Thursday 19 April 2018

A man shaped by history and a love of fashion - Harold Huberman

Although struggling with Parkinson's, designer and painter Harold Huberman is a man full of determination and cheer

Harold Huberman has an attitude, of stoicism and adversity cheerfully borne, that is impressive, and very poignant.
Harold Huberman has an attitude, of stoicism and adversity cheerfully borne, that is impressive, and very poignant.
Harold Huberman with his daughter Amy and wife Sandra at the launch of Amy's first novel, 'Hello Heartbreak', in 2009

Emily Hourican

'You keep going. You have to. Otherwise you'd stay in bed all day. I'm not going to do that, I'm going to keep fighting on. I'm 78 in a month's time and I've always been very active, so I try to keep going as if I'm as well as the next person, because otherwise, what else would you do?" Harold Huberman, designer, painter and, yes, father of Amy, is describing the impulse that gets him out of bed every morning, despite the gradual debilitation of his health from Parkinson's disease.

Parkinson's has many symptoms, of which the most commonly understood is probably the tremor that causes hand or fingers to shake, but the more serious include loss of balance and rigid muscles. "I don't have the tremor in the hands," says Harold. "That's a very obvious symptom, but falling is a bigger problem. I fall every few weeks, and you can't put your hands out to save yourself, so that's dangerous. I already have fusions in my spine from falling. Then I came off the chair in my office, hit my chin off the ground and broke my front tooth. I have three fusions in my neck now."

It's been five years since he was diagnosed - "I was with my endocrinologist; I've had diabetes for 26 years - and he turned to me and said 'by the way, you've got Parkinson's.' Just like that, out of the blue. He saw my knee going up and down, and he knew. It had never occurred to me, even though I'd probably had it for three or four years by then. It was a blow," he says candidly, then adds, "I was in shock. And Sandra was very upset."

Sandra is Harold's wife of over 40 years. Throughout our conversation, in the couple's pretty house in South Dublin, she ministers to us both - cups of tea, biscuits, kindness. "Sandra's marvellous," Harold says, "she has great patience with me. As well as the falling, I am always dropping things - 15 or 20 times a day - and knocking things over with my elbows." Since the diagnosis, symptoms have accumulated, in the logic-defying way that seems to be the nature of the disease. "I can't write any more, but I can paint, which is very strange. Some people can't walk but they can ride a bike, others can't stand but they can dance. It's a very strange thing. It affects some areas and not others. I can't write because writing is continuous, whereas painting is dabbing." These paintings - elegant water-colours of sea and landscape, along with some very clever portraits, of family members - Amy, Brian O'Driscoll - and celebrities such as Morgan Freeman - line the walls of the house, and will shortly be auctioned in aid of Parkinson's Awareness Week. They are detailed and delicate, painted often at night, and at an impressive rate; sometimes two or three in a weekend. And it is a blessing that he took up painting before his diagnosis. "I started painting only about six years ago. I had just naturally started moving into that area."

Along with the more dramatic physical symptoms is something more restrained, but that clearly causes Harold a different kind of bother. "I cry a lot," he tells me with a wry smile. "For no reason. It started before I was diagnosed. I'd start to cry, for good reasons but also bad reasons. It started with Brian one day, when he scored a try - I cried." We all used to cry when Brian scored, I say, only half-joking, but Harold continues, "I couldn't work it out - I wondered 'why am I crying here?' Sandra thought it was strange. Then I started to cry when I was watching a movie, or anything really. You feel like you're losing your manhood. But it's just part of the symptoms of Parkinson's. I don't even feel incredibly sad in the moment," he says. "The tears just gather and fall. You're not crying the way you would cry if something terrible happened. And then you get over it very quickly, you're not unhappy."

There is an increase, he says, in symptoms and severity. "I don't notice so much, but other people do. My voice is starting to go. It's got much weaker, it takes an effort to speak. I can't shout, and I can't whistle any more. I used to whistle in the shower. Things get stuck in my throat, taking tablets is very hard. And there are more things as I go along. This is an ever-declining illness. You keep going down and down. I'm on the inside looking out, so I notice it less than others do."

