Genuine Authentic: The Real Life of Ralph Lauren

Genuine Authentic: The Real Life of Ralph Lauren

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by Michael Gross

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Everyone knows the name Ralph Lauren. Many people know that he was born Ralphie Lifshitz. But not even Lauren himself knows the extraordinary history of his ancestry. And until now, no one really knew how this pint-size nebbish rose from the Jewish ghetto of the Bronx and turned himself from a yarmulke-topped yeshiva boy into the world's leading purveyor of


Everyone knows the name Ralph Lauren. Many people know that he was born Ralphie Lifshitz. But not even Lauren himself knows the extraordinary history of his ancestry. And until now, no one really knew how this pint-size nebbish rose from the Jewish ghetto of the Bronx and turned himself from a yarmulke-topped yeshiva boy into the world's leading purveyor of old-money-WASP style. Genuine Authentic is that story. Horatio Alger, step aside. Lauren, the descendant of generations of eastern European rabbis, is the embodiment of modern ambition. He stands as a symbol of the awesome rewards of self-invention -- and not just because he turned a talent for designing ties into a tenbillion-dollar international business. He also demonstrates how precarious success is, how hard a road life can be even for the driven.

Lauren is considered by many to be a phony and a copycat. Yet even though he made up his name and nearly went bankrupt trying to live up to it, he can't be dismissed as a mere fake. His products have revolutionized the way almost everything is sold and the way great brands are built. Like Henry Ford and Walt Disney, he's also a real American authentic. And his business is a stunning American success. There are at least two Ralph Laurens. To the public he's a gentle, modest, yet secure and purposeful man. Inside the walls of Polo Ralph Lauren, though, he's seen by some as a narcissist, an insecure ditherer, and at times a rampaging tyrant. Michael Gross, author of the bestseller Model, lays bare the truths of this fashion emperor's rise, and reveals not only the secrets of his stunning success in marketing our shared fantasies but also the darker side that's hidden behind the shiny patrician image.

Gross uncovers the essence of Lauren's carefully cultivated mystique: how he has turned his back on his own surprisingly aristocratic heritage to embrace another, more commercially viable, one; how he's built an image of luxury and wealth on a foundation of almost anonymous commodities, basic items of clothing like polo shirts and khaki pants, sold mostly in low-priced outlets, and seen everywhere from the subway to the world stage. It wasn't easy. Along the way, Lauren conquered selfdoubt and survived business reverses, even several brushes with bankruptcy. Genuine Authentic follows Lauren through an unhappy childhood and confused adolescence -- torn between an immigrant culture and his material desires -- to fame as a gray-haired thirty-something, and, finally, to the man he is today. In recent years, after surviving brain tumor surgery, Lauren suffered from a massive midlife crisis, finding solace with a beautiful blond model. He survived that, too, and in the nineties took his company public, making him a billionaire but creating a whole new set of challenges to confront, new horizons to conquer, starting with Wall Street, and then on to the rest of the world. Phony? Or the real thing? It's all here. You decide.

