At home with Gerson and Judith Leiber - 27 East

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At home with Gerson and Judith Leiber

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Work continues on the expansion to Southampton Elementary School.

Work continues on the expansion to Southampton Elementary School.

author on Oct 22, 2009

When he was approaching the age of 90 in the year 2000, American artist Will Barnet painted a portrait of Judith and Gerson (Gus) Leiber that depicted his longtime friends with an almost “American Gothic” quality. With unsmiling faces and eyes that mirror souls that have seen much joy and sorrow, the subjects hold on tightly to the tools of their individual trades.

In the case of Ms. Leiber, considered by many to be the world’s greatest handbag designer, it’s a Bauhaus-inspired multicolor envelope handbag. And in the case of Mr. Leiber, it’s a long paintbrush used for creating his highly regarded Modernist paintings that have earned places in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the National Gallery of Art and the Whitney Museum.

Now hanging over the brick fireplace in the couple’s bedroom in Springs, the large painting also perfectly exemplifies the style of the Leibers’s home in the Hamptons—elegant and formal with touches of color and whimsy.

The couple, who also live in a penthouse apartment at 34th and Park in Manhattan, bought the home for a modest sum in 1956, the same year that fellow Springs resident and artist Jackson Pollock wrapped his car around a tree and perished. At the time, Springs was a hotbed of activity for avant-garde writers and members of the Abstract Expressionist movement.

“Yes, I knew some of them, but I was too busy working on my gardens here,” said Mr. Leiber recently, a small-statured bald man with a twinkle in his eyes. “When we bought this place, it was all woods. For years, I came out every weekend to clear the land.”

As her husband of 63 years spoke, Ms. Leiber, crisply dressed all in black with perfectly coiffed white hair, sat in a comfortable chair in the living room and listened intently. Her older sister, Eva Ecker, sat nearby. Daisy, the couple’s high-spirited Norwich terrier, scampered between everyone’s legs.

“This is actually the third incarnation of the 19th century farmhouse we bought,” explained Mr. Leiber. “Over the years, we renovated and built some additions, but about 25 years ago, we ending up tearing it down to build this house.”

The couple asked local contractor Ernie Dayton to build the spacious four-bedroom, four-bath saltbox-style home, and relied on New York interior designer Richard V. Hare to fill its interior with exquisite 18th and 19th century antiques and reproductions.

“He was a very, very good interior decorator,” noted Ms. Leiber, speaking softly with a Hungarian accent.

Filling the home’s walls and shelves with museum-quality artwork was no problem—it simply required a walk through Mr. Leiber’s own studio to find suitable Modernist paintings and etchings (he’s also a talented sculptor). The couple also tapped their extensive collection of antique Chinese porcelains and other treasures from their 50-plus years of impassioned collecting.

“We painted this living room a milk chocolate, a color we found in the original living room. It’s a wonderful background for exhibiting art,” Mr. Leiber said.

As the couple gave a tour of the home, they pointed out some of their favorite works of art, including a white marble sculpture by Constantino Nivola, which has a place of honor in the living room. Also on view are works by Spanish-born Abstract Expressionist painter Esteban Vicente, who lived in Bridgehampton; Abstract Modernist Lyonel Feininger; English painter and engraver William Hogarth, American Abstract artist John von Wicht; painter/printmaker Robert Broner; French print maker/caricaturist Honoré Daumier; and English Romantic landscape painter William Turner—to name just a sampling.

In the corner of the living room is a painted screen of the original farmhouse by Mr. Leiber. Another custom-designed screen serves as a doorway to the charming kitchen, where the smell of white chocolate macadamia cookies caused salivary glands to go into “I want one” overdrive. The Leibers speak fondly of their staff, which includes a chef, baker and three full-time gardeners.

With its Mexican tile floor, soft cream cabinetry and rustic Welsh and American pottery, the kitchen has a welcoming feel. Clerestory windows positioned over the upper kitchen cabinets and a wall of glass doors let the sunshine flood in. When not entertaining, the Leibers dine together at the antique pine kitchen table, which still bears remnants of centuries-old English mud at the base of its legs.

For formal entertaining, the couple retreat to the putty-colored dining room, charming with antique and reproduction pieces and a wood-burning fireplace. The dining room leads to a light and plant-filled pentagonal-shaped conservatory.

“Gus is the one with the green thumb,” said Ms. Leiber, alluding to not only her husband’s botanical nurturing of the orchids and ferns in the conservatory, but also the 7 acres of garden “rooms” on the property (now open to the public) which he has been designing and tending for more than 50 years.

One the many garden “rooms” is a version of the Jardin de Tuileries in Paris, another is a dense and humid miniature rain forest, and another is reminiscent of English gardens. Each “room” opens to another stunning visual and olfactory experience.

The couple said that they perhaps feel most at home in their first-floor master bedroom, painted a sage green and overlooking the rose garden—one of Ms. Leiber’s contributions. With its vaulted ceiling, rose chintz bedding and upholstered chairs, and warming fireplace, the bedroom invites relaxation and reading opportunities, thanks to a wall of built-in bookcases.

