By Debbie Wells
It was an honor to know this iconic creative couple: Judith and Gerson Leiber – Judith as the internationally celebrated handbag designer and Gerson as the modernist American artist. Their talents were strong and singular, but when combined with their unique love story and passion for the arts, it was a legendary match.
This tribute is to celebrate their unbreakable bond personally and professionally that lasted over 70 years. Both 97 years old, they passed away within hours of each other on April 28, 2018 at their East Hampton home. They purchased the property in 1956 and later also built a museum to house their treasures in 2005.
We got to meet the Leibers in a very unusual way. While browsing through Newsday, I read a small article about their new museum on Long Island. Of course, I knew of her fame as a designer and was intrigued. I called for more information and spoke to Ann Friscoe Stewart, Leiber Museum Collections Manager. She helped me arrange a group visit for Artful Circle that summer. To my delight, she said that the Leibers would be happy to stop by and greet the group too! Her combination of professionalism and friendliness led to a great working relationship in the future in ways I could never have imagined.
Franklin and I arranged for several visits to the Leiber Collection and it was always a tremendous experience. We also discovered that within a few minutes was the home and studio of another major artistic couple – Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner. We created an unbeatable itinerary that included a visit to both sites in one day and a chic Hamptons lunch in between.
As promised, the Leibers introduced themselves to the group and shared their story. They talked about their lives and careers. They were very welcoming. Gerson’s easy smile and Judith’s elegance was something to remember. They graciously posed for photographs and chatted for a while. What an experience!
Once we got to know Anne and the Leibers, Franklin and I asked them if they would participate in three of our last exhibitions at the Nassau County Museum of Art. They lent numerous handbags to fit the themes of our Garden Party, Feast for the Eyes and Fool The Eye exhibitions. Her fanciful purses were a perfect addition to every show.
After seeing the Long Island Museum’s exhibition on the Leibers, I was inspired to create an exhibition at the Art League of Long Island. We entitled it Their Passion for Fashion: Of Purses & Paintings – The Gerson & Judith Leiber Collection. We featured a variety of her famous purses, as well as his fashion-themed paintings and panels and floral pastels (the first time this series has been on display). We even had her original toolbox and his painting supplies on view. Their personal portrait done by artist Wil Barnett was also featured in the exhibition.
Top: The Leibers with Charlee Miller, Art League of Long Island Executive Director and Debbie Wells
Center: The Leibers in their East Hampton home with Debbie Wells and friends
Bottom: Judith Leiber with Ann Fristoe Steward, Debbie Wells and reception guests at the Art League.
Museum exhibitions featuring both Judith and Gerson were rare, I believe that the one at the Art League (September 16-October 22, 2017) was their last. In addition to the regular gallery hours, the Art League, we provided curator-led tours by for large groups, which was also a huge success.
Many thanks to key players who made the exhibit happen: Judith and Gerson Leiber, Anne Fristoe Stewart (Leiber Museum Collections Manager), Sue Peragallo (Art League Gallery Coordinator), Joe Peragallo (Photographer), Zach Krugman (Art League Chief Preparator), Bobbie Janowitz (Art League Director of Operations & Events Coordinator), and Joshua Ruff and Jonathan Olly of the Long Island Museum in Stony Brook.
The Art League honored the Leibers and their magnificent contributions as artist and artisan for an afternoon reception in the bi-level gallery. They graciously offered a VIP curator-led tour of the Leiber Collection in East Hampton for us to raffle off as a fundraiser. Special thanks to the organizations and individuals who sponsored the special reception and exhibit: Olivia & Harlan Fischer, Bridgehampton National Bank, Artful Circle, Branch Financial Services, and Wine Doc of Elwood.
During the event, guests were invited to “meet and greet” the Leibers, as well as listen to a talk about their lives and legacy by their museum curator, Ann Fristoe Stewart. She explained her search for over 3,500 original Leiber handbags for the collection – they have over 2,000 already! As part of the exhibition, the Art League asked Leiber handbag owners to pose for a photo holding their Leiber bag (or bring their own photo) to be posted on a “Wall of Fame.”
The Leibers had no children, but their legacy lives on through their collection. Their palladian-style museum, located in the East Hampton hamlet of the Springs, also showcases sculptures and gardens designed by Gerson himself. Visit their website at www.leibermuseum.org for more information.
About Gerson and Judith Leiber
Their story began in Budapest, in the spring of 1945. Judith, who had grown up in an elegant Hungarian-Jewish family, had survived the Holocaust after many hardships. Gerson was a U.S. Army radio operator, who hailed from a small town in Pennsylvania and later Brooklyn, and came to the city to assist in Eastern Europe’s liberation. The two met serendipitously, fell in love, and eventually left for New York with big dreams. Their love of culture and art was mutual which led them to accomplish great things together.
“It was our promised land,” remembered Judith of her arrival in New York with Gerson, in 1947. “Though we were motivated by a shared desire to be successful, we were driven by sheer fear,” Gerson added. “It gave us each a tremendous impetus to reach our goals.”
Along with her treasured tools of the trade, she took with her the skills of a master craftsperson which were immediately sought after at the top fashion houses, including for Nettie Rosenstein of the LBD (little black dress) fame. Over the coming decades, Judith’s career soared as she designed handbags with exotic skins, leathers, gems and other unique materials. Her handbags have gloriously passed the test of time and style and are built to last.
She later came to invent her signature style of imaginative bejeweled minaudières in whimsical shapes from colorful animals, fruit and even a peacock! Judith produced over 3,500 designs and first ladies including Barbara Bush, Mamie Eisenhower and Nancy Reagan to movie stars and celebrities from Liz Taylor, Beverly Sills, Joan Rivers, Jennifer Lopez to Blake Lively and more have worn her handbags.
Judith crafted with precision engineering and describes her mission eloquently – “I design the shading and highlighting so that every crystal counts. It’s the way to make it perfect.” These purses are not just for the rich and famous – people all over the world covet her handbags and they are often cherished for special occasions and even passed down as heirlooms. There are even collectors who specialize in acquiring exclusively Judith Leiber originals.
In addition to running their fashion empire, Gerson pursued his ambitions of being a fine artist, resulting in having his work collected by over sixty museums. From his modernist style that includes Cubism and Abstract Expressionism, he also explored the art of printmaking and sculpture.
As stated in one of the Leiber’s catalogues: “Behind and surrounding the accessories… are the party people depicted in the fashion-world paintings, drawings, and prints of Gerson Leiber, which invest these pristine objects with a living spirit. The ghosts of Seventh Avenue in the 1970’s, 1980’s, and 1990’s rise to gawk, talk, and observe…”
The Leibers sold their company in 1993, but there is no doubt of their impact in the worlds of fashion and art.