I’ll Drink to That by Betty Halbreich with Rebecca Paley.
Biography. Publisher: Penguin Press
“for me, dressing someone well is as divine as helping someone to walk, to see, to smile, or to bake a tall, light angel food cake.”
The Book Itself: Playful, fashionable cover, scrawled font, very fitting to the subject.
My Review: “Eighty-six-year-old Betty Halbreich is a true original. A tough broad who could have stepped straight out of Stephen Sondheim’s repertoire, she has spent nearly forty years as the legendary personal shopper at Bergdorf Goodman, where she works with socialites, stars, and ordinary women off the street. She has helped many find their true selves through clothes, frank advice, and her own brand of wisdom. She is trusted by the most discriminating persons—including Hollywood’s top stylists—to tell them what looks best. But Halbreich’s personal transformation from a cosseted young girl to a fearless truth teller is the greatest makeover of her career.
A Chicago native, Halbreich moved to Manhattan at twenty after marrying the dashing Sonny Halbreich, a true character right out of Damon Runyon who liked the nightlife of New York in the fifties. On the surface, they were a great match, but looks can be deceiving; an unfaithful Sonny was emotionally distant while Halbreich became increasingly anguished. After two decades, the fraying marriage finally came undone. Bereft without Sonny and her identity as his wife, she hit rock bottom.After she began the frightening process of reclaiming herself and started therapy, Halbreich was offered a lifeline in the form of a job at the legendary luxury store Bergdorf Goodman. Soon, she was asked to run the store’s first personal shopping service. It was a perfect fit.Meticulous, impeccable, hardworking, elegant, and—most of all—delightfully funny, Halbreich has never been afraid to tell it to her clients straight. She won’t sell something just to sell it. If an outfit or shoe or purse is too expensive, she’ll dissuade you from buying it. As Halbreich says, ‘There are two things nobody wants to face: their closet and their mirror.’ She helps women do both, every day.”
The first few chapters are pure sumptuous reading delight. The fabrics she dresses her clients in, the formal dinners her parents threw for guests when Halbreich was a child, the food, the palazzo pants, the shoes (oh my!) paint a vivid picture for the reader. Halbreich lived a charmed childhood, and from an outsider’s perspective, a charmed life. Descriptions of a life “doing as [she was] told” get darker as the narrative, and Halbreich’s life, go on, but it is made in interesting for the reader.
A boon for those of us who don’t tend to stray towards biographies.
I picked this up, when I normally wouldn’t have, for a number of reasons. A friend of mine loves fashion and I basically gift him a book about fashion and/or art every gift-giving holiday (his coffee tables are laden with large books from yours truly). Two birds, one stone with this one: I buy it, I read it, review it for this here blog, and then I have a gift ready for Christmas 🙂 Secondly, the first couple of pages really pulled me in. Gotta love when a book does that. And thirdly, there’s been a fair bit of buzz about this book in entertainment circles: Lena Dunham of Girls is in the works to pen a TV series about Betty Halbreich herself. The two of them have a relationship and I was curious to see what kind of life Halbreich has that is rife for episode creation.
Overall, I found it to be a bit piecemeal. There are some wonderful moments. The first few chapters, as I mentioned, are wonderfully descriptive. They read like colorful fiction. As Halbreich and her biographer zoom through her life, it gets choppy. Halbreich faces challenges: a marriage unhappy from the start, a dependent, lonesome relationship with both parents, a messy separation and subsequent admittance to a psychiatric hospital, and arms-reach relationships with both of her children. But it’s all delivered rather one-note. I read scenes about her desperately seeking attention from her booze-swilling husband and domestic scenes between her and her beloved housekeeper in the same pitch. The timeline is patchy. She skips years, then methodically sorts through weeks and months (I realize there have to be fast-forwards in biographies – no one wants to read the day-by-day on anyone, famous or not). Her thoughts read as very scattered, and out of the blue she’ll jump to a client she helped recently, then back to her fractured life after a fractured marriage. One chapter is so name-drop heavy that my eyes skimmed a bit (maybe to someone tuned into the classic movie/fashion scene would enjoy that more than I).
And there are places I lose some sympathy for her (ah! That makes me feel so mean, to say I lose sympathy for someone). Hers is a charmed life, one filled with nursemaids and housekeepers and many many closets (the apartment she still resides in has twelve closets and three dressers – all full. And I had to read the sentence twice where it said she made $200,000 a week beginning at Bergdorf Goodman). Her husband cheats on her, so she cheats on him back and admits freely to viciously throwing that knowledge in his face. She’s honest, at least. You get a sense of voice in this biography, even if that voice is polished to the point of deadpan.
Some bits are often repeated. She jokes several times that she should wear a carnation on her lapel, as she rides the elevator in the store so often. Her main complaint of fashion today is that people “dress like they’re going to the beach.” Her father worked for Mandel Brothers, a fact that accompanies his name every time he’s mentioned. I’m not sure if this is because Betty Halbreich sat with her biographer several times to relay her stories, and these facts were repeated often, but in my mind after the third mention they should have been edited out.
There are lovely pieces in here. I favored her musings on helping women dress to be individuals today, to dress to their shape and leave happier than when they came in, no matter how many pieces of clothing they purchased. It gets rough in the middle there, for a number of reasons, but it’s a decent read, and absolute candy for anyone with a fierce interest in fashion.
My Grade: C
More Fashion/Photography/Coffee Table Gifts: That fashion-loving friend I mentioned has copies of these. Should you have someone in your life with similar interests, I hope this helps!
Fashionable Selby by Todd Selby is a huge honker of a book, thick with thousands of pictures of one man’s fashion exodus around the world to interview and photograph fashion designers abroad.
Humans of New York by Brandon Stanton is a viral online sensation. This guy had a simple mission: go out and take photos of people on the streets of America’s melting pot and do short interviews with them to get their stories. His Facebook feed is truly inspirational, and he’s traveled elsewhere to get even more gut-wrenching, beautiful photos and stories of people in third world and war-torn countries. It’s awesome. He’s awesome.