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Remembering Martin Greenfield

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Sometimes a headline just grabs you. I had just finished putting my kids to bed the other night when I checked The New York Times' website and read this one. Martin Greenfield, tailor to Sinatra, Obama, Trump and Shaq, dies at 95. Greenfield's work with that eclectic mix of style-setters doesn't even tell half of the story. He survived the Holocaust as a child. In fact, he first encountered aspects of tailoring when he was a prisoner at Auschwitz, and established himself in New York in a true American dream story arc. I read every word of this article. I found it so moving that I immediately started sending notes saying we should talk to the author, and that is exactly what we were doing now.

Alex Traub wrote Greenfield's New York Times obituary. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

ALEX TRAUB: Thanks for having me, Scott.

DETROW: You know, there's a powerful scene in this piece about how Greenfield first realizes that clothes can equal power. Can you tell us about that?

TRAUB: Well, he's at Auschwitz. He's a teenager. He's malnourished. He's working in the laundry room. And he scrubs too hard one of the Nazi soldiers' shirts and rips it, rips the collar. And the soldier discovers this, hurls the shirt at a young Martin Greenfield and beats him. And in order to mend the shirt, someone else in the laundry room, an older man, teaches him how to sew. And just following an instinct, he slips the Nazi's shirt under his striped prison shirt, and he discovers it changes the way people treat him at Auschwitz. He is able to wander the grounds in a way he couldn't before.

At one point, he's working in a hospital kitchen. And if he takes extra food, soldiers somehow assume the collar signifies he's allowed to do it. So he then rips another shirt and gets away with it. And he thinks of the two shirts together as a kind of wardrobe. And he says that they enabled him to survive the Holocaust. And so that's his origin story for thinking clothes have power.

DETROW: And there are so many remarkable details in his life that you captured, but among them is that at the end of the war, General Dwight Eisenhower tours the camp. Greenfield remembers this image. Years later, he eventually tailors a suit for Eisenhower. Once he survives the Holocaust and makes his way to America, how does he establish himself and become such a prominent tailor?

TRAUB: He - there's another refugee who he knows who has a job at what's then called GGG tailor. And so he gets a job as a floor boy, which was the term then for someone who went from one station to another, basically ferrying objects through the whole factory. And he talks about himself and this friend of his as the best-dressed refugees in Brooklyn because they were both getting their custom-made suits from GGG. And so that's how he gets a start. And early on, he doesn't - he's a little frustrated. And he says to his manager, teach me how everything works. I need to understand what I'm doing. And then that happens. And he gains an understanding of how the whole tailoring operation works. He studies every single different task. And he thinks to himself, I want to be the best.

DETROW: I think this story was so powerful to so many people for a lot of reasons, but the main one is that this is the America we want, right? This is the America we think of, America at its best - somebody who can come to America all alone, no family, from the most terrible, terrible circumstances possible and build themselves up in this way. But I feel like that American dream arc sometimes also glosses over the terribleness of it. And having the entire rest of your family killed in the Holocaust, surviving the Holocaust, being a prisoner in Auschwitz is such a horrible, horrible thing. How, throughout his life, did Greenfield think about and talk about that experience?

TRAUB: He did, as you say, lose his entire immediate family. He had relatives he had never even heard of who were in America. And somehow, they find him in a displaced persons camp in Europe. And he comes here not only with no immediate family. He has $10 that was sent to him by a relative. And he basically doesn't speak English. And he felt that his hard work and his drive had really been rewarded. And I think that's what he was so grateful to America for was that he - in his own life, he felt an enormous sense of possibility here.

DETROW: Few things are more satisfying to me than reading a really thoughtful, well-done obituary that fully captures an interesting person's life. This is what you do most of the time. What do you think it is about that particular type of news article that can be so powerful?

TRAUB: Well, you know, a lot of news is incremental. And things seem to continually develop and change. Obituaries are definitive. They aspire to be a kind of summation and a last word about someone's life, looking back at the recent past. So they're little biographies in part, but they're also - they're works of history. And I guess just a final thing I'd say is that someone's death becomes an occasion. It becomes an occasion to write about things that otherwise aren't news. So I would say that obituaries have that quality of definitiveness, and they also have this quality of bringing the past back to life in ways that might surprise you.

DETROW: I'd like to end with how you ended this piece. Can you tell us about the last scene in this obituary in the story about Martin Greenfield's life?

TRAUB: So Martin Greenfield is separated from all of his family when they first arrive at Auschwitz, except for his father. And before long, he and his father are at a big meeting. And the guards of the camp ask which of the prisoners have skills. Martin Greenfield's father, without appearing to have premeditated it, grabs his son's hand and raises it and says that he has mechanical skills. And as a result of his father doing that, he is separated from his father. And so one of the last things his father says to him is, if you survive, you live for us. And Martin Greenfield, who lost his whole immediate family, never forgot that. And Martin Greenfield's son, Todd Greenfield, was telling me this story and said that's what he did. He successfully realized this commandment from his father to live for the family that he'd lost.

DETROW: Alex Traub is a reporter at The New York Times, where he focuses on obituaries, including a recent piece about tailor and Holocaust survivor Martin Greenfield. Thank you so much.

DETROW: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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