Saturday, December 19, 2009

FAITH KEANE REICHERT Fiesty 108 Year Old Icon

Dear Faith: "Happy Birthday To You" at the age of 108 in 2009. As you held court in your wheelchair at a celebration held by The Roundtable of Fashion Executives, we all bowed in homage to your amazing mind, so clear as a bell, sharp as a tack and all that, and much, much more praise for your longevity astounds and leaves us in genuine “Awe”. Your many admirers lined up to greet you and when my turn came you remembered me by saying how you enjoyed reading my PollyTalk column. So extraordinary was your comment that I was quite stunned by your clarity and remarkable memory. So here we are reaching for the stars when you have already been there and back over a century of living life well and full of wonder and achievement.
My dear Faith, I salute your longevity. As you celebrate your long and illustrious life one can only stand in awe regarding the extraordinary events that transpired during your lifetime as a resident of New York City. Just think of it. You were born Helen Faith Keane in 1901, which means that the tumultuous years of WWI transpired, followed by the Art Deco 1925 Jazz era, then in the1930s The Great Depression spread through the years before WWII, then came other skirmishes and events through which you were challenged. Yet you have survived it all and in style. Daughter of polish immigrants you stood steadfast to the your destiny becoming a fashion icon, a radio and television personality, a professor at NYU for thirty years, and much, much more. Your amazing youthfulness and family background is the perfect ingredient for a novel in itself. As I look at Faith today I can still see the determination in her spirit which no doubt she possessed as a twenty year old woman.
The ebullient Faith had a knack for acquiring admiring nicknames, but perhaps the one that stuck most was “Happy,” for indeed she is and was happy about all her life, her congenial family and he great love for people. However, while “Happy” Faith is 108 in 2009 she is not alone. It is amazing to realize that her brothers, Irving (103) still runs his law office with his two sons and Peter (97) were alive as was Faith as well as sister Lee, who has since passed, for the building, the sinking, the salvaging and the filming of the Titanic. This experience plus many other epic events during their lifetime leave an indelible mark on their record of longevity. So much so, that the siblings have assisted with various medical research projects hoping to pin down any possible genes that might help medicine understand their longevity and health at advanced ages. Though nothing definitive came up it remains a mystery how the remaining trio in this four family saga is still active and enjoying their longevity. The family’s longevity continues to be of great interest and has been featured nationally on shows such as “Good Morning America” and in print in the Wall Street Journal. Even Oprah Winfrey called to take the four siblings in for a week in Chicago. “Lee who was alive at the time had never heard of Oprah before, Faith said. “When we explained to her about the show, she said only fools would watch television in the afternoon.” She added, “Don’t people have anything better to do than watch television.” So that epic Oprah viewing was squelched.
It seems to me that Faith had a rather normal upbringing that segued into a fine education. She attended Cornell University where she was a member of the women’s rowing team, and from which she would graduate Phi Beta Kappa with a degree in English in 1925. She later earned an MA in psychology from Columbia University. Now let me diverge and tell you about the rowing team. Faith is arguably the most well-known alumna of the women’s crew and when she returned to the Ithaca Campus several years ago she brought her own degree of fiestiness back to Cornell, her old stomping grounds. Faith pointed out to the new rowers how times have changed from when women needed to have parental permission to be active participants in sports. Faith, the oldest living female rower at Cornell, who coxswained the crew, circa 1925 recalls, “My sport for two wonderful years was rowing, but I never competed.” Faith is truly a renaissance woman who has had years fulfilling her destiny in fashion, broadcasting and education.
Before becoming a legendary broadcaster, Faith excelled in various fields. First as an $l8 a week copywriter for six years at Bloomingdale’s department store and graduating to the position of Fashion Coordinator. Then she moved on to Montgomery Ward as fashion coordinator for their catalog and retail stores, but along came academia to lure her away from retail. While still working day shifts at Montgomery Ward Faith began to work as a teacher, teaching night courses in fashion advertising at New York University. She eventually joined the faculty of NYU in their school of retailing, teaching first part time then full time regaling students for thirty years.
