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Legendary Handbag Designer Discusses Life, Love and First Ladies

April 24, 2013 By:
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Handbag designer Judith Lieber

“Hitler put me in the handbag business.” That’s what Judith Leiber told Enid Nemy for her 1995 book, Judith Leiber: The Artful Handbag, and it is what she believes today. Without World War II and the Nazis, her life might have taken a very different course. But living through World War II as a Jew in Budapest changed Leiber’s character and career. In both spheres, Leiber is a survivor — and a success story: The eponymous fashion house she founded celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. 

Where others see grit and talent, Leiber sees luck. “So many Hungarian Jews died during the war, but my family, we had luck again and again,” said the 92-year-old designer during a phone interview from her home in New York. Her voice is rich with a Hungarian accent barely touched by her many years in the United States. “People in Budapest and my parents, especially my father, did one thing and then another to keep us safe, or as safe as we could be when everyone wanted to kill us.”

The woman who spent years hiding from the Nazis went on to spend decades creating handbags that are impossible to miss. Crafted into the shapes of animals, vegetables and other otherwise mundane items, they become as much objets d’art as handbags. That they hold keys and lipstick is a bonus.

Leiber’s frame bags grace the arms of First Ladies. Her clutches glitter in the hands of Hollywood A-listers as they walk red carpets. Several are on permanent display in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian, the Museum of Modern Art and the Victoria and Albert Museum. In fact, they have come to warrant their own museum: The Leiber Collection in East Hampton, N.Y., displays hundreds of her bags and is open to the public.

So legendary is her name, so iconic is her style, that her bags were included in Sex and the City and The Devil Wears Prada, two films that reflect the impact of contemporary fashion on our lives. 

Leiber bags are made of crystals; Leiber the woman is made of steel. After World War II, she survived the Soviet occupation of Budapest, then arrived in the United States and thrived in a field dominated by men. Refusing to compromise her artistry or craftsmanship — or Anglicize her name to make it less Semitic — Leiber remained true to herself and retained the identity for which she had been persecuted. With Gerson Leiber, her husband of 67 years, she is a generous patron of Israeli philanthropies. Perhaps that is because when her family needed to escape the Nazis, they had nowhere to go.

“A Jew is a Jew”

Born Judith Peto in Budapest in 1921, Leiber was raised in an upper-middle class family where education was a priority. Her Vienna-born mother, Helene, was a homemaker who cared for Judith and her sister, Eva. Her father, Emil, was a commodities broker who traveled frequently for business. “Very often, he brought handbags home for her,” Leiber remembers. “It turned into a large collection of handbags from all of the cities he traveled to. I loved them.”

The Petos weren’t terribly observant. “We had a seder,” Leiber says, “but with bread on the side. It didn’t matter how religious we were, because to the outside world, a Jew is a Jew.”

Jews were always a bit separate from the rest of the society, Leiber says, but the Petos did well in Budapest. Leiber excelled in academics; she speaks five languages and has a good head for numbers. When she reached college age, Leiber’s parents wanted her to attend one of the best universities in Europe: Kings’ College London. 

“My parents wanted me to study chemistry because I had an aunt in Romania who did that, so we knew that could be an exciting career for women,” Leiber explains. 

Did Leiber have an affinity for chemistry? No, she says. “But my mother thought I would be good at it.” At that point, Leiber was still heeding her parents’ advice.

As Hitler came to power and Hungary enacted anti-Jewish laws, the Petos got nervous, but not nervous enough to leave Europe. By 1938, Hungary had been drawn into an Axis alliance and the Nazis were redrawing Eastern Europe through the Munich Agreement and First and Second Vienna Award. Hungary was gaining territory, but the Jews were losing ground. Further laws were passed that restricted Jews’ freedoms in business and society.

“Things got worse as Hitler got more power,” Leiber says. “My father wanted to come to America. My cousin was a Swiss Jew, but he was taking care of his in-laws and said that he couldn’t take care of us. Just before I came back from London, in 1939, you could go to Australia for 25 British pounds. But we didn’t know anything about that place. My parents also thought that maybe I could get out through Greece, but then what would happen to me? So I didn’t go.”

