I’ve been wrapped up with Miriam Haskell for years: her definitive, needy ghost; her really good story; the internet full of her eye-candy-gorgeous work. Life was stressful: my school’s ten-year accreditation report fell on me to edit; my latest collection of poems bounced back from publisher after publisher; my therapist started repeating herself: I sought distraction. I turned from words to look at beads, and before too long, my bedroom had seventy drawerfulls of glass and brass and lucite, as well as some busted-up Haskells I thought I’d repair, and some wearable treasures.I liked the hyperreal butterflies, dragonflies, moths, baby turtles, all plated in Russian gold; I liked the leaves. Dara Wier asked me once, “How did you know when to stop buying?” Well, I ran out of discretionary funds. If I live to 3000, I’ll never use up this stuff: but that’s not the point.
In the late 1990s, the Miriam Haskell Co. cleaned out its warehouse: not finished costume jewelry, just findings, beads, and filligrees: its stock. Their designers had worked these older gems and backings into new configurations for decades, but the raw-materials inventory became too expensive to store.So at auctions, the lots were snapped up by craftspeople and traders, for resale, on websites and Ebay, curlicued fragments and bright-colored bits of Miriam: I bit hard.Not only were the internet offerings gorgeous in themselves, but I imagined that I could make Haskells by hand without apprenticeship, just by looking at them. Ah: I couldn’t do that, though: no way.I learned some simple techniques, then I discovered, to my chagrin, that I preferred the beads unstrung: they lost something for me as soon as a necklace was finished.
So instead, I wrote about Miriam, after my mother died in June 2006—a book of poems: so, not “about” but around, not “around” but “because of,” “while thinking of,” “with.” I wanted my mother’s ghost but I couldn’t get her. Miriam was, on the other hand, abundantly on call, clearly undercelebrated, mysterious, hanging like Sybil on all my walls, related to my back-home Louisville family of engineer-artists, jazz d.j.-statisticians, accountant-jewelers: double-brainers.Esther Haskell was my grandmother Sarah’s double cousin; Esther’s husband, Arthur, was Miriam’s brother. My mother, they said, was “a diamond in the rough.” Miriam was her opposite, brilliantly cut, designed, and set artificial sparkle. But she lost her business before I was even born: all that courage, acumen, chic, lonely glamour, heroic care, descended into delusions and O.C.D., despair, and pain. At a wedding reception, reportedly, she hallucinated that the restaurant was an outdoor garden—was she really crazy?Was that in LouisvilleWas that my mother’s wedding?
At five, I hoarded treasures from Sarah’s business’s window displays, a Falls City Liquor red-velvet Seagram’s-Seven whiskey-sack, full of gold-paint-backed, faceted cabochons—sapphire and ruby glass—gifts from my Grandpa Joe, a tailor, my son Joseph Richie’s namesake. My mom, paging through a magazine, saying, “I guess your cousin got all of Sarah’s Miriam Haskells”: how many were there? I tried researching her: what I found was the jewelry, not the woman.There were two pretty books with her bio, but no entry in Wikipedia (there is now). I fear she’s portrayed in some flix of the forties, in fact, in a sorry light. A car-rental heir broke her heart when he ditched her for Myrna Loy: no kidding. Someone should make a movie, a romance novel, an operetta. There’s a rumor that in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera film, Christine’s jewelry is vintage Haskell.
Go ahead: search for Miriam Haskell on Google Image. It’ll knock you out. Don’t mind me if you want to bid on something; I’m over that.
Rosanne Wasserman has been publishing her poems in books, journals, and magazines—including The Best American Poetry—and on line, for decades now, as well as publishing other people’s poems via her small press. She has taught twenty years at the United States Merchant Marine Academy. Her latest title, Miriam Haskell, has not found a publisher yet.
(Ed note: This post originally appeared on October 1, 2009)