Betty, Bergdorf's And Me

In late 2012, I was turning the pages of The New Yorker and came across the story of a woman in her eighties who was working as a personal shopper at Bergdorf Goodman. The black-and-white photo showed a silver-haired beauty who was laughing away from the camera. Her name was Betty Halbreich and she looked like she was having an extremely good time. The story mentioned she lived on Park Avenue in a vast rental apartment and had been working at Bergdorf's for 40 years, a span of time that included plenty of long hours and a divorce but also a gilded childhood and what sounded like more than a lay interest in psychotherapy. Halbreich said she dressed first wives, but not second wives or mistresses. Her daughter Kathy, a curator at MOMA, said about her mother: "Her buoyance of spirit is the product of a lifelong struggle, because she really understands melancholy."

The most beautiful part of the story was that Betty Halbreich had a memoir coming out and it was her second book. I ripped the article out of the magazine and gave it to my mother.

My mother spent my early childhood shopping at Bergdorf's. My father was a resident at New York Hospital, not making much money, so my grandparents paid for Mom's clothes. "Heaven forbid I wouldn't have the right things to wear," Mom says. My grandmother was not a beautiful woman, but she was a generous and well-dressed one, and she wanted my beautiful mother to look beautifully appointed too. So my mother pushed me in my stroller down from York Avenue, where the residents lived, to Bergdorf's. "There was a young person's floor," Mom says. "I bought everything there. Even stockings." Grandma wasn't happy Mom was buying stockings there---"she thought it was over the top"-- but paid the bills anyway. There were no credit cards for Bergdorf's then. "You just signed your name," Mom says. "It was all very genteel."

When my father's job moved us out of Manhattan, Mom mostly left Bergdorf's behind. Out in the New Jersey suburbs, we shopped at Loehmann's. My childhood was a pile of contradictions: I went to private school and was allowed to take the bus into Manhattan to get my hair cut at Kenneth, the salon where Jackie Onassis had her hair coiffed, but I couldn't shop retail.

In my twenties and thirties, I had the retail beat at Business Week, and would occasionally write about Bergdorf's and its parent company, Neiman Marcus. But I never shopped there for anything more substantial than lipstick or pantyhose; during the years I wrote about department stores, I never walked into one with the goal of shopping for shopping's sake. Instead, I would notice markdowns, traffic flow, the attitudes of salespeople and whether customers were carrying shopping bags or not. I would interview customers, hand them my business card and ask if I could quote them by name. I did my recreational shopping in small stores that weren't owned by institutional investors or publicly traded, and where there was no risk that a CEO who had given me an interview but then hadn't liked what I'd written, might see me trying on shoes. This was in the 1990's, when the major retail chains were under severe financial stress, and I was sent to interview the heads of Macy's, Bloomingdale's, Federated, J.C. Penney and the Limited. These guys were tough and sometimes the interviews were unpleasant, but the interview that intimidated me the most was the one with Bergdorf's then-CEO Ira Neimark. Not that Neimark was intimidating. He was lovely, dapper and gentlemanly. But Bergdorf's itself was intimidating as hell because it was so breathtaking.

Walking in off Fifth Avenue, wandering around the beauty that is the first floor, you think that the chandeliers on the ceiling will always glitter and shine, and that the world is full of beauty, opportunity and glamour. When I went to interview Ira Neimark, the sight of that first floor filled me with fear. It also gave me the biggest rush of my life. I wanted to be one of those lithe society swans, drifting around in Yves St. Laurent and Chanel. The reality was I was an ink-stained wretch. I was wearing a suit that cost less than $200 and what I really wanted to write about-- my failed efforts to be as exquisitely turned out as my mother and grandmother-- was not going to be revealed in the story I was writing.

Fast forward twenty-four years. I still don't really shop at Bergdorf's and I still really want to. So when Betty Halbreich's book, I'll Drink to That: A Life in Style with a Twist came out, I ordered a copy for my mother and downloaded one for myself. It turned out that Betty's mother had owned a bookstore and Betty had grown up with writers. Her parents had had a busy social life and she had spent time in the kitchen with the staff so from an early age, had developed a deep love of food. Her book includes these mouth-watering gems: There was always bread on the table, homemade yeast rolls accompanied by butter balls rolled to the right consistency with wooden paddles and topped grandly with a piece of parsley. To round it off, dessert. Profiteroles with custard, rhubarb and strawberry pies, baked apples with sour cream, homemade cookies-- Linzer cookies, sandies, butter cookies-- really anything as long as it wasn't store-bought. Heaven forbid."

Halbreich also wrote about the weeks she spent in Payne Whitney, New York Hospital's psychiatric unit, following the beginning of the break-up of her marriage. My father had spent weeks in Payne Whitney, towards the end of his residency at New York Hospital.

I was dying to meet Betty.

Then my friend Suzanne Turner offered to introduce us. Suzanne is a personal shopper at Bergdorf's. We met on a biking trip to Yosemite and she had sold me dresses for both my sons' bar mitzvahs. Suzanne is chic, intelligent and extremely efficient; we found everything in under two hours. I would have loved to shop with her indefinitely but my life as a writing instructor/suburban mom doesn't require much more than black jeans to teach in and blue jeans to carpool in. Still, when my book came out, Suzanne bought several copies to give to her clients. One day, she emailed and said she had given a copy to Betty Halbreich. Did I want to meet Betty for drinks?

Did I want to meet Betty?!

On a cold, grey November night, a week after the wretched Paris attacks, I slid into a pair of black pants and a black velvet top, hopped on the train into Manhattan, took subway to 5th Avenue and walked into Bergdorf's.