Leiber didn’t go back to London, either. “I came home during the break and I decided that I wanted to stay with my family because it was getting too dangerous,” Leiber says. “But even so, my father thought the war would be over fast. We would say, ‘Who would listen to a maniac like Hitler? Someone will stop him.’ ” 

Nazis, Arrow Cross and the Budapest Ghetto

In 1939, Hungary put thousands of Jews into forced labor. Some were sent to work in copper mines. More than 35,000 Jews were forced into the Hungarian Second Army. Almost all of them would perish. 

In territories annexed by Hungary, Jews with Polish and Soviet citizenship — almost 20,000, according to Yad Vashem records — were turned over to the Nazis. But for several years, the country’s leader, Miklos Horthy, did not round up all Jews, despite pressure from the Nazis and Arrow Cross, Hungary’s Fascist, albeit minority, political party. 

That changed when Horthy began supposedly secret peace negotiations with the Allies. In response, the Nazis invaded Hungary in March 1944. The Jews were no longer safe. “In a way, we were lucky that, if they were going to come at all, they came later in the war,” Leiber says. 

But time and experience had made the Nazi killing machine more efficient. Yad Vashem’s numbers: in eight weeks, 437,000 Hungarian Jews were sent to Auschwitz. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum says that only one Jewish community was left in Hungary: that of Budapest. 

 “We were very lucky because we moved into a Swiss-protected building,” Leiber explains. “My father had some official papers, and then he got a typewriter and forged some names on the papers. No one knew any different. So the building we were in was a Jewish community house, is what it was called, and if we hadn’t gone there, they would have deported us.” 

Did they know about the concentration camps? “Oh, yes, we knew,” she says. “A Slovak who said that he escaped from Auschwitz came back home and somebody got the information. We were afraid of being sent to Auschwitz, but what could you do? It was too late to go anywhere.”

In the Swiss building, the Leibers moved into a one-bedroom apartment and shared it with 26 other people. “We all slept on the floor and ate whatever we could get,” Leiber recalls. “We stayed in the apartment all day. It was not safe outside for many reasons.” As Leiber told Moment magazine, young Jewish women caught on the streets were often taken into brothels to become sex slaves for the Nazis. Leiber, then 23, took no chances — until her father was taken to a labor camp.

“They picked him up off the street,” she explains, “and took him to a camp to do hard labor. When we found out what happened, I went to the Swiss consulate and showed them the papers to say that a mistake had been made.” Amazingly, that worked. Leiber convinced the Swiss to take action; her father was removed from the labor camp and returned to the Jewish community house.

In October 1944, with the Soviets about to take Hungary from the Nazis, Arrow Cross began to slaughter Jews. “Thousands of Jews from Budapest were murdered on the banks of the Danube and tens of thousands were marched hundreds of miles towards the Austrian border,” Yad Vashem reports. 

In November, Arrow Cross ordered Budapest’s remaining Jews into a ghetto.  Approximately 70,000 people were herded into 0.1 square miles. Among them were Leiber and her family. “Terrible, terrible, terrible,” is what Leiber says about the weeks she spent in the ghetto. “Sometimes, you had to remind yourself that you were lucky to be alive. It didn’t always feel like that was a good thing.”

Nor was it necessarily a good thing when the Soviets arrived. A monthlong battle for Budapest ensued, which the Soviets won. By April 1945, they had driven the Nazis and Arrow Cross out of Budapest. But even then, Leiber says, no one felt safe. Eventually, Leiber and her family moved back into their apartment, which had been occupied by Red Army troops. Food was scarce, the city was a disaster and the future was uncertain. So Judith Leiber started making handbags. 

The Bride and Her Bags

Before the war, Leiber had worked with Pessl, one of the premier handbag makers in Budapest. She had been the company’s first female apprentice, working her way up to journeyman and, finally, master craftswoman. But Pessl disappeared with the war, its owners murdered in a concentration camp. After Budapest was liberated, Leiber returned to her craft. But then, she met Gerson (Gus) Leiber, an American G.I. from Titusville, Pa., stationed in Budapest. The two fell in love and wanted to marry. “My parents were against the marriage,” Leiber says. “Their complaint was that Gus was poor and I didn’t know anything about him.”

