Bergdorf Goodman’s Betty Halbreich

Bergdorf Goodman’s (and New York City’s) most famous personal shopper Betty Halbreich just got personal with us here at The New Potato. After the retail mecca released their first cookbook recently – The Bergdorf Goodman Cookbook – we caught up on all things food and fashion with Halbreich in her office at BG. What’s something you might not know about her? Well, for one thing, you might want to take those white jeans off you’ve been sporting since Memorial Day; Betty hates them…

The New Potato: From start to finish, what would be your ideal food day?

Betty Halbreich: Quinoa, beans, shrimp, and lobster…I’m really bordering on vegetarian at the moment. I love chicken and I do deviate, but I like all the beans and I love vegetables. I like to cook soup. I love the smell of soup cooking, even if you don’t eat it. I love grocery shopping. That’s what I do on my day off. Everyone’s quoted me— Costco should give me a store because I’m in love with Costco! I’ll march through Fairway, and I’ll always meet someone that says, “Are you…?” in the cheese department. And I say, “I are.”

TNP: Whats been your most memorable experience at Bergdorf Goodman to date?

BH: The day I came here to be interviewed for a job thirty-eight years ago. I didn’t know my ass from my elbow. It was during a new regime when they were really upgrading the store into a young, more youthful situation. It was a very staid store in my lifetime. You were sort of scared to come here; it was so proper. Mr. Goodman, Mr. Neimark, and Dawn Mello interviewed me. I didn’t know what I was doing. They all just stared at me and finally they said, “It would be lovely for you to come work here. What are we going to do with you?” I was so scared. First of all, I don’t know how to add, subtract, or divide, and all I could think was, ‘I’ll come here and they’re going to put me on a cash register? I can’t do it.’ I told them that. Incidentally, Geoffrey Beene, who I had worked for briefly while I was married, was opening a boutique on the second floor, where Chanel is today. So they plopped me in there— literally plopped me there. And I became like a consultant. I never rang up a sale. I’d give my sales to the ladies who still wore black. A year later Mr. Neimark said, “May I speak to you?” and I shall never forget, he took me over to a window — it was the fur department which is the other half of Chanel — and he said, “Betty, we have no record of your sales. What are we going to do with you?” I said to him, “We don’t have a personal shopping office.” We had one lady that only took care of the very, very affluent – Jo Hughes – and we had someone who took care of society people. And they would sit in little offices all day and talk on the phone. You never saw them do anything. So, he brought me up here. They took a chance on me. In those days, I dressed very well because I still had a wardrobe from being married. They paid me 200 dollars a week. I’ve been here ever since. I really didn’t have any retail experience whatsoever. I was more fodder than meat.

TNP: Okay so who has been your most memorable client?

BH: I would have to say Joan [Rivers]. I would say Joan even if she were alive and with us today. We had hearts together. I knew a lot of things about her and she about me. In the last years, she had a stylist and she really didn’t need me, but whenever she saw me there was a real— I don’t know— like you really find rarely with a friend. When my book came out and the [cover] picture came out, she called Ruven Afanador and had him send the picture and put it on her piano. Is there anything sweeter than that? I mean, I’m sure there were a lot of us on her piano, but that’s as heartwarming as you get. I still have a hard time dealing with [the loss of] her, almost like a relative. When we went into that dressing room and closed the door, I heard a lot and she heard a lot. We were sort of kindred spirits.

She gave me that chocolate gun. It’s a year or so old now. I met her in the store one day; her sister was dying and she was really depressed. Her sister was a very difficult and smart lady — a lawyer. She came back down to the office with me, and I said, “I feel sad, like you today.” I joked, “You know, I’m on the third floor, but if I jump out the window, I’m likely to bounce around.” So the next day by messenger, the chocolate gun appeared with a note from Joan. “Cheer up. Things could be worse. You could be related to me.” It’s a very dear possession. Things like that in life touch you, especially at my age.

TNP: What style advice would you give your younger self?

BH: My younger self? I had a very marvelous father, so I wore very fine clothes as a young woman. I’m unspoiled now because I don’t buy them anymore. But I shopped in Chicago at a shop called— well it doesn’t really matter, they’re out of business — but they used to bring in the couture. This was in the Fifties and they brought the couture in from Europe. I was very fortunate; I wore Dior and Givenchy. I did very well. And then later on there was a shop called Ultimo in Chicago, which was very well known. A young woman by the name of Joan Weinstein that passed away a couple of years ago – very avant garde – would send me clothes or I’d visit when I went to Chicago. I had a very good ride all my life, either in my Mother’s closet when I was young or later on when I was early married. I’ve known good clothes all my life.

