Titusville lost one of its most renowned this past weekend, leaving behind a legacy of artistic contributions and love for his hometown.
Artist Gerson “Gus” Leiber passed away at his home April 28, just hours before his wife, hand bag designer Judith Leiber, also died.
While Gerson had made his home in New York since 1947, the abstract artist spent his formative years in Titusville, a connection that would not be forgotten as years went by.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1921, Gerson’s family moved to Titusville when he was 3 years old, according to Titusville resident Lynn Cressman, who knew the Leibers personally.
“He always considered Titusville his hometown,” Cressman said. “You ask him where his home was, he would say ‘Titusville,’ he would never say ‘Brooklyn.’ I never once heard him say Brooklyn.”
Leiber grew up in poverty at a home on New Street, according to an autobiography written by Gerson and given to The Herald by Cressman. His father made a living selling used items and old newspapers used as wrapping paper out of a horse and buggy.
“People left old furniture in the front yard for the junk man, and he would take it back to his shop, refurbish it, repurpose it, whatever term you want to use these days, and resell it,” Cressman said.
Despite these “very modest circumstances,” as Leiber put it in his autobiography, the artist-to-be pushed himself hard in his academic life, making frequent trips to Benson Memorial Library.
“His family couldn’t afford books,” Barry Cressman, Lynn’s husband, told The Herald. “He used to refer to Benson Library as, ‘a temple.’ He thought Benson Library was the most marvelous building, even having experienced the wonders of New York City, and the extravagance that you encounter in East Hampton. He still, as an adult, would talk about Benson Library, and would use that phrase, ‘a temple.’”
Gerson was additionally a member of the local boy scouts chapter, which instilled a strong work ethic in him, according to Barry.
His hard work and studying paid off, as Gerson graduated valedictorian from Titusville High School.
“I loved school, displayed some artistic talent and did well, graduating in ’39 as ‘Class Orator’ when I predicted America would soon be at war,” Gerson wrote in his autobiography.
After graduation, Gerson worked many odd jobs around Titusville, including clerking at a soda-fountain-cigar store, before winding up at The Titusville Herald.
Gerson climbed the proverbial corporate ladder at The Herald, going from paper boy, to floor sweeper, to office assistant, to apprentice printer.
Even after he would leave the position due to being drafted in 1943, Gerson remained an avid Herald reader, according to the Cressmans, who would frequently send him copies.
“He told me one time, ‘If it hadn’t been for World War II, I’d probably still be working at The Herald,’” Lynn said.
Leiber served as a radio operator at Allied Forces Headquarters in North Africa and southern Italy, before being flown to Hungary, where he would meet the girl of his dreams.
Judith Leiber, then known as Judith Peto, was able to avoid persecution by the Nazis thanks to her father obtaining a schuss pass, a special document given by the Swiss government that allowed the bearer free passage and protection from the Nazis during the war, according to Lynn.
While the pass initially only protected her father, a fellow resident at the apartment where the family lived, known as Tom Baroth, acquired a typewriter with the same font as the pass and added the phrase, “and family” to the document, protecting the rest of the family.
Judith made her living selling handbags to American soldiers stationed in Budapest, according to a Jan. 6, 2017, New York Times article.
It was on the streets of that city in the middle of the largest war known to mankind that the two met.
“Judy told us her family had a room to rent, and wanted to rent it to a military officer,” Gerson is quoted as saying in the New York Times article. “Certainly she knew nothing about how the U.S. military made housing decisions. She did, however, speak excellent English. I couldn’t find her a tenant, but I did fall in love.”
The two married in 1946, and would return to the states the next year, settling down in New York. Gerson would finish his art studies, something he began while serving overseas. His art ranged from abstract arrays of colors, to somber and darker pieces, to parodies. One series of paintings, described to The Herald by the Cressmans, mocked the overly extravagant and photogenic New Yorkers the Leibers knew, giving them pig-like noses.
