Genuine Authentic: The Real Life of Ralph Laurenby 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 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.
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The Real Life of Ralph Lauren
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.
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 jewishgen.org, 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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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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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.
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.
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.