TNP: As someone who knows good clothes, whats your advice to women getting up in the morning, getting dressed, and looking in the mirror?

BH: I can only tell them what I do; I can’t give them advice. I don’t use an alarm in the morning; I listen to the radio all night —NPR. It’s like a voice. Just before it’s time to rise, my head sets in. I sort of take a visual mental picture of my closet, and I pick out, before I even put a foot over the bed, what I’m going to put on. It’s a routine. It’s sort of nice to lie there. My advice is don’t get up and keep pushing through the maze of pants and tops and whatever. Just sit there in retrospect and say, “How do I want to look today?” It’s the nicest part of the day, awakening, because you’re so glad to be alive. Right? And that’s how I dress in the morning.

TNP: Whos your style icon to date?

BH: Never had one. Never. They change like the wind. If I felt that way, I’d be out of business. First of all, I’m a big mixer and matcher. I don’t sell labels. I really sell clothes and what looks good on you, or what I think looks good on you and you think looks good on you. The hardest and most difficult thing is a woman that never sees her rear. So I have to teach them how to use a three-way mirror before I sell them anything. Most people have all only dressed forward. Do you ever wonder how you look from the back?

TNP: If every woman could own only three things, what would they be?

BH: A beautiful piece of jewelry. I don’t care whether it’s a watch or earrings or maybe something sentimental. I am a sentimentalist. I know everything I own and where each thing came from. First of all, you don’t have to fit a piece of jewelry; it fit’s you. Rather than what you would own, I’m much more into surroundings. I think that you should surround yourself with beautiful things. I’m a collector; it’s very important to me. Beautiful and wonderful photographs surround me in my bedroom. I think frames are lovely but they’re not the most important. The picture is important to me. When I rise in the morning, I pass all my children, and all my friends on my dresser, and I have them next to my bed, including my old dog. So that’s very important to me, to surround yourself with memorabilia.

I also love a beautiful robe, but no one really wears those anymore. I strip in the elevator. I think about getting into a nightgown and a robe the minute I’m home. But that’s sort of old world, because you’re all walking around in what looks like pajamas all day anyway.

TNP: Whats the best advice youve ever received, and who was it from?

BH: My Mother. She said to me, “Don’t ever take a job or do anything where you’re taking clothes on and off of people.”

TNP: Is that what your mother did?

BH: No! She said that I should never do it. Never do it. My mother owned a bookstore. She thought [what I do today] was the most humiliating experience.

TNP: Was that before you interviewed for the job?

BH: It was before I worked. I said to her when my children were teenagers, “I think it’s time for me to go to work Mother. I’ve never done anything. It’s time.” The marriage was falling apart, and somewhere in the back of my stupid brain, I thought there was a need to do something. She goes, “Whatever you do, don’t work somewhere where you pull clothes on and off of people.” I can hear her saying it. And she wasn’t doing anything in those days. When my father took sick and died, she then bought a bookstore, something she wanted to do all her life. So a little more erudite than pulling clothes on and off. Years ago, it was not the most divine job. It was called the salesperson— saleslady. With many jobs, you have to make better of them than what they are. So I did try to do that. And I think I did. She had a salon and I do the same thing. Half of the people that come here don’t buy anything. I should really charge you just to talk.

TNP: Do you think that shopping in a store will always be superior to online shopping in your mind?

BH: Oh, there’s no question. I see the Zappos boxes in my elevator hall. The guy that picks up those boxes in the afternoon, the returns— he should get an award. He should be paid overtime. I mean, how can you buy something— now look, I’m old — but how do you go and buy a beautiful dress or a beautiful suit without touching them? Without feeling them? Without trying them on? Without seeing yourself in them? How do you do that? You can’t do it at home when you lift them out of the box. And I know it’s successful, but by the same token there’s a lot of unsuccessful fashion around. People look pretty awful.

TNP: Having said that, whats a trend or a certain piece of fashion that you really dont like?

BH: Oh, I’m known for one thing. I’m known for saying white jeans. I loathe them. I see everything that’s wrong in them. I follow them when I walk to work in the morning. They can be a size 44 and a half and they’re juggling like jelly in those white jeans. It’s almost an obsession.

TNP: You really hate them?

BH: As much as I hate men and their Isis beards.

TNP: You hate white jeans as much as you hate Isis beards?

BH: Yes. And my assistant will laugh about it because she’ll come in in them. There’s something not clean about them. I’m talking about the world walking in them. Never forget now, when you see them on the street and you see who’s in them…they enlarge your butt like you’ve never butted in your life. I’ve also never owned a pair of blue jeans in my life.

TNP: You’ve ruined white jeans for us! You dont like blue jeans either?

