“I was recommended to you by the Special Events department at Nordstrom,” said the breathless Voice on the telephone. “I need a black hat for a funeral. My husband died yesterday.”
“I’m terribly sorry,” I said, “please come in, and I’ll help you. If you don’t see anything you like among the ready-made hats, I’ll design one for you.”
It was mid-summer, blistering hot. She’d need a lightweight black straw or silk.
“That’s great,” said the Voice, growing husky, “because this has to be a very special hat. My husband always wanted me to look glamorous, and I’m sure this occasion would be no exception.”
I was impressed by her diction.
“When is the funeral?”
“Wednesday, at Arlington Cemetery. He was an Air Force colonel, a war hero. He won the Silver Star and the Flying Cross. It’s going to be very formal. All pomp and ceremony. You know how it is at Arlington Cemetery.”
I did know. I lived in Maryland and whenever lost in Virginia, I landed in Arlington Cemetery. Once I had been in time for a funeral. Out of curiosity, I followed the silent crowd, heads bowed, and heard the bugler trumpet mournful brass Taps to heaven. A lone, riderless horse, satiny black, the slain soldier’s boot hung backward in the stirrup, began the procession. Heads lowered, six black horses followed, drawing a caisson carrying the slain man’s casket. The Honor Guard shouldered the casket and carried it to the graveside where the chaplain praised the dead soldier’s heroism. Soldiers passed an American Flag folded ritualistically over the coffin, until it reached a General who refolded it differently and gravely handed it to the widow. A volley of 21 shots shattered the silence. I somewhat understood “pomp and ceremony.”
Usually, I required six weeks’ notice for designed hats, but although one could foretell celebrations, births and deaths were unpredictable. And a lady mourner needing a glamorous hat for such a formal funeral needed immediate help.
“My name is Mrs. Knox,” she said, as if still married to the dead man.
“Mrs. Knox, today is Friday,” I said, into the telephone. “If I’m to design and make a hat by Wednesday, I’ll need to see you right away. Can you possibly come in today?”
“I’ll be right over. Give me directions.”
It puzzled me that although her husband had just died she could pop out and buy a new hat. I was used to Jewish mourning rituals, where widows and orphans rent their garments, and sat at home on low seats for seven days, shoeless, mirrors shrouded against vanity. Relatives and friends bearing food came to comfort the mourners.
“I’ll be there by six,” Mrs. Knox said, and hung up.
The sun still shone burning hot when precisely at six, a silver Chrysler glided to my curb. Its door opened. Two pale blue sneakers and golden legs, all carefully pressed together shot out of the car, and after these, came hot pink mini shorts and an orange halter tied at the nape over strong, smooth bronzed shoulders. Finally, a tanned, attractive face capped with a long blonde ponytail appeared, the whole shooting out of the car’s womb like a baby just born.
Blonde and beautiful Mrs. Knox headed unerringly for my door, as if she’d visited me many times. She looked to be about 35 and strode along my driveway one foot in front of the other, like a cat or finishing school girl, head and shoulders straight, chin high, full bosom thrust forward.
“Why doesn’t your appearance match your Voice?” I nearly cried out.
The dramatic Voice had led me to expect a grief-stricken lady swathed in black, or in purple tulle, like ancient mourning Romans, swirling behind her. This vibrant and casually dressed young woman bounced inside my door.
However, her sea-green tearful eyes and trembling mouth were those of a new widow. “So good of you to see me this late,” she whispered. ”I’ve developed laryngitis.”
What, since you called? I thought. But stress did strange things to one’s voice.
“I’m sorry to hear of your bereavement,” I said again, trying to switch moods. I’d had a successful day. One man had bought a handsome Borsalino; another had bought a silk top hat for a ball; a third, with blotched face, on doctor’s orders, bought a hat to shade his skin and eyes from cancerous sun rays. Several bubbling brides-to-be and doting mothers had chosen headdresses. Most people came so as to appear fashionable, or wanted a hat to celebrate or just to look glamorous for a party or a wedding. Few people wanted to be glamorous for a funeral.
