Life in the City
One magical season in New York, when anything seemed possible and everything was still to come
by Kelly Knufken

What was the best summer of your life? Although it’s a fun question, after you hear about Marjorie Hart’s right-place-at-just-the-right-time summer of 1945, your own answer may seem a little less enchanting.

After all, what compares with taking off for New York City and landing a job — not at any run-of-the-mill department store, but at the upscale New York icon, Tiffany & Co.? And it turned out that the adventure was just beginning: When millions of people cheered VJ Day in Times Square, Hart was there. When a B-25 Army bomber crashed into the Empire State Building, Hart felt the jolt in her own apartment. When Judy Garland strolled into Tiffany with brand new husband Vincente Minnelli, a star-struck Hart looked on.

Now, all these years later, Hart lays out that summer’s adventures — using an almost impossibly innocent tone — in her newly published memoir, Summer at Tiffany. She takes the reader back to her days as an impressed college-aged ingénue living in the heart of the action. (“If I had to do another edition, I’d take out some of the exclamation points,” she says.) But it was her college roommate, Marty Garrett, who had all the “moxie,” as Hart puts it.

When the girls presented a job recommendation from Carl Byoir, an alumnus of their own school, the University of Iowa, Hart describes the Tiffany manager asking if she knew what he did for a living. “Mr. Byoir told us. He works for you.” Later, when she found out he’d been President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s public relations man and when Byoir repeated his jest about working for Tiffany for years, Hart saw his wife’s diamond necklace and was finally in on the joke. “I felt like slinking under the table,” she writes.

With the kind of detail that wholly transports the reader to the New York of 1945, Hart’s book has hit a certain chord, garnering stories on National Public Radio and in USA Today, among others. Within four months of its April 2007 publishing date, it was in its sixth printing, with more than 40,000 copies in print.

“It’s been a surprise to me,” Hart says. “I’m hearing from people I haven’t seen or heard from in 60 years. Just today, I got an e-mail from a college friend. I had no idea that people beyond my friends would buy it.”

A longtime member of the University of San Diego’s music faculty, Hart chaired what was then known as the Fine Arts Department for about five years beginning in 1978. She retired from the university in 1993. Three of her four children and one grandchild attended USD.

“I’ve always been very, very proud of the school and what they’ve been able to accomplish,” Hart says. “It’s been very rewarding to see how beautifully it has grown.”

Father HeadleyNow, Hart’s sitting in her living room high above La Mesa in San Diego, where she lives with her second husband. Her first husband of some 35 years died in 1981. Hart’s blonde hair is coiffed, and her blue eyes gleam as she relates her memories of that special summer.Summer at Tiffany helps the reader see what it was like when being a country at war meant everyday sacrifices for everyone. Going to a midshipmen’s dance wasn’t just a fun evening out; it was the patriotic thing to do. There was gas rationing. Nylon stockings had been invented, but now the material was needed for a higher priority — parachutes.

“It was such a sacrifice to see a brother, husband, cousin, boyfriend, father go off to war. There weren’t many guys around. Everybody left (at home) felt they needed to contribute. You gave up doing a lot of pleasure things,” she says.

Her father’s clothing store collected record albums for the USO to have on-hand for events. This was long before the recycling movement, Hart points out, but she and her friends would take their gum wrappers and “make huge balls of tin foil and turn them in because they were needed for ammunition. There were lists of things you would be doing that you would feel like you were contributing.”

As for the lack of nylons, the girls made do with rayon stockings (“The minute you sat down, they were baggy,”) or they painted their legs with a product called Stocking Stick. “If you weren’t tan, it made your legs look tan. If you wanted to go farther, you took an eyebrow pencil and made a seam.” But Stocking Stick wasn’t without its issues. “When we went to the beach, we laughed so hard because we saw this gal go into the water in her bathing suit, but the Stocking Stick only went up to right above the knees.” And the girls learned to avoid Stocking Stick if they would be dancing with a guy dressed in Navy whites, as there was a danger of transfer. “They did not appreciate that,” she remembers.

She’d learned about the wonders of nylons in high school, when her home economics teacher demonstrated them. “They showed us how quickly they would dry. They would dry overnight. You could wash them out, and they’d be ready the next day. And they made your legs look wonderful, especially in the Midwest where you had a hard time getting your legs tan.” But with nylons unavailable and Stocking Stick only used for more casual settings, the rayon stockings — despite the bagginess that came with them — were de rigueur for Hart’s job at Tiffany. “We wouldn’t dare paint our legs there,” she says The book is informed not just by little details like those, but by her letters home, pictures of ephemera and line drawings of old New York. She kept her W-2 form, which shows she made $220 that summer at Tiffany. After rent, the girls’ salary left little room in their budget for frills. Hart remembers laughing with Garrett in recent years about the visit of a friend who came to their apartment back then: “She said, ‘I didn’t know you were so poor.’ She just supposed since we were working at Tiffany — she figured we had it made.” Hart and Garrett were the first women to ever work on the sales floor at Tiffany, when they served as pages that summer. She figures they made their own impression when they walked into the intimidating store. “It’s very quiet, and there are not many people walking around. I’m sure we were noticed.”