After having faced Nazis, Swiss diplomats and Soviets, and becoming a master craftswoman in a previously male-only field, Leiber, then 24 years old, wasn’t about to take no for an answer. “I said, ‘That’s fine, you don’t have to be part of this. But I’m doing it.’ ” 

She did. The couple married in 1946 and quickly left Hungary. By 1947, they were living in the Bronx. Leiber was a wife, but she had no intention of becoming a housewife. She went straight to work in the handbag industry, doing any job she could get. “I started working for a ‘five-dollar’ company and someone said, ‘Don’t be there. It’s not right for someone who knows what you know about the craft,’ ” she says. “I went to the union man and he said, ‘I’ll send you to the best place in New York and see if you make it.’ Not only did I make it but also the head guy got sick and I was good enough to take his job.

“From there, I worked at the best houses and the mid-level houses,” Leiber says. “I worked for Nettie Rosenstein for 12 years, and that was the longest. That’s where I got my first big break.”

It came courtesy of Mamie Eisenhower. “Nettie got commissioned to make the Inauguration dress for Mrs. Eisenhower and a bag needed to be made to go with it, so I did that,” Leiber explains. “It turned out that she loved the bag.”

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? History doesn’t say. But it does say that Mrs. Eisenhower set what became a First Lady tradition. 

Leiber’s Ladies

From Lady Bird Johnson through Laura Bush, with the exception of Rosalynn Carter, every First Lady has carried a Judith Leiber bag to an Inaugural Ball. How does one work with a First Lady? 

“The dress comes first,” Leiber explains. “For Mrs. Johnson, Adele Simpson made the dress. Then Mrs. Johnson picked from the collection a gold bag that I made. 

“For Mrs. Nixon, we made a bag of the color silk that matched her dress.

“Mrs. Reagan, I made two bags for her. The first one was a little cream bag with side pockets, very pretty in white satin. The second bag was an envelope-style that I designed just for her because we didn’t have that kind of bag in the collection. She loved the bag. It was so funny — I got a telephone call from her one day. She said, ‘Judy, somebody spilled coffee on my bag and there is a stain. Can you fix it?’ Can you imagine, spilling coffee on the First Lady’s handbag? But there was nothing I could do about the stain. I made another one, exactly the same and sent it. We kept that stained bag as a memento, but funnily enough, the company tried to find it years later and couldn’t.

“Mrs. Bush No. 1, I made her bag also,” Leiber says. The designer Arnold Scaasi gave her the fabric, she recalls. “I made it into a classic style, a frame bag. She invited everyone who did work on her Inaugural dress to lunch at White House. That was lovely. Gus and I went.”

“When Mrs. Bush No. 1 was in the White House, she asked me for bags she could give as gifts to the wives of foreign dignitaries,” Leiber says. “That’s how we came to make a bag for Mrs. Gandhi. It was alligator, I remember. 

“Mrs. Clinton, I made her two bags,” Leiber continues. “The first wasn’t used.” Sarah Phillips, who made Mrs. Clinton’s dress, made her a bag. “The second one was made of rhinestones matching her dress. I also made her an alligator bag, and a little leather bag for her daughter, Chelsea.

“For the second Mrs. Bush, I did a bag that I originally made in 1973. It was inspired by a Tiffany window in the Met. She was very happy with that, but they never took a photograph with it. She sent me a note that she was sorry that there wasn’t a photo.

“Can you believe that no one made the call to Mrs. Obama to offer her a bag?” Leiber sighs. “What a missed opportunity.” By the time President Barack Obama took office, Leiber had left hers. The fashion house that she and her husband launched in 1963 was grossing a reported $74 million in sales per year — just from handbags. The Leibers sold the company, which has since branched into eyewear, belts, perfume and other products that bear Judith Leiber’s name.

“We started from nothing, absolutely nothing, in a small loft at 20 West 33rd Street in New York,” Leiber says. “We moved to 31st Street and had 7,000 square feet and stayed there for 30 years,” until she sold her company in 1993, staying on as a special consultant until the company was sold again last year. “All of the work was done in that factory, right in New York. Many other companies send the work out to Asia or South America, but not us. My bags were made in America by skilled craftsmen. That is what the people pay for — quality.”

They also paid for design. Inspired by Art Deco, nature and modern painters, Leiber turned her bags into works of art using rhinestones, beads and other materials. “But the first one was an accident,” she says. “The frames of the bags came to me made wrong, but I didn’t want to throw them away. So I covered them with sequins and beads and whatever I had. From something that other people would say should be destroyed came something beautiful. ”

Melissa Jacobs is the editor of Bridges, the South Jersey supplement. This article originally appeared in Inside Magazine, a Jewish Exponent publication.

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