AS A TEEN-AGER DIANE ARBUS used to stand on the window ledge of her parents’ apartment at the San Remo, eleven stories above Central Park West. She would stand there on the ledge for as long as she could, gazing out at the trees and skyscrapers in the distance, until her mother pulled her back inside. Years later Diane would say: “I wanted to see if I could do it.” And she would add, “I didn’t inherit my kingdom for a long time.”
Ultimately she discovered her kingdom with her camera. Her dream was to photograph everybody in the world. This meant developing tenacity, this meant taking risks, and Diane was always very, very brave; some people even called her reckless. But it seemed perfectly natural, since in her own imagination she believed she was descended from “a family of Jewish aristocrats”—given her definition that aristocrats possess a kind of existential courage. As far as she was concerned, aristocracy had nothing to do with money or social position. Aristocracy was linked to a nobility of mind, a purity of spirit, as well as inexhaustible courage. These were qualities Diane Arbus believed to be of utmost importance in life.
Actually, her maternal grandfather, Frank Russek, a short, mild-mannered man, had traveled to the United States from Boleslawiec, Poland, in 1880 and as a teen-ager kept from starving by selling peanuts on trains going from St. Louis to Kansas City. Then he and his brothers Simon and I.H. moved to New York, where they became successful bookies. The only reason they decided to trade furs, they used to tell Diane, was that it gave them something to do in the winter when the racetrack closed down. By 1897 Frank and I.H. had opened Russeks Furs in a tiny storefront at 14th Street and University Place in Manhattan. Minks from Michigan, chinchilla from the Andes, squirrel, beaver, and fox furs were all displayed in their tiny shop.
In 1900 Frank married Rose Anholt, a tough, husky-voiced young woman. Rose worked in the fur shop, too, before the birth of her daughter, Gertrude, in 1901 and her son, Harold, in 1902, who later joined the fur business.
The Russeks were so successful at creating fashionable, reasonably priced furs that by 1913 they were able to move their business to Fifth Avenue, although to equally cramped quarters (the store measured twenty-five by ten feet). Some said the small size was conducive to selling; lines of customers stood outside the shop waiting to get in.
Chorus girls and presidents’ wives came to Russeks; the architect Stanford White had a black broadtail coat, lined with mink and collared with otter, made to order. Occasionally, to boost sales, Frank Russek locked a less famous customer into a fitting booth until he or she agreed to buy.
In 1915 a poor grocer’s son from Crown Heights named David Nemerov started working at Russeks as a window dresser, at a salary of $25 a week. Within two years he impressed the sixteen-year-old Gertrude Russek with his saturnine good looks, his ambition, his sense of style. He was an excellent tailor, and while they were courting he whipped up a fashionable evening gown for her that was, in her word, “gorgeous.”
By now the Russeks were living in splendor on Park Avenue and they did not approve of the romance between Gertrude, their beautiful daughter, and the impoverished David. But their disapproval didn’t stop David, and he continued his ardent pursuit of Gertrude, even taking her to meet his father, Meyer Nemerov, a frail but tyrannical man who spent most of his days praying at a Brooklyn synagogue.
Long ago in Kiev, Meyer had run off and married his secret sweetheart, Fanny, against his parents’ wishes—he’d been promised to somebody else. Then he enraged his parents even further by deciding to come to America. “It will be an adventure!” he cried, never imagining the misery awaiting him in New York. He left Russia in 1891 and Fanny followed a year later carrying their first baby, Joe, a pair of candlesticks, a blanket roll, and a samovar, which always stood in a place of honor in their various tenement apartments.
In the wretchedly crowded Jewish ghetto of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Fanny bore six more children, including twin brothers (one of whom died), while Meyer grubbed and scrambled, working in sweatshops and selling real estate. He was eventually able to open his own basement grocery store, but without much success. Homesick for Kiev, uprooted from his culture and his language, he felt himself doomed. Still, he clung to his heritage. Orthodox Judaism for him embraced politics, religion, diet, a set of values, a way of life. After work, even though he was exhausted, he would go to the synagogue and study the Talmud. Eventually he moved his family to Brooklyn, where he founded a yeshivah in Crown Heights to help preserve the Faith.
As time went on, he staked everything on the destiny of his four sons, exhorting them to work hard, keep clean, and get an education. “I can’t make it, but you can. You know English. The American tempo—it’s in your blood.”
