After 72 years of marriage, renowned handbag designer Judith Leiber, 97, and her husband, artist Gerson Leiber, 96, died hours apart at their Springs, New York home on Saturday.
According to the New York Times, both died of heart attacks and were buried together on Monday. In Gerson’s NYT obituary, the couple’s biographer and spokesman Jeffrey Sussman said that Gerson told Judith on Friday night, “Sweetie, it’s time for both of us to go.”
The couple met during World War II when Gerson was stationed in Budapest, Judith’s hometown, when he served as an Army Signal Corps sergeant.
According to the NYT, Judith and her family, who were Jewish, escaped Nazi persecution by working to sew army uniforms. But WWD reports that thanks to her father’s connections, the family went into a safe house for Swiss citizens, and after it was disbanded, they lived in a Jewish ghetto and ultimately survived.
After studying at an artisan guild and working with the city’s top handbag manufacturers — a huge accomplishment for a woman at the time — Judith began selling her own bags to U.S. soldiers after the war, which is when she met Mr. Leiber on the street in Budapest.
She told him her family had a room to rent to a solider, and for Gerson it was love at first sight. “She knew nothing about how the U.S. military made housing decisions,” Gerson told the NYT in 2017. “She did, however, speak excellent English. I couldn’t find her a tenant, but I did fall in love.”
After the couple was married in 1946, they moved to New York and Judith immediately began working in handbag manufacturing. In 1963 she and her husband decided to start their own business, she as the creative force, he as the businessman.
It grew into a storied and renowned business, known for its luxe, crystal-covered minaudières beloved by celebrities from Beyoncé, Madonna and Blake Lively to First Ladies including Mamie Eisenhower, Barbra Bush, Hillary Clinton and many others. They sold the company in 1993, to a British company, Time Products, for a reported $16 million.
Mr. Leiber was a well-respected artist whose work included everything from abstract landscapes to prints and sculptures that have been featured in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Art in Washington and the Whitney Museum of American Art.
The couple never had children, but in a 1970 interview with the NYT, Gerson said that they had no qualms about their decision, saying their kids “hang on walls and from arms and shoulders. As a couple we felt complete and still do.”
They opened the Leiber Collection in 2008 as a museum dedicated to both of their work. In 2017 they had an exhibit at the Long Island Museum in Stony Brook, N.Y. called, “Brilliant Partners: Judith Leiber’s Handbags & the Art of Gerson Leiber.”
The museum’s director of collections and interpretation, Joshua Ruff, told the NYT last year, “In putting this show together, we focus on these almost incredible 20th-into-21st-century lives lived together. The exhibit will explore how they influenced each other, how they escorted each other in new directions, and how they made each other — in very real ways — better people.”
“When you ask Gus about himself, he answers by talking about Judith. One of the things you’ll see in this exhibit is that this is a love story.”