Finding my family history… on eBay

My family’s not very big on genealogy. I haven’t heard many stories about relatives who passed away before I was born. I dimly knew that my great-uncle Ben Zuckerman had been a succesful fashion designer, and that he was gay. But I hadn’t had a sense for how successful – and how colorful – he’d been.

The story my mother told was prompted by the fact that she’d recently been given a chair from my cousin. The chair had been my mother’s in the late 1960s. She gave it to her sister, who later gave to her daughter… who’s now returned it to my mother almost 40 years later. “But that’s nothing compared to the story of the suit.”

Ben Zuckerman, my father’s uncle, gave my mother three custom-made suits as a wedding gift, including a grey wool suit. A decade or more after the wedding, the suit no longer fit, and my mother passed the suit down to her sister. After a decade or so, her sister no longer fit in the suit, so she donated it to Goodwill. This upset my mother, who’d hoped to save the suit and pass it down to my sister. My grandmother, a veteran thrift store shopper, discovered the suit in a Goodwill store in the other side of New Hampshire. She’d lowered the hem on the skirt years earlier and recognized her stitching. She bought the suit and gave it back to my mother, who keeps it in her closet to this day.

“Couture never wears out,” my mother tells me. “And there’s probably a market for Ben Zuckerman fashion these days.”

There is, indeed. A vintage Ben Zuckerman gabardine jacket is selling on eBay for $225. And there’s a long trail of references to Ben’s work on the Internet.

In a Vogue article, “The Strength Beneath the Silk,” Hamish Bowles writes about Jacqueline Kennedy seeking fashion advice from Diana Vreeland. Kennedy only wore European-designed clothing and needed to find an American designer she could wear as first lady.

Diana Vreeland responded by suggesting an intriguing triumvirate of designers: Stella Sloat, Ben Zuckerman and Norman Norell. Sloat defined the signature simplicity of her well-made sportswear separates as “what is left after you take everything away.” Despite the thoroughly American feeling of her clothes, at times she included copies of Givenchy originals in her line. The Romanian-born Zuckerman was a fashion-industry stalwart working with his designer, Henry Shacter, to produce “the only clothes made in America that look as though Dior or Balenciaga made them.” It was Zuckerman’s line-for-line copy of a Pierre Cardin coat in purple wool that Jacqueline Kennedy had at first decided to wear for the Inauguration Day ceremonies (she wore it instead to tour the White House with Mamie Eisenhower).

Mom remarked that Ben had designed clothing for Mamie Eisenhower – I haven’t been able to confirm that story with my cursory online research. But according to Vintage Fashion Guild, “Zuckerman had the distinction of having the largest collection in most seasons; as many as 300 styles was common.” Perhaps one of the three hundred appealed to the first lady.

There’s an interesting story about Henry Shacter, the designer who helped Zuckerman bring French fashion to the US. According for former Women’s Wear Daily publisher James Brady:

Tailor Ben Zuckerman ( WWD called him “America’s Balenciaga”) pulled over at a New Jersey gas station, fell in love with the young man pumping the gas and drove away with him. The attractive grease monkey was a boxer between bouts named Harry Schacter. Ben taught him a little about fashion, made him his designing partner and the two gentlemen prospered as a happy couple.

I never met Ben Zuckerman. He retired in 1968, and I believe he passed away before I was born. But I’m now finding myself haunting eBay, looking for tangible evidence of my hopelessly romantic great-uncle, a high priest in a field I know absolutely nothing about.

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23 Responses to Finding my family history… on eBay

  1. Frankenstein says:

    Not the total fashion maven here, but that is a beautiful, beautiful jacket.

  2. Henok says:

    Should we use eBay to learn about our past and present history, costume and culture- instead of Second life ro Wikipedia?

  3. Elizabeth Zuckerman says:

    actually, i have the suit.

    fits almost perfectly.

    and harry and ben, amusingly, went on to live long lives together, with two poodles named for their initials…..

    fabulous with a capital “F”

  4. Ethan says:

    Henok, I think we should use whatever resources we can to learn about both the past and the future. This was a good reminder for me that not everything is in Wikipedia – sometimes you find the history by poking through the attic… and eBay is the attic of the Web. :-)

  5. Larry Lehmer says:

    What a great story! I especially liked the part of family history lost then reclaimed in a Goodwill store. I’m glad that you finally learned something about your great uncle. As a personal historian, I’m a bit biased, but I believe it’s our family stories that connect generations. Thanks for sharing yours.

  6. Antje Wilsch says:

    Ethan, this blog showed up for me in a totally unrelated google search, and i’ve just spent the last hour reading blog posts. What a great journal you have here.

    I’d love to bring some of your stories over to our permanent site if that ever interests you; i’d be happy to do the leg work. Your writings should be preserved, they’re great!

    Antje

  7. Susan says:

    I am researching a suit made by your uncle, Ben Zuckerman. Would you happen to know his date of birth and date of death, or anything else about his career as a designer? Thanks.

    Susan

  8. Louise K says:

    I can tell you that I love your uncle Ben’s suits. I have 7 right now, bought from Ebay and other vintage sites.
    They are, without question, the best made suits I own. I love them to death, and they still look fab even though they are 40-60 years old.
    Just a side note, according to Judith Balaban Quine, bridesmaid to Princess Grace, the lovely navy coat Princess Grace wore when she stepped off the boat in Monaco to marry Prince Rainier was a Zuckerman.

