We all know the merits of having old friends. We share history and adventure. They know our darkest secrets, hopes and fears, and best of all, they remember all the stuff we forgot.
Making new friends—that can be a burden! Between family and work, we hardly have time for our old friends—why make the investment? Sometimes, a new job, a move to a new city, or a new school your kids attend makes you endure the laborious process of telling your life story and becoming acquainted with a complete stranger.
I recently had the privilege of making a new, old friend. Even at 92, she would have hated that I called her old. But, I mean it more in the sense that she seemed like someone I had known for a long time. And, in some respects, I did.
Born in the mid 60’s, I was the product of a strong woman. My German-born mother ended up raising me herself after my father died upon returning from Vietnam. The 70’s were rich with women trailblazers. Gloria Steinem. Helen Gurley Brown. Carol Burnett and Mary Tyler Moore. Barbara Walters and the amazing women she interviewed, like Golda Meir and Benazir Bhutto. I paid attention to them all and never thought I couldn’t achieve my goals in any field, because I was a woman. In business, there was one woman, in particular, who I idolized—Eileen Ford. Not only was she at the helm of a business she created, but also instrumental in defining an entirely new industry. And, what little girl doesn’t love the glamour and beauty and ideal of becoming a model?
Last fall, I had the chance to meet my idol. Eileen’s daughter, Lacey Ford Williams and son-in-law, John Williams have been friends for a decade. I told them about my desire to meet the legendary icon. As I spend about a week in Manhattan every month, Lacey arranged for me to meet her mom. Over the course of the next 10 months, I had the occasion to have 5 cocktail hours with her. And although we drank wine and champagne, she was pure Manhattan (the drink not the city – although she was that, too)!
If you’ve never had a Manhattan, here’s what you need to know. First of all it’s “old school.” It’s a strong drink made primarily with Whiskey, some Sweet Vermouth and a few dashes of bitters, just for fun. It’s an elegant and erudite drink served straight up (without ice to water it down) in a cocktail glass. It was allegedly invented by Winston Churchill’s mother at a party she was hosting for a US Presidential candidate.
Eileen was definitely old school. Every time I saw her, she was dressed to the nines. Her hair was beautifully coifed, her jewelry chosen to coordinate with care, and her nails perfectly polished to match. She was beautiful. She loved beautiful things. She made a business of assembling them.
Whiskey is not for wimps and neither was Eileen. At 40 proof, it is one of the strongest alcohols and the process of distillation is pure art. Its fragrance is sweet yet a slug of whiskey can take your breath away. Being in business as a woman as early as the 1940’s and creating a new industry standard certainly required the ability to breathe fire. She was renowned for being a tough businesswoman. “Fierce, demanding, direct” are all words used to describe her. I think she would agree that those were both accurate and positive adjectives.
Sweet Vermouth (originally of German origin) is an aromatized fortified wine flavored with various roots, barks, flowers, seeds, herbs, sugar and spices. As fierce as Eileen’s bark was, she was also incredibly kind, thoughtful and sweet. Her smile was legendary and even at 92, her grin was as genuine as she was.
A few bitters, just for fun. Eileen commanded the room. In the end, she ran her home and the caretakers who looked after her in the same way she ran her business – with an iron finger. If something was not to her liking, she would raise her perfectly polished digit to illustrate her dismay and let them know exactly what she thought of it. “Yes, Mrs. Ford,” were the three words I heard them utter the most.
I interview everyone. I was a reporter for CBS television for a short while, but I’ve been doing it as long as I can remember. Eileen let me. Sometimes. Her childhood was perfect. She was an only child and doted on by her parents. College was easy and she excelled at Barnard. She met the man of her dreams and they had a storybook marriage. Creating Ford Modeling Agency was an accident, born out of necessity. Work was fun. She loved what she did and she was good at it. She loved to travel. But most of all, she loved her family. From the couch were she sat and read and watched television and entertained the friends who came by to visit in her final year, an embrace of family photographs literally enveloped her from every side. Sometimes, mid-sentence, she would stop one conversation and talk about a particular photo or person, as though the moment or the memory were stopping by to give her a hug.
I am so grateful to have had the chance to circle in her orbit if even for a brief moment in time. Each time I saw her, I thanked her for paving the way for all of us women and serving as an inspiration. She just gave me a shrug and a smile, as if to say “no big deal!” Legends are like that. Lacey generously stated that I was like a cold glass of champagne to her mom. I raise my frosted flute and toast her straight up Manhattan`.
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