A white spiral staircase by the bookcases leads to a rectangular-shaped loft, where the vigorously fit Ms. Leiber exercises on the treadmill while watching television.

Back in the spacious entryway, which leads to the three second-floor bedrooms, a 6-foot-by-8-foot abstract painting by Mr. Leiber nearly fills one of the salmon-colored walls. Another valuable possession here is a grandfather clock from 1707, which still functions and bears a handwritten inscription by the clock maker, Charles R. Delaney.

Along the wall leading up the staircase, the Leibers have hung their collection of 1920s-era Childe Hassam etchings, depicting scenes from East Hampton. Upstairs is notable for its use of dramatic and colorful fabric coverings—with deer, musical instrument and rose designs—that hang in the hallway and in each of the bedrooms. One of the bedrooms is permanently reserved for Eva, Ms. Leiber’s beloved sister.

As one would expect from such a cultured couple, books occupy considerable space throughout the house. Novels and books about history, poetry, art, gardening, fashion, psychology and other areas of personal interest are all represented.

But the reading is not all highbrow. A memoir by Dancing with the Stars judge Len Goodman, for instance, sits on a round table in the living room, as do romance novels by Barbara Delinsky and Sandra Brown. On the table next to Ms. Leiber’s side of the bed is Faye Kellerman’s “Blind Man’s Bluff.”

“My wife specializes in chick lit,” laughed Mr. Leiber, as his wife cleared her throat a bit.

The couple’s own remarkable life stories could fill a book, which they just have. “No Mere Bagatelles: Telling the Story of Handbag Genius Judith Leiber and Modernist Artist Gerson Leiber” by author and friend Jeffrey Sussman is hot-off-the-presses this month. (Ms. Leiber will be signing copies at Bergdorf Goodman in Manhattan tomorrow, Friday, October 23, from 2 to 4 p.m. Locally, the book will be available at Guild Hall in East Hampton and all BookHampton locations.)

Born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1921, Ms. Leiber was the first woman to join the Hungarian handbag-makers guild.

“My parents were highly cultured, upper-middle-class Jews,” she said. “My father traveled regularly to the capitals of Europe and brought home beautiful handbags for my mother. That inspired me to become a handbag designer.”

When World War II broke out, however, her dreams were put on hold. While some relatives perished in concentration camps, she and her family escaped the terrors of the Holocaust by remaining in hiding—forced to eat discarded scraps of food and witnessing horrific crimes against humanity.

When her father obtained a coveted Swiss schutzpass, a document which gave the bearer safe passage, the family breathed a little easier. Ms. Leiber’s pass can be found today at the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.

Right after the war, Ms. Leiber, née Peto, met Mr. Leiber—an American G.I. stationed in Budapest—while she was walking down the street. It was love at first sight for him, he said. When he invited her to the opera, she said she knew she had found a kindred soulmate.

Mr. Leiber, also born in 1921, was born in Brooklyn and raised by dirt-poor parents in Titusville, Pennsylvania. His own career prospects looked bleak until he began his formal art training at the Royal Academy of Art in Budapest.

After the couple married and emigrated to the United States in 1948, Mr. Leiber continued his studies at the Art Students League of New York, where he struck up a friendship with Mr. Barnet.

To support her husband’s studies, Ms. Leiber designed handbags for major manufacturers and designers, including Nettie Rosenstein, the woman who is credited with creating “the little black dress.”

By the early 1960s, Ms. Leiber’s reputation as a handbag genius was firmly cemented in the world of fashion and she launched her own business. Mr. Leiber was right there as her business “right hand,” at the same time that important museums began snatching up his works.

Beginning in 1953 with Mamie Eisenhower, every First Lady (with the exceptions of Rosalyn Carter and Michelle Obama) has carried a Judith Leiber handbag at the Presidential Inauguration. Ms. Leiber’s fans have included royalty, celebrities and socialites, including Queen Elizabeth, Claudette Colbert, Mary Tyler Moore, Elizabeth Taylor and Barbara Walters.

Ms. Leiber forged deep friendships with many of her fans, including First Lady Barbara Bush and the late opera diva Beverly Sills, who owned more than 200 Judith Leiber handbags. Today, Ms. Leiber’s handbags can be found in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian, the Corcoran Gallery and the Victoria and Albert Museum, among others.

After Ms. Leiber sold her business and retired in 1998, the couple turned their attention to their Springs home and developing the gardens and a two-story Palladian-style museum on their property, which houses hundreds of Ms. Leiber’s handbags, as well as an extensive collection of Mr. Leiber’s paintings, etchings, lithographs and drawings, and a collection of more than 150 pieces of Chinese porcelains, some dating back 5,000 years.

The property also houses Mr. Leiber’s large art studio—filled with etching and lithographic presses—where he still paints and draws several hours a day.

Together, arm and arm, the Leibers stroll their expansive property every day, surveying the fruits of their labors. And when they’re finished, they know they have a warm home to return to. And some mouth-watering cookies to enjoy.

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