Religion and Raincoats - 1974

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Religious devotion in my family varied by gender. Connie went to church every Sunday, wore a veil and carried her Missal, fixed us Mrs. Paul’s Fish Sticks and tuna sandwiches on Fridays, just like her mom had done. When I was small, my grandmother Lillian’s weekend pal, I was taken by the hand into the cavernous magnificence of St. Vincent Ferrer on Lexington Avenue, in summers to quaint St. Mary’s in Allenhurst. Lil’s faith was contagious, solid and simple, a thing of the heart, no questions asked: heaven, hell, saints, holy water, sacraments, the Holy Rosary, genuflecting, the Sign of the Cross. She prayed like crazy. My grandfather described it as “Howitzers pointed at heaven,” and she pounded away. God was up there waiting to hear from her; if He was busy one of the saints would take her case. She never spent a minute pondering anything. My mother never spoke much about it, except for one memorable comment, at dinner one evening, she said one of the kids in her CCD class – she taught Catechism as a volunteer for Holy Cross Parish – asked her about the Noah’s Ark story.

“He wanted to know if it was true,” she said. “I said I didn’t think so,” as she folded her napkin. “I didn’t know what to say.”

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Norman laughed at that. His ideas about religion were probably typical of  20th Century Roman Catholics. He believed, but wasn’t sure what he believed in; prayed, but why? My father got that from her, except for the never pondering part. He had an emotional attachment to the scriptures and the rituals, a reverence for saints and the sacraments at odds with his intellect. He had a crucifix on the wall by his bed, a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary on his bureau. Holy images. A hand-carved statue of St. Anthony of Padua. The agonizing death of my baby sister, Mary Anne, of cancer, at eighteen months, affected his relationship with God. Priests had come to pray. Candles were lit in her bedroom. Benedictions. Novenas. All ended with a tiny white casket being rolled down the center aisle of St. James Church in Red bank on a sunny September morning, the silence punctuated by my mother’s sobs.

In his way, thinking out loud with me, in the car, he would say things about Roman Catholicism and God, about religion in general: questions, not really opinions, attempts to figure things out by saying them; me his captive audience. Say things which either he didn’t mean or that he hoped, by saying them, he would be convinced were right. Or wrong.

“Prayer is the answer to everything,” he’d declare. “Especially prayers to St. Anthony.” The silver framed picture of Mary Anne in their bedroom seemed proof of the opposite. Or, on another occasion, he’d quote the epigraph of Alfred Noyes’ The Unknown God.

“It may be the final test of man 

The narrow way proving him worthy of immortal life 

That he should face this darkness and this death,

With nothing. Nothing but the wintry smile on the face of Truth.”

Maybe he thought I wasn’t listening. But I was. Always looking for some answer; getting only questions. On the way up Rumson Road, after church on a hot, summer Sunday, yet another droning, sleep-inducing homily from Father Hughes, Norman said, “It’s all bullshit.”

“Then why do we have to go?” I asked.

“Good question,” he said. “I don’t know. We just have to.”

He was a very smart guy trying to work God out intellectually. The advances of science had undermined the mythological elements of religion, explaining, it seemed, everything, offering rational reasons for everything. Except why. The philosophical parlor game of the late 20th century; is it all bullshit? That was the complicated part. The simple part was making full use of the facilities. Mass and Communion. Lighting candles, visiting the little chapels along the aisles of St. Patrick’s. Vials of Holy Water from Lourdes. Rosary beads in his desk drawer. Daily prayers to St. Anthony on his bureau, patron saint of lost things, lost causes, lost souls. No matter what problem I had, no matter how trivial or dire, Norman’s advice was Pray to St. Anthony. No hypocrisy.

“It’s all bullshit, but it works.”

That was how he explained the life-saving event of 1974. Norman’s frequent visits to St Patrick’s Cathedral, where he offered prayers to the great Franciscan, Saint Anthony of Padua, came through. In the most unexpected way: in the person of Lenny Damsky, in the form of an offer. A miracle.

Damsky had worked for years as a buyer at Browning for Uncle Jerome. Tired of the crappy pay and of Jerome’s demoralizing abuse, he moved on to become the men’s merchandising boss at Barney’s, the discount emporium at 7th Avenue and 17th Street that Barney’s son, Fred Pressman, was transforming into a luxury boutique on a grand scale, whipping Jerome at his own New York retail game.

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One rainy summer afternoon, as Hilton Manufacturing was sinking in the quicksand, Damsky showed up for a meeting with Norman. All very hush hush. No one was to know, but Burberry’s, the venerable English raincoat company with the famous plaid lining, was considering a major initiative in America and they’d asked the people at Barney’s, their biggest customer, to recommend someone to run the operation.

Damsky knew the Hilton enterprise was foundering, and he knew that Norman, who had launched Polo, was acquainted with just about every major retail decision maker in the industry.

“Would you be interested?” Lenny asked my father.

Norman’s response something like, “Does the Pope wear a funny hat?”

Brian Kitson, Burberry’s supercharged new managing director, was sufficiently impressed with Norman’s pedigrees, prestigious club memberships and high-profile contacts to sign him up for what was to be a twelve-year stint as sole US agent. Burberrys was going to invade America, and they did so by hyping the brand with advertising, public relations, fashion shows and extravagance on a scale even my father was comfortable with. No more a doughty old raincoat company! Everything Up-To-Date, came the decrees from Haymarket London: Forget the Past. Get rid of that plaid. Innovative, fresh fashion ideas.

Kitson thought Norman’s contribution would be his contacts, his Rolodex. Ultimately more valuable was his skill at marketing and advertising. He understood the impressionable, status-seeking side of affluent Americans and he had an instinct for image building by association. His New Yorker advertising campaign picturing Norman Hilton clothing on handsome young men in the grand atmosphere of Sotheby Park Bernet, against the sea behind the 18th green of Bermuda’s Mid-Ocean Golf Club, in the cellar of 21 choosing a wine. And the motto, “Doing One Thing Well” had been the formula. By 1970 his sales surpassed $10,000,000.  All due to building brand identity. Burberry’s should not be selling raincoats. They should sell England.

Burberrys (it was some time until management dropped the doughty “‘s” from the name — a worldwide rebranding effort rumored to cost some $10,000,000) epitomized Britain: London landmarks; Cotswolds countryside; the air of aristocracy. He devised a campaign: All Things British. What the brand stood for; not a specific product.  Kitson listened. Burberry’s hired a big-shot photographer, beautiful models, stylists and assistants, sent them out to Surrey, Wales, Scotland. Changed the image from your grandfather’s gabardine trench coat to status glamour. In the first two years sales boomed; every better department store bought the line – both men’s and women’s collections – and at the end of Norman’s contract the annual US sales had increased from something less than $700,000 to over $23,000,000. Norman’s fee was 12% of sales.

Thank you, St. Anthony.