An outspoken innovator Faith landed a job on television when she complained about a show with which she was displeased. The producer invited her to lunch and he offered her her own program. This gave birth to the “Helen Faith Keane Show…For Your Information” aimed at women which aired for one year over WABD, a Dumont-owned station. The show eventually won the Mcall’s Mike award in 1951. For Faith, what’s changed most during her long life are, “The social mores regarding sex and intimacy. “You have to realize that during the 50s era being pregnant in public was considered entirely too intimate.” Faith did however touch on topics such as, ‘ask your doctor about breast cancer.’ About the development of her program Faith recalls, “The ladies would write to me with their questions and, when I received sufficient interest in a particular topic, I would seek an expert who could address it.”
This early pioneer of a woman’s talk shows also found time to get married. Her husband, Dr. Philip Reichert, a prominent cardiologist, was a graduate of Cornell Medical School (class of 1923) and throughout their lifetime together Faith had wonderful support from her husband. He died in 1985. The couple had no children, but one can surmise that the vast audience she reached with her talk show, and the huge student body that attended Faith’s classes at NYU and including all the fashion women she mentored were indeed her vicarious offspring’s.
An innovator from the start Faith joined two other colleagues to form a different fashion organization. At a time when The Fashion Group International had become so big that it was no longer possible to get to know other women in the industry, it was fortuitously that Helen Faith Keane and Lucia Forman and Betty Greene, decided in 1949 to establish a satellite organization, The Roundtable of Fashion Executives to fulfill the purpose of co-mingling with like-minded women executives. Originally they called the organization Vox Pop, the Voice of the Public, but in 1952 when Dupont refused to write a check to Vox Pop, you all changed the name to The Roundtable of Fashion Executives, and the name remains the same today. My how times have changed in this exchange-of-information membership. Meetings were led by a member who selected a topic, started the program and all members contributed spontaneously. Occasionally, meetings featured guest speakers, and members were permitted to bring guests. When you met in the 1950’s at the Ritz Carlton Hotel lunch cost $3.50 and by the 1990s at the Princeton Club lunch costs rose to $35, and today real individual lunch costs are $45 to $50. Meetings sometimes became Brown- Bag, to avoid the increasing luncheon costs. Today, The Roundtable of Female Executives remains loyal to its original mission.
Dear Faith, You are a living legend!!! Your amazing career from copywriter to television host and New York University marketing professor leaves me in total awe with admiration for your many accomplishments. Thank you for your generosity, your feisty spirit, you’re mentoring of so many women during your lifetime and still going ever forward defying aging. My heartfelt congratulations to a woman I heartily praise, and innovator, energetic, opinionated and marvelous!!!

Friday, December 11, 2009



AUDREY HEPBURN, Fashion Trend Setter, Philanthropy, UNICEF Good Will Ambassador

Dear Audrey: When you played a model in the film Funny Face, when you played the chauffeur’s daughter in Sabrina and came back from Paris chic and soigne carrying a little French poodle, and when you played Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, I remember how you were my favorite fashion diva. It was from these movies that your on screen persona captured my imagination. Like so many other admirers I coveted your aristocratic and iconic style. Your wardrobe of simplicity and seemingly effortless elegance, aided and abetted by the young French couturier Hubert de Givenchy personified the chic elegance of the 1950s and 1960s. Commenting about Givenchy who became your lifelong friend and collaborator you once said, “It was as though I was born to wear his clothes.” However, you were more than meets the eye of film star celebrity. Later I came to know you, as did the world at large, that you were not just a film star but a philanthropist and goodwill ambassador to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and later your son’s Sean Ferrer and Luca Dotti, created the Audrey Hepburn Children’s Fund in order to continue your humanitarian work.
