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John Weitz made handsome and nice a potent mix

Sunday, October 27, 2002

I remember John Weitz very well. First of all, the men's fashion designer, who died of cancer recently, was so darned handsome.

I could remember him just for being so good-looking.

As a woman on the fashion beat covering both men's and women's collections for many years, I could get a bit giddy facing this tall, dark-haired man with what sounded like a British accent. He was dreamy to look at, with chiseled features and a movie star aura.

He knew it. But that was OK.

And he was nice to listen to. That affectation in his speech matched perfectly his very deep voice.

I know at my age (I just turned 73) and his (he was 79), the obituary columns hit home more often than not. We know too many people.

At my recent high school class reunion, I read the names of 64 deceased classmates, and that included 19 since our reunion five years ago.

I see all of them as young, and that memory is a good one, even though none of us had really begun to live our lives as we passed each other in the halls of Uniontown Senior High School 55 years ago.

Recalling connections to various people, famous or not so famous, is what we do as we get older. Memories can be sad but also sweet.

Weitz was not a bosom buddy. He was part of a business I got to know rather well for more than 35 years.

He had a period of recognition, in part because of his good looks, and also because of his marriage in 1964 to a much younger movie actress, Susan Kohner, who starred in the five-hanky movie "Imitation of Life."

He also had a rather unusual tack when he presented a show of his menswear. His show offered more information than many of the more rigid, traditional runway shows. Afterward, editors often had questions, but many designers at that time were not accessible.

Weitz, on the other hand, would stand on the stage and tell you why his clothes, never as expensive as other designers', worked for the average man.

I will forever see him taking off his sport jacket and rolling it into a ball to illustrate what men would want if they traveled a great deal. They would take that jacket and stuff it into the overhead bins, take it out and wear it upon arrival to their business meeting and ... no wrinkles.

The fact that the average man he was addressing didn't look like Weitz didn't matter.

He marketed wrinkle-free with great style.

He spent time on boats and with sleek racing cars, looking tan and a bit like Cary Grant under stylish sunglasses and his own outerwear, brightly colored seaworthy parkas or turtleneck sweaters under leather jackets.

Designers laughed, but Weitz was onto something, and he was its most effective salesman.

I had met him and saw his New York shows several times. When he came to Pittsburgh, I definitely wanted a one-on-one interview. It was Feb. 3, 1971. Why do I remember the date?

My son was born that day. My noon interview with Weitz, scheduled weeks before, of course was not to be. I had gone into the hospital at 2:30 a.m. and Drew was born at 7:30 a.m.

Weitz sent flowers and a baby's silver rattle, and he also called me at the hospital later in the day.

He told me that my becoming a mother was far more important than interviewing him, and he promised me much joy in years to come.

He was a proud father of young children himself. At moments such as that, he came off his fancy pedestal and I saw just a regular and very nice man.

A very nice handsome man.

So I liked the man for a personal reason, but I also thought it was fun to watch many of the designers who laughed in his early days (because they never considered him one of them) see him become a success, with his name on such ordinary items as socks, ties and underwear.

Weitz marketed overseas, one of the first to realize the potential, and he became very successful, whether others in the industry felt he had the credentials or not.

Many designers fell by the wayside as menswear became increasingly important. Weitz was never Cardin or Armani, but he found his niche. He had a long run.

Later he began to write novels, and some scoffed at those as well.

Maybe that's because he was just too good-looking. Maybe we never looked beyond the chiseled cheekbones and the press releases to see the real man.

I saw a hint of that man on a cold February day 31 years ago.

His prediction about my joy as a mother was right on the money. I've never forgotten it. I won't forget him.

How can I? I still have the silver rattle.

Barbara Cloud may be reached atbcloud@post-gazette.com .

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