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Edith Head: The Life and Times of Hollywood's Celebrated Costume Designer
Synopses & Reviews
"I didn't have what you would call an artistic or cultural background. We lived in the desert and we had burros and jackrabbits and things like that."
With those two sentences, Head dismissed her whole childhood the first time I interviewed her. Throughout her life, Head rarely revealed any details of her birth or childhood, though on a small table in her dressing room she kept studio portraits of both her parents. Jane Kesner Ardmore, who cowrote Head's autobiography "The Dress Doctor, recalled, "Edith was strictly today and tomorrow. She didn't like thinking about yesterday. At first I insisted that she tell me something about her childhood, and she insisted she couldn't remember anything. So I said, 'At our next meeting, I want you to bring along all of your childhood photos.' Edith said she grew up in Mexico and they never took any. I said, 'I've lived in Mexico too, and I've seen peasants carry their children for miles to have them photographed.' So at the next meeting she came with a whole suitcase full of photos. She showed me a picture of one man and said, 'That was my father.' Then she showed me a picture of another man and said that one was her father. I told her they were obviously two different men. She finally admitted that the second man was her stepfather. She found it painful to admit that her mother remarried."
Edith Head was born Edith Claire Posener on October 28, 1897, in San Bernardino, California. Her biological father, Max Posener, was a naturalized American citizen who had come to the United States from Prussia in 1876, at the age of eighteen. Her mother was Anna E. Levy, born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1874, to an Austrian father and aBavarian mother. There is nothing to document how Max and Anna met, or if they moved to California together, or met after arriving there. Together they traveled around Southern California and lived in various cities. Shortly before Edith's birth, Max took out a $1,500 promissory note from the San Bernardino National Bank to set up a haberdashery on Third Street. It failed within a year, and the bank sued. Max's stock and fixtures were sold for a fraction of their worth, and he left town. The 1900 census found Max living in an El Paso boardinghouse and working as a merchant of millinery goods. He said he had been married for five years and listed "Annie" and Edith as fellow boarders. It is the last record of the three living together.
In "The Dress Doctor, Edith makes only one mention of Max Posener, referring to a visit she paid him in El Paso after her mother had remarried, and describing him as a "slender man, with brown hair, thinking eyes and a moustache. He was a fine Latin scholar, my father, a man who read a great deal." Posener stayed in her life, however, as people at Paramount remembered him visiting her there when he was elderly. Edith's maid Myrtle City later described him as looking like "a little Jewish peddler man."
Was Anna Levy ever married to Max Posener? There is no record of a marriage or a subsequent divorce. In 1901, in San Bernardino, Levy married Frank Spare, a mining engineer born in Pennsylvania in 1856. At the time of their marriage, Levy said she had not been married before and had no children, though her daughter, Edith, was three years old at the time. The family moved around often as Spare's mining jobs changed locations. The only town Headremembered well enough to name was Searchlight, Nevada. Jane Ardmore remembered seeing a photo of Edith, perhaps five or six years old, sitting alone on the porch of Spare's cottage in Searchlight, without another person or even any vegetation to be seen for miles around.
Frank and Anna Spare passed Edith off as their mutual child, and since Spare was a Catholic, Edith became one too, or at least she pretended she was. I wondered later if she ever officially converted herself to Catholicism after an exchange one night when she was joking about the fact that she and her second husband, Bill Ihnen, were "living in sin," since they had had a civil wedding and were never remarried in any church. It was the only time I ever saw Bill come close to losing his temper with Edith. He said, "I've told you before, Edith. Let's go see the priest and find out what I have to do and we'll get married again." She nervously jested, "Oh, I think it's much more fun to live in sin," and quickly changed the subject.
Maybe having to hide the fact that Spare was not her real father and that she was Jewish started Edith on a lifelong pattern of lying. Of course, dissembling would often be necessary at the studio, to be diplomatic; there were times when telling somebody they would look great in a costume (when obviously they wouldn't) was unavoidable. However, Edith's designing colleague Natalie Visart commented, "Edith lied when the truth would have served her better." These lies gave her the confidence that she was in control of the situation. This would become the aspect of her personality, even more than her blazing ambition, which turned people against her.
