A few years ago I wrote that there were two types of tailoring memoir or history: the worshipful and dry factual history and the gossipy tell-all, a dirt-dishing bildungsroman. I had not counted on the appearance of a third type over the last four years, the nearly content-free picture book featuring monographs by mercenary fashion journalists and bloggers.
Martin Greenfield’s moving memoir, 2014’s Measure of a Man: From Auschwitz Survivor to Presidents’ Tailor, falls into none of these three categories. Then again, he is more than a tailor, as his title only begins to suggest: Greenfield is a businessman, successful post-industrial manufacturer, and survivor of wrenching Holocaust horrors.
His account of deportation to Auschwitz, separation from his family, and the vagaries of fate that kept him alive as others were killed both on whim and by the institutional edifice of hatred – a transfer to a work camp at Buna, then a freezing death march to Gleiwitz (sustained by provisions stolen from the pack a German soldier made him carry) and finally Buchenwald – take up a significant part of the book and may evoke Elie Wiesel, whom Greenfield recalls from Buchenwald as “the skinniest kid [he] ever saw.” Greenfield was finally liberated by American troops under General Eisenhower. After that, the rest of Measure of a Man is by comparison a sunny narrative of apparently unallayed success and triumph, directly ascendant after the worst horrors of the 20th century.
That sunny positivity belies the resourcefulness, resolve and strength that helped Greenfield survive the camps, and by his own account to retain his humanity (and refrain from murder) when confronted with the opportunity to avenge himself on one of his tormentors. For unlike most of the tailors described in the sorts of memoirs I refer to above, Greenfield took a circuitous path to the clothing industry. Following the end of World War II, he briefly joined the Czech Army, then (while still a teenager) wheeled and dealed in black-market cigarettes. Anticipating the Soviet takeover of Czechoslovakia, he fled across the border to Western Europe and ended up in a displaced persons camp. There, almost like a deus ex machina, long-lost relatives in America contacted him and helped him immigrate to their blissful family home in the United States. Although Greenfield’s only prior technical training was as an auto mechanic, he eventually found a place at a garment factory in Brooklyn. There, he became familiar with all the processes of manufacturing a high-quality factory-made suit. The resourcefulness, intelligence and business acumen that had helped him survive in postwar Europe impressed his bosses so much that the factory owners trusted him to represent the business to important customers and to work on the clothes of VIPs. By happy coincidence, one of these VIPs was the man Greenfield hailed as his liberator from Buchenwald, Dwight Eisenhower -- Greenfield amusingly recounts feeling close enough to Ike to start leaving notes for him on foreign policy in the pockets of garments delivered to him as president. (Ike was puzzled.)
In fact, much of the last part of Measure of a Man is an exultant victory lap celebrating the celebrities the Martin Greenfield factory has dressed, and the designers and luxury stores who have flocked to him to make their top lines at one time or another. The veritable avalanche of names from sports, politics and the media means that along with the laudable, such as Walter Cronkite and Paul Newman, the reader will inevitably find customers of dubious dress sense, from Donald Trump to Jimmy Fallon to Russell Brand as Arthur. What the name-dropping (and frequent amusing anecdotes) cannot obscure, however, is Greenfield’s pride in his achievements and lucidity about the nature of his work. Purchasing his employer’s facility in the 1970s, he made it not just subsist, but thrive through the last four decades of deindustrialization and déshabillement, a minor miracle that required major business sense.
Greenfield describes himself as a “maker,” not a tailor, and that fairly reflects his product – excellent hand-padded and -finished garments still made in America out of quality materials. His extensive custom work, which he describes exhaustively in passages about his contacts with Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, is good factory made-to-measure, not the unscalable, fetishistically individualized work of the bespoke tailors more often celebrated on the Internet. But, like bespoke tailors, almost all of the larger makers of quality handmade garments have disappeared over the last half-century. Greenfield’s survived, and by his account prospered, in part through his flexibility to make vastly different styles and patterns for a very diverse set of customers. He’s produced trendy clothes for fashionable brands like rag and bone, enjoyably costumey if historically dubious clothing for film and TV productions like Boardwalk Empire and the recent version of The Great Gatsby, and, mostly in the past, the top lines for major luxury clothing stores that once seemed to care about selling quality garments, such as Neiman Marcus under the late Stanley Marcus or, in the 1990s, Brooks Brothers. Much of the success of Greenfield’s custom work is due to Greenfield’s personal technical skills in fitting and adjusting his product to suit its wearer, those skills he picked up learning to do every job in the factory so many years ago. Writing in 1996, clothing doyen Alan Flusser suggested that the Golden Fleece-line suits Greenfield was then making were the only thing that had actually improved, not declined, at Brooks Brothers in 20 years. (Brooks has switched makers now.)
Whither Greenfield? The man is in his 80s and, I hope, will not be disappointed by his integrity or his prediction of the “fearless march back to quality” in today’s fashion. He closes his memoir describing how he finally, at the age of 80, celebrated his bar mitzvah - in a lavender seersucker suit. Would that we all may live so long and be so lucky – and plucky.