Editorial Reviews
How did Ralphie Lifshitz from the Bronx become Ralph Lauren, the world's leading arbiter of old-money WASP fashion style? That's the central question posed by Michael Gross, the tell-all author of Model: The Ugly Business of Beautiful Women. He answers it by tracing Lauren's self-transformation from fledgling tie designer to corporate head of a worldwide billion-dollar business empire.
New York Times
Hack(s) through the hype and half-truths...A work of impressive reporting...Mr. Gross tells an engaging story.
The Washington Post
Gross is delightfully attuned to irony, and Lauren's life story is full of it. It is widely known that Ralph Lauren was born Ralph Lifshitz -- a shy yeshiva student from the Bronx. (He changed his name in 1959, not long before producing the batch of natty neckties that would sell out at Bloomingdale's and send him on the path to fame.) Concocting roots he didn't have, this child of Polish immigrants endowed himself with an aura of heritage that would become a trademark. What Lauren didn't know -- and could only have learned through research as exhaustive as his biographer's -- is that his true lineage can be traced to an elite Eastern European Jewish dynasty dating back to the 16th century. — Nicole Graev
Gross did extensive research, and the result is engaging. There are lots of power trips and even a little infidelity, butmostly we read about how Ralphie Lifshitz, a descendant of rabbis, became Ralph Lauren, the definer of the American WASP lifestyle.
Publishers Weekly
Like his previous book, Model, Gross's new work will undoubtedly be mined for the more gossipy nuggets embedded in his meticulous research and artful prose. This is a shame, because the crackerjack journalist simultaneously tells a compelling story and gives it meat enough to be satisfying. It does help, however, that his subject is intriguing enough to fill multiple volumes. Lauren (ne Lifshitz) embodied a certain kind of American dream from early childhood, a kid who didn't just want to be rich, but to be of the rich, a Jay Gatsby made manifest who didn't have a penny, but fantasized about expensive cars, lush vacation spots and preppy girls in loafers. Gross details Lauren's story chronologically, and with a resolute pace: the icon's tale of ambition and meteoric rise unfolds smoothly as the awkward Jewish boy grows into the personification of grim determination. Gross provides surprisingly little commentary, given the book's slightly bitter introduction about Lauren's ping-ponging relationship to the project. What Gross does offer is a rich portrait not just of Lauren, but of the Bronx in the early and mid-20th century, the type of class clash that transcends time or place and the effects of ambition on a teenager who hates his name and burns with desire whenever a Rolls-Royce cruises by. There are passages that will delight the celebrity-obsessed, but the full story is much richer. Most importantly, and delightfully, Gross delivers a portrait of a man who's constructed a flawless image, but whose real self is far more fascinating and deeply human. Photos. (Feb.) Forecast: This is the second book on the designer being published this month-the other one is Colin McDowell's oversized, illustrated Ralph Lauren (Forecasts, Jan. 27). The two books have already been jointly reviewed in the New York Times; fashion glossies will surely do the same. Lauren is currently celebrating his 35th year in the fashion biz. Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
In the wake of Ralph Lauren's 35 years in American fashion, two books explore the rise of Ralph Lifshitz from the baseball diamond in his immigrant Bronx neighborhood to the Manhattan headquarters of a multibillion-dollar clothing franchise. While British fashion journalist McDowell (Manolo Blahnik) was given access to Lauren and purportedly spent more than two years researching and writing his book-this is his fourth on a prominent designer-it is Gross's "unauthorized" Genuine Authentic that displays exhaustive research and the keen nose for scandal that made his Model: The Ugly Business of Beautiful Women such a contentious best seller. McDowell's book is a generously illustrated coffee-table tome with prose as glossy as its photographs, effusively describing the "protean genius" who revolutionized menswear by broadening the tie, incorporating the Polo emblem, and manufacturing an elite world in his advertisements that anyone could buy into. This book reads like a predicated defense against the barbs sprinkled through Genuine Authentic, which might explain McDowell's tendency toward overblown comparison (Lauren to Monet). Genuine Authentic is a bruiser. From his lengthy introductory explanation as to why no one close to Lauren cooperated with him for his book, Gross launches into a portrait of the designer as an insecure, egotistical, controlling, and, yes, unfaithful man. Gross is not wholly harsh, crediting Lauren's marketing savvy and recounting some touching anecdotes along the way. Both books describe Lauren's retail strategy and numerous luxury houses in greater detail than any of his clothing designs, which is perhaps the greatest indication of the concerns of all involved. Both books are light in content and far from essential for libraries, but Gross's book might appeal to those who enjoy reading gossipy books on the fashion industry.-Prudence Peiffer, M.F.A. student, Barrytown, NY Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Tepid, unauthorized biography of The King of Lifestyle Merchandizing. "Ralphie had a thing for clothes," writes Gross (Model, 1995, etc.) of young Ralph Lifshitz, who grew up in the Bronx during the 1940s and ’50s. The chapters about the youthful Lauren and the old Jewish neighborhood in which he spent his early years are the most interesting here. Ralph’s mother had his future mapped out as a rabbi, but instead he got into haberdashery (ties, that is), and his destiny was sealed. "I'm promoting a level of taste, a total feeling," the designer now named Ralph Lauren declared of his ties in 1967. Sound familiar? So does much of this account, which suffers from the author’s lack of access to Lauren and most of his family, many of his associates, and a host of industry insiders who didn't want to alienate him. What readers get instead of interviews with those in the know is hardly surprising: rival designers dis Lauren and dismiss his ideas as knock-offs; the photographers Slim Aarons and Bruce Weber are credited with playing big roles in his image; he’s criticized for commodifying status and elevating traditional to immortal; his workplace is depicted as having an unsavory atmosphere ("in later years, employees would equate Lauren with cult leader Jim Jones"); and Gross writes little about his character more complimentary than: "The checklist of narcissistic personality traits seems to fit Lauren like a bespoke suit." Nor is it exactly a shock that an ace image manipulator would also be an utter control freak. On the other hand, the author handles with clinical circumspection Lauren's admitted affair with model Kim Nye and views the company’s bottom line as more important than hisless-than-elegant behavior as an employer, which "typically began with seduction and ended with abuse." One-note and strangely impersonal: the public Lauren when readers were looking for the private. (12 b&w photos)
Toronto Star
“Compelling...Juicy stuff.”
Fashion Wire Daily
The Star
Detroit Free Press
New York Times Book Review
“Catty...dishy...jammed with detail.”
New York Newsday
“Highly readable—and honorable.”
Denver Post
“Explodes the myths.”
“Gross’ research is impressive.”
Cathy Horyn
People Magazine
"Gross’ research is impressive."

