Review: I'll Drink To That

Smart, stylish and never knowingly naked


By Betty Halbreich
Virago, £13.99

Betty Halbreich, the legendary personal shopper and stylist from New York, knows picking clothes for women is not just gathering stylish items from the rails. In this autobiography, written with Rebecca Paley, she states that, "you also need to understand (a woman's) personality, lifestyle, sense of colour and fantasies for herself."

Betty, now 86, has worked at the ritzy New York department store Bergdorf Goodman for nearly 40 years and recognises that when women take their clothes off they instantly become vulnerable. It's why her role has also been to provide "mothering".

She describes how she has been a confidante to three generations of women and countless celebrities, hearing secrets they wouldn't tell their "husband, best friend or real mother." Now Betty has chosen to come out of her own closet and, in her raw, honest book, emotionally strips herself bare, exposing every bruise and bump of her materially indulged but otherwise barren early life. She is inspirational in showing how to dig yourself out of life's deep holes.

An only child, she grew up in an "entirely irreligious" Jewish community in Chicago. She went to synagogue once a year and "had never heard of a barmitzvah." Her mother and the man she initially thought was her father, the head of a department store, were rarely at home. Her biological father unsuccessfully tried to see her and she was told nothing about him.

I felt closer to my sable coat than I did to my husband

All this instilled a feeling of abandonment she has never fully overcome. Clothes became her lifeline. She would dress up in her mother's clothes when she was out as a way to be "with her". She writes: "There was no need for the company of playmates because the clothes were my playmates."

She married at 20 and had two children, but clothes remained her safety blanket Her husband, Sonny Halbreich, son of a wealthy hotel owner, drank heavily and was unfaithful, and Betty was uneasy with both motherhood and her marriage. "I felt closer to my sable coat than to my husband," she says. She shopped continuously and "never wore the same thing twice." Nothing she wore, however, saved her when her marriage broke down. "My worst fear - of being alone - was realised." She cut her wrists and ended up in a psychiatric hospital.

She slowly recovered, helped by the offer of work in a fashion store and by long-term therapy. She began at Bergdorf Goodman in 1976, which is where she remains, despite a mastectomy. The job has helped her find confidence and peace. "Dressing someone well," she says, "is as divine as helping someone to walk, to see, to smile or to bake a tall, light angel food cake."

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