Frank Spare's mining activities seemed tobring him a measure of affluence, for he took his wife and daughter to Chicago when Edith was about five and to New York when Edith was eight. In New York she was fitted with glasses for the first time. Gradually his assignments were more and more often south of the border (something she could not bring herself to admit in "The Dress Doctor, though she talked of visiting Juarez as a tourist). Shortly before her death, she asked me to be her biographer, and I gently reminded Edith that I would have to know more about her childhood ...
"[Chierichetti] paints an absorbing sketch of an ambitious woman whose career defined Hollywood's golden years. Fashion lovers will enjoy his homage, and his devotion to movie magic." Publishers Weekly
"Sometimes gossipy, at other times straightforward, this biography of movie costume designer Edith Head is best for its sympathetic portrait of an insecure talent trying hard to survive in a den of thieves — Hollywood." Booklist
"Appealing mostly to film buffs-but certainly useful for drag queens." Kirkus Reviews
Book News Annotation:
A film historian and costumer who was a long-time friend of Edith Head's writes a biography of her life and work. Widely considered the most important figure in the history of Hollywood costume design, Head had a career that spanned nearly half a century and included such classic films as Rear Window and Sunset Boulevard. In this volume, the author provides insight into this famously impenetrable and secretive woman. Annotation (c)2003 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
In this new biography of Hollywood's most prolific costume designer, friend and film historian Chierichetti takes readers inside Head's extraordinary life, both personal and professional, revealing the complex and surprising person behind her trademark sunglasses. Photos throughout. 8-page color insert.
Edith Head is widely considered the most important figure in the history of Hollywood costume design. The glamour and style of her creations continue to inspire generations of designers. Her career spanned nearly half a century and included such classic films as Rear Window and Sunset Boulevard. Her private life and professional achievements, however, have been the subject of speculation since she rose to the top of her field in the late 1940s. Ruthlessly competitive and intensely secretive, Head had few close friends and many detractors. In his unprecedented biography, David Chierichetti offers a privileged glimpse into the personality and emotions behind the famously impenetrable "scboolmarm" façade, as well as a comprehensive account of her creative process.
As Head's longtime friend and confidant, Chierichetti enjoyed rare access to her home life and reflections on Hollywood. The author's intimate view of Head's life and work, combined with his extensive research and design expertise, result in a clear-eyed portrait of a career often shrouded in misinformation. To find the truth in the notoriously fictionalized accounts of Edith Head, the author turned to her friends, co-workers, and competitors. The result of Chierichetti's meticulous, original research is a fresh and vital portrait of the designer, as well as of the studio era she epitomizes.
Edith Head is richly illustrated with more than 150 images, including family snapshots, sketches, and studio portraits of the stars and roles she helped to create. With a full-color photo insert, this informative, thorough, and important biography is also engaging and entertaining, and will appeal to designers, scholars, and film buffs alike.
The late Edith Head was Hollywood's most successful costume designer, and one of its most enigmatic, intriguing, and enduring figures. Launching her career as a novice sketch artist in 1923, she drew on both talent and cunning to become Paramount's top designer for four decades, contributing to more than 1,000 films and earning an unprecedented thirty-five Oscar nominations — eight of which she won.
In this new biography, friend and film historian David Chierichetti takes us inside Head's extraordinary life, both personal and professional, revealing the complex and surprising person behind her trademark sunglasses. But more than simply a portrait of Head, this book is a fascinating look into Hollywood's insular, often treacherous studio system and the many stars that Edith dressed, including Veronica Lake, Ginger Rogers, Bing Crosby, Bette Davis, Mae West, Grace Kelly, Elizabeth Taylor, Gary Cooper, Natalie Wood, and Audrey Hepburn. Filled with rare sketches and photographs, Edith Head will mesmerize anyone interested in film history, costume design, or fashion.
About the Author
David Chierichetti, a film historian and costumer, is the author of several books on Hollywood and costume design, including Mitchell Leisen and Hollywood Costume Design. He teaches at Otis College of Art and Design and at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising. He lives in Los Angeles, California.
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