The Memoirs of Solomon Maimon, the classic 18th-century Jewish autobiography, chronicles the struggle of a young man to express his personality and gifts in a Lithuanian Jewish community that had absolutely no use for them. As a boy, Maimon relates, he was starved for aesthetic pleasures; he loved art and would copy designs from the frontispieces of books, the only place he could find pictures. But his father saw this as a sheer waste of time: The only proper study for a Jewish boy was the Talmud, and he forbade young Solomon from drawing. Eventually, Maimon had to abandon his community—including his wife and children—and escape to Berlin, the capital of the Enlightenment, to find the life he yearned to lead.
I thought of Maimon often while reading I.M., the absorbing new memoir by the fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi. Mizrahi burst on the New York scene as a couture prodigy in the 1980s, and he has become a household name thanks to his mass-market collaborations with retailers like Target and QVC. He has also hosted a talk show, performed a cabaret act (whose earliest version was titled “Les MIZrahi”) and been the subject of a popular documentary, Unzipped. In all his incarnations, Mizrahi is known for being a “character”—bold, witty, and fun, the opposite of an icy fashion dictator like the late Karl Lagerfeld.
One might expect that Mizrahi’s memoir would be similarly fun—the story of a fabulous life spent among famous and beautiful people. And in its second half, that is what I.M. mostly becomes, full of sentences like: “Often after dinner, [Anna Wintour] would initiate a conversation among the three or four tables in her dining room: Joan Didion, Oscar de la Renta, Jay McInerney, Nora Ephron, Sarah Jessica Parker, Valentino, Salman Rushdie, Charlie Rose, George Clooney.”
Yet this Olympus is not very interesting to read about, and the later parts of I.M. have a desultory feel. Partly that is because Mizrahi is still very much a part of this glitzy world, so he can’t write about it with real detachment or candor. Partly, too, it is because Mizrahi, like many artists, is not really that interested in other people. Few of the celebrities in the book come to any kind of three-dimensional life, even the ones like Sandra Bernhard or Mark Morris to whom he was especially close.
But the first half of I.M., in which Mizrahi writes about himself as a child and young adult, before he achieved fame and fortune, is fascinating—maybe even a classic Jewish memoir. For Mizrahi’s story is, in a sense, a 20th-century American version of Solomon Maimon’s. Mizrahi too grew up in a parochial Jewish community that had no idea what to make of him. In his case, this was the Syrian Jewish enclave of Midwood, Brooklyn, where he was born in 1961. It was not an ultrareligious community—“in those days the subject [of Jewish observance] was left open to individual families for interpretation,” he recalls, and his own family kept kosher but drove a car on Shabbat. But it was small—about 20,000 people—and socially conservative, expecting its members to uphold its traditions and keep the outside world at a distance. In this context, Mizrahi stuck out, he writes, “like a chubby gay thumb.”
Like Maimon 200 years earlier, Mizrahi was educated at a yeshiva—the prestigious Yeshivah of Flatbush—and he too loathed it. “I was stuck at that ugly yeshiva for nine years,” he writes, using an appropriately textile-based metaphor: “Like a lead weight covered in felt, like being smothered by too much heavy wool.” He hated the school, the teachers, the prayers, and his classmates, to such a degree that he used to have screaming fits every morning. On one occasion, he writes, when the school bus came to pick him up, he ran out with a kitchen knife and punctured one of the tires, hoping that would keep him from having to go to school. (It didn’t: His father drove him instead.)
This sense of feeling different, of not truly belonging to the community that everyone else in his family accepted without a qualm, is one that many modern Jewish rebels would recognize. Yet Mizrahi has a name for this difference that, before the late 20th century, such rebels simply couldn’t access, perhaps couldn’t imagine in the same way. He was gay—an identity that, he makes clear in I.M., preexisted any conscious sexual desires. “I was born homosexual,” Mizrahi states early on in the book. And I.M. is, among other things, a gay coming-of-age story, insightfully and movingly told, about how Mizrahi escaped a repressive environment in order to become himself.
