Before there were “foodies” there was Gael Greene, the food writer and former journalist credited with coining the much-used, much-loathed moniker. Hired as New York magazine’s first restaurant critic in 1968, Greene presided over that city’s culinary scene for four decades. While critics decried her sensualist writing style and chummy relationships with the great chefs, fans loved her frank reviews and propensity for outrageous, face-covering hats.
Known on her blog as the “Insatiable Critic,” the 79-year-old Greene concedes to being voracious about many things, including sex – her trysts have included Elvis, Burt Reynolds and Clint Eastwood – and vintage handbags. Last month, using the online retail store Etsy, she started selling her massive cache of more than 150 bags, priced from $27 (U.S.) to nearly $400. The Globe caught up with Greene to talk about her collection.
Why do you have such a love affair with handbags?
They’re not art objects, and in some cases they’re not particularly useful, because they’re too small. What appeals to me is how intricate some of them are and how complex and how they reveal a particular period of time. I love the artistic craft in many of these bags. I was looking at a few that are, amazingly, are in perfect condition. Someone has very lovingly replaced the silk lining and maybe even added a pocket. Some of them have labels inside, so there’s a history. You definitely don’t get that if you collect shoes.
What’s the first handbag you ever bought?
I still have that first bag, this adorable little silk bag, in a drawer. In those days, we had such an uncomplicated life that you could go out of the house with cash, one key, a comb and a lipstick, and you were so fresh and young you didn’t need powder. There was no flea market culture for clothes at the time, and I had never thought about picking up an old bag. My father, actually, owned a woman’s dress shop in Detroit, and I got everything at cost. I had a huge wardrobe and more bags and shoes than anyone would want. I don’t know what I was doing in a thrift shop, maybe furnishing my first apartment? I saw this little bag, with a compact on the top, silver. It was so sweet, and it was only a dollar.
When did you decide it was time to sell your collection?
I don’t want to make this sad. My guy died a year ago in August. I started thinking about what would happen if I were to die and people didn’t treasure my treasures and just threw them out. I started going through my jewellery and picking out what I didn’t wear. That brought me to thinking about the bags. They weren’t being worn, and nobody was seeing them anymore, and they were getting very dusty. Who knows what would have happened? I have nieces, but they’re so modern. I didn’t think they’d be interested at all in antique evening bags.
My best friend said she wanted one, and I gave her one that was incredibly precious. It had a Marcasite watch in the frame. It cost $600 at a store called Uniquities, which is one of the stores where I would take boyfriends when they would ask what I wanted for my birthday.
Did you use all of them?
Oh no, no. I never was able to use most of them because they were too small or too fragile, or slightly falling apart and needed to be protected.
How much did you spend on them?
I can’t estimate, because most of them were gifts from boyfriends. People realized I collected antique evening bags, and in some cases I was very brazen to make sure they knew. So that’s what they would give me for gifts.
Does that mean certain bags remind you of boyfriends or lovers?
Oh, yes. Boyfriends and friends. I did have one very naughty boyfriend. He was very difficult and very spoiled. I was so wonderful to him, and we both loved excesses of sex and food. I said to him, ‘You know it is my birthday, you could find something.’ He came back with a clumsily wrapped package and inside was a royal blue velvet evening purse with an unusual frame that you lifted up to open it.
What advice would you give a man who wants to buy a purse for his wife or girlfriend?
Make sure that the woman is interested. Is she extremely modern and practical? Is she always hauling a 20-pound tote? I wouldn’t make a political statement by giving her a very delicate and fragile evening bag as if to say, ‘You should wear this.’ Although I suppose some women would be very flattered that a man would think of her in that old-fashioned way.
What do you think makes a good bag?
The ideal one is in good shape. Easily more than half of mine have some minor flaw, and in many of them the interior lining is so torn you wouldn’t be able to use it. Find one where someone has replaced the lining, or the lining is in perfect shape. The bag should be strong enough to wear, that’s the one I would choose. Someone you can save unraveling beading, and fix it with embroidery thread in the same colour. It’s probably stronger, and it can live to carry your credit card and your comb for a few more years. That’s a wonderful second life.
What’s the best way to store and keep vintage bags in good shape?
Mine were always stored in a couple layers of tissue or plastic [zip-top] bags, so they don’t catch on each other. Some of my drawers had nothing but bags in them. And every time I’d open the drawer and look at them it was like buying them all over again. Collectors are insatiable. You can never have enough of what it is you collect. Think of wine collectors, grape nuts. I have friends who have more great wine in their cellar than they can drink in a lifetime.
What has the online sales experience been like?
Etsy is a wonderful website. People are more thoughtful, and it’s not as aggressive as eBay. The most exciting thing in the morning is to log in and see you’ve sold a couple of bags.
It’s amazing how tech-savvy you are. I think you may be the oldest person I follow on Twitter.
I’m going to be 80 in December, and I’m thinking about having a celebration instead of a funeral. I’m going to have a pre-celebration where people talk about how wonderful I am, or not. One website once said I have more Twitter followers than any other restaurant critic. Now they just need to start buying bags.
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