  9. Rosalind Pinks Chaiken says:

    I too am related toBen Zuckerman. My Grandmother was his first cousin. My father came from Chelsea Mass at age 18 and went to work for his2nd cousin and rose to prominence in the business. I didn’t know that Ben had any siblings. His family was my grandmother Lena Pinks and her brothers the Kirschens. We know Kraus and Harry Schacter. We had coatgs and suits made for us from the Zuckerman line. I own some and have Zuckerman fashion ads from Vogue and Harpers Bazaar. I too am interested in lineage and am curious when you say Zuckerman was your father’s uncle. Love to hear from you.

  10. Harvey Shub,M.D. says:

    Harry Shacter was my great uncle.Im not so sure about the the story of him pumping gas in New Jersey.The family was from coney Island in brooklyn.I new uncle ben very well and visted with him and harry in Rome and palm beach many times

  11. Peter Weisz says:

    Hi Ethan, My Mother was Margaret O’Neill Weisz. She was Ben’s Fashion Coordinator for many years, right up until he closed the business. At dinner one night BZ Designer Nick Savage and my Mother were discussing the Coco Channel Pink Suit Mrs. Kennedy was wearing the day JFK was assasinated. Coco Channel had sent the suit to BZ to be fitted on my Mother as her figure was just the same as Mrs. Kennedy’s. Have you ever heard this story? Could also share may storys about your Great Uncle!! Regards, Peter Weisz

  12. Laurel Sillins says:

    Greetings Ethan,
    I googled Ben Zuckerman fashions and saw your website, how fabulous that others have contributed! I am happy to inform you that I have several Ben Zuckerman suits left to me by my mother-in-law. Her husband owned Linton’s (women’s high end apparel) in Pittsburgh, PA during the 1960’s. His name was Sidney Sillins (born in Brooklyn, NY) and apparently was a mover and shaker in women’s high-end apparel shops at the time. According to my mother-in-law, who passed away peacefully New Year’s Day 2009, Ben Zuckerman’s designs were the best of the best. In fact, Rose Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy were both clients of Linton’s during the 1960’s. Prior to her passing at age 96 she still wore her Ben Zuckerman suits; she looked fabulous and received more compliments than can be counted. I can attest that your great-uncle’s women’s suits remain the best made articles of clothing I have ever seen. Your family has quite a bit to be proud of, what a legacy! If only all other clothing items were made as well as Ben Zuckerman’s….cei lavie. Best regards, Laurel Sillins

  13. Anne D Bernstein says:

    Hi! I just found your site when I Googled “Ben Zuckerman”. I just came from an estate sale on East 56th Street where I bought a Ben Zuckerman jacket. It probably was part of a suit at some point. It is beautifully made. So now I know more about him!

  14. Beau Bolinger says:

    I was the friend of Mr. Harry Shacter for 15 years in his late life—-He spoke of Ben very often—-Hope all are well–I miss my dear friend—Beau

  15. I was a partner to Mr Shacter for about 15 years—-And, Dr. Shub knew about the affair—-Beau—I was with him when he died in the state of Tennessee–Beau

  16. Beau Bolinger says:

    Hello–I would love to here from family of Ben Zuckerman or Harry Shacter—-I knew them both extremely well!! I lived the last 15 years with Harry Shacter in his Palm Beach apartment—We were Partners and lovers—–YES, they were GAY—-And, so were we—–I know the whole story of the both of them—-I can help with information about the two great gentleman—-Beau Bolinger—-I am currently living in Australia—-

  17. Katherine says:

    This is a question for Laurel Sillins-

    Do you know who owns Linton’s now?

    Thank you!!

  18. Gail says:

    I am also related to Ben Zuckerman. My grandmother Esther Gold (maiden name Zuckerman) was his niece and she had a brother Paul and sister Letty. She worked for him from the age of a teenager until the day he died. She was a secretary and personal assistant. Yes everyone knew they were gay. I recall my grandmother talking about the reading of his will where he stated those who did not care for his lifestyle while he was alive basically would be getting nothing. He took care of my grandmother nicely. I remember going to his Manhattan apt with my grandmother to check on it while he was in Palm Beach. Beautiful apt over looking central park.

  19. jane says:

    Ben Zuckerman was my great uncle. His brother Sam was my grand father. My father paul was his nephew. I knew him to be distant with my family and close with the Shacters. I went with my aunt to his apartment on central park south and witnessed the luxury while his brother, my grandfather lived in poverty in the Bronx. Although I was only a teenager the last time I saw him was at my grand father’s funeral. We were never introduced in my entire life.

  20. Marilyn Friedman says:

    I am a design historian in New York City. I have come across an apartment designed for Ben Zuckerman ca 1939 by Tommi Parzinger at 3 East 65th Street. Would anyone know anything about this apartment?

  21. Maryanne says:

    My mother, Peggy O’Neill was BZ’s fit model and showroom person for 40 years. Ben Zuckerman was a legend in my family. I learned about beautiful tailoring through the gorgeous clothes my mother wore. Along with the Chanel bags that were supplied to her from her employer. Those were the good old days of fashion. He as a true master.

  22. Alan says:

    Thanks for sharing your family history. I also found this by googling Ben Zuckerman. Somebody should do a book on him and his clothes. There are many beautiful photos of Zuckerman coats and suits on Pinterest and the spectacular quality is very evident. I wonder if people today realize the incredible craftsmanship that went in to making these kinds of clothes?

  23. I’m researching Nick Savage and came across Peter Weisz’s comment that Nick used to work at Ben Zuckerman. Do you have any more information about Nick Savage? Does anyone know if he is still alive? And if so where?

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