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Hamptons Life

May 20, 2014 1:15 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Gerson And Judith Leiber: The Marriage Of True Minds

May 20, 2014 1:15 PM

Gerson Leiber leans back in his chair, folds his hands and glances down at his lap.

“Oh,” he sighs. “Well...”

He pauses, pursing his lips thoughtfully before gazing up at his wife, Judith, sitting across from him in their Springs living room. Unexpectedly, he bursts into laugher.

“We met in the street in Hungary,” he nods definitively, remembering the moment. “And I fell in love immediately.”

“We were very lucky to find each other,” Ms. Leiber adds softly, with a Hungarian accent and European formality.

“Yes, it was, really,” her husband agrees. “Luck.”

That fateful day was exactly 70 years ago. Mr. Leiber, a strapping American G.I., was leaving his post at the radio communications headquarters when he bumped into up-and-coming handbag designer Judith Peto—who, as a Jew, spent much of World War II hiding in a ghetto—on the war-torn streets of Budapest.

He asked her out to the opera. She was instantly smitten.

“I liked him very much from the very beginning,” she says. “He courted for a year and then we got married in my parents’ apartment in 1946.”

The war had actually ended one year earlier, they say, and the couple had decided to stay. Mr. Leiber enrolled in the Hungarian Royal Academy of Art—“That’s where I started my art career,” he smirks—while his wife entered the handbag industry.

Ms. Leiber was the first girl apprentice to learn the trade from beginning to end, her husband points out. And when she came to Manhattan in 1947, no one believed she could do what she claimed. Only men did patterns and designs, not women.

She showed them.

Regarded today as one of the world’s most influential handbag designers, 93-year-old Ms. Leiber will exhibit more than 250 original bags, belts and pieces of jewelry alongside the work of her husband—who blossomed into a major modernist painter in his own right—from Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day weekend at The Leiber Collection, a museum built on their property in Springs.

“I thought her bags were of such quality that it shouldn’t be just left to posterity without any sort of memorial,” Mr. Leiber, 92, says of the museum. “They really deserve to be treated as art.”

“But it can be a memorial for both of us,” Ms. Leiber adds. “Because he’s a wonderful painter.”

Cane in hand, Ms. Leiber leads the way to the Renaissance-style, Palladian museum—humming to herself as she walks—while her husband takes up the rear. He jingles the key before inserting it into the lock, where it refuses to turn.

“We haven’t used this door in quite a while,” he mutters. “Guess I’ll go around the back.”

A few minutes later, the double doors swing open simultaneously—grand against Mr. Leiber’s small stature—to reveal displays of his wife’s handbags, glittering behind him.

“I’ve made an awful lot of bags in 35 years,” Ms. Leiber says, strolling down the museum aisles, stopping every so often to tinker with the arrangement. “So many of them have stories.”

In 1963, the couple founded Judith Leiber, Inc. inside a tiny, 280-square-foot loft on Madison Avenue. There, Mr. Leiber put his wife’s career before his—unlike many men of his time—as she made a name for herself independently.

“It was difficult,” Ms. Leiber says. “But Gus said, ‘You are not going to work for any of these schnooks anymore. We’re going into business.’ I was scared to death, but we did it.”

And they did it big. The designer’s handbags, carried by every First Lady since 1953—starting with Mamie Eisenhower and ending with Laura Bush—are now the property of the Smithsonian Museum. Opera singer Barbara Sills owned a collection of more than 200 Judith Leiber bags and approximately 80 of Ms. Leiber’s bags are in museums across the country, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which also houses work by her husband.

After creating nearly 5,000 different styles of handbags throughout her career, Ms. Leiber decided to sell the company—and the Judith Leiber name—to Time Products, a British watch company. Ms. Leiber was kept on as a consultant for five years and officially retired in 1998.

“I used to tell all the ladies who bought them, ‘It’s a little pouch, so all you need is a handkerchief, a credit card and a key to your house,’” Ms. Leiber says. “‘Because if you go out with a guy and he doesn’t take you home, you can go home by yourself.’”

“No, no,” her husband shakes his head. “How did you put it? ‘A handkerchief, lipstick and a $100 bill.’”

“Ah, that’s right,” she says. “That’s what I used to say.”

Mr. Leiber locks up the museum and helps his wife down the museum steps by offering her his arm. They sit down on a bench outside the building and turn to face each other—a taller Ms. Leiber looking down at her husband’s bald head before he looks up to meet her eyes.

And then, for just a moment in their 70-year history, they share a knowing, close-lipped smile.

Handbag designer Judith Leiber and modernist painter Gerson Leiber will exhibit their collections from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day weekend at The Leiber Collection in Springs. An opening reception will be held on Saturday, May 24, from 2 to 5 p.m. For more information, call 329-3288 or email info@leibercollection.org.