Their Closets, Themselves

For two writers, recreating their family members’ carefully curated closets yielded new insight into the essentials of their lives.

Sara Berman’s Closet in the American wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Rick Meyerowitz

In March, Sara Berman’s Closet opened in the American wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Installed in a niche next to the gallery’s period rooms, the closet was recreated by Sara’s daughter, Maira Kalman, and her grandson, Alex Kalman, based on the actual closet in Sara Berman’s studio apartment on Horatio Street, where she lived between 1982 and 2004. The fifth chapter of my new memoir, The Mighty Franks, is titled “My Uncle’s Closet (in My Aunt’s House)” and is, in a different way, a recreation of the closet that belonged to my uncle, the screenwriter Irving Ravetch. His closet was part of the house that he and my aunt, Harriet Frank Jr., shared in Laurel Canyon, California, between 1969 and Irving’s death in 2010. In April, Maira and I met on 12th Street in New York City to discuss our respective closets and why they have such resonance for us. —Michael Frank

Frank: Probably we should begin with the basic facts. Here are mine: When my aunt and uncle built their Hollywood Regency–style house in 1969, my aunt, who was a complicated and dominant personality and a great design enthusiast, controlled nearly every aspect of the project except for my uncle’s closet. This one, almost forgotten room began to fascinate me as a child and it never stopped, in part because it didn’t fit with the rest of the house and in part because I felt it held a key to my uncle’s inner life. It was a windowless space that measured about 10 by 12 feet and contained everything material that was important to him—his manuscripts, his memorabilia, his photographs, and his clothes, all of which he had curated and carefully arranged. But somehow it was about more than its aggregate parts. It conveyed something uncanny or ineffable: a man encoded in his things.

Kalman: “Uncanny and ineffable”—I think that applies to Sara’s closet too. Hers was a standard New York City apartment closet, fitted out with shelves. She had no dresser in her studio—the closet was where she kept everything that was essential to her after she left Israel and her marriage to my father, in 1982, and started a life in New York that was pared down in many significant ways. In the world my mother was born into, in Belarus in 1920, the women were rigorous housekeepers; that was their work. The antecedent to Sara’s closet is the shack in the old country where they boiled the clothing in a large kettle, dried it, ironed it, folded it, tended it; at the other end of her life, in New York, she was still finding comfort in domestic rituals, this small personal form of female self-expression.

Frank: Was the closet for her alone or intended to be seen?

Kalman: For her. There was nothing ostentatious or self-conscious about the closet. She was simply doing something for herself in a specific way, never showing off. My father was the opposite—he was a showoff in everything he did.

Frank: I think of my aunt’s house as a kind of performance art: rooms that were jammed with her collections of furniture, paintings, and antiques, vividly colored, and always changing—always asking to be noticed, as she was. My uncle was much more indirect. The closet was his space, for him. Its enchantment derived from the way it was so private. I am not sure whether he would be appalled or amused that I have used his closet to try to write about him. What about your mother?

Kalman: Oh, she would think it’s hilarious.

Frank: Are you sure she didn’t have some sense that her closet was special? I mean—it’s a minimalist, Donald Judd kind of a closet. All that white. All that precision and rigor.

Kalman: My mother was a minimalist purely by instinct. Your uncle?

Frank: I think he was aware of what he was doing. Anyway, my aunt made him aware of it. She often remarked on how strange it was that he got away with that closet—larger than hers and not subject to her control. I think she understood that it was a kind of silent dissent, or rebellion, against the intensity of the rest of the house … and other things.

Kalman: That’s a lot of pressure to put on a closet.

Frank: Sara’s feels more neutral. But it is also more studied. How much of what we see at the Met is a result of your editorial hand?

Kalman: Assembling the closet with Alex was fascinating. We had to edit and make a million decisions. But he and I understood that we were telling a story—a true story. Of course, my mother was a human being. She had her untidy moments. Only it’s not her hyperorganization that interested us; it’s the way that, if you take your possessions and put them in order in a deliberate way, with careful thought, with great love, you are, in a sense, revealing yourself, “writing” your story.

Frank: Even though my uncle was a professional writer, his closet was the only way he ever “wrote” about himself. In a house, and marriage, and life, where he was often so sublimated, he had this one room where he could line up his manuscripts, his pipes, the few objects that were important to him, his shoes. He even put out a large studio photograph of himself as a baby, naked on a bearskin rug. (Incidentally he was born in 1920, the same year as Sara.) He also set out, on a high shelf, a painting of my aunt that looked down on the whole arrangement. I think—think—that was intended as a visual joke.

