Fur Keeps? | Essay | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Fur Keeps?

A Vermont animal lover overthinks her minks


Published April 4, 2001 at 2:57 p.m.

Illustration: Paula Myrick
  • Illustration: Paula Myrick

Some people’s guilty pleasure is chocolate or ABBA. Mine is mink. Last fall, I acquired my mother’s minks — a stole and a jacket. My 6-year-old daughter Clare loves them. She has no doubts or nagging concerns over ethics. To her, these are clearly super-luxe items, and she couldn’t give a rat’s ass what the animal-rights activists say.

I, on the other hand, am not able to replicate her girlish gliz-glam insouciance. I’m a votive of the sect that insists: “It takes 32 poor, dumb animals to make a mink. It takes one rich, dumb animal to wear one.” Neither dumb nor, sadly, rich, I nonetheless do have these minks. They come freighted with conflicting emotions. As fur’s patron saint, Cruella DeVil demonstrates in those Disney Dalmation pics, there is no end to the fur-lover’s calumny. One day you’re swathed in sable; the next, you develop a craving for puppy pelts. If that doesn’t scare you, no evil thing will.

It all started innocently enough: cleaning out Mom’s closet, preparatory to selling the family home in New Jersey. I came across a hanging bag, unzipped it, and there they were, probably not worn for 10 or 15 years. I pulled the furs out. They were very heavy, unbelievably soft and cool. Whiffs from ancient dabs of perfume hung about the collars.

I took them without really thinking about what I would do with them, or where I would wear them. But it hardly mattered. I was hooked. Clare, too. Wearing these garments was, quite simply, elating.

We paraded around my parents’ room, she in the stole, me in the jacket. We posed in front of the mirror. These were not lusterless, moth-eaten has-beens. They were luscious. The top layer of fur reflected the light, the underfur was a plush thicket of down. Both were beautifully made and detailed, certainly the closest thing to haute couture I’ll ever experience. I put them in a plastic garbage bag and drove back to Vermont, taking extra care that the car was locked at rest stops.

As we traveled northward, however, my resolve faltered. Mink made sense in suburban New Jersey, with the proximity and possibilities of New York City. Where I live in Calais, displays of wealth are not looked upon favorably. The rich folk in my neighborhood drive Saabs and Subarus. The occasional Range Rover is viewed as the ostentatious trapping of an arriviste.

Would my friends and neighbors be equally disdainful of my inherited treasures? Would they be put off by the pretentiousness of sporting a mink around central Vermont, even as the paint peels off my house? What of my own guilt about this abandonment of principles?

When I got home, I stuffed the minks on a shelf in the back of my closet.

Few people get a mink by accident. The coat and stole are heirlooms: Before my mother, they belonged to my paternal grandmother, Helen Menagh, who died 25 years ago. Before her, the stole belonged to Helen’s daughter and my aunt, Helen Menagh Bohl, who died 10 years before grandma.

I didn’t find this out from Mom. Her long-term memory isn’t what it used to be — although perhaps the provenance of one’s minks is something one never forgets. I discovered their origins using a form of fashion archaeology. The names of the owners are embroidered on the linings. The jacket says “Helen M. Menagh.” The stole, “Helen M.” But barely visible after the “M.” is the shadow of “Bohl,” where the embroidery was removed for the new owner.

My grandmother Menagh came from the old school. She and my grandfather took long cruises to Europe and the Orient, the kind where you had a special wardrobe to dress for dinner — and for every other occasion. I have a photograph of her standing on the deck of a ship, in full regalia, including, of course, a very nice mink. She was proud of her furs and wore them with flair.

Her pride was not misplaced; the minks are full of marvelous details. The linings are heavy printed silk. The stole’s lining is strewn with sprays of tiny roses; the mink’s, with evergreen boughs and pine cones.

The garments are closed by large, fabric-covered hooks and eyes, cleverly concealed so that when worn, nothing is seen of ungainly fastenings. The stole’s design is especially ingenious. It has a shawl collar lined in matching silk that tapers down the front, and finishes off in a swooping curve toward the outer edge of the garment. The curve overlaps a portion of the stole, creating a deep pocket that is also lined in matching silk.

The jacket also has a shawl collar — lined with more mink — and long sleeves that can be turned up to make wide cuffs or left down for warmth. Cold hands can also find refuge in the invisible silk-lined pockets carefully tucked in along a seam line.

The jacket’s pelts are narrower at the neckline, widening as they descend to the hem, making for a flared silhouette. The skins are natural — that is, not dyed — and perfectly matched; a line of darker hair runs down the center of each of the 21 vertical panels of pelts. My grandmother knew from fur.

