Costume Designer Helen Rose’s (Not So) Nice Jewish Boyfriend

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Costume Designer Helen Rose

A two-time winner of the Academy Award for Costume Design—The Bad and the Beautiful, 1952, I’ll Cry Tomorrow, 1955—Helen Rose (1904 – 1985) was one of Hollywood’s greatest wardrobe designers.

Born on Chicago’s South Side, Rose studied at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts. Her first job was designing costumes for chorus girls in vaudeville and nightclub acts.

Rose moved to Los Angeles in 1929, worked for 20th Century Fox for several months, and then political back-stabbing at the studio—ruthless people these costume designers—put an end to that gig. She was chief designer for the Ice Follies for fourteen years.

L.B. Mayer became aware of her work and signed her to MGM in 1943 where she gradually became a favorite of producer Joe Pasternak. Rising young stars Grace Kelly, Liz Taylor, Ann Blyth, Jane Powell, Pier Angeli, and Debbie Reynolds loved Rose’s strong silhouette adorned with simple, subdued decoration. Rose gave these young actresses a soft, practical look that still managed to be glamorous. They all asked Rose to design their private wardrobes and their wedding gowns.

Expert at the difficult art of chiffon design, Rose ascended in the cut-throat MGM wardrobe department. Soon enough, head designer Irene, aristocratic and arrogant, resigned in anger to open her own couture shop.

Rose’s autobiography, Just Make Them Beautiful, written with Sidney Sheldon, is really just a series of vignettes. Rose does not give the year of her birth—not unusual for women at that time—and she never gives her maiden name.

Rose claims that her paternal grandfather was Scottish, pious, and read the Bible in the original Hebrew.

I suspect that Rose was Jewish, but like so many American Jews who were desperate to assimilate, perhaps Rose wanted to obscure her origins.

Legendary costume designer Edith Head, the daughter of Max Posener and Anna Levy, was ashamed of her parents because, she said, “They looked too Jewish.”

Anyhoo.

When Rose was a teenager in Chicago, a struggling designer, she had a boyfriend:

Though my father had a terrific sense of humor, he was extremely puritanical and dignified. Anyone in show business or at least arty I could not bring home. He disapproved of most of my boyfriends, with the exception of one whom my mother also liked. Babe came from an affluent family, drove a big Stutz, took me to the finest places, was very well-mannered and never fresh.

The never fresh might have been something of a red flag.

I was working downtown for Ernie Young [a costume house] but at night I would often have to go to the Chez Pierre, or one of the other clubs, to follow up on some new costume. Babe had a car, plenty of money and was always eager to accompany me—a rarity among my boyfriends. My parents felt I was quite safe in his company.

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For Grace Kelly’s wedding gown Rose used twenty-five yards of silk taffeta and one hundred yards of silk net. The 125-year-old rose point lace was purchased from a museum and thousands of tiny pearls were hand-sewn on the veil by a small army of wardrobe assistants. The wedding dress has been preserved in the permanent collection of the costume department at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Prohibition was still in effect; the Depression hadn’t yet arrived. It was the Roaring Twenties in Chicago and the night clubs, cafes and theaters were booming. Everybody danced and had fun, but Babe was not a good dancer. Today he would have been considered “square,” instead of the usual box of chocolates or flowers, he brought me books. He gave me Indian Love Lyrics and a beautiful colored book on costumes which I have in my library today. More important—he encouraged me to continue my career.

He once invited me to see his laboratory as he was studying ornithology. Once was quite enough. It frightened me and I was repulsed. His father and brothers had given him a room at the top of their mansion in an affluent section of Chicago’s South Side. The laboratory was complete with operating table, glass cases of surgical instruments. On the walls were birds he had shot, stuffed and mounted.

Shades of Norman Bates in Hitchcock’s Psycho, 1960.

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Helen Rose’s costume design sketch for Debbie Reynolds in Goodbye Charlie, 1964.

About six months after I met him, I was on my way to work one morning and saw in huge headlines that an atrocious, senseless murder had been committed. I almost fainted when I saw the picture of Babe and of a fellow he had introduced me to as “his best friend.” They had been accused of murdering a young boy. I immediately called my mother and she had already heard the news. We had no radio, but in those days when something unusual or important happened, paper boys would run through the streets with a bundle of newspapers crying, “Extra! Extra! Read all about it!” I was sure that some mistake had been made and my mother shared my feelings. To connect my friend with such a crime was just ridiculous; he was the last person in the world we would suspect capable of such a thing. Though we called him “Babe” his full name was Nathan Leopold, Jr. and his friend was Richard Loeb.

And of course, Hitchcock’s Rope, 1948 was inspired by the notorious Leopold and Loeb case.