Growing up, the sons sold pencils and shined shoes on street corners to help Meyer pay the rent. And they all studied late into the night. Ultimately Willy and Meyer, the youngest sons, became “cloak-and-suiters” (much to their father’s disappointment). But Joe, the eldest, became a “big Broadway lawyer,” and when David Nemerov married Gertrude Russek, he reached the pinnacle—he would be a “merchant prince.”
At Passover, David was fussed over the most. “Uncle David was Meyer’s favorite because he’d done everything right, including marrying into a wealthy family, which none of the older brothers had been able to do,” said a cousin, Dorothy Evslin.
Even David’s slender elegance (he often wore a blue shirt with white collar and cuffs) was in direct contrast with his three brothers as well as his sister Bessie. They were squat and roly-poly as pumpkins—like their mother, Fanny, a kind, generous woman who painted pretty watercolors and was an expert seamstress. “She taught David to sew,” his sister Bessie said.
At Passover, out of respect for their father, the Nemerov brothers tried to hide their differences, their feelings of resentment and competition. Even so, David and Joe could barely be civil to each other. This was because Joe, a bachelor, lived openly with his chorus-girl mistress. Once or twice David voiced disapproval. Later his cousins would say that David had no right to pass judgment when his own marriage was so compromised: Gertrude Russek Nemerov had borne their son, Howard, who was to become one of America’s most distinguished poets, three months after the wedding.
Still, Gertrude and David’s first years together were happy ones. They lived in a large apartment on West 73rd Street with plenty of servants, even including a strict German nanny for the baby. Meanwhile David, who was determined to be very rich, was working long hours at the fur shop, gaining the respect of the entire Russek clan. David had a flair for retail and promotion—and he could spot fashion trends. After attending the Paris collections in 1920 he became so excited by the opulence and style of the clothes, by the braids and buttons and embroidery of haute couture, he realized that selling furs alone would never be enough to hold his interest.
He began dreaming of having a specialty shop of his own. Russeks Furs was so successful financially—the Russeks were now millionaires—David saw no reason why the store couldn’t expand to include dresses, suits, lingerie, hats. But to do that would require more space. Russeks would have to move.
Frank and I.H. didn’t particularly want to move or expand; they were content with their thriving business as it was. What they really cared about was playing the horses. But David went on trying to convince them that he could turn Russeks into a specialty shop to end all specialty shops. He would make it a showplace, he promised—a glittering spectacle with the finest possible merchandise. Russeks’ windows would be veritable theater—the various departments, fantasy lands…
In time the Russek brothers discussed the project with Max Weinstein, a former coat manufacturer who ran a bank in the old Waldorf-Astoria Hotel on 34th Street. He thought the idea of a specialty store was great—he put up half a million dollars and the Russek brothers put up another half (David still another). Weinstein would be president of Russeks, Frank and I.H. would handle the fur business, and David would be merchandising director.
In 1923 a very grand Russeks opened at Fifth Avenue and 36th Street. The outside of the seven-story building (formerly Gorham Silversmiths, designed by Stanford White) was imposing; with its balconies and marble columns, it resembled a Venetian palazzo.
Inside, on David’s orders, purple velvet carpets covered the floor, and salesmen and salesladies behaved obsequiously. Furs remained the foundation of the store’s financial success (furs were displayed on the main floor as well as the second, partly because Nemerov believed that furs, in some mysterious way, were a primitive symbol of strength: “Fur creates a protective image,” he told one of his buyers once), but there were dress departments, too, both moderately priced and expensive; there was a millinery department and a boutique devoted to lingerie; there was a beauty parlor and a bridal salon.
From the beginning David proved to be a fashion innovator (to this day he is remembered by people like Ben Zuckerman, the dress manufacturer, as one of the most creative retailers in the business). In the 1920s he pulled together Russeks wardrobes for movie stars like Mae Murray and Norma Talmadge; he was the first to design a silver-fox fur, the first to introduce fur cardigans. For ten years he published a Russeks fashion-furs booklet which was bought and followed by more than two hundred fine stores throughout the country. It was his idea to make copies of Paris originals—other stores followed his lead. Rip-offs of Chanel suits and Paquin coats were sold at Russeks. In 1928 you could buy a copy of a Vionnet pleated afternoon dress for $23.50 at Russeks—“not extravagant but smart.”
Nemerov also spent a fortune in newspaper ads extolling Russeks chic. He ran ads every day, alternating photographs with illustrations (also an innovation—nobody used photographs in newspaper ads), and his copy was, according to Andrew Goodman, president of Bergdorf Goodman, “the snappiest of all of retail.”
