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Apr 30, 2018 5:43 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press

Renowned Handbag Designer Judith Leiber, 97, And Husband, Artist Gerson Leiber, 96, Of Springs, Die On Same Day

Gerson and Judith Leiber in their home in Spring in 2016. PRESS FILE
May 1, 2018 4:00 PM

“If Romeo and Juliet had lived into their 90s, they would have been Judy and Gerson.”That’s how Jeffrey Sussman described Judith and Gerson Leiber, who both died at home on Saturday, less than six hours apart, after more than 72 years of marriage. Ms. Leiber was 97, and Mr. Leiber was 96.

A private service was held on Monday.

Mr. Sussman, an author, became friends with the Leibers several years ago, when Mr. Leiber—known as Gus—asked him to write a biography of his wife, a world-renowned handbag designer. But Mr. Sussman quickly realized that Mr. Leiber, a famous modernist artist in his own right, had a story to tell as well, and that the life they made together for more than seven decades was the most compelling part of the story. He wrote “No Mere Bagatelles,” a book about their life, in 2009.

Mr. Leiber was a champion of his wife’s work, encouraging her to start her own business in 1963, while they were living in Brooklyn. She was toiling away working for other designers, despite the fact that she was an accomplished artisan, with the skills and know-how to create, on her own, from start to finish, exquisite bags that were more like works of art.

It was a risk, but it paid off, and Ms. Leiber’s bags became highly sought after by celebrities and other sophisticated women.

Since the 1950s, nearly every first lady has carried a Judith Leiber handbag to the presidential inauguration, and they were coveted by other famous women, including Queen Elizabeth, Elizabeth Taylor and Barbara Walters. The opera singer Barbara Sills was said to own 200 of the bags.

Ms. Leiber’s most famous creations were the bejeweled minaudieres, small clutches she made in various forms, including cats, dogs, cupcakes, a watermelon slice, cameras and eggs. She famously said they were large enough for a woman to carry the essentials—a lipstick, a handkerchief and a $100 bill.

Many of Ms. Leiber’s bags—as well as several paintings of her husband’s—are on display in museums around the country, including the Smithsonian Institution, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In the years after Ms. Leiber retired, after selling her company for $16 million in 1992, she and Mr. Leiber moved from New York City to the home in Springs that they had purchased in 1956, Mr. Leiber opened the Leiber Collection, a large brick museum on their expansive property. The museum, open to the public every year from Memorial Day to Labor Day, showcases many of Ms. Leiber’s handbags as well as Mr. Leiber’s works of art.

“He never wanted the public to forget his wife’s contribution to the world of fashion,” Mr. Sussman said of Mr. Leiber.

Their home also includes seven expansive gardens, designed by Mr. Leiber, each around an acre in size, as well as the art studios where Mr. Leiber created his paintings, sketches, etchings and lithographs. The museum will open again this Memorial Day as well, Mr. Sussman said.

“She and Gus both loved art,” Mr. Sussman said on Monday. “They would go to every museum opening, every gallery opening. They lived for art.”

Mr. and Ms. Leiber met in Hungary, Ms. Leiber’s native country, after World War II. They met on the streets of Budapest, while Mr. Leiber was there serving in the U.S. Army, and were married about a year later, in 1946, despite initial objections from Ms. Leiber’s parents, who, as Mr. Sussman says, did not want her to marry “a poor American artist with no prospects.” Mr. Leiber was born in Brooklyn in 1921, and later moved to Titusville, Pennsylvania, with his parents, Rebecca and William Leiber. The Army brought him to Europe, and after the war, he attended art school in Budapest.

When they returned to the States as a married couple, Mr. Leiber attended the Art Students League under the G.I. Bill, while Ms. Leiber worked for several design houses before going out on her own. While Ms. Leiber rose to fame quickly and became a household name for anyone familiar with high fashion, Mr. Leiber steadily earned a reputation as a talented artist. He was mentored by the famous artist Will Barnet, and became known for embracing many styles of art, and many mediums as well.

“He didn’t represent one school,” Mr. Sussman said. “He did abstract works, impressionist, expressionist. For some people, that was confusing, because they couldn’t identify him with one school of art, but it also made him very compelling.”

Mr. and Ms. Leiber lived lives that were compelling from the start. Ms. Leiber was born Judith Marianne Peto in 1921 to Emil and Helen Peto. Aware that she had a brilliant mind, they sent her to Kings College in England in 1938 to study chemistry, hoping she would take over a family cosmetics business in Romania.

But when World War II began, she was forced to remain at home, where she parlayed her love of handbags—a fascination that began when her father would bring home handbags for her mother during his travels around Europe—into an apprenticeship in a handbag factory. She was the first female to learn the trade from start to finish, skills that initially astonished the designers she worked for when she came to the United States.

She was acquiring those skills as a Jewish woman living in Hungary while World War II was raging. Her family escaped persecution during that time because her father was able to get a pass from the consulate in Budapest that provided him with diplomatic immunity.

The war changed the course of Ms. Leiber’s life, but nothing, it seemed, would ever shake the foundation of their love for each other. They were both under hospice care when they died, less than six hours apart. Mr. Sussman said that the hospice nurses told him that, hours before his death, Mr. Leiber had reached for his wife’s hand and told her, “I think it’s time for us to go.”

“Their love was so all encompassing,” Mr. Sussman said.

Mr. Leiber is survived by a brother, while Ms. Leiber is not survived by any immediate family members. Her sister, Eva Ecker, died in 2015. The couple did not have children, choosing instead to devote their lives to their work.

In a story in The Press in February 2016, they reflected on their lives and 70 years of marriage.

“We’ve been together for such a long time that it’s the very groundwork of life,” Mr. Leiber said. “It’s like the sun coming up in the morning.”

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