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Saturday, September 12, 2009

Miriam Haskell

Miriam Haskell (1899-1981) designed jewelry and created a company that still bears her name. Born in a small Indiana town on the banks of the Ohio River, not far across from Louisville, where she is buried, she came to New York City in the early twenties, with $500 borrowed from her father. Her small shop became a sensation, carrying affordable costume pieces created from glass and gold-plate brass, with designs of a richness and complexity never before imagined.

Haskell's life story, triumphant and heartbreaking, is the center of a new, not-yet-published book of poems by Rosanne Wasserman. Below is the first poem of the book:

Bijoux de l’Heure

. . . and the world was not young any more, but only some of the women wore jewels. All of them were ladies now, and wanted decorations, things to sparkle on their hands and collarbones and ears. They had their own property, and they wanted more. They saw other beautiful ladies, goddesses, sparkling in Paris and Hollywood. They kept a sharp eye on the avenue, knowing that that’s where their dreams would appear.

Miriam lived by the river, then she left and traveled north. She carried a forest, a garden, a love of gold, and her own two hands. She was going to teach the children, but she could not learn the steps, so chose a new path. She went to the city instead, where her childhood ruffled the dreams of others.

Miriam gave them the forest first, oak leaves and snail shells. Gold encased spider and cobweb, tortoises and dragonflies. Colored wooden flowers hung from chains. It was American, but it was not Grant Wood. It was Midwestern meadow and Jewish art. Her hands were Byzantine; they knew midoriental fashions. She rented an avenue storefront near the McAlpin Hotel; she wrote her name by hand on a window card. Her shop was a fractal of the old McAlpin’s Marine Grill, a terra cotta cavern at Herald Square. Chanel had just opened a grand canal of beauty and desire, true lies of poured glass gems in settings stolen from the past; but by the thirties, she worked for De Beers. What was a typist to do, walking home from work down Thirty-fourth Street, set on spending any slack in a distasteful paycheck? What rhythmic swinging counterweights could she hang on her earlobes, what sling around her neck to hide necessity’s steel collar, what loop on her wrists to charm unhappy eyes while her fingers flew? What home-bound mom could exit Macy’s without stopping by the small boutique?

Everything flashed in the spotlights, and nothing was real. It was paste and plating, brass and foil, faceted glass. Four small hands reached from the walls, their white white fingers hung with white enameled chains, faux pearls, and strings of gilt-brass beads. The women stopped in front, then walked inside, and word got round: chic, unique, and beautiful for sale. Gorgeousness and craftsmanship and glitter at a price they could afford. Something to talk about.

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