On my feet are new sandals that I have lusted after for 38 years. I finally have them! They are not unusual in that you probably see them everywhere and have become a new yuppie/preppie standard of sorts. They are now called Jack Rogers, though when I first saw them in Southampton, they were called Jackie Rogers. Even then, they came in a few different colors, but now they come in dozens of cool color combos. I am not sure which color combo Jackie Kennedy chose, but she was indeed the one, who made these a fashion item.
In 1973, I sublet my apartment in Richmond Hill, Queens. It is hard to imagine now, who would have wanted to live there. It was in a two family home with an Irish immigrant family who owned it, living on the first floor. There was little or no privacy. I lived upstairs in a converted “illegal” one bedroom apartment with a kitchen that had been a bedroom. I shared a hallway bathroom with Alice Eggerton who was in her late 80’s and chain-smoked Virginia Slims when she wasn’t choking from coughing. Considering the fact that I was only 16 years old when I first left home, I suppose this was all that I needed. I was safe, peaceful and away from my Borderline personality mother. So, in the summer of 1973, I sublet this place to a friend I had worked with. I packed my bags and moved out to a one-room rental in Southampton, Long Island, overlooking Shinnecock Bay with Black eyed Susans in the driveway.
As soon as I got out to the Hamptons, I hit Jobs (pronounced with long “o” like in the bible!) Lane and Main Street checking each boutique for employment. When I got to the Tapemeasure Boutique at the end of Jobs Lane, I was hired by a vivacious blonde, named, Debbie Owen. I had a merchandising degree from The Fashion Institute of Technology and had worked as a designer, buyer, manager in various fashion industry positions so I was quite qualified for this position. But, I wanted to live in the Hamptons and was convinced I could live there year round, so this is where I would start.
Meeting Debbie Owen was life changing. She became a key figure and influence on my life with more largesse then I could ever have imagined. I was 23 years old and though I had lived a fuller life than most women that age, I was still a virgin and had not been in a steady relationship yet. Debbie became my role model in every way. She was married to Billy who was this adorable guy and she had a baby named Kyle. Her baby was also cute, but had a large hemangioma on his head, which caught one’s eye while cooing to him in his seat. I learned about hemangiomas that summer as well.
Without realizing it, I began emulating just about everything there was about Debbie. She was a cute blonde, with a laugh that not only made you laugh along, but made you stop what you were doing to watch her laugh! Debbie was always tan and wore a gold rope chain around her neck that she said Billy gave her when she had her baby. The story was, that although naked while delivering her baby, she did not remove her rope chain. And then, the giggles would come as she shared that story repeatedly. I was one of three salesgirls (what we were called then!) and the other two were Susie Hoercher, a student at Southampton College and Samantha Munn of Carrie Munn society fame. Sam Munn was also dating Ivan Obolensky, an actual prince! Her family’s mansion was on Gin Lane directly on the ocean. The one time I went there to pick up Sam, I was completely dumbfounded by the magnificence of it all. Mrs. Woolworth would drive up to Tapemeasure, in in her chauffer driven white Rolls Royce to shop and Dina Merrill would come in whenever new clothing arrived to try them all on. I was beyond star struck and when I would drop these names to my crazy mother, she would ooh and aah, always with envy.
Debbie would take her lunch break on a Kurtz cot in the back of the store in a tiny courtyard that lay in the blazing sun. She would apply Marcella Borghese sun gelee onto her arms, legs and face and sunbathe for an hour. I can remember that sweet yet exotic, almost musky scent. I marched myself over to Saks Fifth Avenue on Main Street and also bought Borghese to follow suit. I basked in that sun with my freckled-Irish-not-to-be-in-sun skin day after day, and am convinced that my current skin cancers, began then!
Lothars were the big fashion item that summer. They were thin cotton safari type shirts with matching bell bottom pants. Lothars were tie dyed but with only one pastel color and white. The most popular were the original Lothars which were light blue and white. Then, other colors were added including pink, yellow, green, and black. Debbie wore a different one each day and we sold a ton of those very chic outfits. They were definitely the hot fashion of the season.
