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 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.