“The men’s hats are on this floor. Would you please follow me to the women’s section upstairs?”
She nodded, her bobbing long ponytail making her seem even younger than I thought. Following me up the stairs, her soft sneakers were so soundless that I looked back to see if she were still there, and started. With her glittering green eyes, swishing ponytail and strong, silent stalk, for a moment, I saw tawny lioness padding behind me.
Upstairs, stood a forest of hat trees, each tree bore twenty branches and each branch bore a hat, the hats hanging like exotic fruits. I returned to Mrs. Knox and reality.
“If you’d like something immediate and simple, here’s a ready-made hat,” I said, showing her a black satin ring with a satin-edged black veil, kept for sudden widowhood.
“As I said on the phone, I want a really glamorous hat,” she stated.
Upper-class people said coolly what they wanted, always speaking in positives. Her husky Voice had returned. As soon as she said, “glamorous” our eyes both turned to an exotic black chapeaux that almost cried out: “Take me!”
“My husband was such a unique man; I know he’d want me to look my best for the funeral. My poor husband’s best friend, Senator Benton, insists on escorting me to the cemetery. And Arlington Cemetery is such a special place.”
“Special,” I murmured, thinking of Arlington Cemetery, not so special for old, honorable men but for its dead, fallen young heroes, shrouded widows and mournful taps.
The exotic hat we’d both noticed was a black and filmy organza chapeau à la Audrey Hepburn, with a deep, downturned diaphanous brim glittering with a sprinkling of black sequins. This dark hat would shade her green eyes in sultry mystery. The late Colonel Knox would love it. Although I didn’t believe in the spirit world, she had even me convinced he was watching her.
I had originally pegged this hat as a theater or smart cocktail hat to be worn by a slender woman wearing a dead straight black linen dress. But if I added a mysterious black face veil to it, my widow would look as glamorous and respectably mournful as any deceased decorated husband or protocolian of Arlington Cemetery could wish. Senator Benton, her escort, should likewise be impressed.
We stood before a mirror. I respectfully placed the hat on her head, seat of intelligence, her head inset with jade gemstones.
The black hat hovered over her golden skin and blonde hair like night’s sky over a pale moon, her great eyes enormous with tragedy.
No sooner had I placed the confection over her face than the grieving widow changed from a bereaved mourner to a passionate, languorous woman. Her eyes grew even larger, her mouth, sultrier. She stared into the mirror at her right shoulder as if her dead husband’s face hung there. Could she be thinking of forever gone hot kisses, moonlit trysts on deserted sands, waves lapping languorous limbs?
Abruptly, Mrs. Knox fell into my arms, soft all over, mouth throbbing, tears streaming from her eyes. The hat fell. Her ponytail unleashed, blonde hair cascaded over her face, so that she appeared like a pagan woman at the mercy of her captor, a ripe fruit, full of luscious juices, ready for the taking. Had I been a man, I would have ravished her right then on my oriental carpet.
An Israeli friend told me that after her husband and son were simultaneously killed in a terrorist attack, she felt ill and went weeping to her doctor and that they had together made passionate love. Bewildered, neither could understand their actions. Are men more aroused by distraught women? Are women more beautiful, more passionate in tragedy?
Mourning became Mrs. Knox.
“Your husband would have loved you in this hat,” I said, holding her gently.
“You think so?” she said, drawing back and wiping her eyes. ”I do so want to please him. I’m sure he’s watching over me. He always told me his first marriage was hell and that marriage to me was heaven. ‘Honey,’ he often said, ‘You’re the best thing that ever happened to me.’ He loved our children and was such a good man; we had a great marriage, why did he have to die so early? When he got sick, I said to him ‘You’re not going to die on me are you? You promised me you’d live forever,’ and he joked back, `I’m going to live forever.’ Oh, if only I’d taken him to the hospital as soon as he fell sick,” and her eyes again filled with tears. “He had this illness once before and recovered, but this time, he died the next day,” she cried.
