Interview: Mady Gerrard: Sunshine through clouds

PUBLISHED: 20:53 08 February 2010 | UPDATED: 15:40 20 February 2013

Mady Gerrard

Mady Gerrard

Nigel Jarrett went to meet Mady Gerrard, who survived the Nazi concentration camps to become one of New York's most sought-after dress designers.

Nigel Jarrett went to meet Mady Gerrard, who survived the Nazi concentration camps to become one of New York's most sought-after dress designers.




FASHION designer Mady Gerrard has at least two claims to fame - she's probably the only person in Britain who knows the bra size of Pat Nixon, wife of the former US president, and also survived the Nazi concentration camps of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen.



Setting the two side by side illustrates the extremes of a life that began with looming horror in Central Europe and later encompassed glittering celebrity in New York, where Mady designed clothes for the famous, including Dionne Warwick, Shirley Bassey, the silent-film actress Carmel Myers (who starred in the first Ben Hur) and Susan Hampshire, as well as Mrs Nixon.



Still designing and making clothes in Monmouthshire at the age of 78, Mady has long put her colourful life in perspective, recalling her wartime childhood with pain and feelings of degradation but revelling in the good times she has enjoyed since, meeting and knowing the rich and stylish.



The story of how she got to New York after surviving the camps, via Sweden, her native Hungary, then Wales and Canada, is told in her recently-published autobiography, Full Circle.



She was born Mady Goldgruber in Budapest. Her parents were soon divorced and at five she went to live with a great aunt and uncle in Keszthely, on Lake Balaton, where the great aunt owned a wool and needlecraft shop - Mady's first introduction to embroidery and other needle skills. Her mother died two years later of tuberculosis.



Mady acknowledges early in her book that the horrors of the concentration camps have been described many times. But her account of the disappearances, de-humanisation and death she experienced in them is almost unbearable.



In Auschwitz, the young Mady and her friend Eva were discovered with spots on their skin at the twice-daily roll-call - the Appel . Because they were sick they were segregated in an area at the rear of the barracks, with a barn-type door that had a gap at the top. This was a holding place before transfer to the 'infirmary'. If you went there you were done for.



"I told Eva we had to get out if we wanted to live," says Mady. "She didn't dare to come with me so I left her behind. I climbed over the door and through the gap and I got back to our bunk, where fourteen of my friends were sleeping. Later that morning the Germans were looking for me, my friends were looking for me and I was looking for me, but nobody found me!" Only because the Germans saw the inmates as so much work fodder or candidates for execution did she conceal herself successfully in the mass.



"Did I act in total selfishness in leaving my friend behind? What could I have done to save her?" Mady says she has asked herself these questions thousands of times. "There was no real choice. It wasn't bravery or cleverness, just a desperate need to live."



From Auschwitz she was transferred in 1944 to the Guben camp, in Germany, as the Soviets were closing in. And from there she was marched with others barely able to stand to Bergen-Belsen, where she remained until its liberation by the British. Belsen reappears at the end of the book in a remarkable denouement to her story.



After travelling at first to Sweden when the war ended, Mady made the mistake of returning to her native Hungary, where she was shocked to discover the unshaken hostility of many towards the Jews.



Things improved after Stalin's death. At a meeting in Budapest when he was denounced as having been the most ruthless of dictators, Mady stood up and asked how millions could have tolerated him. "But my cousin, whom I was with, kicked me in the shin to shut me up," she recalls. "We didn't know yet whether it was safe to ask a question like that."



In the Keszthely ghetto, after Jewish homes were confiscated, Mady had learned to knit, crochet and sew, the dolls she had collected acting as 'models' for her designs. At Guben, she had met an older woman who had known her mother and her adoptive family, and she helped to set the course for Mady's post-war career by encouraging her flair for making things, including necklaces. In 1952 Mady married for the first time and bought a knitting machine, learning to design and make clothes during her pregnancy.



Four years later, when the Soviets arrived in Hungary, Mady was forced to flee again - first to Yorkshire and then to Cardiff, where she eventually opened a clothes shop. By this time she was a single mother with a daughter, Ildi, her first marriage having ended. The shop in the city centre sold her own knitwear, and later handmade craft items bought in from Central and Eastern Europe.



