Helen Rose Meets Jane Fonda: Costume Craziness Commences

helen rose photo.jpg
Costume designer Helen Rose.

In 1981, the great Hollywood costume designer Helen Rose (1904 – 1985) authored a slim memoir, Just Make Them Beautiful—L.B. Mayer’s instructions to Rose when he hired her at MGM—that conceals as much as it reveals.

When I first read Rose’s book, I suspected, as I wrote in my previous post, that she was Jewish.

Faithful Seraphic Secret reader, Kathy Soto, an amateur genealogist, did some research for me and discovered Helen Rose’s authentic roots.

Thank you, Kathy. Hey, now you’re famous.

Rose claims that her paternal grandfather, “… spoke with a Scottish burr… and read his Bible in Hebrew every night of his adult life.”

The impression Rose gives is that she springs from sturdy Scottish roots, steeped in the Church of Scotland.

In fact, her paternal grandfather was a Russian Jew, almost certainly orthodox, who was learning Torah. No doubt, seeking to escape the murderous pogroms committed by blood-thirsty Cossacks, Helen’s grandfather emigrated to Great Britain and settled in Scotland where Helen’s father William was born. William made his way to America, settled in Chicago and married Ray—probably from the Yiddish name Raize—daughter of Sophie Levy.

Like so many Hollywood Jews—legendary costume designer Edith Head also concealed her Jewish roots—Helen Rose felt compelled to hide the fact that she was Jewish. Helen’s husband, Harry Rose, was also Jewish—he came from the same Chicago neighborhood. His real name was Rosenstein. Harry’s mother was named Winkler.

In any case, in her memoir, Helen Rose goes to great lengths not to insult her powerful Hollywood co-workers. When she wrote her book with screenwriter, producer, novelist Sidney Sheldon, most of her friends were still alive. Helen was a veteran Hollywood player and knew better than to dish dirt on those who just might dish back.

Keep in mind that Rose worked with a huge array of Hollywood’s famously tempermental stars. Some were even a bit insane. For instance, Rose explains that in 1935, Mae Murray—almost certainly bi-polar—insisted that seamstresses sew her elaborate merry widow gown wearing white gloves.

Overall, Helen Rose carefully avoids letting her true feelings shine through.

But for one noticeable exception: Jane Fonda

Here’s the establishing shot. It is 1962, L.B. Mayer is no longer around and the studio system is in serious decline. Rose recognizes that the center of gravity has shifted from ego-maniacal producers to ego-maniacal stars.

A newcomer to MGM, Jane Fonda was cast in a light comedy, Period of Adjustment. This was not a fashion picture. Jane portrayed a typical Tennessee Williams unsophisticated small town girl. The clothes should have been bought in a budget shop rather than specially designed. But Jane insisted that everything be made especially for her…

I was told to send sketches of the wardrobe to her in New York for her approval. This was something that could never have happened during the reign of L.B. Mayer. He was a firm believer that a star should be beautiful, stick to her acting and not try to produce, direct, rewrite the script or design the clothes.

Jane Fonda, publicity still from
Period of Adjustment.

Jane called from New York to tell me that she simply adored the sketches—they were exactly what she wanted. I began to think that I had misjudged her for she was an angel over the phone. A few days later she called back to ask if she could wear a ‘Mongolian goat’ coat in one sequence instead of the one I designed. She said it was inexpensive fur and she felt it was “just right” for the heroine. I had never heard of such an animal, and neither had anyone else…

Rose sends her assistants in search of a goat coat. It is a frantic and futile odyssey. The MGM wardrobe department finally admits defeat—probably for the first time in their long, distinguished history. Jane Fonda is disappointed, but, wouldn’t you know, shows up with her very own goat coat that resembles, a “very tired, very shaggy, unkempt, long-haired sheep dog.”

When Jane arrived for the fittings she was still in her angelic mood from which she never deviated. I had made a point to have the outfits look exactly like each sketch, but by the time we got through with the fittings she had changed every outfit. She snipped here, added there, changed this and altered that. I resisted for a while, then, realizing it was a losing battle, sat back and let her take over. When the wardrobe was finished she loved every piece of that disheveled mess, which looked as though it had come from some third-rate thrift store on the wrong side of town.

Jane requested a new set of sketches to match the redesigned wardrobe. To keep her happy I had them made, but refused to sign them. I told her that she should sign them herself, for they were really her designs. She became very determined and insisted that I put my name on them. She believed the designs were so great the fashion press would go into ecstasy and want to reproduce them. I stood my ground and never did sign them…

… I then did something I had never done before or since—I had my name omitted from the film credits.