By gazing at Audrey’s beautiful face one would never imagine the depredation of Audrey’s early life. Born in Ixelles, a principality in Brussels, Belgium as Audrey Kathleen Ruston (May 4, 1929-January 20, 1993), she was the only child of Joseph Victor Anthony Ruston, an English banker, and his second wife, Baroness Ella van Heemstra, a Dutch aristocrat. Although born in Belgium, Audrey had British citizenship and attended school in England as a child. Her father’s job with a British insurance company enabled the family to travel frequently between Brussels, England and The Netherlands. However, Audrey spent her childhood chiefly in the Netherlands, including the German-occupied Arnhem, Netherlands, during the Second World Wear (1939-1945). Her father later prepended the surname of his maternal grandmother, Kathleen Hepburn, to the family’s and Audrey’s surname became Hepburn-Ruston.
In 1935, Hepburn’s parents divorced and her father, a Nazi sympathizer, left the family. This sad event in Audrey’s young life was later referred to as the most traumatic moment of her life, but more events to shadow her history are were to come. In 1939, her mother moved her and her two half-brothers to their grandfather’s home in Arnhem in the Netherlands, believing that the Netherlands would be safe from German attack. It was at this time that Audrey trained in ballet. However, in 1940, the Germans invaded the Netherlands. During the occupation Audrey adopted the pseudonym Edda van Heemstra, modifying her mother’s documents because an ‘English sounding’ name was considered dangerous. It wasn’t popular to be British and “Audrey” might indicate her British roots too strongly. Being English in occupied Holland was not an asset: it could attract attention and result in confinement or even deportation. During the Dutch famine of 1944 Audrey and many others resorted to making flour out of tulip bulbs to bake cakes and biscuits. She developed acute anemia, respiratory problems, and edema. Most significantly the hardships she suffered during the war (constant anxiety and hunger) left her physically weakened.
In 1948 Audrey left the Netherlands with her mother Baroness Ella van Heemstra to pursue her dream of becoming a ballerina. However, the toll of wartime hardships that affected her stamina, combined with her height (5ft 7in) coupled with her poor nutrition during the war, meant that she was rejected for prima ballerina roles for which she had studied for so earnestly in Arnhem and London. She turned to other possible careers—working in the chorus line, modeling and acting. The rest is history. Ballet’s loss was cinema and the fashion world’s gain. During the filming of Monte Caro Baby Audrey was chosen to play the lead character in the Broadway play GiGi, which opened at the Fulton theatre in 1951. Providence played into her life when the writer Colette first saw Hepburn, she reportedly exclaimed, “Voila! There’s our Gigi!” Her film credits are extensive and legendary tributes to a great movie actress who survived it all with great grace and perseverance.
Audrey had a sense of her own unique, personal style. When she was first sent to the couture house of Givenchy the great couturier was expecting the other ‘Miss Hepburn’---Katherine. From the moment he met her his assumed disappointment gave way to adoration. She preferred to wear pastel colors, black and ivory with the occasional hot-pink statement. Givenchy said of her, “All the responsibility for the way Audrey looked is hers. She made the selections.” One wonders how Audrey acquired such elegant and simplistic taste. No doubt, it is as the French say, ‘je n’est ce pas,’ something that is inborn. Further attesting to her unique style sense when I was on assignment in Hollywood, California I interviewed Edith Head, the multi-Oscar winning film costumier about her book, ‘The Dress Doctor,’ she said, “Like Dietrich, Audrey’s fittings became the ten-hour not the ten-minute variety. She knew exactly how she wanted to look or what worked best for her, yet she was never arrogant or demanding. She had an adorable sweetness that made you feel like a mother getting her only daughter ready for the prom.” Audrey was 5ft 7 inches tall, bust 32in, waist 22in, hips 34in. For most of her life these measurements altered but slightly.