Of course, being gay means different things in different times and places. Solomon Maimon might well have shared Mizrahi’s feelings, yet he would never have thought of defining himself as gay, a word that didn’t exist in his language. For Mizrahi, being gay manifested itself in ways that read as obvious with hindsight, but that at the time he too had no name for: in his love of art, design, and performance, and in his identification with women, especially performers like Barbra Streisand and Judy Garland, whom he could impersonate perfectly.
Then there were his voice and manner, which marked him out for bullying and mockery. When he was 5 years old, Mizrahi writes, he was riding a carnival ride and he waved to his parents “like a homecoming queen I’d seen on TV.” He “thought it would be funny,” but his father reacted by turning away: The wave had revealed something he knew and didn’t want to know. Mizrahi writes that it was his uncle Sam, whom he felt closer to, who “waved back and smiled,” accepting his nephew “not despite who I was, but because of who I was.”
Mizrahi knew from an early age that he could not live the life his parents expected: Stay in Brooklyn, marry a woman, have a lot of children and send them to yeshiva in turn. Yet “there were absolutely no available examples of what I wanted to be”—a gay man and an artist, which for him were two sides of the same coin. “Even before I knew exactly what it was I was ashamed of, I felt shame,” he writes. “I had no real understanding of myself, just a constant vibration, a faint register of dread that followed me around and sometimes erupted into mysterious depression or uncontrollable fits.”
“I knew there had to be a better place for me in the world,” Mizrahi writes, and there was—just across the Brooklyn Bridge in Manhattan, the glamorously decadent Manhattan of the 1970s. Initially, it was not fashion design but performing that took Mizrahi into Manhattan. Thanks to an understanding counselor at Yeshivah of Flatbush, he applied to the High School of Performing Arts, which would become well known during his time there thanks to the movie Fame. (Mizrahi appears briefly in the film, in the opening montage of performing students.) His earliest dream was to be an actor or singer, and late in the book he returns to this ambition, writing proudly about his cabaret act and his TV show. But while Mizrahi is pleased to see himself as a performer—that is “who I am, what I do,” he writes on the last page of the book—it is not uncommon for artists to be more vain about their talents than about their real genius.
And Mizrahi’s genius has always been for design. He writes that he was sidetracked from performance to fashion in high school, when he had the chance to make a dress for the 12-year-old budding starlet Diane Lane, the friend of a friend, to wear to an event. This led to a small business, financed by a friend of the family, and then to studies at Parsons, followed by apprenticeships with Perry Ellis and Calvin Klein.
But in a sense, a career in fashion was also part of Mizrahi’s inheritance. His father was a garment-industry veteran, a manufacturer of children’s wear who had worked himself up from poverty, while his mother was a clotheshorse who followed the latest designers and often asked her son for advice on putting together her outfits. Both Women’s Wear Daily and Vogue were delivered to the house, and the young Isaac knew just where to go to find trimmings or buy a good sewing machine.
Ironically, then, it was the talent and knowledge that Mizrahi inherited from his family that allowed him to get away from his family. “If I was going to live my adult life honestly,” he writes, “fashion seemed like the easiest way to make the money I’d need to escape.” Escape he did, but to this day, visiting Midwood is still painful, he writes, because he cannot be fully himself in that world. His mother, who is still living in her 90s, has “never asked me to compromise my lifestyle,” Mizrahi says, “but she’s baffled as to why I don’t want to be among them as much. … She’d like it if I could revert back to my teenage years, when I silently conformed to those family ways. … She still pushes for a little of that old don’t ask, don’t tell policy.” Luckily for Mizrahi, he grew up not in Lithuania or Syria but in America, close enough to all the things he really wanted—Manhattan, art, celebrity, sexual freedom—that they were never more than a cab ride away.
Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.