Style is what most people want, few have, and even fewer understand. Cary Grant and Bette Davis had it; Bill Gates doesn’t. Silvio Berlusconi, The Teflon Don, and my Uncle Massimo have it. Hillary Clinton does not.
Sylvia Bernstein especially had it. She wore ermine, sable, mink and chinchilla as naturally and comfortably as an cloth coat. She arranged and distributed her diamonds, emeralds, and pearls so that they were perfect complements to her long fingers, red nails, Dior suit, and black, luminescent hair. She wore a touch of perfume, just enough to scent and linger but never to trail. Her make-up was balanced with a dramatic darkening of eyelashes, and she added only a subtle coloring of her already naturally high-colored cheeks.
Sargent, ‘Winifred Duchess of Portland
On anyone else than Sylvia Bernstein this ensemble of fur, couture, jewels, and perfume would never be right, for few women had her complete sense of style. One stroke too many of the eyeliner, one inch shorter on the hemline, too many jewels on one hand and not enough on the other, a perfume too floral or cloying – slight but oh-so-obvious diversions from Sylvia’s perfectly balanced style – would have been enough to reveal the natively unsophisticated, hopelessly aspiring, overdressed and under-glamorous pretender.
Sylvia not only dressed stylishly but was stylish. Her taste and elegance were expressed in every movement, every gesture, and every word. She was demonstrative and graceful, and when she talked her hands were like birds in flight, especially her left, for she felt that her diamonds gave her fingers poetry and special beauty.
Other women by comparison were pedestrian and ordinary no matter what they wore or how oversized their diamonds. Sylvia did not choose just any diamonds, but those which had been cut by a South African Jew from a diamond-cutting family which had cut gems in Kiev for a hundred years. His diamonds seemed to have hundreds of facets, for when she turned her hand in the light, the reflections and sparkles seemed to come from all directions at once.
She was dramatic without being theatrical. She had a balletic presence without pirouettes and pliés. She spoke like an actress but with not a hint of irony, condescension, or disapproval. She was first, foremost, and always the prima donna of every social event in New Brighton. No one, however, ever accused her of operatic fol-de-rol or pretension. She was everyone’s friend, invited to every dinner, soiree, and luncheon. She was always respectful, temperate, and generous.
It is hard to say how a sense of style is acquired, especially a particularly unique sense like Sylvia Bernstein’s. For most women and men, style is derivative, imitated from glossies, and encouraged by stylists who themselves conservatively draw on the received fashion of New York. A young man I recently met at a wedding was dressed in immaculate San Francisco hipster style – pipe-stem pants, tight short jacket, retro glasses, Tintin hair, thin tie, and 50s pointy shoes. Yet he had no style. His clothes were a display and had nothing to do with him or his personality. He was out of place amidst amidst the formless Midwestern suits and business shoes. There was nothing about him that conveyed even the slightest ease, grace, and warmth.
Another San Franciscan, a young friend of mine who also lived in the Mission had a sense of style as unique as Sylvia Bernstein’s. She had an uncanny instinct for cool and for fashion elegance. Her high boots were of the finest Italian leather, her dresses cut by a Slovenian tailor in Russian Hill; and her jewelry was local, unusual, and free from any obvious references (American Indian, trapper, Wall Street) common in accessories sold on Valencia.
More than anything, her style had a flow. Her perfectly-cut, variable length, deep black hair flowed into the long mahogany brown shawl she wore over her shoulders which in turn flowed down to her mid-calf dress, to her narrow, polished boots. Her earrings caught the eye and led them down her long arms to the simple gold bracelet on her wrist and Victorian ring on her finger. The eyes of the admirer went up and down this magnificent woman, and couldn’t turn away. She, like Sybil, was confident but never dismissive; warm but never effusive. She had all the elements of style.
At its core bella figura is presentation…how to look good, to carry oneself, to make the best possible impression in all things at all times. Bella figura means attention to image, visual beauty and presentation…but it is also all about knowing how to properly and graciously interact with others. Bella figura is all about good manners, tact and gentility.
This is how an American journalist who had lived in Rome for years described this most essential Italian character. Looking good is much more than a perfectly tailored suit, silk tie, and gold cufflinks. ‘Attention to image’ means attention to one’s presentation – how one walks, enters a room and exits; how one greets and says farewells. Image is demeanor, comportment, and fastidious detail. At the same time, however, the bella figura man never betrays these meticulous concerns. Even the most formal attire is worn casually. The movie stars of the 40s understood this. A tuxedo was far from a ‘monkey suit’ but the most elegant of men’s attire; and it was to be worn no differently than plus-fours and a cap on the golf course.
Style – the kind that Sylvia Bernstein and my young San Francisco friend had – never implied a lack of approachability. In fact both women were sexually alluring. There was nothing off-putting about their carefully arranged dress because it was simply one more expression of themselves. Clothes and women were both dramatic, engaging, and beautiful. The harmony of dress, hair, jewels, and scent matched their personality. There was nothing emotionally, socially, or personally out of place in either woman.
Beauty and intelligence are often thought of as antonyms. How could any woman who spends so much time, effort, energy, and thought on the superficial and unnecessary have any brains at all? Yet Sylvia Bernstein was so intelligent that had she been a man she would have been a rabbinical scholar. Her mind was perfectly suited to the Law and before she was out of her teens she had mastered the Torah, had read the Septuagint, and had gone to Israel to assist in the archaeological digs at Qumran. She was Summa Cum Laude at Barnard, and had been offered a scholarship at Columbia Law School, an unheard of gesture then and now.
Her career – an adjunct professorship at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, post-LLB studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, marriage to a wealthy doctor, and a home in the West End of New Brighton – was both remarkable but also predictable for woman of her era.
For Sylvia there was never a disconnect between her sense of style and her rabbinical intelligence. Style was not just a feature, she said, a slight add-on to her life, creating false image and a fake presence. Style – the bella figura variety of social and personal beauty – was in fact an artistic enterprise and a stylish man or woman added as much if not more to society than a museum piece or tableau in a private collection. The perfect interface between individual personality and its public expression requires brains, acuity, and a psychiatrist’s insight into others.
Franklin Till was the most stylish person I have ever met. Not only did he have Sylvia’s grace, elegance, generosity, and confidence; but he had a powerful sexual allure and most of all a silver tongue. His diction was flawless, his delivery perfectly timed and balanced, his vocabulary rich and allusive, and the timbre and quality of his voice almost hypnotizing. When he entered a room, dressed as stylishly as anyone in Milan or Paris and smiling broadly and sincerely, he drew both men and women to him. When he spoke before an audience, all wanted him to be their father, their brother, the friend, or their lover. He had added the most seductive and persuasive element of style to his already accomplished stylistic repertoire – a silver tongue.
“A little charm and a silver tongue will carry you a long way”, his father had told him as a child. He had never forgotten the advice; but since style came as naturally to him as Sylvia Bernstein, he never had to work at either.
Some people have style and most don’t. It is a scarce, highly-valued commodity made all the more so because it cannot be taught. Style is a combination of intelligence, an uncompromising self-appraisal, an uncanny perception and understanding of others, and an openness to tradition, innovation, and the hors de serie.
“Where did you get it?”, I once asked Sylvia, referring to her style and elegance.
“I have no idea”, she said; “but certainly not from the Yeshiva.”