“Almost everyone who has lost a loved one feels guilty and thinks, ‘if only I had done this, if only I had done that, I could have saved him.’ I myself had this experience last year when my father died.”
“Your father died last year? I’m sorry.”
“Yes, and he begged me, ‘Don’t let me die alone here, like a dog,’ he wrote from England. I kept delaying the trip, I finally bought the ticket, and the very day I was due to go, I telephoned him to say I was coming. ‘He died this morning,’ the nurse told me. I’ve never forgiven myself for not being at his side during his last moments.”
“I am so sad,” Mrs. Knox cried. “What will I do without him?”
Once more, I took her warm body into my arms. Taller than me, she literally cried on my shoulder. Soon Mrs. Knox spoke hoarsely in a monotone, like Greta Garbo.
“I have his two boys. One’s only four, and the other’s six, and it’s amazing how kind people have been. At school my older son has a Jewish friend, and when his parents heard, they came to the house even though they know we’re Catholic. They hugged my son and said to him, ‘We’ll always be here for you.’ We don’t have any relatives here so it was wonderful to hear that. I said to them, `You don’t even know us and you came over, it’s so good of you.’”
“It’s the custom among Jews to visit the house and comfort mourners,” I said.
Her green eyes cooled fractionally.
“Let me get you a drink,” I said.
I brought us both a straight Black Label. We sat in my showroom’s blue leather wing chairs. The liquid flowed down my throat, pleasantly warming my stomach. Mrs. Knox drank, and stretched long, golden legs.
“He was much older than me, you know. We didn’t go to fancy restaurants or shows. Every weekend we went somewhere interesting with the kids, then we’d come home and in summer have a cookout, or in winter, sit round the fire. . .” she trailed off, dreamily, “then we’d put the kids to sleep, go to bed and make love.”
She sipped her scotch, green eyes large and luminous, staring at the past over the rim of her glass.
“You have to think of the kids, now,” I said, trying to distract her from her loss.
“Yes, I must now devote my life to making them happy.”
She was too young and attractive to consign herself to this role only, but of course, it was natural to think like this immediately after a death. Perhaps when she’d grieved for a month, she’d remember she was beautiful and she’d notice men’s eyes devouring her mouth and body.
“Come, let me show you how the hat will look when I add veiling,” I said, drawing her to a mirror.
I draped black veiling over her face. “With veiling, the hat will look like this.”
“That will be wonderful,” she said, gazing at her veiled image in the wall mirror. She looked odd wearing a formal black hat with a vivid orange halter, hot pink shorts and blue tennis shoes. But unlike me, who saw her entire body, she saw reflected in the mirror only her head, face, throat and shoulders. And perhaps that of her husband.
“It’s a great honor to be buried at Arlington Cemetery,” she said. “Senator Benton liked my husband so much he made all the arrangements for the funeral.”
Finally, we drank another scotch and agreed that she would pick up the finished hat late Tuesday afternoon.
“I hope you don’t mind me saying so, but you’re under a lot of stress now. Please drive carefully,” I said, thinking also of her two large scotches.
I didn’t usually offer gratuitous advice, but one bride’s mother had visited me on crutches saying, “Just fell down, broke my leg.” Happiness and grief both caused stress.
“I don’t mind you telling me to be careful; I feel you’re a good friend. I’ve made so many friends since my husband died; it’s strange, isn’t it? Someone has to die before people make friends with you.”
I didn’t have the same experience, but this was not the time to argue. With her apparent connections, I wondered why she and her late husband didn’t have more friends.
The next day, Saturday, I found myself dressing in a black bra, black panties, black hosiery, black dress, and my own glamorous black hat with a veil. Only a white gardenia on the hat, a pearl necklace and earrings relieved the noir. The slender, dramatic image I saw in the long mirror satisfied me that I had become “Mrs. Knox for a day.” I enjoyed playing the grieving widow instead of being an ex-wife. Widows received far more sympathy than ex-wives; the latter always suspected of ruining the marriage.