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DIANE Publishing Company
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Read an Excerpt

Genuine Authentic
The Real Life of Ralph Lauren

Chapter One

At the end of 1984, Polo Ralph Lauren acquired a twenty-year lease on the landmark Gertrude Rhinelander Waldo House, a five-story French Renaissance Revival palace completed in 1898 at the corner of Madison Avenue and Seventy-second Street in Manhattan. Waldo, a socialite, had spent half a million dollars erecting her tribute to a chateau in France's Loire Valley. A riot of bay windows, dormers, statuary, and chimneys, its Gilded Age exuberance contrasts with the neo-Gothic brownstone plainness of its next-door neighbor, Saint James Episcopal Church, where New York's oldest families -- families with names like Rhinelander -- still worship.

For reasons unknown, Mrs. Waldo never moved in, but her sister, Laura, and her son, Rhinelander, a hero of the Spanish-American War and future New York police commissioner, lived there until 1912, when a bank foreclosed on the property. In the 1920s, it was converted for commercial use and was occupied over time by an antiques dealer, interior decorators, the Phillips auction house, a society florist, and one of Eli Zabar's specialty food boutiques.

After it reopened in 1986, with its newest owner, the Rhinelander mansion became the Polo mansion, the engine driving Lauren's image -- his Disneyland and Disney stores rolled into one. It also became New York's newest tourist attraction, with its oak floors, Honduran mahogany paneling, vaulted ceilings, ornate plasterwork, Waterford chandelier, antique Cartier vitrine and green glass Art Deco panels etched with polo players (discards, appropriately, from the old Polo Lounge in New York's Westbury Hotel), gas-burning fireplaces, and a plethora of "real" old drawings, photographs, bound volumes, aristocratic bric-a-brac and shabby chic gewgaws: elaborately framed photos, walking sticks, picnic baskets and hatboxes, steamer trunks and sticker-covered old luggage, antique tennis racquets, fishing rods and lacrosse sticks artfully left about as if waiting for the house's long-departed occupants to finish packing for a summer in Newport, on the Cape, in the Adirondacks, or in Sun Valley.

But most of all, people came to see its central staircase, modeled after the one in London's Connaught Hotel. Dressed up with antique carpets, green felt walls, and hand-carved balustrades, it's studded with the sort of gilt-framed ancestral portraits one might find in a drafty old English country house. Whose ancestors are they? The forebears of the worshippers next door at Saint James, no doubt.

No matter. Lauren has claimed them as his own, as props for his personal movie.

On the day the Rhinelander opened, Lauren took Marvin Traub, the former chairman of Bloomingdale's, the New York store most associated with Polo, and his wife, Lee, on a private tour of what the designer called "the ultimate Ralph Lauren shop." Traub admired the detail, the fanatic perfection of each department, each display, each luscious, colorful pile of Shetland sweaters. Then, Lauren walked them down that ceremonial staircase and stopped beneath one of those portraits of an unnamed and quite likely unloved English gentleman -- a man whose descendants, assuming he had any, had long since disposed of his picture.

