In the world of fashion, Betty Halbreich is a bit of a living legend. Now in her eighties, Halbreich is a highly regarded personal shopper and stylist at Manhattan’s iconic department store Bergdorf Goodman. Halbreich has worked with movie stars, business women, politicians and socialites. She has worked with countless designers who create everything from upscale ready-to-wear to one-of-a-kind haute couture. And even though Halbreich is at an age where many of her peers are in nursing homes (or dead), she continues to show up to Bergdorf Goodman’s everyday offering her clients advice on everything from the perfect cocktail gown to finding a great therapist. Halbreich should be an inspiration, and in a way, she is. But with her memoir, I’ll Drink to That, she left me feeling under-dressed.
On the cover of I’ll Drink to That, Halbreich is looking off the side and wearing a cape backwards. Seeing this picture I imagined Halbreich to be this over-the-top, fun and outrageous Auntie Mame type, filled with bon mots and always up for a good time. Sadly, I found a rather self-absorbed woman and insular woman who kind of needed to get over herself.
Halbreich grew up in exceptionally privileged circumstances in Chicago. Her father was an executive with a local department store and her mother was a well-maintained society wife. Halbreich and her family lived in a beautiful home, had servants, dined at exclusive restaurants and went on fancy vacations. And Halbreich’s mother went to great length to make sure little Betty was dressed perfectly for all occasions. Halbreich goes into great detail describing these fabulous frocks that pretty much put the Garanimals my mom dressed me in to shame.
However, things were not perfect in the Halbreich household. Yes, little Betty was spoiled and doted on, but she often dealt with a great deal of loneliness, often feeling more affection from the servants than her own mother and father.
While still in college, which to me, seemed more like a finishing school than an actual education, Halbreich got married to an older, very wealthy man and moved to New York City. She has two children, a girl and a boy, and lives the fanciful life of a privileged housewife. She wants for nothing and should be happy. But she’s not. Her marriage is unfulfilling and her husband is a cheater. Halbreich tries to fill the empty hole she feels inside with extravagant shopping sprees and expensive designer clothes, but nothing works. Even her kids aren’t a sense of fulfillment (she spends more time describing her daughter’s layette and stroller than the girl’s birth).
As Halbreich got older, and her children grew up, her marriage became hugely strained, much due to her husband’s extramarital affairs. When her marriage finally falls apart, Betty finds herself a middle-aged divorcee who needs to find a job. Despite no college degree and no work experience whatsoever, Halbreich is able to use her fashion sense and connections in procuring several retail sales jobs at pricey stores.
Through these series of retail jobs Halbreich gained work experience and confidence. She was soon hired by Bergdorf Goodman and designed the perfect position for her-personal shopper. It’s at this point, I’ll Drink to That became a bit of a more fun read. Halbreich dishes the dirt on everyone from designer Geoffrey Beene to “Sex and the City” wardrobe stylist Pat Field. She also reveals the insecurities and idiosyncrasies of the women she serviced. Some clients fully embraced Halbreich’s fashion know-how and others rebelled. But a lot of them proved to be just as human as those of us who shop at TJ Maxx and Target. They hated their poochy tummies and bemoaned the cellulite on their thighs. They made fashion blunders and could be driven to tears tying to find a flattering outfit. Yes, most of them wanted Halbreich to help them with their biggest fashion crises, but they often reached out to find out about the best schools for their children or how to find the top-notch divorce attorney.
Halbreich also discusses the fashion industry, both the good and the bad. She admires the artistry of creating a beautiful piece of clothing and how the perfect outfit can be almost a security blanket for the wearer. And she also bemoans the variation in sizing amongst various lines and how some places won’t stock up sizes bigger than a six even though the average American woman is around a size 12 or 14.
Halbreich also discusses her personal life, spending a big chunk of her book discussing her nearly thirty year relationship a man named Jim. With Jim, Betty had the love she had always wanted, and he does come across as a really down-to-earth, decent chap and a good counterpart for the more haughty and snobbish Halbreich. And Jim also went to great lengths to teach Betty about things which rendered her clueless like dealing with her finances. Good old Jim died a few years back, and Halbreich misses him to this day.
Halbreich deals with other tragedies beyond losing Jim. Upon the break-up of her marriage, she suffers a nervous breakdown, tries to commit suicide and ends up in a psych ward. Yet, she writes about these episodes in such a detached, flat way that doesn’t grip you and feel any empathy for her plight. She might as well have described the details of ordering a pizza.
And that’s why I’ll Drink to That stumbles. Halbreich tells; she doesn’t show. She just doesn’t have the writerly chops to write a memoir that truly engages you in her life story even with the help of Ms. Paley. Plus, there are times in the book where Halbreich comes across very imperious and self-indulgent. First, she should thank her lucky stars she was able to find such an impressive job with no college degree, no work experience and no résumé. Most of us could not do this. She also admits that she refuses to learn how to use a cash register even though it’s a part of most retail jobs. Just trying telling your boss you don’t want to do various tasks that pertain to your job. You’ll probably get fired.
Plus, she shows nothing but disdain for her younger co-workers. She mocks them for wearing very high heels and using their smart phones. Sure, wearing 5-inch stilettos is not wise when you are standing on your feet all day, but Halbreich might want to educate herself on the use of smart phones. Sure, maybe these women might be using them to keep in touch with their boyfriends, but they also be using them to keep in contact with clients, buyers and vendors. It’s the 21st century, Betty. You might want to find out there are new ways to communicate.
In the end, I’ll Drink to That gives some fascinating insight into a world that we can only imagine, but probably would work better has an article in Vogue. As a memoir, I’ll Drink to That has all the depth of a Jimmy Choo in-step.