My assistant, Lyla, came in on Monday and, following my directions, sewed the black veil on Mrs. Knox’s hat. I personally sewed on extra black sequins scattered around the brim. Mrs. Knox would now shimmer for the late Colonel Knox. He was surely watching from heaven or wherever decorated colonels went after they faded away.
Mrs. Knox returned on Tuesday evening, now dressed completely in black. In her black dress with the hat’s secret black veil and black sequin barely masking those startling eyes, she looked as mysterious and sensual a widow as any I’d ever seen. Staring hard at herself in my full-length mirror, she turned her back to the mirror and hooked her chin over her shoulder, looking at herself like a woman assessing a stranger. Her eyes flickered appraisingly from her elegant, veiled head to her black patent stiletto shoes.
“It’s wonderful that Senator Benton is also personally escorting me to the funeral,” she said. “I’m overwhelmed. I never expected this much sympathy. It’s going to be hard getting back to normal when it’s over,” she cried.
Yes, I thought, you will miss all this attention.
I brought a white tissue and gently dabbed her eyes.
Mrs. Knox charged the glamorous hat, lifted the veil and kissed me goodbye. I boxed the hat. I never expected to see her again.
In the meantime, the sheik visited and bought twenty hats, I designed a crown for an Ethiopian bridegroom who for his wedding wanted one like Haile Selassie’s; the six-foot five DC Homicide Squad looking for serious fedoras crowded out all light; a physician who had sewn back a wandering husband’s penis severed by his furious spouse came, each with a story. I provided hats for actors, Cirque de Soleil, the Toronto Shakespeare Festival, for a National Geographic and a Smithsonian display.
A year later I was astonished but delighted to see in the Post a wedding announcement. “Mrs. Lillian Knox is to marry Senator Benton on Christmas Day in a quiet ceremony at his home in Virginia.” I wrote her a congratulatory note.
Two years passed during which I hatted lawyers, radio announcers, movie producers, sports’ idols, magicians, and silk top hats for veteran officers, Rotarians, African tribal chiefs and for presidential balls; for religious Jews and Catholic Fathers. I designed hand-beaded evening hats for the sheik’s 15-year-old daughter’s Coming Out, for gentlemen and ladies off to the Derby, designed or sold hats for grooms, fathers of the groom, for mothers of the bride or groom and for brides. Lyla and I hand-embroidered a blue velvet curtain for the special Georgetown Washington Theater’s Claire Bloom Presentation, to which we were invited back-stage.
One day I answered the telephone and immediately recognized the husky Voice.
“I came to you once for a hat to wear for my first husband’s funeral. D’you remember the glamorous black hat with an organza brim to which you added a black veil and sequins?”
“Certainly I remember,” I said, though a few hundred hats had since passed through my hands. ”That was one of the most beautiful hats I ever designed, and you looked wonderful in it. I read about your marriage to the senator. Congratulations.”
“Well, I’m sorry to say he passed away this week,” she said tearfully, “and I need a hat for his funeral.”
I nearly said, “Why don’t you wear the hat you wore for your first husband’s funeral?” but stopped myself in time. I was curious to see Mrs. Knox-Benton again.
“My second husband deserves a hat of his own, so I’m not wearing the same hat as I wore for my first husband,” she said, answering my unspoken question. ”I’m coming to see you this afternoon. Is that okay?”
This lady is very efficient, I thought. What color halter, shorts and sneakers would she wear this time?
She arrived in a sleek black Cadillac, wore a slinky black dress that cost at least $1000, and dripping mink. She had lost twenty pounds and most of her cleavage. Where was the voluptuous woman who loved quiet evenings at home round the fire with her husband and children? But her shining green eyes still dazzled.
“My late husband Senator Benton’s uncle, Speaker Richard Fuller, made all the arrangements, and is personally escorting me to the funeral. He’s been so good to me,” she cried.