The Wedding Called Off
One of the legendary garments auctioned in December 2009 at Kerry Taylor Auctions in London included the ivory satin bridal gown designed for Audrey Hepburn by the Fontana Sisters for her planned marriage to James (later Lord) Hanson. Whilst Audrey was filming ‘Roman Holiday’ with Gregory Peck in Rome, she approached the Fontana sisters to ask them to make her bridal gown. Signora Micol Fontana said that the 23 year old Hepburn was “young, fresh, on top of the world. Audrey wanted complete discretion and had lots of fittings”. Some weeks later when Audrey called off the planned wedding to James Hanson she asked the eldest of the sisters-Zoe to give the dress away. “I want my dress to be worn by another girl for her wedding, perhaps someone who couldn’t ever afford a dress like mine-the most beautiful, poor Italian girl you can find.” Zoe’s search centered on a poverty stricken young Italian girl called Amabile Atobella. Amabile visited Rome just once to have the dress adapted by the Fontana sisters for her to wear at her own wedding to farm worker Adlino Solda with whom she remained happily married. Amabile said, “I have had a happy marriage, so the dress brought me luck”. After the even she carefully wrapped the dress in tissue paper and stored it away without disturbing it for decades. It was not until 2002, when Micol Fontana, the last survivor of the Fontana sisters traced the gown for a retrospective exhibition of their work, that it was rediscovered.
A Celebrated Auction
At auction the wedding dress was sold with a photograph of Audrey wear- ing the original Fontana gown and a letter from the vendor confirming the provenance. It was estimated to fetch E8000-12000 Lot 333. This once in a lifetime auction featured around 36 items of clothing as well as hats, belts and a fascinating group of letters in which she describes an early film break, her proposed wedding to James Hanson and the time spent filming “Roman Holiday.” The collection also includes stunning evening wear and a plethora of chic little black dresses. Auction contact: Of course you all know that Audrey did get married twice once to Mel Ferrer and then to an Italian doctor, Andrea Dotti.
And so it is time to say goodbye to dear Audrey whose iconic style lives on in the hearts of all women who wish to achieve elegance, grace and distinction. Your amazing survival, your angelic quality and your legendary humanitarianism lives on forever in the hearts of us who admire your noble spirit. Your admirer, Polly Guerin

Tuesday, December 8, 2009


My dear Edith: It’s been quite some time since I interviewed you in Hollywood at Paramount Studios, but I remember it as if it were yesterday. As you sat at your desk with your iconic page boy hairdo and bangs that fringed your signature dark glasses, I wondered what was behind the persona of one so revered in costume design history in America? After a long career that spanned from silent films to the Golden Age when Hollywood had fabulous films and fabulous clothes, and you dressed all the great stars, you garnered eight Academy Awards, more than any other woman in history. Over the years you became a highly-prolific designer, lecturer, producer of fashion galas, fashion editor and author. You truly personify an amazing diva, who infiltrated the hallowed halls of design without even an art portfolio to prove your worth. But herein is the tale of a young girl with a lot of luck on her side and an angel to guide her way.
LANDING A JOB AT PARAMOUNT In the matter of landing her first job at Paramount Edith admits the truth. In her book, “The Dress Doctor (Little Brown and Company) Edith recalls how it all came about. “During summer vacation, looking for a summer job, I answered a newspaper advertisement, which said the studio was looking for sketch artists to help design the clothes in a forthcoming Cecil B. DeMille epic called, “The Golden Bed.” Edith explained that she had been studying in the evenings at Chouinard Art School. “My daytime job as a teacher made it possible for me to attend classes at night and I thought that the pay as a sketch artist might be better than a teacher’s salary. I wrote for an appointment and received an answer: I was to be at the studio the next morning at ten, bringing sketches. That night I made the rounds at Chouinard and collected all the students’ best landscapes, seascapes, oils, watercolors, sketches, life, art, everything. Looking back, I cannot imagine doing such a thing and acknowledge this youthful and naive indiscretion with my late apologies.” When Edith showed the sketches to Howard Greer, the studio’s head designer he exclaimed, “I’ve never seen so much talent in one portfolio! Report tomorrow for work,” he said, “your salary will be fifty dollars a week.” Fifty dollars a week looked like a fortune to a schoolteacher earning fifteen hundred dollars a year.
