"The first thing I tell everyone is that I’m from Chicago. People think I’m a sophisticated New Yorker and I’m really not. I’ve never had a love affair with New York—I’m really a Midwestern human being. I miss green grass, I miss the country, I miss suburban life. But I moved here in 1947, after I met the man I'd be married to until he died. I worked for a few places in New York—Chester Weinberger, Geoffrey Beene—and I came to Bergdorf Goodman 40 years ago. I paid my dues on the sales floor but I didn't sell anything. I was terrible. I could sell the clothes, but I couldn’t write an order because I can't add. They tell the visual people it doesn’t matter, you don’t have to know math, but I still count on my fingers.
[Former CEO of Bergdorf's] Ira Neimark came up to me, right there on the second floor at the window, and he said, ‘Listen Betty, we’re all very fond of you, but you have no sales record. You’ve been here almost two years and you’ve never run up a sale.’ I explained to him that I don’t do math. I said, ‘Why don’t you give me a personal shopping offer?’ They had a woman here who drank and took care of the rich people, that was it, but Saks had personal shoppers. I saw a very great need for it—these people needed my help. Most women are not very confident about dressing. I became their mirror. For me, that is the only thing I’ve ever been sure of.
Beauty is a strange word…what you see is not what you get. You have to get to know people first—once you get to know somebody, you don’t see their [outer beauty]. The most beautiful woman I know... Angela Lansbury comes to mind. I saw her a year or two ago, and I dressed her when she was quite young, and you know, she has this very ladylike attitude towards beauty. I think manners play a great deal in how people perceive you.
Candice Bergen, too, is so beautiful. She has such a distinguishable look. Today I think [celebrities] all look cloned. I like when women look a little different. And I don't understand plastic surgery. You know, there’s something really wonderful to growing old and keeping yourself upright. There really is! It doesn’t have to be the worst thing in your life. How can you not face your mirror and see reality? I got up this morning and thought, ‘I really look awful!’ And then I turned the page. What am I gonna do, go to the dermatologist? [Laughs]
When I moved to New York, I really took care of myself because that's all we did. We'd have our hair done, nails done, and our skin done, and then we'd all go to Schrafft's for lunch. Those were different days. I used to get my hair cut at Elizabeth Arden every week. Now I go to a hairdresser I really like, who rents a chair somewhere. I want something inexpensive and quick. I don’t need my head massaged. I want a haircut and to get out of there. Now I just get up in the morning, I wet my hair down, and I’ll hand dry it.
When I wash it I use Kiehl's shampoo, though they've been changing it lately. But I have to use something when I get out of the shower to give it a little thickness. I don't use conditioner, just Kiehl's Clean Hold Styling Gel to thicken my hair a little bit. I find that really good. My hair is curly, so I just put the gel in and let it dry like that. I'm in a hurry, you see, to get away from my mirror. Not in love with my mirror.
I go to a wonderful young dermatologist named Philip Bruder, and everything he tells me to do I don't do. I don't buy the products, there's no way! To wash my face I use a washrag and soapy water—all of the things you're not supposed to do. I like using soap from all over the world. I keep them in my lingerie drawers, like clothing perfume, and then I take them out and use them. but I don’t put night creams on or anything. I can’t be bothered. I have enough moisture in my skin, I don’t need moisturizer. Nothing. In the morning I throw a lot of water on my face, and then I use this white milky emulsion that my dermatologist gave me. I put that on first...it gives me some oil on my skin.
Once in a while I’ll go down to the beauty floor and one of the girls will say, ‘Let’s do makeup.’ And they know I really hate it having it done. I don’t like people touching me, and for a long time, I didn't even wear makeup. When I was young I used to steal eye pencils from the dime store, and I’d buy lipsticks for 10 cents, but never wore them. I think the first person who ever did makeup for me was in Chicago, and she taught me how to use eyeliner. Then I would wear mascara from the dime store, maybe some lipstick, and we used rouge. I don’t go anywhere without makeup—even to the grocery store, in all sincerity.
Now I use an Estée Lauder Liquid Foundation. I complain to them all the time because the bottle is very big and beautiful but there’s very little content! And I have to admit that sometimes I water it down and shake it to use it. Then I put on Edward Bess' Eyeliner, which goes on so well. I use his highlighter around my eyes—just a little bit. And I use two of his blushes—the light one, Naked Rose, and then a reddish Threads of Silk one in Ciao. I’m very shocked sometimes when I get to work and go into the dressing room, where the light is very good to see what I’ve done. I’m rather comedic some days—one cheek higher than the other. [Laughs] The Edward Bess blushes, though, are very easy for me to use.
Edward and I have been friends for 10 years, he knows me better than anyone. He made a lipstick for me, Betty [ed note: available only in store at Bergdorf's], that I use. I can’t go without lipstick—every minute of every day. I’ve never not worn lipstick. Actually, when I’m at the dentist, I don’t wear it. [Laughs] I think I inherited it from my mother, because she always wore red lipstick. You know, I try all the reds, and I always go back to the reddest ones. I guess you could call me a creature of cosmetic habit.
HEALTH & BODY
My toothpaste is the product I’ve used the longest. It’s Arm and Hammer, I still have my teeth at 88, that’s very important. I brush my teeth and use a mix of peroxide and alkalol. Alkalol is something my dentist gave me 34 years ago. It’s used basically for sore throats and noses, but I put half of it in a bottle of peroxide and it’s a mouthwash. It has sort of saved my teeth, my dentist thinks it’s really helped. The alkalol is hard to come by now, but it’s really important to me. I do that every day of my life.
As far as exercise, I'm walking all day long, so I do that. A client of mine got me a pedometer once because she was so intrigued about my walking. And I never wore it, so I gave it to Joan Rivers. [Laughs] I think the answer [to aging] is to keep working. I would fall into a small heap if I weren’t working. Even when I don’t feel well, and there are days I don’t feel so good, I get here and I distract myself and by the end of the day I’m okay. To relax I probably give my kitchen floor the best wash it’s ever had. I like to clean, I like to cook, I love grocery stores. I like to make food at home, because I go out enough. I went to a wonderful Peruvian restaurant the other day in Williamsburg called the Llama Inn. I’m always the oldest lady in the room. The first time I went to Upland, I looked around and said to these friends of mine who were in their '60s, ‘Do you realize you’re sitting with the oldest person in the room?’"
—as told to ITG
Betty Halbreich photographed by Tom Newton in New York on May 11, 2016.