BH: I like blue jeans, but I’ve never owned a pair. I’ve tried them on. I’ve tried 200 dollar ones on, and I’ve tried thirty dollar ones on. I can’t. They’re very claustrophobic to me. All my life I’ve never worn a jean. Never. But my mother always said I walked to a different drummer.

TNP: So, is there anything that looks good on everyone?

BH: What! [Shocked] A pair of sunglasses? That’s hiding from the world though, sunglasses. You don’t have to look at anyone.

I have a real obsession. I don’t use a cell phone. They finally resorted to giving me a flip-top phone and I still don’t use it. It’s the third one the store has given me. This morning I got in the elevator coming up here, and three young women got in the elevator, and one young man. I said to myself, “How long, from the first floor to the third floor, is it going to take for them to open their phones and look at them, so they don’t have to eyeball me?” Each one of them opened up their phone. Now, whom are they texting from the first floor to the third floor so that they don’t have to look at me? Scrolling. They’re scrolling so they don’t have to make eye contact with me. It’s easier than saying good morning.

I was in front of a stoplight yesterday coming to work — the car stopped at a light. It was raining. I watched a woman on Park Avenue and 88th Street packing her bag— signaling a cab, packing her bag, and holding her phone. I played a game with myself and I said, “Is she going to pack the phone when she’s putting everything else into the handbag?” She kept the phone and used her hand to pack everything! What is the obsession with all of you with the phone? What did you all do before you had a phone?

TNP: I dont know. You know youre absolutely right, but its like a sickness.

BH: Whom are you all speaking to? You all will have no thumbs.

TNP: That’s true, we will probably be thumbless. So, what are some of your favorite New York restaurants?

BH: Well, I have friend that’s a foodie, so he takes me everywhere, he and his wife. I live up in the Eighties, and I like Paola’s, up on 92nd and Madison. It’s clubby and wonderful and noisy and it’s two blocks from where I live. I’m comfortable there. It’s Italian. I adore I Sodi. And then Rita Sodi and Jody Williams opened a new restaurant called Via Carota, which is one of the best I’ve ever eaten at.

TNP: Do you wish people would dress more for dinner?

BH: Oh, I don’t care. I’ve given that up. I grew up with very good cooking. I grew up in Chicago, Illinois. It was a little more normal. It’s not New York. We really had home and hearth. I’m a big home and hearth-er believe it or not. I am. It’s very important to me. I put out a proper tray every night for my dinner. I have square trays that we used to sell here. And I’ve never used a paper napkin in my life. I use a proper placemat and matching napkin and it’s set out: plate, glass, something for a salad, and whatever. I eat like you were coming for dinner. I will not degrade myself.

TNP: Do you ever order takeout?

BH: Takeout? I have never ordered— my children laugh at me. They say, “MOM!” I have never ordered takeout.

TNP: So do you cook every night?

BH: Yes. Or I cook it on the weekends. I have celery remoulades sitting there for tonight or I have cold potato salad and a roast chicken. I’ll have a quiche that I bought, or I have fresh fruit and arugula salad and some soup. I’ve always said to my children, I’m too embarrassed to call and say, “I’d like to order so and so for one.” I’ve never done it! I’ve never had one of those guys with the things on come to my door – nor do I ever intend to. I have Milano Market up on Third Avenue in the Eighties and it’s a wonderful Italian place. I can go get a piece of lasagna or something, but that’s as far as I go. I get home at six-ish and I eat at 7:30, and by that time I’ve made my drink.

TNP: Whats your drink? Do you have a drink every night?

BH: Oh, two! Vodka. Sometimes I put cranberry in it, sometimes I put water in it, sometimes I put lemon in it, sometimes I treat myself to cherry soda— you know like seltzer with cherry in it. And then I keep fresh mint in my vodka bottle. I love the taste of mint.

TNP: Have you always had vodka every night?

BH: Of course. It takes me down. It’s hard to come off of this. 

TNP: So, in the same vein as the new black whats the new potato right now?

BH: Bad taste.

TNP: If you could host a dinner party with any five people, living or dead, who would they be? What would you toast to?

BH: My world is so crowded with people; I couldn’t keep it down to five.

I think I’d drink to how lucky I’ve been. In your eighty-eighth year to still be verbal and have so many wonderful people surrounding you…I’ve only realized that in my later years – how fortunate I am. I think that’s what happens to us. In our youth we don’t really understand. We’re so busy fighting to be something or somebody; we don’t realize how lucky we are.

*Betty Halbreich, photographed at Bergdorf Goodman in New York, NY by Danielle Kosann. Betty wears an Opening Ceremony dress.

If you loved this story you’ll also love reading interviews with Linda Rodin, Iris Apfel, and Beatrix Ost.