To go with Lothars and mostly anything else Debbie wore, she donned these cute sandals that were Navaho looking to me with lacing around their leather edges. They were flat and the ones she wore were white though they did come in colors. Debbie bought these at the fancy Southampton shoe shop, called Boot Tree. The sandals were called Jackie Rogers, not Jack Rogers as they are now. These sandals stayed with me for all these years and as I saw women wearing them summer after summer, I wondered why I never got them myself. In the last few years, they have become even more popular and I became more fixated on them. Last week, I caved and found a pair on Ebay. They are ridiculously overpriced now and still were, even on Ebay despite being used, but nonetheless, I own them now and feel quite pleased.
Over the years I became somewhat obsessed over emulating Debbie. I worked for her all that summer, but when fall came, there just was not enough business. The Hamptons were still primarily summer resorts and so Michael Dayan’s Tapemeasure closed for the season. I was now unemployed and only able to stay in Hampton Bays for a few more months, which became lonely and cold. Debbie had a fall party that year called “Come as you were in the 50’s.” I wore Dr. Denton pjs and came with a date who was an attorney and drove a red Corvette (that is all I remember about him!). She served MacDonald’s style shoe string fries and burgers and we were all duly impressed. All Debbie’s parties were fabulous and creative. I continued to visit Debbie regularly until I returned to Richmond Hill and moved back into my odd apartment.
I remained a friend and a devoted fan of Debbie’s for the next 20 or so years. When Debbie opened her first shop on Jobs Lane called Phase Nine, I was green with envy. It was a maternity shop and she had a fun partner. It seemed like the right place at the right time and I was dying to open a similar type shop for years. I believe it only stayed open for a couple seasons, focused on a small niche market, but Debbie always acted as if it was a huge success.
After Phase Nine folded, a couple years later, she bought an existing children’s wear boutique called, Robin Christopher. I remember attending the champagne gala opening feeling like I would just spend the rest of my life trying to be Debbie. I shared that thought with my fiancee that night. This shop was even bigger and in a better location and I was twice as envious. I now drank Gin and Tonics with lime albeit only once in awhile, as opposed to Debbie’s nightly ritual. I went on a high protein diet a la Dr. Atkins, because Debbie did. She taught me to eat the bread and skip the butter, but in retrospect, I think that is the opposite of how that diet works! I chose yellow and green as my favorite color combination, as Debbie did. And, although I hated fudge and still do, I purchased it occasionally from Ye Olde Fudge Shoppe on Main Street, acting as if it were a huge treat, as Debbie did. I even sprung for the purchase of Dom Perignon champagne for special events, as Debbie did. I collected Bilston and Battersea enameled Halcyon boxes from Caldwell Alexander, as Debbie did, though never acquiring nearly the collection she had. I copied her laugh. I threw my head back when I laughed and tossed my hair even though it wasn’t blond. And most importantly, I got a gold rope necklace that I wore around my neck every single day.
When I married Shep (in the Hamptons of course) in 1978, Debbie and Billy came to our reception, donned completely in pink and green. You just couldn’t get more Hamptons than that. After Shep and I were married, we received regular invitations to Debbie and Billy’s for dinners and parties. Mostly, they served lobster, always champagne and always gin and tonics with lime. Dessert was dense and delicious chocolate cake that Debbie had whipped up and in many ways, she rivaled Martha Stewart. Her parties were always fabulous and her kitchen was always very, very white so needless to say, I have lusted after a white kitchen for many years. When I had babies or young children in later years, and towed them along, I always felt awkward and inappropriate.
Shep and I had Debbie and Billy over to our Hampton Bays house for dinner one night with our friends, Mickey and Buck from Sutton Place in Manhattan. We too, lived in Manhattan but we had purchased this Hampton Bays weekend house one rainy Mother’s Day weekend while visiting Debbie and Billy. It was an odd and impulsive purchase in looking back. The ranch house had a Corning cook top which was a new concept at the time and we did not realize that only Corning cookware would make contact with it to get hot enough to cook!. Of course, our menu was lobster and baked potatoes and of course, the cocktail of the evening was gin and tonic. All six of us were completely blitzed by dinner because the water NEVER boiled and we waited and waited and waited to eat while drinking to kill the time. Disaster dinner! I have a photo of the six of us, still. We also spent a couple of New Year’s Eves with The Owens at parties. Debbie always looked completely fabulous. I always felt ultra frumpy and dark around her.