But for Hart, it was Judy Garland’s appearance at Tiffany that made the biggest impression — despite the starlet’s unexpectedly diminutive size.

“She was just sort of girlish,” Hart remembers. “She wasn’t much older than me. She was so recognizable. We heard her laughing first, and boy you knew — from all the movies, you knew that voice.”

There’s no question that summer changed Hart. And it was her friendship with Garrett that was the greatest influence.

“We were on our own, and we had a lot of things we had to figure out together. I was so struck by her very positive attitude of being able to accomplish things. And nothing seemed to stand in her way. Ever since then, I always think, ‘Now, what would Marty do?’”

Hart and Garrett remained friends through the years; Hart credits Garrett with helping her remember many of the details, and they would talk often about the response to the book. But Garrett died in June. “I’m so saddened,” Hart says. “After the book came out she would say, ‘I saw the book here’ or ‘My friend said this.’ We kept sharing the publicity or news. I really miss that because now when I find out things I think, ‘Oh, I’m not going to be able to call her up and share that. I was so used to hearing her voice.”

“Amazing as that summer was, there is oh, so much more to Hart’s life. A professional cellist, she has a lifelong passion for music. “Because I’ve done it all my life I can’t remember when I didn’t. I think my mother taught me piano as soon as I could reach the piano keys. I can’t imagine life without music.” The cello is her instrument of choice. She was part of the San Diego Symphony and performed with Sammy Davis Jr., Peggy Lee and Nat King Cole, among others. Since retiring from USD, she has kept busy playing in string quartets.

She’s a very fine cellist,” says Henry Kolar, also a former chairman of USD’s Fine Arts Department, who has played in string quartets with Hart for years. As for the book, Kolar appreciates how Hart recreated old New York. “It is a wonderful story, and I think the book is terrific. I hope she sells jillions of them. It’s a very warm kind of a book.”

Hart can’t imagine life without her music. “If you were tired before you started playing, when you finished you felt so completely refreshed. It’s an unbelievable feeling. I don’t know what happens when you play. There’s something rejuvenating about playing. I think it keeps you very young.”

That, and the memories of a magical summer in New York City.end

Being on their own in New York City in the summer of 1945 was quite a thrill for two girls from Iowa. In this excerpt from Summer at Tiffany, Marjorie Hart recalls one particularly memorable day.

Over a murmur of voices, I heard someone laugh — a familiar laugh. Was I dreaming? My heart raced when I looked up as the room turned quiet.

Judy Garland was entering the Fifth Avenue revolving door with an elegant-looking man. Of course — Vincente Minnelli! They were laughing, as if they were sharing the world’s best joke.

Mr. Hutchison stepped forward to greet them and whisked the famous couple into the VIP private chamber behind the diamond counter. For a crazy moment I wanted to run up and say, “Hi, Judy! I’m one of your biggest fans!” I could see myself, sitting across from them in that special room, chatting about the old movies, the Andy Hardy comedies with Mickey Rooney, Judge Hardy, and Aunt Milly. What fun that would be.

Instead, I waited patiently at the stationery counter for the salesman to finish writing his order. He had been sorting handcrafted vellum envelopes according to size in neat stacks. I thought he had missed seeing her, when he whispered, “She looks very young, doesn’t she?”

Young? Judy Garland is my age!

“Younger than her husband,” I allowed.

He stared at me, surprised. “You mean that’s her husband?”

Had he been living on the moon?

“They were married last week — he’s Vincente Minnelli, the movie director,” I explained. “They’re here on their honeymoon — and have a penthouse on Sutton Place.”

He made little clucking sounds as he nodded his head. Apparently, he’d missed the news of their glamorous wedding. Not us. Marty and I’d dash to the lobby of the St. Regis Hotel during lunch hour to read the latest. Photoplay had a breathtaking pickture of them — Minnelli kissing Judy at their wedding; a pretty, smiling Judy holding a bouquet of huge pink peonies. She looked exquisitely lovely wearing a pale blue-gray jersey gown and an organdy bonnet — La Bohème style — set back on her head to show her long reddish-brown hair. Not since the Duke of Windsor married “that woman” had I been so swept up by a love affair.

“They were just married in Beverly Hills, in Judy’s mother’s garden,” I told the salesman, “and guess who gave her away? The head of MGM — Louis B. Mayer!”

More intriguing to me was that Ira Gershwin had been Vincente Minnelli’s best man. With that cast of notables, the wedding music must have been exceptional. I combed through stacks of magazines at the St. Regis to find out what “their song” might have been. For a start, one of her favorites among Gershwin’s was “Embraceable You,” judging from her recordings. But what about “Love Walked Right In”? Ira Gershwin’s lyrics would have been perfect, I thought, humming them to myself.

Love walked right in and drove the shadows away
Love walked right in and brought my sunniest day —
When love walked in with you.

How romantic — that is, if anyone would have the nerve to sing in that crowd. If I had been included in that VIP room, I would have asked. Instead, I was standing in the opposite corner, straining my ears. We heard whoops of laughter — that laugh as she walked along the yellow brick road. What was so funny?