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Rose founded her own ready to wear label in 1958. Among her largest buyers were Bonwit Teller of New York, Joseph Magnin in San Francisco, Giorgio’s of Beverly Hills, Marshall Field in Chicago, and Sara Frederick’s of Palm Beach.

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23 Comments

  1. Elletopo
    Posted March 5, 2014 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

    A little late coming on here to comment, but Helen Rose is my great-aunt.  Yes, she is Jewish (or, at least, started out life that way but eventually converted to Christian Science with my grandmother).  Bromberg was her maiden name, and the name “Rose” was a shortened version of her married name after she married Harry Rosen.  Just wanted to throw a little additional information in here.
    This wasn’t a story talked too much about in our family, but I do remember once when I was heartbroken to find out a boyfriend was actually gay, my grandmother telling me, “Don’t worry, it could have been worse.”

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    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted March 5, 2014 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

      Thanks so much for the valuable information. Any family anecdotes and photos to share with us? We greatly admire your great-aunt’s artistry.

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      • Elletopo
        Posted March 5, 2014 at 8:30 pm | Permalink

        Oh, where to start!  I was twelve when she passed, so I never realized just how big she was until later.  When we would come over to visit, she would let me dress up her heavy gold statues in Barbie clothes.  But the memories I have are of a wonderful, fun and funny woman.  She was always impeccably dressed–thinking back, I cannot recall a single time she wasn’t wearing either a beaded or sequined top.  However, she was also a very messy eater.  She would take me to the movies and order ice cream bonbons, and sure enough, she would be wearing a good portion of them by the time the movie was over.  It never bothered her, and she would just laugh it off.  
        When Jim Henson was making THE GREAT MUPPET CAPER, she was one of the costume designers he contacted about designing an outfit for one of the “fantasy” scenes.  She agreed to do it free of charge–somewhat.  She would come out of retirement and do one design if she could have “Miss Piggy” send a letter to her niece (me).  My mom still has that letter.
        I could go on for hours, but believe me, I could have never imagined a better aunt than she was.  Thank you for this chance to remember her.
         
        Jen

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        • Robert J. Avrech
          Posted March 6, 2014 at 8:10 am | Permalink

          Jen:
          Helen Rose was one of the half-dozen most important and innovative costume designers ever to work in Hollywood. If you have any more anecdotes or family photos of Helen that you’d like to share with us, please let me know and we’ll post them.

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    • Posted April 10, 2015 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

      I worked with Helen Rose in the later years of her life , doing her fashion show. So happy to read this post from Jenny! Helen was a wonderful woman and an amazing designer. How do I get in touch with Jenny and Susie?

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  2. Vennetta
    Posted September 26, 2010 at 9:02 am | Permalink

    I love her style, I wish I had her books or something she has design. She was a wonderful and beautiful lady.
    Vennetta~

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  3. Robert J. Avrech
    Posted June 15, 2010 at 7:44 am | Permalink

    Siren:
    Indeed, costume designers are notorious back biters, but hey, that’s the Hollywood normal. I can’t stand being in a room full of screenwriters because all they do is gossip like a bunch of New Jersey yentas.
    Your observation about wardrobe and acting is very true. Put another way: costume surface translates into emotional depth.
    Rose’s book is hard to find, and the used editions are quite expensive on the internet. I got mine through sheer luck. A local library was having a sale—each book for one dollar—and I found her battered volume at the bottom of a bin. I felt guilty as I handed over my dollar to the nice librarian.

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  4. Posted June 15, 2010 at 3:20 am | Permalink

    Oh, I loved this. Completely new information to me, and a finale that I did not see coming despite the stuffed birds (although your “red flag” was clear enough and made me laugh).
    The jealousy of costume designers is a familiar theme, however. I do remember a late-career interview with Edith Head where she was still quite sniffy about Grace Kelly choosing Rose, and not her, to design the famous wedding gown. And another interview with a male designer (Jean Louis? maybe) where he cattily described Rose as “talent-free.” The simplicity of her designs led some to see them as negligible, but that they were not.
    When I was in acting school, one of the things they taught was that you simply could not play, for example, a seduction scene in sweatpants or even a cotton sundress and have it come off the same way as if you were wearing silk or, as so often with Rose, chiffon. Clothing affects every aspect of the way you see yourself, the way you move, the way others react to you. The modern clothes Rose designed contributed as much to an actress’s performance as the period things she did for something like Love Me or Leave Me or The Swan.
    Anyway, thanks very much. I now want to track down Rose’s book.

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  5. Alice
    Posted June 13, 2010 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

    That was really interesting.
    Thanks for that picture of Grace Kelly. In terms of looks I think she was perhaps ultimate feminine beauty. And the waistband on that wedding dress is only something a woman with a near perfect physique can pull off.