"That," Ralph said, pointing up at the old Anglo-Saxon's face, "is Grandpa Lifshitz."

As with all good jokes, there was pain underneath it. Ralph Lauren admits he has little or no idea where he came from -- and he's never stopped to look. So his heritage has remained a mystery to him throughout his sixty-three years. What Ralph didn't know, and may not to this day, is that through his mother, who was born Fraydl Kotlar, he is related by marriage to a Jewish dynasty that was considered aristocratic as long as, if not longer than, the Anglo-Saxons whose portraits hang on the walls of the Rhinelander.

Chapter Two

No one ever painted a picture of Ralph's grandpa, Sam Lifshitz, né Shlomo Zalman Lifshitz -- and the word pictures painted by his remaining relatives have all the depth of gossamer. As far as they know, he was a nobody with nothing from nowhere.

The public record offers up precious little to counter that impression. Ralph's oldest sibling, his sister Thelma Fried, by all accounts the most traditional and family-oriented member of his brood, is said to know more. But Lauren, who let all but a few friends and business associates give interviews for this book, wouldn't let her speak. "He doesn't want me to discuss our family -- not that we're ashamed of anything," she says in a brief phone call. Before declining an interview, Thelma says she knows very little and expects that Ralph knows even less.

None of this is uncommon. Many descendants of eastern European Jewish refugees know nothing of their families, whose desperate desire to leave their homelands at the turn of the twentieth century was outweighed only by their subsequent determination to leave their memories behind as well. "They left a great deal of unpleasantness," says a distant relative of Lauren's, Carol Skydell, the executive vice president of, the leading Jewish genealogical website. "So what's to remember?"

After World War II, most of those memories disappeared; the Jews and their towns were swept away by the Holocaust. An oft-asked question -- Where did we come from? -- was afterward, often as not, answered with a dismissive wave and some vague geography: "Russia." "Poland." "Minsky-Pinsky."

That last phrase, joining two cities that are 123 miles apart in the country now known as Belarus, was meant to shut down conversation rather than dredge up the vast swampy area known as the Pale of Settlement, where Minsk and Pinsk were located. The Pale was a strip of eighteenth-century Poland that was taken over by Czarist Russia in 1795 and declared the only place in that country where Jews could legally live. By 1885, over 4 million Jews lived in a Pale expanded to include land annexed from Turkey. Six years later, seven hundred thousand more arrived, many of them deported from St. Petersburg, expelled from Moscow. from Moscow. (The Pale statutes were revoked after the Bolshevik revolution. Today, the homeland of Grandpa Lifshitz has been carved up into pieces of Belarus, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Poland, Russia, and the Ukraine.)

The Jews of the Pale were Russia's middle class: middlemen, merchants, trades people, craftsmen, tax collectors, and tavern keepers. Christian nobles, landowners, and the serfs who slaved for them filled out the population. Many of the Jews descended from ancient Palestine; some bore names that dated back to biblical times. These wandering Jews made their first appearance in Russia in the tenth century. They came via the Crimea, the Caucasus Mountains and present-day Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and later, middle Europe.

When Grandpa Lifshitz arrived at Ellis Island in New York harbor in 1920, with two of his five children, a daughter Mary and a son Frank, who would become Ralph Lauren's father, he said they'd come from Pinsk. The first Jews in Pinsk -- which was at various times part of Lithuania, Poland, and Russiaarrived in about 1500.

Pinsk was hardly nowhere. It was a center of Jewish population and produced renowned religious leaders and scholars. Jewish culture flourished in the Pale -- they spoke their own language, Yiddish; had their own schools and houses of worship; their own theater, literature, and newspapers -- despite the fact that Jews there had been insecure for centuries. Protests against their presence and confiscation of their property were the norm. Organized massacres of Jews were common enough at the turn of the twentieth century that they had their own name: pogroms. Through it all, the Jews persisted.