According to Gerson’s autobiography, his art has been exhibited in more than 300 national and international exhibitions, as well as 20 one-man exhibitions from 1960 to 2001.
While Gerson expanded on his artistic knowledge, Judith would gradually turn herself into one of the premiere icons of the fashion industry.
The pair began a handbag manufacturing company in 1963, featuring bags designed by Judith. The work was hard in starting the business, according to Lynn. Judith would cut out patterns for bags while laying on the floor and even developed bursitis in her shoulder at one point.
“When they started this business, they did not have a lot of help or capital,” Lynn said. “So they did it all themselves.”
The gem covered hand bags that Judith Leiber would become famous for came out because of a mistake, according to Barry. A bag sent off to be gold plated in Italy came back in poor condition.
“So, here she was, she paid for them; ‘what do I do with them?’” Barry said. “And she got the idea of stenciling in designs and filling them in.”
Using Swarovski crystals, Judith would fill in the stenciled designs by hand, gluing each individual crystal in place. One such bag owned by Lynn holds between 8,000 to 10,000 crystals on its surface.
These bags came in a variety of shapes, including hot air balloons, sea shells and animals. They became prized fashion items, and even saw use by several First Ladies.
The pair sold their company in 1993, with Judith retiring, while Gerson would continue to paint and tend to his garden at his East Hampton home.
In 2001, then-school teacher Lynn Cressman was commissioned to write an article about Gerson Leiber for the school district’s newsletter. Lynn asked superintendent Ken Winger if she could try talking to Gerson directly.
“I said, ‘Is it alright to call Mr. Leiber,” Lynn told The Herald. “And (Winger) said, ‘Well you can try, but he doesn’t like to talk on the phone.’”
Despite the warning, Lynn was able to make contact with Gerson, and was, as a result, invited to an opening for one of his shows in spring 2001. When the Cressmans finally met Gerson, he asked them if they were going to stay in the city for the weekend. When Lynn told him they only came for the opening, he was taken by surprise.
“He was astounded that somebody would come all the way from Titusville… that far to visit him,” Lynn said.
After that meeting, Gerson began to donate more towards the Leiber Room maintained at Titusville High School, according to Lynn. The room exhibits various pieces of art, both by Gerson and from other artists.
“His goal always was that Titusville students should see more artwork,” Lynn said. “And he wanted it in the halls.”
Gerson actually sent artwork mostly by other artists at first, according to Lynn, but eventually sent two of his own collections, one of which is known as “Nymphs.”
The Cressmans would maintain their friendship with Gerson and his wife from then on, going to visit them several times a year. Lynn and Barry shared many stories and anecdotes about the Leibers, including Gerson’s apparent skill as a cocktail drink mixer, or the table that would hold the piles of books the pair read.
When news of the Leibers’ deaths reached Lynn and Barry, they were taken aback. Lynn had talked to Gerson only three weeks beforehand, and the Cressmans were planning to visit them over Memorial Day weekend.
“It was just hard to imagine they were both gone, so close to each other,” Lynn said. “It really is an incredible love story. (The obituary) quotes Gus as saying, ‘Sweetie, it’s time to go.’”
Despite the loss, the Cressmans believe that Titusville can learn from the life of Gerson.
“We tend to think of ourselves as rather parochial,” Barry said. “It’s like, ‘Can anything good come out of Titusville? The oil boom is past.’ Well, yes. Here’s Gus, who had a high school diploma… but, he made it.”
Titusville residents will get the chance to see some of Gerson’s work on display at the Benson Memorial Library for the month of May. Gerson created illustrations for a poem by Isabella Leitner, titled “May 31, 1944” about the Holocaust. Leitner is herself a holocaust survivor.
The exhibit was put together by Lynn and Benson Memorial Library Historian Jessica Hilburn, and will be on display until the end of the month.
Ray can be reached, by email, at email@example.com.