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  6. Posted June 13, 2010 at 10:28 am | Permalink

    Gorgeous gowns. A cousin of mine is a costume designer, all over North America, but I don’t think Hollywood.

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  7. Miranda Rose Smith
    Posted June 13, 2010 at 1:27 am | Permalink

    Miranda:
    Nope. No interest. Leopold and Loeb should have been executed.
    I Agree.
    Posted by: Robert J. Avrech at June 11, 2010 07:10 AM

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  8. Posted June 11, 2010 at 9:52 am | Permalink

    Robert
    The real murderer of Mary Phagan, whom Leo Frank was accused of killing, was likely Jim Conley. It was a very interesting case because in addition to the anti semitism it was also racist. Conley was a black man who cleverly fingered Frank. He spun a web of lies about how Frank had threatened him that he was untouchable because he had wealthy Jews from the East coast behind him. This contributed to the anti semetism that was begining to surround the case. The reason I say it was racist is because the investigators never thought that a black man was capable of concocting such a story. But Conley wasn’t just a child killer. He was smart.
    Ted

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  9. Posted June 11, 2010 at 7:47 am | Permalink

    Any relation to Edma Mode (“The Incredibles”)? I’m not that knowledgeable about Hollywood personalities.

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  10. Posted June 11, 2010 at 7:10 am | Permalink

    Miranda:
    Nope. No interest. Leopold and Loeb should have been executed.

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  11. Posted June 11, 2010 at 7:09 am | Permalink

    Bill:
    You’re an attentive student!
    Travis Banton was one of the greats of costume design and Dietrich counted on his designs throughout the classical period of her career.

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  12. Posted June 11, 2010 at 7:07 am | Permalink

    Johnny:
    There has never been a European style pogrom in America save the lynching of Leo Frank in Georgia, 1915. Frank was accused of murdering a little girl, but he was innocent.

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  13. Miranda Rose Smith
    Posted June 11, 2010 at 1:36 am | Permalink

    Dear Robert: Shabbat Shalom. Have you ever thought of doing a SEQUEL to ROPE or COMPULSION? A film about how, when Leopold was in prison, he volunteered to be a human guinea pig for malaria serum research and how, after his parole, he lived, worked and got married in Puerto Rico?

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  14. Bill Brandt
    Posted June 10, 2010 at 10:17 pm | Permalink

    Thanks to Robert I am getting a true cinematic education via the Avrech correspondence courses.
    I was listening on my mp3 player this morning while walking the dog – listening to one of the wonderful ICONS Radio Network interviews with the grandson of Marlene Dietrich and Travis Blanton, another of Robert’s studies (Paramount’s designer – see Robert – I AM paying attention in class!) , was apparently instrumental with her costumes.
    BTW Helen Rose’s label shown – Robinsons – was a famous Los Angeles area department store that I knew well while growing up there.
    The Department store is on the verge of extinction – my mother, a connoisseur of fine Dept stores (she was a buyer at another famous LA chain, Bullocks, considers Macy’s to be the cause of so many the store’s demise.
    But then I suppose this is simple economics – if there was a demand they’d still be here I guess.

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  15. Johnny
    Posted June 10, 2010 at 5:41 pm | Permalink

    Talk about dodging a bullet. L & L were so detached from their victim that they were only concerned with the perfect murder and Bobby Franks could have become Helen Rose somewhere in the planning stage. And they probably would have gotten away with it but for Leopold’s glasses.
    The one thing about the crime is that it apparently did not unleash a wave of anti-Semitism. The media seemed pretty good back then of stirring up animosities. But I guess it was perceived as confined to the Jewish community and not something the Gentile population was worried about.

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  16. Posted June 10, 2010 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

    Sal:
    Costume designers are my favorite co-workers in Hollywood. They are amazing talents. And I always get free fashion advice—which I never follow. L.L. Bean is my main designer.
    The reason Mayer hired Rose was because Adrian—indeed, the master—had just retired and L.B. looking for a replacement. Irene was head designer but she treated Mayer like an office boy and her whole demeanor was quite, um, off-putting. Mayer had a feeling that Rose just might be the head designer he was looking for. He was right.
    Rose’s white chiffon cocktail dress for Liz Taylor in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was an immediate sensation and remains a classic.

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  17. Sal
    Posted June 10, 2010 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

    The ornithology gave it away. Masterful set-up!
    I always look for the costume designer in the credits, as I costume, in a very small way (local community theater) myself. Head, Irene, Helen Rose, Orry-Kelly and the Master- Adrian.
    I keep a sketchpad and pencil handy to ‘borrow’ ideas. This can get out of hand, though. I missed the tension of the whole denouement of Diabolique b/c I was trying to work out the specifics of the French handsewn nightgown she was wearing while wandering the school halls. Thank goodness for DVR!

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