When the Pale became part of Russia, Jews were forced to urban areas and tiny villages called shtetls; among them were Ralph's great-grandfather Yosef Lifshitz and his wife, Leah Schmuckler, who had a son named Shlomo Zalman. Most Eastern European Jews had both secular and religious given names, and were also known by nicknames. Shlomo, aka Schleime and Shmuel, was born just before Christmas in, depending upon which of the contradictory documents you believe, 1870 or 1872. The Lifshitzes were Ashkenazim, German Jews, and their surname, too, came from someplace in present-day Germany or the Czech Republic, where there were towns named Licbschuetz, Leobschutz, and Liebeschitz. One of them was the source of Grandpa Lifshitz's name, which means "loving support" in German.

Though Ralph Lauren would drop it, Lifshitz is a Jewish name of renown. The first prominent Lipschuetzes were rabbis in sixteenth-century Poland -- and their line is unbroken to this day. Descendants of the family used many spelling variations -- and so did other Jews who were forced by law to assume Christian-style hereditary surnames beginning in the late eighteenth century when the Hapsburg ruler Joseph the Tolerant sought to integrate them into the European society.

How did Yosef Lifshitz get his name? It's hard to say. Surnames were often assigned by Jewish administrators. If Yosef was a typical case, his father would have adopted the name at the start of the nineteenth century, when imperial Russia decreed that all Jews had to take surnames -- and stick with them. "Perhaps, some Lifshitz are indeed unrelated to the rabbinical families," says Alexandre Beider, an authority on Jewish names. "But I can hardly see how a person unrelated to these rabbinical families could adopt such glorious names without being ridiculed by other Jews."

Ralph Lauren's grandfather Shlomo Zalman Lifshitz bore the exact same name as the first rabbi of Warsaw, circa 1821. He could also be a descendant of the sixteenth-century rabbis Moses ben Isaac Lipschuetz of Gdansk or Isaac Lipschuetz of Poznan. But then again, young men born in the Czarist empire would sometimes change their names in order to avoid compulsory conscription into the Russian army. Who is to say? Ralph Lauren may not be the first in his family to reinvent himself into a better life.

Genuine Authentic
The Real Life of Ralph Lauren
. Copyright © by Michael Gross. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

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Meet the Author

Michael Gross is the author of Unreal Estate: Money, Ambition, and the Lust for Land in Los Angeles as well as Rogues’ Gallery, 740 Park, Genuine Authentic, and Model. A contributing editor to Travel + Leisure and columnist for Crain’s New York Business, he has been a columnist for the New York Times, New York, and GQ, and a contributor to Vanity Fair, Esquire, Gawker, The Huffington Post, and other publications around the world.

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4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book was a really good read. It tells a lot about Ralph Lauren's history, where he grew up and where he started out career wise. The book really focuses on Ralph Lauren's ambitions and goals as well. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in fashion or biographies in general.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is an amazing textured story about identity, as well as a slam-bang business book, and a well-crafted warts-and-all biography. I'll admit I didn't think Ralph Lauren was very interesting before I read it--so what, he changed his name and made a fortune selling polo shirts--but what the book does is make him absolutely fascinating--much more fascinating in fact than the shallow myths Lauren sells. This is a classic, quintessential story of American self-invention, and anyone who's interested in the depths beneath the glossy surface of fashion ads owes it to themselves to read it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I anxiously awaited the release of Mr. Gross' book on Ralph Lauren. Since I work in Polo at a local department store, I was especially interested in hearing the details of how the company was run--well I must admit I wasn't THAT interested. Mr. Gross rambles on and on endlessly about people who worked in Polo at one time, work there presently, and will be possibly be let go in the future - nameless and faceless people who we could care less about and because Mr. Gross is so thrifty in his use of pictures, we don't even know what any of these 'Poloroids' look like! I purchased this book so I was bound and determined to inch my way through it and it certainly proved to be a lot of work! The same ups and downs of the business were played over and over and over ad nauseum! Any new info that was gleaned from this book could have been summed up in a magazine article. I read Jeffrey Trachenberg's earlier work on Ralph and was looking to this book to plug in all the holes (from 1990 forward) but this book was nowhere as enjoyable as Mr. Trachenberg's.