In the early 1940s, my mother was let go from a job she had at a dry cleaners. The first thing she did afterward was to go out and buy a red coat she had lusted over but could not afford. Buying it after losing her job was an act of outrageous optimism and faith.
Clothes have impact and make memories. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in the illustrated memoir by Ilene Beckerman called Love, Loss and What I Wore. A small and charming book, it packs a wallop you might not anticipate. What the author does is make us understand how many complex issues, especially for women, are tied up in the notion of what we wear. The book sold extremely well and has been translated into at least four other languages. Nora Ephron made it into a play that first appeared off Broadway and broke records there.
Ilene Beckerman was born in New York City in 1935. After working as vice president of an advertising agency, she published Love, Loss and What I Wore when she was 60 years old. Not that she meant to publish it; it was just meant to be shared with her five children who, as Ilene says, “didn’t think I had a life before I was their mother. Sometimes even I wondered.”
It’s a hallmark for Beckerman to present seemingly whimsical books that end up making you feel a lot: you can laugh out loud and you can tear up, all within a few pages. Her gift is to get to profundity through simplicity.
All her other titles are illustrated memoirs. What We Do for Love is about Beckerman’s relationships with men. She says she was looking for Prince Charming, “but never found him; Cinderella did.”
Mother of the Bride: The Dream, the Reality, The Search for a Perfect Dress is about helping to plan a daughter’s wedding, which the daughter wants to be perfect. It’s also about all the emotions involved in that process, including that Beckerman fears she’s losing her daughter: “Someone once said — maybe it was on General Hospital — ‘A woman has daughters so someone will need her.’ She doesn’t know until she gets older how much she needs them.” Also from that book: “Fifteen hundred dollars for a wedding cake? I could have a lifetime supply of Entenmann’s chocolate doughnuts!”
Makeovers at the Beauty Counter of Happiness chronicles the way women spend so much time and money on trying to look pretty, but it’s also about a 50th reunion from when she was 11, and in sixth grade. “I daydreamed about being 5-feet, 9-inches and walking into the reunion. ‘Who is that?’ I imagined Barbara-who-never-wanted-to-play-with-me would say.”
The Smartest Woman I Know is about Beckerman’s outspoken grandmother, Ettie, and it left me gasping for air because I was laughing so hard at the sex part. (Check out the book; on page 62 you’ll find the part I’m referring to). Also, the list of what Ettie kept in her purse is worth the price of the book.
Oprah did a profile of Ilene Beckerman. She’s written for the New York Times, the L.A. Times and many magazines. She’s co-written two plays, Sex: What She’s Really Thinking and Mom, It’s My Wedding. She speaks to women’s groups and book clubs all over the county. And she writes a very entertaining blog you can read at ilenebeckerman.com.
When I emailed Ilene about doing this event and suggested we have a phone call conference about it, here’s what she wrote back:
“I hate the phone. I have two phones. A cellphone. That’s the one I use even though I don’t talk on the phone. My kids don’t call. They’re always mad at me for something I did or didn’t do 50 years ago. Who cares? My grandkids call. You can call me anytime.” Later, she added, “I only Zoomed once. My face looked too fat.”
If you’re looking for a good laugh — and who isn’t, these days? — please join us.
Oak Parker and best-selling author Elizabeth Berg joins in conversation with Ilene Beckerman on Sunday, May 16, at 2 p.m. Brought in partnership with the Nineteenth Century Charitable Association. Free; $15 suggested donation. Register/more: nineteenthcentury.org.