.
CC’s grandfather, Herman Moscowitz’ resemblance to Sammy Glick is unflattering but not unfair. Mimi always denied it. She thought he was a mensch. He was the president of the Shul, meaning during good years he gave a lot of money, and raised a lot of money, for others to study the Torah, which placed his intentions close to God’s. And indeed, outside of business, especially on the Sabbath, he was a different man. He didn’t obey all the rules for the Sabbath. He didn’t know half of them. But on that day, on Flatbush Avenue he was said to walk in fields of clover. That’s how he described Shabbos to cousins. His voice was soft, cushioned, wise, especially to Evelyn. He had no idea why he had been so lucky to have a daughter that looked like Evelyn, but he enjoyed every moment of it. His face lit up when, on Saturday, she’d come down for breakfast, groomed to perfection, and sometimes better than that, in her Shabbos outfit.
Sammy Glick would have never enjoyed the Shabbos composure of Herman. Still it was true that he had many things in common with Sammy Glick. Herman had to beg, borrow and steal and, not rarely, lie his way to success. Jews could not get loans from banks. They had to turn to brothers, sisters, cousins, congregants at the schul, anyone who claimed to be their friend, in order to remain one step ahead of their debts, invariably coming due. The sweater business was not as dependent on staying ahead of fashion as manufacturers of dresses and blouses. Sweater styles didn’t change as quickly, but still, unfortunately, it was possible in a given season to guess wrong, to manufacture a line of knits that was out of step with customers’ tastes. If this was repeated too many time it meant disaster. Herman was up one year and down the next, and at one point, after two straight bad seasons, he was barely holding on.
But even during the good years it was tense. Daily there were new crises–dozens and dozens of them. Twenty times a day his panic button went off. The zippers were no good. The wrong buttons came. He’d scream and yell. There were unending problems that required him to come up with solutions quickly. And sometimes there were no solutions. That’s when his shouting got intolerably loud. Besides his own ulcer, he gave one to his secretary and to Mimi. She used to kid him that he kept Alka Seltzer in business.
But when there were good years, of which there were many, and occasionally great years, he did the lending. His top dresser drawer was full of I O U’s given to him, scratched out on any paper available, including napkins. He was an easy touch, sentimental to a fault when it involved other people’s troubles. He died broke, but he had been planning his comeback, as he had many times before. Three years before his death, after a good season, he was on top of the world. After he died, Mimi opened his dresser drawer, as Herman had instructed her to do, the top one on the left. It was full of IOUs. Mimi wondered, since it was a bad year, why he didn’t try harder to collect on his loans.
She knew the answer. He was too interested in wanting people to like him. Like a woman. Herman made a show of seeming tough, but he was basically a softy, like his mother. Mimi blamed her for being so close to him, her need not his. For years after his death that was the conclusion of everyone who thought about his family’s financial difficulties. They were suffering the consequences of Herman’s mother’s indulgence.
The Moscowitzs had made clothes for four generations, first with needle and thread, then on a family sewing machine in the old country. In America Herman had been one of the many American miracles, owner of a factory with 40 knitting machines and 60 employees. Unfortunately, when he died at 59, broke, before he could get his new plan up and running, when Evelyn was 17, during her final year in high school, the future seemed frightening. Mimi did not know how many of the IOUs would lead her to cash.
Ira and Evelyn met that year at a dance. Evelyn liked to tell her daughter CC the story. He noticed her from across the gymnasium, as did half the guys entering the room. She didn’t really notice him. He was nice looking, but nothing special. His hair was already beginning to thin in front and he did not particularly project strength if you watched him walk. Not at all. But he had the courage to ask Evelyn to dance and that was all he needed to do. As she later told the story, she couldn’t really explain it but it had something to do with the way he held her, not too strong, not too gentle– just right. Subsequently, I’ll Be Seeing You became her favorite song. And his. Because that is what they danced to. He hummed it into her ear, exactly on tune, as they slowly moved over the floor.
That did it. She felt so calm, so safe in his arms. She had never felt quite like that before. She knew Ira was the man she wanted to marry.