As a vision, and despite his resolute cheerfulness, it is bleak. So what, I ask, keeps him going through difficult times? "It's just an acceptance of where you are," he says quietly. "I'm getting older anyway. You read about people dying much younger than I am. And with all my problems, there's nothing there that should kill me, so I just keep going."

It's an attitude, of stoicism and adversity cheerfully borne that is impressive, and very poignant. "Life is good," he insists. "I'm still enthusiastic about life. In fact, more so than ever. There's an intensity that comes onto you, that you try not to put onto other people, a feeling that you want to get things done, you want to get out. So I don't stay in bed longer than I need to. I make the effort to get out for a walk every day, even though I don't always have the strength to walk, because my back is at me. But you just keep going and you do the best you can."

It is an old-fashioned kind of approach, one that seems to run deep in Harold's life, and probably has much to do with his upbringing as part of the Jewish community in Hampstead Garden Suburb, son of a Polish immigrant to Britain. "My father came from Poland when he was 11 or 12. He left because of the Pogroms." In London, Harold's father joined up during World War I. "He wasn't even shown how to fire a rifle," Harold says, "they just sent him straight to Belgium. He was in the Royal Fusiliers. He never said that much about it, but he did tell us that he was on the train station platform, waiting to depart and there were stacks of coffins there. He asked another soldier, 'what are they doing there?' and the soldier said, 'they're for you.' He also said they were so tired from marching that the rats would bite their noses and they would be too tired to get up."

For all the glamour and fun of Harold's career in the fashion industry, designing beautiful coats and corporate uniforms at a time when banking was a much-valued career, it is this kind of historical legacy that I suspect has the most sway in his outlook. "My father used to send money home to the people who had been left behind, and every time he would get a letter back, until Hitler invaded Poland. He never heard from his family again. They were annihilated. No one was left." Some years ago, Harold went to visit Auschwitz, with daughter Amy. "It was traumatic," he says now, voice barely louder than a whisper. "That was horrendous, really horrendous. The children's shoes - that's the one that really gets you. There are thousands and thousands of them. That breaks you. It was snowing, the time we went, bitter cold, and you think - 'I've got all my warm clothes on. I've got scarves on, two jackets, and there they were in cotton suits. Pyjamas.' It was horrendous what they did. That's a journey that everyone should make."

Harold's father worked as a machinist, and Harold, when he turned 15, went to learn pattern-cutting and designing. "I couldn't afford day school so I went to night school, four nights a week for seven years." In doing so, he demonstrated a pretty grown-up kind of grit. "Where we lived," he says "everybody went into Dagenham Motors because they were getting £5 a week. I was getting just £1.50 a week, doing what I was doing, but I had my eyes on a bigger picture." That early perspicacity paid off, and in 1968 he was offered a six-month contract as a designer in Dublin with Dorene, manufacturers of the kinds of coats that still regularly turn up on vintage sites, and are snapped up. "After three weeks, I thought I'd never stick it," he laughs. "The 1960s in London were unbelievable; being a fashion designer then was just tremendous. I was 30 years old, single, and having the time of my life in London. Coming here was like going to a different planet. The difference was enormous."

But the job grew on him, Dublin grew on him, and then he met Sandra. "Sandra was a school teacher and just leaving college, trying to earn some money. She came in for an audition to be a model. She got the job and she still has it," he laughs. Was it love at first sight, I ask, because sometimes it is. "No. I was very protective of myself. I couldn't see myself getting married at all. I was 37 at this stage, and had never married. Until Sandra, I'd never met the right person I suppose."

