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Remembering Georgette Klinger

Georgette Klinger, nee Eckstein, died on January 9, 2004 at the age of 88. The porcelain-skinned former beauty contest winner and Czech emigre opened her own beauty salon in 1941 on Madison Avenue, which she later turned into a mini empire, with salons in nine American cities. My own connection with Ms. Klinger (I always think of her as Ms Klinger) was brief but memorable. I had interviewed her over the phone in 1986 for an article that culled financial tips from successful, high-profile women. When the article appeared—in Cosmopolitan—I sent her a copy. Within days, I received a phone call from her personal secretary. Klinger had “adored” my article and was inviting me to lunch. Klinger greeted me in a restaurant on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Then in her seventies, she was slim and striking in a chic suit, her artfully coiffed and colored golden hair curling buoyantly around her shoulders. Her pet poodle Pushka sat in a roomy Louis Vuitton case at her feet.

We chatted amiably over lunch. As if to confirm my unspoken surmise that she was Jewish, Klinger told me of her family’s escape from Czechoslovakia during the Nazi period. She had persuaded a Nazi guard into letting the family onto a departing train, despite the fact that there were no more tickets available. Without seeming immodest, she let me know that it was her cool, blonde beauty and considerable poise that had helped her. I was fascinated. Surely her story ought to appear in print; had she ever considered writing an autobiography? She had; a writer had actually been hired to work on it, but the project stalled. This seemed a pity and I said so. When we parted, Klinger told me to call her secretary to schedule a facial—her treat.

That same afternoon I wrote an effusive note to express my appreciation for the lunch, the upcoming facial, the pleasure of her company. Days later, I received another phone call: Ms. Klinger wanted to turn over the autobiography to a new writer—me! I accepted immediately.

We began to meet in her Park Avenue apartment a few times a month, sitting in her living room as I fiddled with the tape recorder I’d bought, arranged my notes, asked the questions I felt worth asking. But somehow our earlier rapport had cooled: she was evasive about answering, and when she did she often contradicted earlier information she had given me. Certain things, she let me know, would be too painful to talk about.

Sometime her maid served us sandwiches of melted cheese and tomato. After one of these lunches Klinger presented me with a somewhat unwelcome gift: one of her old coats—black cashmere and beautifully tailored. When I tried it on, she smiled. “It’s perfect.” I was less sure. The coat was lovely, but something was amiss. It was the sort of offering one made to the hired help—the unwanted clothes, neatly folded and piled in a shopping bag from Bergdorf Goodman. I took the coat, but never wore it and eventually gave it away. Our meetings dwindled to once a month, and then every other month. Soon I received a letter from the secretary, informing me that Ms. Klinger had decided not to pursue the project after all. I was relieved, despite the fact that the coat and the sandwiches constituted the only payment I ever received.

When I learned that she had died, I felt sad that she could not ever commit to the stories she had to tell. Perhaps the surface beauty she touted—and burnished—in her salons was as deep as she she was able to go.