Her family’s fortune, if it can be so dignified, was made on furs. Her grandfather, an Irish émigré, worked in a fine department store on lower Fifth Avenue, the locus of fashionable merchants in the 19th century. He saved up enough to go solo, and invested in cold-storage vaults. These vaults housed the Astors’ furs before they were readied for sale.

Apparently, this was a lucrative and socially enhancing business. My grandmother’s family settled in a tony New York suburb of great Victorian houses built for the large pockets and parties of the newly minted well-to-do. I have a photograph of my forebears sitting in a large sleigh, swathed in furs, ready for a winter outing.

When I was a child, whenever we passed 32nd Street and Broadway, my father would point down the street and say, “That’s where our vaults were.” He told me about the furs and the Astors. At a young age, I heard tales imbued with bygone glamour. As I got older, however, my feelings about the family business grew hostile.

My mother never had a mink until she inherited these. She wore an ugly shearling lamb coat with a mink collar. I had a special aversion to it because I remember being told of the particularly gruesome ways that lambs were dispatched to preserve the fineness of the curly down.

Both my sister and I gave Mom grief about wearing that coat. I stopped eating meat in college; but I do sport leather shoes, jackets, belts, purse, etc. That rarely, if ever, gives me pause. Leather doesn’t seem to loom large on animal activists’ radar, either — Chrissie Hynde excepted. I’ve never seen headlines about bomber jackets doused with battery acid by irate protestors.

Why do mink pelts ruffle feathers when cowhide does not? I can’t speak for others, but my guess is that leather has a rep as a utilitarian material, almost a necessity. The kindly cobbler in fairy tales is depicted as an industrious sort, supplying a homely product to plain folk at a fair price. Not so the furrier, scheming, rapacious, unctuous, catering to the caprices of a high-strung, well-heeled clientele.

This may be what gets under the furphobe’s skin: animals slaughtered not for practical products, but as a display of wealth and vanity. Fur is the talisman of the high and mighty; or at least the mighty rich. Never mind that minks have a reputation for viciousness. Drenching some socialite’s stole in mock blood may be as much class warfare as an expression of sympathy for animals.

So what to do with the stinking-animal creations in the back of my closet? I could sell them. But they were my grandmother’s and aunt’s. And my daughter might want them. There’s little else of flagrant luxury in this household likely to come her way. How much would decades-old furs fetch, anyway? But what about my Mom and her friends, whom I scolded about the evils of fur-wearing? So it went, back and forth, between guilt and justification.

One afternoon, when we were in saving-money mode, the heat was turned down. I was writing in bed, feeling chilled. I thought of the minks. I pulled them out and wrapped the jacket over my lap and legs, and tucked the stole around my feet. Suddenly, I felt like Lara from Doctor Zhivago, sweeping across the steppes of Russia in my troika.

Fur can have that effect on an overheated imagination, can transport you to a world of luxury and intrigue. I stroked the pelts, admiring their sheen and softness. They were very, very warm. Like a comforter, but more comfortable. Delicious.

Still, when would I ever wear them without feeling self-conscious? I showed them to my friend Sandra and explained my dilemma. Sandra is a little wicked. She suggested I wear my mink to the co-op. “They’ll hurl miso and free-range peanut butter at you,” she prophesied.

I did wear the jacket once, with much waffling beforehand, on a caroling party during the holidays. On one hand, I had reasoned, wearing it made perfect sense: We would be spending the evening standing around in the cold, and the mink is by far the warmest thing I own. On the other hand, trotting it out on so public an occasion might be seen as garnering maximum exposure for my guilty pleasure. But wasn’t it ludicrous that I suffered so much angst about wearing the skins of animals who would have been dead long since even had they lived a full life?

The jacket did raise a few eyebrows and attract a few comments; but it was warm and wonderful. I explained to the inquisitive that it was my grandmother’s, and so practical on a cold night, and that, yes, I did feel a little naughty wearing it. After the caroling, we assembled at a neighbor’s house for dinner. I arrived a little late, and there was already a pile of mixed-up coats and boots jamming the entrance hall. I carefully folded my jacket and put it in a safe corner.

By the time we were ready to leave, my jacket had been subsumed by mounds of clothing. I rummaged through the heap of outerwear in the dark hallway, until my fingers felt the tell-tale cool softness. I pulled the fur out of the pile. It was not mine. Someone else had had the chutzpah to wear a fur to the Maple Corner caroling party!

Someday, I just might work up the nerve to wear my mink to the co-op.