Betsey: A Memoir, by Betsey Johnson and Mark Vitulano. Viking 2020
I was thrilled to see this book on the “New Books” shelf at the library. I have a large interest in fashion (despite being completely unfashionable myself) and am a fan of Betsey’s work. I settled in with it, expecting insights into her life and creative process, as well as learning more about how the fashion world worked during her heyday. I read the book over one night.
At the end, I was kind of sad. The book did not live up to my expectations. I figured it would be a really exciting tale. Parts were, of course, but a lot of the story was oddly flat. I don’t know if this was a result of two people telling her story (perhaps her style and that of Vitulano didn’t mesh? I don’t know), or if Johnson was under a time crunch to get the book done, or what. But there were very few places where I felt her emotions, her creative fire.
Her early life at school and home came across well; there is a good deal of detail in that section. The part where she moves to New York and is working for Mademoiselle have a sense of exhilaration; how could it not when things move as fast as her early career did? Her professional life seems to have always been moving fast, leaving the reader to wonder if Johnson can keep up with it. Her private life also moves fast; she admits that she was in love with the idea of love and falls fast- sadly, for the wrong men. Her first three husbands are emotionally abusive (and sometimes physically so), which led me to thinking “RUN NOW” and being amazed at how long she stayed with a couple of them. Given how open she is about it being abused, I think she’s learned her lesson. She’s been with her current husband for 23 years now (she does not mention this man in the book) so things seem calm from the outside.
Her professional life was one of ups and downs; her clothes exploded on the fashion scene, different from what anyone else was doing. Trying to get out from under working for others, she had trouble borrowing money to start her own store- and paid it back in record time. At one point she had 66 retail stores. Then some bad business decisions were made, the economy went down the tubes, and she lucked out when Steve Madden bought her company. She is still creative director, so her fashions still live for yet another generation of girls. Sadly, I can only give the book 3 stars.