As before, I comforted her. Like her first husband, Senator Benton, her second had been considerably older than her. She said he’d died in the middle of the night of a heart attack. Could an older man die from too much love-making?
We shared a Scotch; she chose a different glamorous black hat, more sophisticated, more expensive than the first.
Two years later, I saw a notice in the newspaper that she was engaged to Speaker Richard Fuller. He, too, was a good 20 years older than her. She came to me for a newly designed bridal hat. Although very simple, the fabric alone cost $500 a yard, but she didn’t for a moment demur at the price.
Mrs. Knox-Benton-Fuller began coming regularly for summer straws and winter fur felts. Now she arrived in a Mercedes and shone in diamonds and ankle length sable. She chose extravagantly expensive fabrics but discreet designs, and ordered several custom-made hats at a time. She even bought a gray three-inch slouch Borsalino, size seven and three-eighths for her husband, Richard Fuller.
Looking at a man’s head, I could usually tell what size hat he wore, down to 1/8th of an inch. From his newspaper photograph, I estimated Fuller’s head to be a size seven and one-eighth, not seven and three-eighths. But I had not seen the man in person. No doubt a photograph distorted head size.
Meanwhile, I continued my growing business, now providing hats to famous lawyers and their clients.
In another five years, Mrs. Knox-Benton-Fuller divorced Fuller. I figured that she married older men because they were rich. The first two had either died of old age, from too much ecstasy or both.
Two years later, she married a fourth time; it was again to be a winter wedding. This time, she came for a simple but expensive white fox hat and a white cage veil.
“My fiancé is an Argentinean doctor. It will be strange, marrying a younger man,” she said, smiling. “He’s tall, dark and handsome, plays the market in Gold Futures. Rich as Midas one day, poor the next, up and down,” she laughed in her throaty voice.
I imagined that now that she was wealthy, children safely tucked away in good boarding schools, she could indulge in a younger man.
“You won’t see me so often, now. We’ll frequently be traveling to South America to visit my husband’s family and friends,” she said.
One day, a navy blue Maybach GT slid soundlessly into my parking lot. A tall, dark man in his late thirties and wearing a gray Borsalino fedora sprang out, and strolled to my glass door. Head lowered, the brim covered his face, I could still see the black hair that touched his shirt collar and his black sideburns. He had the wide shoulders and narrow hips of an athlete. Muscled legs propelled him forward from the thigh, like those of a stalking panther. As he stepped into my showroom, his eyes large, dark and intelligent, with a hint of mockery stared at me. A faultlessly tailored suit appeared stitched to his body, the suit heather gray with the faintest pink pinstripe; a silk pink tie and pink breast pocket handkerchief echoed the suit’s faint stripe. I admired his crisp shirt and platinum cufflinks, the narrow feet thrust into smooth, soundless leather shoes. The soft Borsalino gray fur felt hat slouched over his lean face and aquiline nose framed his great dark eyes that exuded an animal magnetism.
With a charming smile he removed his hat and said, “I am Dr. Velasquez. Do you have a black beaver homburg? My wife just died. The funeral is tomorrow.” His dark eyes misted.
“I’m so sorry to hear of your loss,” I murmured. “May I see your profile?”
These days, youngsters thought a profile was a form of persecution, but he turned his head sideways.
“I believe you wear a seven and three-eighths,” I said, and showed him my best Borsalino beaver homburgs.
He leaned forward to take the homburg, exuding a heady men’s cologne, perhaps Prada. His jungly aroma mingled with a sensuous male body scent made my heart skip a beat. Head size, I reminded myself.
“I’ve a rather large head,” he confessed.
I smiled inwardly. Men were often embarrassed when they judged their heads or other body parts to be too small or too large. His was not that large; I’d had men who wore size 8 hats. But I played along.