To elaborate, I really never felt good around Debbie. Even the day she met me in New York City and took me to the Waldorf for lunch, which I loved. I was young, working in New York and very hip yet, I still felt dumpy! Over that lunch, Debbie mentioned that she had been on “the pill” for years and years and though she had frequent migraines, she didn’t care. I was concerned, but she was too happy and glib to care. I remember how I adored the fancy Waldorf bathroom and loved having this lunch, yet still felt lesser than, when with Debbie.
In later years, we moved into the Hampton Bays house year round. On the rare days when I ran out without any makeup on, I could be sure to run into Debbie, smiling, beaming, and beautiful. She played tennis regularly and wore her cute whites everywhere. The worst encounter was when I went to her beach club invited by a friend of mine. I had so many kids and this time, I was hauling around baby number three or four on a blustery day at this bay beach. I was overweight, post baby and more bedraggled than ever. While carrying the baby and trying to rescue my flying beach umbrella, I tripped and fell into the sand, baby in arms, umbrella flailing, my hair like a mad woman’s and my post pregnancy swimsuit, ungainly and unflattering. I looked up and there she was—glowingly tan, thin, sleek, blond hair pulled into a tight knot, and that gorgeous white smile she always wore. “Oh, how are you?” she squealed. “I am okay, this is MY third baby boy here.” “This is MY new tennis bracelet” she said as she flashed this dazzling cluster of diamonds all around her tan wrist. All of her jewelry always came from Rose Jewelers on Main Street and once, when Shep decided to buy me a diamond anniversary band he went there to purchase it. I was thrilled and wear it still. But, somehow, my jewels never came close to the sparkle and spectacular quality of Debbie’s. I remember feeling crushed that day, wondering why I was me and Debbie was Debbie.
Once, when Debbie gave me her copy of Tracy Kidder’s “Old Friends” to read, she wrote inside of it, “We have more in common than you will ever know.” I never could figure out just what she meant. But, to this day, I am flattered.
This story does not end well. Around 1992, Debbie was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. In 1993, I had yet another son, Gregory. I called Debbie to invite her to a christening party and she told me of her diagnosis and chemotherapy. Ever positive I remember her saying, “This is the worst thing that’s ever happened to me, but it isn’t that bad.” I suppose many Adult Children of Alcoholics might feel that way, and Debbie was indeed an offspring of an alcoholic household. “Are you calling me because I have ‘cahn-cer?” she queried. “No, I said, I did not know that. “I’m just calling you because…”
We moved to North Carolina in the summer of 1993 with our four sons and in 1995, we returned to the Hamptons for a visit. My 27 month old baby, Gregory drowned during that trip and devastation set and took permanent residence in our family. A few months later when I called Debbie, she said that she wasn’t doing that well and I responded in the oddest way, “If you die, will you please take care of Gregory”, I sobbed. She did not answer. I continued to call Debbie from time to time as she continued treatment. Always an atheist, she seemed to have found God and was visited by a local fundamentalist minister regularly. She also was thrilled by the sighting of the pope once when she came out of Sloan Kettering hospital and felt that he had looked “directly at her” Once when I called, she described this “ gorgeous golden amber liquid pouring into my arm” which I assumed were platelets. I ended our conversation with, “I love you Debbie.” “I love you too, she said, “very, very much.” And another time, I said, “Debbie, I want to have another child, but I think I am too old to get pregnant.” “That wouldn’t stop me, she said, “Go for it.” And so I did. The rest is history also known as my 12 year old twins.
I don’t know when Debbie died and that bothers me terribly. I have never been able to find out the details and was so deeply involved in rebuilding my own life at the time, that I missed it and no one ever let me know. I have contacted her husband, her sons, and her sister and shared how much she meant to me, and yet, I have never heard back from any of them. I requested this paperweight I painted for her once in my early twenties, that was of course, yellow and green with the words, “Great daughter, wife, and mother.” I wanted it as a memento, but again, no response. So, I have a photo of Debbie lying down under a Christmas tree, looking frail, but of course smiling and blond. She has her arms around her niece and I suspect it was not long before she died. The photo is on the desk in my bedroom and I see it every morning. Debbie always seems to come to me when I am in yoga class and she chatters in my ear. When I am trying to concentrate and relax, I politely ask her to stop. She still chatters and giggles on.
But now, finally, after all these years, I have the sandals, the coveted Jackie/Jack Rogers sandals. Mine are caramel color and white and I think Debbie would have heartily approved.