Here is what I wore to meet my new best friend, Ilene Beckerman: my most comfortable (ripped) jeans and a long-sleeved tee. Not the most elegant of my outfits, but certainly a favorite. And after all, Ilene Beckerman, author and illustrator of several books, including the runaway hit, Love, Loss, and What I Wore, and now, a playwright, insisted that I stay casual. I listened.
We sat down over coffee and dished about … well, about love, loss and what we wore. Ilene was as charming as I imagined (how could she not be) and entirely warm and generous. I asked her about how and where she got the inspiration to write the book, what happened when she met Nora and Delia Ephron (who picked up the option to the Off-Broadway show), and what she is doing now …
On the inspiration behind Love, Loss, and What I Wore: “I had a story to tell about my life, and this was the best way to be heard. At first, one dress that my mother had made for me came to mind, and then another, and another. I started to draw the dresses, put words to my drawings, and they began to tell the story of my life. At that time, there were no selfies, and no way to instantly record memories. This was my own personal photograph album. I made it to keep alive the memory of my mother, who passed away when I was twelve.
It took me about a month to write Love, Loss, and What I Wore, although the original title was, “My Life in Fashion.” I love projects, and once you start something you love, you do it. You get it done. Writing it down made me very happy.
When I finished, I went to Staples and made copies for my five kids, my sister, and my two best friends. That was it. I had no plans to publish it; just simply to share it with those closest to me. It looked nothing like a formal manuscript, just stories and images put together. My best friend then and now, Dora, was the one to send it to a publisher for me. It struck a chord with them, and was eventually published. They requested a new name for the book, and I came up with: Love, Loss, and What I Wore.”
On why people connect so much with this book: “People started to think about their own clothing memories. It wasn’t so much that they connected with me, but with their own stories. I started to hear people say things like, ‘Clothing isn’t that important to me, but it was important to my mother.’ Everybody has a clothing story. And clothing is a memory-trigger. Other memory triggers can be cars or music; mine was clothing. It’s a way to stop your daily life and remember what was. I think ultimately, everybody found her own story in the book.”
On how Love, Loss, and What I Wore became the inspiration for the hit Off-Broadway play: “Nora Ephron had optioned it but wasn’t quite sure what to do with it. After two years, she dropped the option, but later picked up the option again with her sister, Delia. They decided to make it a theater piece. They made a smart move to change the cast monthly, and several celebrities starred in the show. Rosie O’Donnell and Rita Wilson were among the cast at one time, and just two of the amazing actors who performed. I remember Nora often saying to the cast, ‘Just tell the story – don’t act so much,’ and that has always stayed with me, as significant advice and direction. The Off-Broadway show ran for 2.5 years, broke several Off-Broadway records, and won the drama critics award. No one thought it would last as long as it did. I ended up seeing it at least 40 times, and in all that time, all I wanted was for my grandmother to be there.”
More about Ilene’s mother: “My mother graduated from Hunter College in NY. She had an arranged marriage to a lawyer from Brooklyn. They eventually split and my mother and sister and I moved to a railroad flat in Manhattan. My mother wanted my sister and me to have special clothes, but she couldn’t afford them, so she would make them. My mother wanted us to look like we belonged in Manhattan. She had a stroke when I was twelve and we moved in with my grandparents on Madison Avenue, between 65th and 66th Streets, above their store.”
On what Ilene is doing today: “Professionally, I have started writing plays with a dear friend of mine, who performs them in Southhampton, NY. My first play debuted this past January 2014, and I am writing one now called, ‘Mom, It’s My Wedding!’ to debut January 2015. I would love to bring the plays to Manhattan. Playwriting is different, but I really enjoy it.”