Betty Halbreich at 86 Photo: Ruven Afandor
Betty Halbreich tells it like it is. Although the 86-year old Director of Personal Shopping for Manhattan’s Bergdorf Goodman is legendary for her keen eye—she’s responsible for dressing some of the world’s most stylish women including Babe Paley, Joan Rivers, and Sarah Jessica Parker—she’s also known for her fierce wit and total candor. Whether you’re famous, wealthy, a First Lady, or an accountant, Halbreich always gives clients (she calls them patients) the unvarnished truth: “I just say—take that dress off, it’s dreadful!”
Halbreich is notorious for giving no-holds-barred advice on personal matters, too, wisdom that’s been hard-earned. Halbreich shares the details in her can’t-put-it-down memoir I’ll Drink to That (her friend Lena Dunham has optioned the book for HBO). After a tough marriage that involved drinking, infidelity, and separations, Halbreich had a breakdown. She spent time in a psychiatric institution and began the hard work of transforming her life on her own. Although she hadn't worked consistently before, she landed a job as a salesperson at Bergdorf’s, ultimately founding and reigning over the personal shopping service. Working provided Halbreich with a sanctuary that she credits with keeping her sane (therapy was key, too). She didn’t just reinvent her life at 50, Halbreich also found true love. Her life is an example of that old adage, “The best is yet to come.”
Betty in a white tulle dress from Rome, dancing with her son at her in-laws anniversary party in Manhattan in 1967.
With her sharp tongue, effortless glamour, and a great sense of humor, Halbreich reminds me of the movie heroines of the ‘40s and ‘50s (not surprisingly, Lauren Bacall was a client). Interviewing her is a ride in itself, more like a fun chat with a hilarious aunt than a standard author interview. “Why didn’t you tell me you were 40!” she exclaimed at the end of our phone call. “You sound like you are 12!” As usual she is right.
Here, Halbreich shares her advice for women facing life’s challenges and, of course, what you need to be wearing this fall.
BH: Good morning beauty! I’m glad you can’t see me. Oh my god, I’m dead in the water!
SB: You’ve been so busy with your new book. I can imagine.
BH: Oh no you can’t! You have to realize I am 86 years old. I was limping to work this morning saying to myself “Who needed this?” Everybody is saying, “We read about you all day, are you having a good time? Did you have a good summer?” I’m a very negative person so I was very honest, I said “Absolutely the worst summer I’ve ever had! It never even happened.” So now I am ready for you, but I don’t know what you are going to hear about beauty with me. I put my makeup on in the dark.
SB: You look pretty amazing for someone who does her makeup in the dark.
BH: I’ve never had an injection. I’ve never had Botox—whatever that is. I’ve never had my mouth puffed up. I still have my teeth. At least I know I don’t have any money to spend on this crap-ola.
Betty and her husband Sonny in Lido Beach Long Island shortly after their marriage in 1947
SB: So what’s your secret?
BH: I don’t know! I’m wedded to mascara. My eyeliner seems to be stuck there for so many years that it doesn’t take much effort to put it on in the morning. I don’t like to look like my skin is dried out; my doctor gave me a prescription to something that gives my skin that wet look. I also have a hair cut every once in a while. I go to a lot of people—who I see depends on how I feel, money-wise.
SB: When did you decide to cut your hair short?
BH: Right after I came to Bergdorf’s in the 1950’s. It doesn’t matter what hairdresser I go to, they will not let my hair stay long. Sometimes I am absolutely scalped. That’s just how they see me. I say, “Please don’t cut it so short.” I walk out and I have no hair. Do you know my story with makeup artist Edward Bess? Now that’s a story.
SB: Tell me everything.
BH: I found him in Bergdorf’s selling lipsticks eight years ago. I said, “You are the most beautiful human being I have ever seen in my life.” We have been friends ever since. He named a lipstick after me; there is no greater honor. The Betty lipstick is sold out, if you can believe it. It’s like that old-fashioned red lipstick my mother wore. He took my signature off of a thank you note I wrote him and transferred it onto the tube.
SB: Considering you are the fashion guru of Bergdorf’s, let’s talk fall essentials, what do we need this season?
BH: I get asked this question a lot, but I can tell you what’s lacking. We haven’t been able to buy a good jacket in a long time. A jacket covers a lot of sins. You can put a shiny top or a shirt under it. It is sort of a security blanket. I see The Row has been doing some, but they are selling out. I also love a leather jacket. I think it covers a lot of territory. I’m not price conscious. I go all over the store. I like Alexander Wang, J Brand, and Theory. I like to mix expensive clothes like a good pair of pants, with a less expensive jacket. Eclectic dressing, I suspect that’s where my forte is.
Halbreich wearing a Kenzo dress on vacation in Ireland in the mid 1970s
SB: In your book, I’ll Drink To That, you talk about going through divorce, illness, therapy and ultimately reinvention in your 50’s. What’s your advice for women going through their own tough times?
BH: I wanted to show those women that they can pull themselves up, march forward, and try something else. I had never tried working before I came to Bergdorf’s. Therapy was also a great help. Many of us go to therapists and we just go to spout out all the problems, but we don’t take anything in. I happened to take it in and hear what I was saying. I knew I couldn’t go on the way I was, I would’ve been dead! That was the long and the short of it.
SB: Not only did you discover a new career in your 50’s, you also found love again and had a 29-year long relationship.
BH: I was sitting with a friend in a bar and she says, “That man is trying to make eye contact with you.” I said, “Corinne quit it!” But she’s got the finger up telling him to come over. I said to her, “I don’t do this!” And what do you know? We had friends in common, and from that came a long relationship. Then Jim died very suddenly. Fine for him, difficult for me. But I had this diversion, you know? I guess with age you become a survivor.
The cover of Halbreich’s book, I’ll Drink to That. It was recently optioned by Lena Dunham.
SB: In the book, you talk about how your office is a safe harbor and sanctuary for you.
BH: Well if you saw my office, you’d understand. I have an orchid collection, I am growing mint on the windowsill, and I take everyone’s sorry old plants—they’re like my children. My office faces the park and it’s my window on the world. I have been here 37 years this month. Some days I come in and feel absolutely lousy, but I can get rid of that feeling in about an hour. I walk myself through the store, thumb through clothes, yell at the stock people, wonder where everybody is and exercise any depression by diversion.
SB: What do you wish you knew at 26 that you know now at 86?
BH: I wish I was as secure at 26 as I am now. I mean, I can say anything I want. I had a mother that was very glib. I never opened my mouth while my mother was alive. Now I look in the mirror and say, “Good morning mother,” and out come the same terrible things! I don’t want to hurt anyone, but I scare people for some reason. I find that a great deal of the truth you espouse, saying what you feel and what you think, like, “Gee take that off it’s just dreadful,” frightens people. I don’t think they can handle honesty; it’s very strange.
SB: You’re known for being brutally honest, has that ever cost you a client?
BH: I suspect so. But I don’t count my clients. It’s not something that I sit there and ponder. I got rid of those anxieties—that is done! Every day is a new situation. A client comes in with a new problem: her husband is leaving her, her husband comes back. It’s a new something, and I look forward to it.