After ten years in Cardiff her next destination was Toronto and then Manhattan, where she started a knitwear business in 1970. She was taken up by Ruth Preston, the legendary New York Post fashion writer. She describes how this came about:



"Soon after I opened the business I started to subscribe to Women's Wear Daily and my knitwear was noticed by its fashion guru, Elsa Clench," she says. "She wrote me up, Ruth Preston read what she had written and afterwards asked if she could come to see me.



Ruth was the nicest person, the best sort of writer. If she couldn't say anything good about you then she would say nothing. She wrote about me and my subsequent collections a lot."



Ruth Preston continued to promote her, leading to orders from celebrities who had heard of her reputation. Soon Mady was approached by personal shoppers employed by the famous, the first on behalf of the writer Clare Booth-Luce, US ambassador to Italy immediately after the second world war, and wife of the publisher Henry Luce.



"She was retired then and living in Hawaii, but would come to New York three times a year," Mady says. "She told unbelievable stories. I just used to sit and listen to her."



Then the personal shopper of Mrs Pat Nixon turned up.



"Personal shoppers didn't do any buying," Mady explains. "They made contact, and if the clients were interested I took a suitcase of samples along to show them - in Pat Nixon's case to the Waldorf-Astoria Towers, where the presidential suite was.



"Mrs Nixon was the nicest, sweetest, kindest and most considerate person you could meet. She received the clothes in the White House one day and you received her cheque the next. Her only fault was that she married Richard Nixon."



Mady is full of these waspish asides, which is not surprising for a self-confessed stargazer whose experiences have been leavened by appalling personal tragedy a world away from the ripeness and sweetness of the Big Apple.



The quirkiest client was film star Celeste Holm, who was on stage in New York when Mady first designed for her. They hit it off because Holm herself was a compulsive knitter, her needles on the go at every opportunity at rehearsal and during intermissions.



"She began bringing uncompleted garments for me to finish for her, such as a ridiculously-shaped piece for her husband. Most of the time I had to unpick them and start from scratch. But she was an absolutely lovely woman, like Dionne Warwick. The first time Dionne came to me she wanted the same suit in nine different colours."



Mady also met the stars through association, notably comedian Victor Borge, whose wife Sana was one of her clients. He it was who reported to her after a UK tour that Cardiff was improving: at the Angel Hotel there was a light fitting in the ceiling of his room instead of 'a bulb on a piece of string'.



She describes her famous clothes as 'colourful' and 'exclusive'. In 1974 she won the coveted American Knitwear Design Award. She likes bold designs: her hand-painted silks would lift any blue mood.



Now Mady lives in the Monmouthshire village of St Arvans, where she still makes clothes, holds court and astonishes everyone with her fortitude and lack of bitterness. Her second husband, Paul, died a few years ago. Her three grandchildren, Saskia, Tilly and Jess, are all artistic.



And that tailpiece? One of the first British officers into Belsen was 24-year-old SAS officer John Randall. Young Mady Goldgruber thanked him for rescuing her and others, who were on the verge of death.



In April 2005 Mady saw his photograph in the Sunday Telegraph, exactly as he was on that liberating day at the 'Gates of Hell', which the newspaper was commemorating. She had remembered him and his features for sixty years. They exchanged their stories, completing a full circle.



"I am fortunate because I came out of that hell reasonably well," she says. "I am almost healthy and I don't cry when someone questions me about Auschwitz and the war. Yet I have some obsessions that originate from my time in the camps. For instance, even when I'm at home I always lock the door when I go to the bathroom, because communal showers taken with hundreds of women, with German eyes watching our nakedness and personal activities, have certainly affected me. It was degrading and it has left me scarred."



With the scars are joined an impish sense of humour and fonder memories. She seems to have lived enough life for several people. In the real sense of surviving where others did not, she most certainly has. And one often senses the glamour and vivacity of New York peeking through her remembrances like sunshine banishing the clouds.



(Full Circle, by Mady Gerrard, published by UPSO Ltd, 8.99. Copies available from Mady on 01291 625764. Visit her website at www.madygerrard.com)


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