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Farewell to Judith Leiber, Who Made the World Happier, One Handbag at a Time

I used to think her bags were tacky. Thank God I’ve changed.

Marjorie Ingall
May 02, 2018
Jenna Bascom, courtesy of the Museum of Arts and Design
From the exhibition 'Judith Leiber: Crafting a New York Story'Jenna Bascom, courtesy of the Museum of Arts and Design
Jenna Bascom, courtesy of the Museum of Arts and Design
From the exhibition 'Judith Leiber: Crafting a New York Story'Jenna Bascom, courtesy of the Museum of Arts and Design

Judith Leiber, whose bejeweled purses and pill boxes were beloved by generations of socialites, celebrities, and First Ladies, died last Saturday at the age of 97. She suffered a heart attack at home in East Hampton, only hours after the death of Gerson (Gus) Leiber, her husband of 72 years. According to a friend who wishes to remain anonymous, Gus suddenly announced to Judy, “Sweetheart, it’s time to leave,” suffered a heart attack, and died. Judy left, too.

Last year, The Museum of Art and Design mounted a one-woman retrospective of Leiber’s work, rapturously reviewed in Tablet. The designer’s witty, stylish creations reside in the permanent collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Smithsonian, The Victoria and Albert Museum, and the Los Angeles Museum of Art. Best known for her sparkly, crystal-covered minaudières—small, decorative, sculpted handle-less clutch handbags—she was voted accessories designer of the year by the Council of Fashion Designers in 1994.

But in 1994, I loathed Leiber’s work. I associated it with vapid, helmet-haired Upper East Side matrons with more money than sense. (Leiber bags can go for $4,000 to $7,000 a pop.) The brightly colored, Swarovski-drenched aesthetic made me shudder. That shouldn’t be surprising: Fashion-wise, I was a product of the grunge era, working for a teen magazine that advocated sewing skirts out of thrift-store neckties and dyeing your hair with Kool-Aid. I wore black, enlivened with the occasional muted plaid. At the time, I was Team Carrie in Sex and the City, who was memorably horrified by Mr. Big’s gift of a Leiber bag shaped like a swan. “It was wrong! It was just wrong!” she gasped in voice-over. Carrie’s friends mocked the bag too, with future Unqualified Lesbian Cynthia Nixon eyerolling, “I think my mother has one in the shape of a squirrel.”

Today, I would kill for a tiny handbag in the shape of a squirrel. Leiber also made a tiny handbag shaped like an eggplant, a pink rotary phone, a penguin in black tie, an overgroomed Yorkie, a robot matryoshka (A ROBOT MATRYOSHKA!), a pair of cat-eye granny glasses, an old-fashioned camera, a meditating Buddha, a hot-air balloon with little gold chains to attach the basket, a squatting camel in a green jeweled saddle, an intellectual teddy bear in eyeglasses, a watermelon slice, Humpty Dumpty, a cupcake, a martini, a cowboy boot, a pineapple, a French bulldog, and a piece of sucking candy. She made a bag inspired by her friend Faith Ringgold’s Tar Beach quilt, rendered in crystal. Neiman Marcus currently carries two Leiber bags I would sell my children for: a hedgehog ($4,995) and… oh dear, the fast-food container of French Fries with a rainbow on the box sold out as I was writing this. Which is really too bad, because it was 25 percent off, and 25 percent off of $5,695 makes it, let’s see, still not in the realm of possibility.

All these designs seem quirkier and funnier than the women often spotted carrying them. I suspect Leiber was often archly amused by her own clientele. She never seemed seduced by her own fame, always calling herself an artisan rather than an artist.

Honestly, there’s nothing like surviving the Nazis to give a girl perspective. As Tablet’s last piece on Leiber noted, she told everyone, “Hitler put me in the handbag business.” She was born into a well-to-do Hungarian family that worked in banking and manufacturing, attended the 1916 coronation of Emperor Karl IV, and owned a vineyard. They weren’t religious. “We had a seder,” Leiber told an interviewer, “but with bread on the side.”

