‘The End to a Perfect Love Story’
“Sweetheart, it’s time to leave,” Gerson Leiber said to Judith Leiber, his wife of 72 years, late Friday night. By 5 a.m. on Saturday he was gone, and she died shortly afterward, at 10:30, according to Jeffrey Sussman, a longtime friend and biographer of the couple.
“They died within five hours of each other,” he said on Monday of the couple known to friends as Gus and Judy. “It was the end to a perfect love story.”
Judith Leiber was a famed handbag designer whose creations were carried by celebrities, dignitaries, and royalty. Her husband was an artist known for both abstract and representational modernist paintings. Unlike most married couples of their era in Springs, where they spent time when they weren’t in New York City and where they died, his career took a back seat to her work.
“In 1963 he told her ‘you have to start your own business,’ ” Mr. Sussman recalled. “You should not be working for schnooks; you should be recognized for your artistic talents.” Mr. Sussman added that Mr. Leiber would carry boxes of his wife’s handbags on city buses himself to get them to the stores. “He could not have been more proud of her. He thought he married a genius.”
Ms. Leiber’s day and evening bags, for which she designed metal minaudieres in the shape of animals, vegetables, eggs, and other objects drenched in Swarovski crystals, were carried by the likes of Greta Garbo, Oprah Winfrey, Mamie Eisenhower, Diana Ross, Carrie Bradshaw, and Hillary Clinton. Carrying a Leiber bag to a presidential inauguration was an informal tradition among many first ladies.
In 2008, the couple opened a small state-of-the-art museum on their Springs property, calling it the Leiber Collection. It held each of their works as well as objects they had collected on their travels and the Chinese ceramics they liked to acquire. Much of the ceramic collection was sold at Sotheby’s this year.
Before their deaths, the couple began a foundation to assure that the museum would continue after they were gone. Patti Kenner, a close friend and a foundation trustee, said the building would be retained, continuing its annual summer exhibition program, as would the property’s sculpture garden. The garden was a passion of Mr. Leiber, who designed its “intricately patterned world of hedges and reillage,” according to the museum’s website.
There are no immediate plans to sell the house, but Mr. Sussman said it was Mr. Gerson’s wish that the property, exclusive of the sculpture garden, be sold and the money used to maintain the museum and garden.
“They had no children. The handbags and the artwork were their children, and the museum is their gift to the community,” Ms. Kenner said.
Mr. Sussman said the couple were “kind and generous to everyone around them. He helped indigent artists and she helped people of limited means succeed in fashion,” with a scholarship she established at the Fashion Institute of Technology. He supported Bar Ilan University in Israel and donated his own and other works to the high school he attended in Titusville, Pa.
Ms. Leiber was born Judith Marianne Peto in Budapest on Jan. 11, 1921, to Emil and Helen Peto. She grew up in Hungary and attended Kings College in London with thoughts of becoming a chemist and face cream impresario. Returning to Budapest after the outbreak of World War II, she entered an artisan guild, working her way up to become the first woman handbag apprentice and designer in Hungary. Her family was saved from the concentration camps during the war by sewing military uniforms. At the time, Ms. Leiber also made handbags at home using scraps of found materials.
Ms. Kenner, who is planning a documentary on the couple, said they met just after Hitler’s defeat. Mr. Leiber was a United States Army Signal Corps sergeant and was with a friend in Budapest when one of Ms. Leiber’s friends who was walking with her approached them to say hello. “He fell in love on the street of Budapest the minute he saw Judy. They both loved opera, and he invited her to the opera the day they met,” Ms. Kenner said.
They married in 1946 and settled in Brooklyn, where Mr. Leiber was born. Ms. Leiber began working for a succession of manufacturers until going into business, and, in 1963, she rented a small Manhattan loft. The company eventually occupied a 25,000-square-foot space in the West 30s and became prosperous, with purses selling for prices ranging from the hundreds to thousands of dollars.
The first beaded handbag was the result of a happy accident. A metal purse Ms. Leiber planned as a gift arrived scratched, so she hid the marks with beads. Her other handbags are marked by unusual materials: Art Deco-influenced hardware, wood, Lucite, and seashells, to name a few. She was inspired by modern artists and the Asian art she collected, resulting in bags that resembled paintings by her husband, Sonia Delaunay, and Mondrian, and minaudieres in the shape of foo dogs and Chinese firecrackers. She retired in 2004.
Mr. Leiber was born in Brooklyn on Nov. 12, 1921, to Rebecca and William Leiber, a junk dealer. The family moved to Titusville, where he grew up. Before joining the military, he worked at a series of odd jobs, ending up at a newspaper. In the Army, he became a radio operator and served in North Africa and Naples before arriving in Hungary.
It was Ms. Leiber who encouraged him to pursue a dream to be an artist. He began taking art classes in Budapest and then enrolled in the Art Students League on the G.I. Bill when they arrived in New York. He continued studying at the Brooklyn Museum School of Art. He then opened a studio in the West Village for his paintings and graphic art and became an instructor, eventually showing his art at a series of gallery and museum exhibitions.
In recent years, the couple’s work has been showcased in their museum and in shows such as a 2014 exhibition of Mr. Leiber’s late paintings at Carter Burden Gallery in Manhattan and her bags at the Museum of Art and Design last year. Their work also was in a joint exhibition at the Long Island Museum at Stony Brook last year.
A private service was held on Monday at Shaarey Pardes Accabonac Grove in Springs, where they were buried in the same plot at the suggestion of Ms. Kenner. “They are buried together — one grave, separate caskets — which is just what they would have wanted.” A celebration of their lives will take place at their museum this summer, which will have a memorial show “with as many of Judy’s bags and Gus’s artwork as possible.”