We met Betty in her office overlooking Central Park. I was started by how beautiful she was in person. She wore a black cashmere Libertine cardigan with sequin numbers appliquéd to it, simple pearl earrings, thick strands of pearls around her neck, and tailored black pants. Betty took my hand as Suzanne pointed to a painting on the wall. "That's a picture of Edward Bess and me," Betty said, referring to the makeup artist. Betty has a deal with Lena Dunham on HBO to develop a series based on her memoir so Suzanne asked how the HBO deal was going. "I just wrote (Lena) a letter, telling her she needs to get going, I'm not going to live forever you know!" Betty said and laughed. Then, she admitted she had never watched "Girls" and didn't have HBO. "It doesn't matter," Betty said. "We understand each other very well."

We took the elevator upstairs to the seventh floor cafe and were given a table by the window. The maitre d' asked us if we wanted black linen napkins because the white napkins would leave lint on our black pants. "No, whose idea was that?" Betty asked. Then she pointed out that the restaurant was using very expensive glass tumblers because the store couldn't sell them. "And then everybody wanted them!" The maitre d' sat down with us and chatted. Betty asked if there were any sandwiches left over from lunch. Maybe he said, but they might be stale. He turned to me, "You have such a pretty face." OMG, I loved this place! Everything was magical. Behind Betty's shoulders, the dark night glowed with the city's lights. Gold sunburst light fixtures shone down from the ceiling. Gold sconces, bleached white wood floors, and leather dining chairs with discreet "BG's" monogrammed onto them made the restaurant feel like an an elegant fin de siecle salon. Everyone looked happy, even the little girl sitting next to us, who had every right to be cranky at this hour. Nearby women leaned into each other, laughing in their deep "whisper" chairs. The room was peaceful, gilded and serene. The room, the view, the company! Once our wine arrived, I was downright giddy.

Betty ordered vodka and deviled eggs, I wanted to talk about what designers she liked. She wanted to talk about Jonathan Franzen, CNN and NY State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. I asked about her childhood and she spoke freely of its privileges and limitations: "My mother was so smart but she adored me obsessively. She made me terrified of not living with her. My parents made me very dependent on them." The conversation veered into therapists. Betty saw one for years and then stopped. "I no longer wanted to spend the money," she said. "I was cured." But her therapist loved her memoir, and, she added, "I"m almost ready to call him up." (I found this encouraging though I'm not sure my therapist read my book, and I'm hardly cured.) We spoke of the weeks she spent in Payne Whitney, an experience she described as "horrible." I said that my father had also spent time in Payne Whitney. She nodded; it's a good bet any memoir writer has some familiarity with mental hospitals. When the deviled eggs arrived, the waitress put them down on Betty's right, next to my wine glass. Betty caught me eyeing them, "Do you want one?" I nodded. Betty took a bite. "This could use piccalilli," she said. What is piccalilli? She laughed. "Relish!"

We chatted about the pleasures of cooking at home. "I use a square tray and have never used a paper napkin in my life," Betty said. She's practically a vegetarian and aside from the occasional pork loin and hot dog, prefers quinoa, beans, lentil soup and pea soup. "I make my own hummus and have garbanzo beans coming out of my ears," she laughed. She cooks with dill, basil and "herbs growing in my refrigerator." But don't ask her to make you a cake. "I'm not a good baker," Betty said. "I can't measure." This avoidance of adding is consistent with her refusal to use a cash register. She makes her business selling clothes but leaves it to others to ring them up. On Sundays, she goes to Costco, where they stock her book and she buys roast chicken and tzatziki. "I love Greek food," Betty said. "My mother never cooked, but we always had very good food. My parents were always out so I lived with the people in the kitchen. I learned to make Hollandaise sauce when I was 10-years-old."

Suzanne asked our waitress to take a picture of us with our books. Betty and Suzanne smiled demurely, I grinned like an idiot. We kissed goodbye and promised to meet again.

I can't remember the train ride home but the minute I arrived, I posted our picture on Facebook. A man commented, "Ladies who lunch, I'll drink to that!" But that wasn't quite right. Betty and Suzanne work very hard. Then a woman friend posted, "Ladies who write books. I'll drink to that too."

A couple days later, I found a recipe for deviled eggs with relish, and made a batch. Betty was right, these were delicious. I decided to substitute cayenne pepper for paprika and serve them as appetizers for Thanksgiving. While I was waiting for the eggs to boil, I thought about the first real purchase I'd made at Bergdorf's, a red Prada dress I'd worn to my older son's bar mitzvah. I'm wearing it in my author's photo.

For more information:
Betty Halbreich, Solutions Department, Bergdorf Goodman, 212-753-7300

Southern Style Deviled Eggs

6 large eggs
2 tablespoons mayonnaise
1 ½ tablespoons sweet pickle relish
1 teaspoon prepared mustard
⅛ teaspoon salt
dash pepper
Garnish with paprika or cayenne pepper

Place eggs in a single layer in a saucepan. Add water and bring to boil. Cover, remove from heat and let stand 15 minutes.

Drain immediately and fill saucepan with cold water and ice. Tap each egg firmly on the counter until cracks form all over shell. Peel under cold running water.

Slice eggs in half length wise and carefully remove yolks. Mash yolks with mayonnaise. Add relish, mustard, salt and pepper and stir well. Spoon yolk mixture into egg whites. Garnish with paprika or cayenne pepper.

Laura Zinn Fromm is the author of Sweet Survival: Tales of Cooking & Coping, published by Greenpoint Press, available from Amazon, BN.Com, Words Bookstore, Watchung Booksellers, Parnassus, Bookworm, Book Passage, Bloomingdale's and Canyon Ranch.

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