Kalman: My mother did not imagine any audience at all for her closet. It just was.

Frank: And yet both closets are like little memoirs or autobiographies of their owners.

A recreation of Sara Berman’s closet from her Horatio Street studio apartment.

Rick Meyerowitz

Kalman: Sara’s closet captured the lightness of her personality. Did Irving have a lightness to him?

Frank: Oh, very much so. He was often a very buoyant person with a very pronounced sense of humor and fun. I wonder if the lightness is part of the reason these closets are interesting—light people anchored by only a handful of diligently edited material things.

Kalman: After she left her marriage, my mother took a very deliberate approach to her daily life. She would organize her movements very precisely. “I am going to buy one lemon,” she would say. “Then I am going to the post office. Then I am knitting a sweater for the dog. Then I will bring blintzes for dinner.”

Frank: My uncle was a man of strict order and ritual—he and my aunt collaborated on their screenplays from 9:00 a.m. until 1:00 p.m. every day. Then he would have lunch, the same exact lunch every day: cashews, fruit, graham crackers, and a glass of milk. Then he would retype the morning’s work and either read or run also very specific errands, also, as it happened, for one or two items at a time—he would make a trip to the supermarket for a single roll of paper towels. For decades, he met the same friend for coffee and the same coffee shop at the same hour. And, like Sara, he wore more or less the same clothes every day, L.L. Bean chinos, a white T-shirt, white socks, and moccasins. Irving’s uniform was not as striking as Sara’s all white, though.

Kalman: Sara only started wearing white after she moved to New York.

Frank: I wonder what all this self-editing was about.

Kalman: For Sara I think it was time. How to manage time. Savor time. Organize time. My mother would say it right out. If you asked her what is the most important thing in life she would answer, “Time.”

Frank: My uncle’s version of that was to ask, after every meal, or encounter, “What have we accomplished?” As if he was paying attention to the moment, always. Therefore inviting us to pay attention to the moment, always.

Kalman: These were ritualized people who each seemed to have a sense of how limited life was—as it is. They both pared their things down, organized their days deliberately, lived by ritual, curated their own stories.

Frank: Where did that impulse originate, in Sara?

Kalman: Several years ago I traveled to Belarus, to try to see what I could find of my mother’s beginnings. I discovered that there was nothing there—just earth. When you come from somewhere that has been erased, or when you make a violent break later on in life, as my mother did when she left my father and came to New York, maybe it concentrates you on where you are, teaches you to look so intently, listen so intently.

Frank: I haven’t thought about my uncle in this light before, but he had a kind of parallel experience. Because he had terrible asthma and nearly died as a child during the harsh East Coast winters, he was sent to California as a 10-year-old to live with his aunt and her family. He lived apart from his parents and siblings for three years, while his father, my grandfather, completed his rabbinical studies in New York. For both of them, there were dramatic ruptures with their familiar worlds.

Kalman: These are experiences that wake you up.

Frank: When did it occur to you to save the contents of Sara’s closet?

Kalman: The day she died I said to my sister, “I am sure that one day this closet will be in a museum, even if we have to turn Sara’s apartment into a museum ourselves. You can sit here and be the docent, and we’ll wait for people to come and pay 50 cents to take a look.”

Frank: I’m sure your sister was thrilled by the idea.

Kalman: She said, “Are you out of your mind?” After Sara died, she moved into our mother’s studio, and for something like a year I wouldn’t let her touch the closet. Finally she said, “Maira, I live here, you know. I need a place to put my clothes.” So we packed up Sara’s things in boxes and kept them all this time. What about you?

Frank: Now we’re in the realm of the truly uncanny. The day after my uncle died I knew I was going to write about the closet. I knew I was going to use it as a way to tell his story separately from my aunt’s. In fact, for a long time the working title of my memoir was My Uncle’s Closet. The actual closet had a different fate: My aunt had it cleared out even before he was buried. The whole thing was gone, poof, within a few hours.

Kalman: What was that about?

Frank: It’s taken me 100,000 words to try to figure out what that was about.

Kalman: Wow.

Frank: Exactly. Wow. But the truth is, once my uncle’s closet was unmade, I felt free to start remaking it again, in language. So I’m grateful for that loss, in a way. Loss can drive you to recapture a place, an experience, a person.

Kalman: And time. We’re back to that again.

Frank: We’ve both gone in search of lost time—and found it in a closet.

Kalman: What would you say if I asked to see yours?

Frank: Never! I don’t even let my wife look inside. It’s a disaster. You?

Kalman: It would make me very happy to burn everything and then have you gaze upon it for as long as you wished.