February 07, 1983 12:00 PM

The winter has been unusually mild and the economic recession unusually deep, but furrier Ernest Graf has hardly time to notice. As the head of Ben Kahn Furs, Graf is busily wrapping his customers in some of the priciest pelts around, from $75,000 Russian sables to $100,000 Russian lynxes. Last year his company’s sales reached their highest level ever ($4.4 million). “People are no longer saving the way they used to,” he explains. “They are putting their money into luxuries.”

Graf, 62, took over Ben Kahn when the founder, who was his father-in-law, died in 1976. An immigrant from the Ukraine, Kahn started the firm in 1913. Seventy years later the oldest existing American fur house is at the top of the business. Many of Hollywood’s and Broadway’s biggest stars swathe themselves in Ben Kahn furs. At the 1982 Tony awards show, Cher sang My Heart Belongs to Daddy in a Ben Kahn Mongolian lamb parka sprinkled with rhinestones. Even Dustin Hoffman added a Ben Kahn Canadian lynx coat to his Dorothy Michaels wardrobe in Tootsie. And former basketball star Walt Frazier owns 10 Ben Kahns, including an otter and a Persian lamb.

Working with celebs is nothing new for Graf. His very first overseas assignment in 1950 took him to the doors of Casa Rosada, Argentina’s presidential palace. There he delivered two trunk-loads of coats, capes and stoles (worth more than $100,000) to Eva Perón and her entourage. It seems fitting that Graf was called upon to produce the ankle-length mink-and-fox jacket Patti LuPone wore in her starring role as Evita on Broadway.

In spite of his success, Graf admits to being something of a “bête noire” in the fur industry, speaking out on a subject many in the trade prefer to ignore—the trapping of wild animals. “We have a moral obligation to do whatever we can to make the taking of animals for pelts more humane,” he says. “I believe in a more civilized trap than the leghold one currently in use.”

Graf’s childhood was a world away from Seventh Avenue. As a boy growing up in Nuremberg, Germany, he wanted to become an actor. But in the late 1920s life was already beginning to change for Jews in Germany. “I loved to swim,” Graf remembers, “but then a sign went up one day by the lake near our house: ‘Jews and dogs not allowed.’ ” In 1934 Ernest and his family left Germany and came to America, where his father was an importer. “My father was a pessimist, thank God,” he says. “Most Jews in Nuremberg thought Nazism was a passing fancy.”

In his freshman year at New York’s City College, Graf met Rhoda Kahn at an evening dancing class in his neighborhood, and they were married five years later. During World War II Graf served as a meteorologist in the Air Force, but he gave up weather watching to sign on with his father-in-law in 1947. His early days were trying. “As low man on the totem pole,” he recalls, “I would be the last one to go out to lunch. I used to get stomach cramps from not eating regularly.”

These days, as head of the house, Graf eats when he wants. He also takes time off for skiing. And last April he slipped off to Greenland for two weeks of dog sledding. Life, he feels, has been good to him. He is particularly proud of the fact that among the firm’s 27 employees are his wife and two of their three children. “But never crow too much about what you think your future is,” he says. “It can turn around. Life is very precarious, very fragile.”

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