Arts & Culture

What Does a Nice Jewish Girl Wear on Book Tour?

For the last eight years, I have immersed myself in the 19th century, learning everything I could about the California gold rush, living on the Western frontier, and banking practices in an unregulated time. It was all part of research … Read More

By / November 19, 2008

For the last eight years, I have immersed myself in the 19th century, learning everything I could about the California gold rush, living on the Western frontier, and banking practices in an unregulated time.

It was all part of research for my book that explores the life of my great great grandfather Isaias Hellman, one of the greatest Pacific Coast financiers of the late 19th and 20th century. He went from being a store clerk to the head of Wells Fargo Bank and was dubbed "the Richest Jew in the West."

I came to this work after years of being a newspaper reporter. When I set out to write this book eight years ago, I had one overriding goal: to write something with enough heft that it contributed to historical knowledge of California.

Although my book has just been out about a week, in many ways my dreams have already come true. I have been invited to speak at the world-renowned Huntington Library in San Marino, CA, and the California Historical Society in San Francisco. My other engagements include bookstores, synagogues, Jewish book fairs, and Litquake, San Francisco’s very hip 10-day literary festival.

But as the publication date for my book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California, grew closer, one thing occupied my mind. It wasn’t the reviews, it wasn’t book sales. Instead, I pondered  a serious question: What was I going to wear on my book tour?

Now, I am a pants and sweater kind of gal who occasionally puts on slightly nicer pants and sweaters when I am going out. But for a book tour, I must project a more authoritative image, a vision of a serious researcher/scholar, someone who knows her stuff. At the same time, I don’t want to appear too stuffy or proper.

What outfit can scale all those heights?

My search began this summer when I was five pounds lighter. (A mistake, I know, but I was convinced I would keep up the pace of my exercise schedule.) A few years ago I bought a pair of Billy Blue jeans at a store in Santa Cruz and they have been my favorite pants ever since. They are not easy to find, so when I stumbled upon another pair in a store in Healdsburg in August, I pounced. On the recommendation of the sales clerk, I bought a size 8 instead of 10. (I can still squeeze into them, but sitting for any length of time is not comfortable.)

But jeans, even nice ones, won’t do for most appearances. So a few weeks ago I headed off to Bloomingdales in San Francisco. Contrary to its reputation, Bloomingdales can be affordable if you know how to work the system. The store holds sales every few weeks and it further entices Bloomingdale credit card holders by offering "insiders" an additional 15% discount. If you hunt, you can find clothes at 50% off.

I gave myself plenty of time to look, for there is nothing more aggravating than a sense of pressure while shopping. I am usually good for two hours, and then I get overwhelmed by the glare of the lights, the pulsating music, and the crowds. But in those initial two hours, watch out! I am a woman on a mission and I am determined to work my way from floor to floor.

That day was incredibly satisfying. I found a Donna Karan black business suit greatly reduced. The jacket, originally priced at $450, was on sale for $150. The pants I got for about $100. Not bad for a formal outfit – and perfect for standing behind a podium. Then it was off to Nordstrom’s for some shoes to wear with the suit. I found a pair of wedge pumps by a brand I had never heard of, Me Too. These $88 shoes are incredibly comfortable (and are on sale now, darn it!)

But color, I needed color, to offset that somber and serious look. My days of splurging were over so I headed to the Gap, where I bought this orange ruffled sweater. My purchase coincided with a spate of cold weather in the Bay Area, so I have already been wearing the sweater non-stop.

So now I am outfitted, but will my sharp look help sell any books? It’s too early to know. But I have found it fun to play against type. (What type? Nerdy academic.) When I did a reading on Friday at Book Passage, one of the Bay Area’s best independent bookstores, I decided to not to dress the part of a scholar. I put on a black and white Theory jersey dress and gray thigh high boots from Barney’s. (I bought those at a discount store.) My 16-year old daughter said I looked like Britney Spears. (and not in a good way)

But there was something incredibly liberating standing in front of 50 people in a short slinky dress talking about how Hellman stopped a bank run in Los Angeles in 1893.  He may have wowed the world with his financial prowess. I may impress a few with my scholarship. But I know I stopped the show with those thigh-high boots. And as every woman knows, how you feel is what you project.

Frances Dinkelspiel, author of Towers of Gold, is guest blogging on Jewcy, and she’ll be here all week.  Stay tuned.