In 1944, after the Nazis invaded Hungary, the family’s wealth and connections provided a little bit of insulation. They managed to move into a building in Budapest that was under Swiss protection; Leiber and her family were among 26 people who shared a one-bedroom apartment. They were lucky; according to Yad Vashem, 437,000 Hungarian Jews were sent to Auschwitz in eight weeks after the Germans arrived. Leiber eventually wound up in a ghetto, with 70,000 people crammed into an area a tenth of a mile. The ghetto was liberated by the Allies, and Leiber met Gus, a Brooklyn-born GI who wanted to become an artist.

Gus and Judy moved to the Bronx in 1947, and Judy began working for a succession of purse designers (before the war, she’d worked for an upscale handbag manufacturer, starting as its first female apprentice and working her way up to master craftswoman). Among them was Nettie Rosenstein, who was commissioned to make Mamie Eisenhower’s inauguration purse. Leiber produced it, and Mamie loved it. “Did Mrs. Eisenhower know that her handbag was made by a Jewish woman who survived the war in which her husband was the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe?” breathlessly asked the Jewish Exponent. “History doesn’t say. But it does say that Mrs. Eisenhower set what became a First Lady tradition.” Indeed, every first lady since Mamie in 1953, with the exception of Rosalynn Carter (do we not weep at the missed opportunity of a clutch shaped like a Swarovski-encrusted peanut?) and Michelle Obama. Leiber had retired by the time Barack was elected and was annoyed that no one in the company called Michelle and offered her a bag. “Azoy geyt es,” observed Yiddishist Marjorie Gottlieb Wolfe in a “Yiddish Guide to Judith Leiber”—“and so it goes.” Oh, Melania Trump didn’t carry a Leiber bag either. Azoy geyt es. The First Lady tradition may have ended, but we must take comfort in the thought of Barbara Bush’s Leiber bag shaped like Millie the Presidential Springer Spaniel, and Hillary Clinton’s Leiber bag shaped like Socks the Cat.

In an obit, Vogue praised Leiber’s oeuvre as “never démodé” (oh Vogue, never change). But my own tastes did change. In the 1990s I assumed the flannel-loving costume of the disaffected, which only the very young can carry off. Today, fashion that’s funny and happy appeals to me much more. These days I really am disaffected; I see true meanness all around me and view joy as something to be cherished. We deserve to live in a world full of sparkly squirrel bags. (Of course, we also deserve a world in which everyone can afford sparkly squirrel bags. One step at a time.)

Last year, my mom took my daughters, then 12 and 15, to the Leiber show at MAD. Both girls—the snarky older one and the glitter-loving younger one—were enraptured. This morning, I texted the older one:

hey im writing about Judith Leiber who just died and why I hated her in the ‘90s and LURVE her now BUT WHY

She texted back,

bc when ur too close to youthful unironic appreciation of rhinestones u don’t wanna be mistaken for someone who’d feel unironic appreciation for rhinestones but once u have enough distance u can luxuriate in ur ironic adoration of the bejeweled clutch

I replied,

that sounds right—Carrie hates the bejeweled clutch b/c she really IS a child! she just loves labels and for her era JL was the WRONG label and anyway Carrie’s style was only what Patricia Field put her in—it’s fake witty

Today, Carrie would salivate over a Leiber bag. Because in 2018, ultimate fashion icon Beyonce carried a custom black panther Leiber clutch to the Grammies. Jennifer Lopez toted a Leiber dolphin when she was married to Marc Anthony (part owner of the Miami Dolphins). Those farshtunkiner fashionista Olsen Twins are Leiber fans; Kim Kardashian and Rihanna have both been photographed recently with a Leiber clutch that looks like a giant roll of bills. Carrie is a sheep. (Did Leiber make a sheep?) Everything is cyclical.

And there’s something touching about Gus telling Judy, “It’s time to leave”—as if old age were a party and the coolest, most loving couple in the room were slipping out while the party was at its height, before it got boring.

Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.