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  1. Kat
    Posted September 13, 2010 at 6:12 am | Permalink

    I believe that Harry Rosenstein was from Pennsylvania.

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  2. Robert Avrech
    Posted September 6, 2010 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    Thanks so much for writing. I do understand why so many early Hollywood Jews changed their names, for a more American flavor. Times have changed and it’s nice to know that such a strategy is no longer necessary.
    I’m a great admirer of your great Aunt’s work and if you have any family anecdotes, please let me know and we can arrange an interview.
    Have a wonderful Rosh Hashanah.

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  3. Rebekah Shwarootz
    Posted September 5, 2010 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

    I am the great niece of Helen Rose. My great uncle was Harry Rosenstein. Harry and my grandmother were siblings. Harry’s mother was a Winkler and his father was a Rosenstein. Wish I could learn more of those ancestrial roots. Harry was a sibling of 7 children and my uncles all seemed to have shortened or changed their last names as well. Thanks for posting and maybe you are onto something special through your blog!

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  4. Robert J. Avrech
    Posted August 23, 2010 at 6:08 pm | Permalink

    Thanks so much for the information. Indeed, Christian Science was very popular in Hollywood from the 20’s right thorough the late 40’s. With the widespread use of anti-biotics, the lure of the religion dramatically declined. Currently, Christian Science is the fastest declining belief system in America. Their valuable real estate properties are being sold at an astonishing rate.

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  5. Lzzyblyzzt
    Posted August 23, 2010 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

    Just to round out your comments on Helen Rose’s religion — she was a Christian Scientist. I read an article she wrote for one of the church’s publications a few years before she passed on. It was as lovely as the costumes she designed.

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  6. Posted June 28, 2010 at 12:43 am | Permalink

    ‘The Merry Widow’ is something of a curse film. John Gilbert died before his time and Erich von Stroheim barely saw out the silent era. Still, you can make a similar case for many silent stars. Mae Murray’s story is one of the crueller ones.

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  7. Robert J. Avrech
    Posted June 25, 2010 at 7:18 am | Permalink

    Sorry, I did not make it clear that this production of The Merry Widow was a Fanchon and Marco dance show. Helen Rose did a lot of work for this popular brother and sister dance team.
    Mae Murray was finished in Hollywood. She was a huge silent star, but walked away in the middle of a MGM production to marry a gold digging European count. After spending all her money, he dumped her.
    But Hollywood was not about to welcome her back.
    The only work she could get was various dance gigs.
    She died in abject poverty.

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  8. Posted June 25, 2010 at 6:00 am | Permalink

    Minor typo there Robert – Merry Widow was made in 1925.

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  9. ELevy
    Posted June 25, 2010 at 3:29 am | Permalink

    What a great story about a great woman. Helen Rose is a hero that we can all look up to. She knew when to compromise, when to back down and when to stand up for what she believed in. Quite a delicate balancing act in Hollywood yesturday or today. Thanks for the story. Shabbat Shalom!

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  10. Robert J. Avrech
    Posted June 24, 2010 at 7:05 pm | Permalink

    The only human rights violation in Gaza is happening to one man, a Jew: Gilad Shalit.
    The dinosaur media can’t be bothered because Shalit’s kidnapping and imprisonment only points out that Hamas and their Western enablers are just a bunch of Islamist barbarians.

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  11. Johnny
    Posted June 24, 2010 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

    OT – Ambassador Oren has a column in the WSJ on Gilad Shalit.
    Why did none of the stories about the blockade of Gaza mention the name Gilad Shalit? Were they worried about pointing out one of many reasons for the blockade?

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  12. Bill Brandt
    Posted June 24, 2010 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

    Again, from my Marlena Dietrich interview the grandson quoted Edith Head, who said that “the more the actor demanded changes the less they knew about fashion”.
    But then you already showed that through Hanoi Jane.
    She sure is – something. Still refuses to apologize to the Vietnam veterans.

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  13. Kat
    Posted June 24, 2010 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

    I could look him up. Harry’s family was difficult to look up. I don’t know when Harry changed his last name from Rosenstein to Rose. I will give it a try.

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  14. PCD
    Posted June 24, 2010 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

    Question for the resident Genealogists: Is Henry and Max Winkler in Harry Rose’s mother’s relation? I have some Winklers in my family tree, but they are German Lutheran in Wisconsin.

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  15. Johnny
    Posted June 24, 2010 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

    Good try Robert, but anything you say cannot make me me despise Hanoi Jane more than I already do.

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  16. Jeremiah
    Posted June 24, 2010 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

    The ‘do in Pic #1 looks like a still from An Inconvenient Truth.

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