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Recalling Charles James: Mary Ellen Hecht

Mary Ellen Hecht, MD was Charles James's client and close friend in the mid-1950s, the most active years of his career. She shares lively stories of both his irascible temper and prodigious talent.

Dr. Hecht is a retired orthopedic surgeon and author.

This interview is one of seven comprising Recalling Charles James, an oral history of the legendary couturier in which James's former clients, assistants, muses, and friends share their stories with fashion journalist and editor Alina Cho. Produced in conjunction with the exhibition Charles James: Beyond Fashion, on view from May 8 through August 10, 2014.

Alina Cho: Mary Ellen Hecht was born into the Baltimore family that founded the Hecht department store chain. It was 1955. She had just landed in New York: a young heiress with time on her hands, she was the perfect client for Charles James.

Mary Ellen Hecht: The fifties were an interesting period. He was very, very productive at this time. He'd finished with hats long since. He had worked with some very remarkable clients, both abroad, in London, and in this country: his high society people and his wealthy people, who were, you know, newspaper figures and magazine figures and all these people. So he was, in a sense, in the middle of his productivity, in the middle of all that he became that was wonderful, and all that he became that wasn't so wonderful.

Alina Cho: Charles James was, by all accounts, a perfectionist, a man who could spend twelve hours on a seam and years on a garment.

Mary Ellen Hecht: He was a pain in the bottom. He was one of these—if the pin is a quarter of a centimeter not where he wanted, all of the pins in that line came out and were replaced.

Alina Cho: And if things weren't going exactly the way he wanted…

Mary Ellen Hecht: If you're talking about personality, Charlie could be really very difficult to be with. He had a great sense of humor, as far as everyone else was concerned, but not about himself. Anything he wanted to do or thought to do or wished to do was to be taken seriously, and if possible, enacted.

He had a pale complexion and when he got angry, he turned absolutely sort of this red-purple thing. And his eyes would spark and he'd actually spit a little bit when he'd talk to you. I could say to him, "Charlie, for God's sake, stop. Sit down. Take a deep breath, sit down. You're getting yourself all—all caught up here."

Alina Cho: But Charlie, as his friends called him, was undeniably talented, and knew it.

Mary Ellen Hecht: He was high fashion. When you wore his clothing—and interesting enough, it looks like it might be difficult to wear—it wasn't a bit difficult to wear. You felt like something special, and that you were giving, actually, a visual treat to anyone or anything that came your way.

Charlie felt there was only one designer in the world when he was designing and he was it. You didn't argue with Charlie. It was absolutely—it was his concept, his construct, and as a matter of fact, his dress that he owned, and you were fortunate to be able to be the carrying agent.

Alina Cho: It didn't matter that you paid for the dress or the suit or the coat; the purchased piece was ultimately on loan.

Mary Ellen Hecht: Charlie would take back one of his gowns or one of his outfits whenever he needed it for something. If he needed it for a show or if he needed it for a museum or an occasion or, I presume, to even show another client what he could do, that garment or gown belonged to him. He knew it. There's no question that if he needed it for something, it was his to call on. You certainly had to give it up temporarily. And whether you ever got it back again was iffy.

Alina Cho: It was the price of admission to wear an outfit that clients like Hecht say was magical.

Mary Ellen Hecht: It didn't fit your figure. You were within a structure that he had developed. Which was why he could take someone like Jackson Pollack's wife, who was like five-foot-two and quite wide or I, who for my age, was tall—I was five-foot-eight and change and rather well figured; or a Millicent Rogers, who was very tall, and create something which any one of them could look wonderfully elegant in.

Alina Cho: That didn't mean there weren't alterations. Hecht recounts one memorable night at the opera that she says was classic Charles James.

Mary Ellen Hecht: So he said, "What are you going to wear?" And I said, "I don't know. I don't think I have an evening gown, at least not one that you designed, and it doesn't seem to me that I should go with you to this affair without being in one of your designs."

"Oh," he said, "come on."

We got into a cab, we went out to the Brooklyn Museum. Charlie disappeared in for fifteen minutes and came out with kind of a red and brown satin cloth. Went back, with the cab, to the studio. It turns out it was a gown that he had made for Millicent Rogers. Now, Millicent Rogers was considerably taller than I was and somewhat thinner. Put this thing on me and then the pinning and the staple machine and God knows what else started to go. And I was standing there for, like hours and hours. Went to the opera and he said to me, "Okay, these are the rules: you may not take a deep breath. You may not turn your back to the audience. And, as a matter of fact, I don't want you to move much side to side. So when you sit down, assume the position you want to watch the opera and do not move." In the back, if you had looked, I was full of staples, pins, safety pins, God knows what else, bunched-up cloth. It was really quite extraordinary. It was a very uncomfortable, miserable experience. As soon as the opera was over, we went tearing out of there, into his apartment, and I said, "I've got to get this thing off." Took it off immediately, and the two of us—I was able to fit into his jeans—so the two of us got into jeans and t-shirts and sweatshirts and went off down to the Village to get bombed. And we did. But it was a wonderful experience, it really was.

Alina Cho: What does she think about all the fuss that's being made of him now at the Met?

Mary Ellen Hecht: Very simple. It's about time. He was a great artist whose medium didn't happen to be paint, stone, et cetera, which lasts forever. But he was an artist on the level of the greats—Picasso, Matisse. I mean, he was absolutely on that level as a creator. It's just that the medium he worked in happened to be an evanescent medium, and that is the medium of clothing. He is the unique American designer. To me, head and shoulders above others, who were talented, there's no question. I mean, they produce very pretty, very lovely clothing and whatnot. But I think Charlie's things were something else.

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