DISCOVERING A FRAUD The next day Edith was sitting in front of a drawing board staring at a blank piece of paper on which she was to sketch evening dresses and riding habits. She recalls, “I sat there a long time. I’d figured I could fake it but…. “What’s the matter?” Howard asked. “Don’t know how to draw!” I admitted."But all those wonderful sketches in your portfolio!” he exclaimed. “Borrowed,” I said. It didn’t take long for Greer to realize that Edith didn’t have much talent. Oddly enough, for some reason Greer found the whole situation amusing and took Edith under his wing and taught her how to sketch and become a designer. Obviously, Edith did have a natural talent and learned fast. “From the first day at the studio, I was fascinated, enthusiastic and willing, but I hadn’t the least notion that I’d ever survive. I wonder why I did. Perhaps it was because I worked hard and was willing to tackle anything---paint polka dots on china silk butterfly wings for Peter Pan, paint shoes with printed patterns to match printed gowns to be worn by a famous film star.” Edith continued her studies at Chouinard at night and studied everything Howard Greer and his top assistant Travis Banton did.
THE BOTTOM OF THE TOTEM POLE Luckily, Edith was a quick student. Within six months, she could sketch in the style of Greer or in the style of Banton so that it was impossible to tell that someone else had done the work. Edith was on her way but at the bottom of the totem pole so designing for great stars was out of reach, but not for long. She recalls, “My first big assignment was to do the Candy Ball costumes for Cecil B. de Mille’s film, “The Golden Bed.” I drew girls dressed as lollypops, peppermint sticks and chocolate drops. Howard asked me if I knew how to the designs could be executed and I assured him they were simple. So he took the rather amusing sketches to show de Mille, who was known around the studio as The Great Man. He melted on the spot and promptly Okayed them. “Then came the crisis. I’d drawn very elongated girls with bodies like peppermint sticks and candy cane fingernails two feet long. Came the day of the shooting and, shortly after, came a blast from Mr. de Mille—who was never a patient man. The peppermint sticks had started cracking during the dance routine. Using real candy proved to be a mess, whenever the dancers got within a half a foot of each other, the candy would stick. From that day on, I’ve never drawn anything I could not make. Stardom as Hollywood’s celebrated costume designer was yet to come before she did some of the best dressed animals on the screen. Later when she became head designer for Paramount the roster of stars dressed by Edith Head reads like a veritable “Who’s Who” of Hollywood. Some of the great stars include: Katherine Hepburn, Grace Kelly, Elizabeth Taylor, Olivia de Havilland, Dorothy Lamour, Robert Redford, Paul Newman, Shirley MacLaine, Julie Andrews and Faye Dunaway. Commenting about her career Edith stated, “Costume designers are not like other designers in the world, because through our magic we can change actors and actresses into the different roles they portray. We are a very specialized craft and tremendously important to the reality of the picture.”
EARLY LIFE IN MINING TOWNS Surprisingly, Edith Head began her career along dis-similar lines. A native Californian, her step- father was a mining engineer. “Of all the mining camps we lived in, this is the one I remember best, four miles out of a metropolis called, Searchlight, Nevada. I hated the loneliness of the desert, dreamed of cities, of playmates, of sounds, of people next door; but I loved it, too---the cactus and the greasewood that sprawled on the desert flow, the tiny yellow flowers of spring. My first patients were the local animals and pets who had to endure dressing up for my tea parties.” At some point the family moved to San Bernardino, California and received her BA from the University of California and MA at Stanford, specializing in languages. Subsequently she taught Spanish at the Bishop School in La Jolla and later in Los Angeles. It was while she was teaching that Edith began studying at night at the Chouinard Art School and the rest is history. She married once to fellow classmate Charles Head, but the marriage was short lived. Later Edith married set designer Wiard Ihnen in 1940 and their marriage lasted until his death in 1979. However, she continued to be known as Edith Head until her death. (October 28, 1897-October 24, 1981).
Dear Edith, Your legacy rises to the celestial stars. Your work on a wide span of motion pictures and television shows, your advice as The Dress Doctor, and your amazing rise to stardom as America’s first and foremost costume designer leaves me breathless with awe and admiration. I am, as always, your admirer, Polly Guerin.