Sometimes, however, Frank Russek would read an ad and then throw it on the floor and stamp on the elegant copy. He believed Russeks’ identification with high style would ultimately kill its mass fashion potential. He and Nemerov never stopped arguing about Russeks’ ambivalent merchandising policies. On the one hand, it was a high-fashion fur and specialty shop, its quality comparable to that of Henri Bendel on West 57th Street. On the other hand, flanked by Lord and Taylor and B. Altman, Russeks was in the heart of the 34th Street market and presumably trying to reach that market. Yet, unlike Lord and Taylor or B. Altman, which were spacious, well-designed stores, Russeks suffered from its physical situation. Soon after they moved into the Gorham Building, the Russeks realized—too late—that the seven floors were overly narrow and that selling space was hampered by the design of the rooms: their old-fashioned columns and bays, although lovely to look at, restricted traffic and display areas. The extreme narrowness of the main floor stifled the potential of a bustling main-floor operation, which Frank Russek believed was the mainspring of retail profitability.
Ben Lichtenstein, advertising director of Russeks for thirty years, says, “Russeks survived as long as it did mostly due to David’s enthusiasm and drive. He was a fantastic promoter—a showman like Bernie Gimbel and John Wanamaker.” He never created exploitation wars with his arch competitor, I. J. Fox (across the street)—the kind of war Gimbels cultivated with Macy’s. “No—David did classy promotion which made Russeks seem successful all the time, even when we were going through rough periods. He knew fashion was theater, that fashion was ephemeral—it kept changing. Fashion kept David in a state of perpetual excitement, and his excitement was contagious.”
And he seemed clairvoyant. He knew that one season baguette jewelry and lace fans would be the thing, along with fur-trimmed coats. He always could sense what women wanted; he could tell husbands what to give their mistresses for Christmas—French perfume, gold mules, satin lingerie, bunches of artificial violets—and he’d be right. Eventually Russeks got the reputation of being the store for “kept women” and chorus girls. “There was always something a little bit excessive about Russeks,” Eleanor Lambert, a fashion press agent says. “A little bit vulgar.”
By 1935 Nemerov had established a bureau (with Ruth Waltz, a fashion economist) equivalent to the couturier laboratory in Paris to determine fashion trends. He found that suits sell in cycles—that invariably a peak suit season followed a peak bright-color dress season. And as a creator of Russeks furs—which were the Russeks trademark; “We were the largest buyers of raw fur pelts in the world,” Ben Lichtenstein says—“David Nemerov had a particular genius.” He knew women would always pursue furs because they were so soft and luxurious. So he labored in the Russeks workroom along with the designers to create the first black-ermine afternoon coat, the first full-length badger coat, shawls of mink and fox. He was the first to try to bleach mink.
He understood that both the shape of the fur and the shape of the woman must be carefully considered when cutting a fur coat, otherwise both would look ridiculous. And he was famous on Seventh Avenue for his long discussions with dress manufacturers on the pros and cons of a particular fabric such as silk jersey. Occasionally he wore a scarlet jacket in the office to prove that men didn’t have to wear brown or gray or blue.
According to Lichtenstein, David Nemerov had only one glaring fault: “With money he was hopeless.” Figures bored him. He had no idea how much money Russeks was making or losing—or if he himself had any money. “I don’t think he ever stepped into a bank or wrote out a check,” Lichtenstein says. “He had Russeks’ accountant pay all the household bills for Gertrude, and he’d often borrow little sums of money from me. If he wanted cash right away, he’d just scrawl ‘$50’ on a piece of paper and hand it to the Russeks cashier.”
Max Weinstein—a man utterly at home with figures (he not only ran Russeks, he was now chairman of the First National Country Bank, which he had built, complete with marble floors and gold tellers’ boxes, at 38th Street and Seventh Avenue, on the very site where he’d sold candy as a penniless immigrant boy)—was bothered by Nemerov’s casual attitude toward money. “My father and David Nemerov did not get along,” Max’s son Walter recalls. “They disagreed about practically everything, but never openly. My father was always very polite with David, and David was always very polite with him.” Meanwhile the Russek brothers and the Weinsteins continued to be close friends. The two families often vacationed together at Colorado Springs, and Frank Russek particularly enjoyed it when Max’s wife, Bertha Arbus, played the piano.