Was religion an issue between them? "No. Sandra's not Jewish, and the children were raised Catholic. We came to an arrangement. First of all we weren't going to have any children because of the problem of religion, but then, because I wasn't particularly religious, I said, 'you look after the religion, I'll pay the mortgage.' That's a fair deal, isn't it?" he laughs again. His parents, happily, had a similar kind of approach - pragmatic, but romantic too. "My mother called me and said 'are you going out with a girl?' I said 'yes, I am.' She said 'do you love her?' I said, 'yes, I think I do,' and she said 'She's not Jewish is she?' I said 'No,' and she said 'Well if you love her, marry her.'"

Harold worked for Dorene until 1982 when a kind of force majeur sent him out on his own. "I started as a designer, then moved into buying the fabric, and then became the managing director of the manufacturing side of the company, Dorene. Dorene was the holding company. They were extremely successful. They then decided to go into retail in the UK, and it buried them. I think success can desensitise your ability to assess risk. In the end there wasn't enough money in the holding company to buy the fabric I needed, so I left. At that stage, I went out on my own. We had the garage converted, and I went to Sandra and put three pieces of blank paper in front of her and I said 'how do you like my new business?' She said 'great,' and walked out of the room." He laughs hard at that memory, then adds. "we had no kids at that stage, so it was easier to make those kinds of tough decisions."

In the beginning, he designed dresses and other items as well as coats, but the coats were what took off. "I decided to walk Oxford Street and Regent Street in London," he says, "and I saw all these lovely cashmere coats, but always in greys and blacks and navys and camel. So I came back to Dublin and decided to do them in pinks, watermelon colours, lemon, and use the best fabrics. So I did that, and that worked tremendously."

He is, I would guess, still quietly proud of scoring such a success within what is a notoriously difficult industry. "We did exceptionally well with the coats," he recalls. "After about four years I thought, 'Ok, I've got to push this on.' So I went to Henry White, who were very long-established manufacturers, in 1989 and merged my business with them. They were dealing with independent retailers, I was dealing with department stores, so it made sense. I had every account in England - Harrods, Harvey Nichols, Selfridges, everyone."

He takes me up to his study to show me the storyboards from those days - beautiful displays of marvellous 1980s models wearing most glamorous coats in deep reds, petrol blues, bright white, proudly displaying the Huberman logo (an old-fashioned, open-topped car, like an early Rolls Royce), and branded with the names of all the big department stores, from the Kilkenny Shop to Saks Fifth Avenue.

Around the same time, Harold got a call from AIB to redesign their corporate uniform in line with the new logo, and then Bank of Ireland. "We designed the outfits and did the project management of the whole thing. That worked very well, until everything moved to England. At that stage, it was time to get out. I was 65 and I retired. Once I was out, I didn't miss the aggravation, but I missed the challenge. The fashion trade is really tough, but very rewarding when you get it right."

Again, there is a deep pragmatism there - yes, he is proud of all that he achieved, but he doesn't dwell on past glories. And his pride in his children clearly far eclipses anything he feels for his career. "We have three great kids, we're very fortunate. Amy, a great girl and a great daughter; Mark, the eldest, who is an actor as well, and Paul who's in property management, in business for himself."

Two actors in the family, I say, that could be tough. Harold laughs, and agrees. "At least in the fashion trade, you can make a phone-call. As an actor, you can't, you have to wait for the phone to ring. But they are both fantastic."

And so, aged almost 78, with more happy years ahead too, but with a growing collection of physical difficulties that undoubtedly interfere with his quality of life far more than he is willing to say, off-set by a gritty determination to be cheerful and active, Harold allows a moment for reflection on a fascinating life. "It's been a great life," he says. "It has been happy, and it still is. I feel like a lucky man. I feel really lucky that I met Sandra and that we've got three kids who are still in Dublin. Through all the hard times, they haven't moved away. Here come the tears again . . ."

Parkinson's Awareness week starts today with The Parkinson's Unity Walk, taking place from 11.30am, starting at the Davenport Hotel. As a part of Awareness Week, Harold Huberman has donated a number of paintings that will be auctioned on Wednesday April 13, with all proceeds going towards the Parkinson's Association. www.parkinsons.ie

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