Betty Halbreich, 86, has been a personal shopper at Bergdorf Goodman for 37 years and has dressed a wealth of famous people from Lauren Bacall to Joan Rivers, who was a close friend. Her memoir I’ll Drink To That: A Life In Style, With a Twist is published by Virago and she is currently working with Lena Dunham on a project about her life. Here she tells us her life lessons
My story is about how I pulled myself out of the abyss. It’s very scary to have a breakdown. When I was incarcerated for six weeks in Payne Whitney psychiatric hospital, sitting in group sessions, I had to really re-define myself and say “maybe I did make a mistake”.
I came to working late in life, through necessity. I had a broken marriage, my children were gone – what was I gonna do, look out of a window? I came to be interviewed [at Bergdorfs] and they didn’t know what to do with me. They put me on the floor in the Givenchy boutique, but I gave all my sales away because I couldn’t work the cash register. When I suggested we bring in personal shopping – and have an open-door policy, they stared back at me. They’re still staring.
With Joan [Rivers], what you saw was not what you got. She was deeply compassionate, gave a lot of herself. She was a marvellous grandmother. Her funeral was – I’ve never seen another one like it – people paying homage to her. She had her up and downs like everyone. When she took the makeup off and came to see me for fittings and we’d sit in the changing rooms both of us spewing out stories of love affairs and guys, there was humour and a lot of sadness. She was delightful, she loved pretty clothes, she liked what she did, she was an energised bunny. She never had a book out of her hand. I loved her as a human being.
One day I was very depressed. Joan came in the office and I said “My God, I could really jump out the window today, everything’s going wrong. The next day a messenger brings me a box, inside it was a chocolate gun, with a note: “Don’t shoot yourself – eat it.” I just found another card she wrote me here. “Dearest Betty, Cheer up. Things could be worse. You could be related to me. Much love, Joan.”
I don’t watch Girls because I’m too cheap to get HBO, but Lena picked up on an article about me and called me and we met. She is one of the nicest human beings. I feel like she’s related to me. I don’t know what we’re gonna do, but whatever it is, we’re gonna have a very good time.
Patricia Field [the American costume designer best known for Sex and the City] is a very good friend of mine. We still work together. She has something that’s unique. Whoever works for Pat ends up successful. She’s great fun and highly intelligent.
I’m here at 8:30am. I walk in the stock room then I carry on ’til my arms drop off. I work this whole store – six floors – every day. I’ve never wanted a glamorous job. To me, at the end of the day, I’m a clerk. I’m a drudge.
When people take their clothes off they open up their whole soul. I think after all these years that I can size someone up. If their hips are too big or bosom is too small … It’s a blessing. I have to get into their heads – I give free therapy.
I’m brutally honest and if they can’t deal with it, it’s not going to work. I’m not afraid to say: “I really don’t have anything here now that suits you now.” I’m here to service – I’ve never forgotten that.
I try to pace myself with drinking – only three or four nights week. People are nice enough to ask, so I do go out a lot. I like to cook on the weekend. My true love is farmer’s markets. There’s something glorious about putting a stew together – or a pot of soup.
Trends don’t mean very much to me. They come, they go, they turn around. I have to bypass that word. All you need are a pair of pants, a skirt, a jacket and a raincoat. Everyone’s wearing expensive tennis shoes – we have them here for ,100 dollars. That too shall pass. It’s a phenomenon.
There’s a lot of bad taste to my mind. Who am I to judge? I can correct it – sometimes.
Today the most difficult thing is to buy a good pair of pants. It’s time somebody brought back a good trouser that isn’t cropped off. It’s time to go back to a trouser.
I don’t use a computer and I don’t use a cellphone. It’s an insular life because everyone’s walking in another direction.
I’ll Drink To That, A Life In Style, With a Twist is published by Virago
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