“Your head is large because you have more brains,” I said, and he flashed me a dazzling, but mocking smile as if he knew I handed that line to all men with large heads. I handed him the silky black seven and three-eighths beaver homburg.
He flung his gray hat onto the wing chair on which Mrs. Knox-Benton-Fuller had once wept into my scotch. The hat landed upside-down. Inside the sweat band, I noticed the name of my business, “Hats by Haber” embossed in gold on the black roan leather. Borsalino and Stetson stamped regular customers’ names inside hats they sold hatters.
Someone had bought his hat from me. Not him. I’d never have forgotten him.
The tall, dark man stood before my long mirror, unbuttoned his fitted jacket nipped at the waist, and then threw it over the chair next to his hat. Reaching up to put on the homburg, his satin-buttoned waistcoat hugged a taut chest and belly. His arm and thigh muscles pushed against his shirt and trousers as he moved with animal grace. This man was an athlete, played games, games where individuals excelled, and he played hard: polo or handball, I guessed. I visualized him: a blackbird in flight.
I recalled that Mrs. Knox had smiled when she said, on ordering her latest wedding hat, that that her new husband was “tall, dark and handsome,” a former doctor. A risk-taker, a man’s man I thought, looking into brilliant dark eyes that shone under the black brim of the homburg. The mirror framed his face like a portrait of The Prince!
“This hat looks very handsome on you,” I said.
In my business, many handsome men crossed my threshold, but I never said, “You look handsome.” No matter how attractive the man, I kept affairs strictly business-like.
“We were only married a few years. Such a beautiful woman, such unusual golden skin, so warm and loving. She left me her two teenage children from a former marriage. Little dears,” he added, absently, sliding a thin gold cigarette case from his silken inner breast pocket. From the case, he extracted an oval Turkish cigarette and lit it with a gold lighter; left-handed.
As he lit his cigarette, his sliver of a Patek Phillipe chimed a silvery hour. He glanced at the watch, which, at his gaze, like magic, lit up.
“This time tomorrow I will be at her funeral,” he said somberly, and two tears slid down his lean, dark cheek. “She wanted to be cremated.”
I could hardly hug him as I had Mrs. Knox-Benton-Fuller, but I felt I should offer him some consolation.
“Would you like a scotch?”
“I’d love one. Straight,” he said.
“That’s how I was going to give it to you. Straight.”
I longed to ask him straight, how his wife had died. By a fall? A heart attack? A poison only a doctor would know? I’d heard that a touch on certain spots on the body could kill. But I’d only seen that on TV. Was it true?
I looked him straight in his dark, beautiful eyes, and he stared back unflinchingly.
He swallowed his drink and held out his glass for another. Tears ran down his face, which he brushed away with his sleeve like a child.
The Prince said, “Cash. Okay? No receipt necessary.”
Cremation. Cash. No receipt. Okay.
While he drew out a wad of bills, I turned my back on him; my body cutting off his view of my hands. Checking that no mirror before me reflected my action back to him, I seized his jacket and read the bespoke tailor’s name embroidered inside the inner right breast pocket, “Steed of Savile Row.” Every good tailor kept a list of his clients. Even if he’d altered his name, I knew his unusual suit color and fabric.
Tomorrow, I would call Steed in London. I now turned and held up his jacket, the softest blend of wool and cashmere, delicious to the touch. $1,800 a meter, a Prince’s raiment, and helped him slide his arms into it.
I boxed his black homburg. Turning toward me, black eyes glowing like burning coals, he leisurely crushed the gray Borsalino dangerously low onto his head over one eye, and took his new homburg. Flicking a finger at his brim by way of farewell, he strolled out into the dusk.
Mourning became Mrs. Knox.
But she had met her match.
Gilda Haber teaches at Montgomery College, is a writer, and a hatter: Mourning Becomes Electra is one story from “Diary of a Mad Hatter.” With 40 publications, she is shopping publishers for “Cockney Girl” a coming of age story from childhood to adolescence in pre-war, wartime and post-war England. . www.hatalog.com