Jack Zwirn, furrier, obituary
This is the obituary of Jack Zwirn, one of London’s most extraordinary furriers. Written by RDN, the Independent ran it soon after Jack’s death in 2004.
In square brackets are a few paragraphs which the paper didn’t run.
This file should be in the richarddnorth.com archive subsite. But for some reason, the links don’t work.
The fur trade has lost one of its most famous characters. An unparalleled judge of skins, Jack Zwirn died aged 80 during the evening of 5th March, four years after his first operation for cancer. He had traded almost all his life in the West End, and often under his own surname. He was a Jew who had lost his faith, and adored his very ordinary local pub and betting shop. He married “out” twice after his first, Jewish, wife died. In the 1960s, 70s early 80’s, when the British last loved full-on fur coats, each involving the pelts of dozens of mink, marten or sable (or quite a few of the larger pelt of the fox or beaver), his firm made money hand over fist.
All his life, Jack’s fiery nature led to fallings-out with nearly everybody he knew. He had an ungovernable temper, though many of the huge range of people he dealt with – including fellow furriers and affluent customers – seldom saw it. His best friends, his family and his wives did, though. Many of these, who knew the worst of him, seemed to forgive him, not least because they accepted that he really was not in control of himself. They were rewarded by no remorse from Jack himself.
Jack Zwirn was deeply intuitive about anything to do with fur and the trade, and he was obsessively sharp in deal-making. But he was also renowned for sticking with a deal, even if the arithmetic had turned against him.
The fur trade is much more than a matter of making money. It is a small, clannish, cosmopolitan trade in which merchant banking meets the craft workshop, and where high fashion meets traditions which stretch back to pioneering fur trappers. London has always been a major capital in this globalized business, much of it conducted by Jewish families originally from Germany and Russia who settled here because of Britain’s famous reputation as a haven, and because it had been a fur centre for centuries, not least in the form of the Hudson’s Bay Company. It is still where much of the world’s trade in skins and the financing of manufacturing are organised. Jack knew that side of things intimately, but was himself more concerned with the domestic market: buying skins at New York or London auctions (the latter long defunct) and having them made (often, then, in the UK, but also in the US) into garments for sale to customers – from home or abroad – at his various shops. Behind the scenes, there was an even larger wholesale business, selling Zwirn garments to other shops.
Jack Zwirn was born in London in 1923, the second English generation of a family which had come from Austria. His father and uncle were successful skin merchants (another uncle traded in Paris). Jack might not have been a furrier. He trained for a while at a rabbinical college near Portsmouth, where – whilst undertaking the ritual cleansing of culinary equipment in the Solent – the wash from the passing HMS Hood nearly drowned him. Inclined to take things personally, he always said that it was unfair of so large and fearsome a vessel to try to get him. After a brief (and improbable) spell in the ranks in the RAF, Jack’s war was spent supplying sheepskin and furs for the armed forces, as a reserved occupation. It was a useful outlet for his skills, his intense patriotism and his love of profit. His mother’s sudden death in 1950, following a car crash in France, upset him deeply, and perhaps contributed to his loss of faith. Marriage to his first wife, Doris, who died in the 60s, produced three children, one of whom became a partner in the business. A falling out with this son arguably marked the beginning of Jack’s decline in business. As someone whose trade was heavily orientated toward retailing in the UK, in the 1980s he was also exposed to the new fearfulness engendered in his customers by anti-fur protest.
In his last years he had a small shop in George Street, W1 which he called Mishiga, in ironic reference to the Hebrew word, “mishegas” – or “whacky, absurd, irrational”. By the time that business opened, it was indeed arguably crazy to have a fur shop. It was all a far cry from the years when he had a huge shop in Wigmore Street, proudly bearing the name, “Zwirn”. Later, he also had another, called Zhivago in homage to the fur-drenched movie hit of the day. These places were visited by stars as Joan Collins, Ingrid Bergman, Vera Lynn, and Wendy Hiller. Roald Dahl visited to buy for his wife, the actress Patricia Neil; the singer Jack Jones came with Susan George. Barry White (a bad payer) came with his large entourage. The flashier sort of tycoon liked to come to buy for their wives and mistresses (purchases for the latter requiring diplomacy). An early Bond film was kitted out. There was a smattering of “county” people, too.
[This para is not in the Independent’s version, I think] This was a period when Jack’s best friend, Denis Grosvenor, had the fur concession in Harrods (campaign pressure shut it down in the mid-80s, but Grosvenor had much wider fur interests, especially in Canada, which prospered until his death – also from cancer – in 1992). Lady Docker would be shopping for fur at Chiberta, owned by Michel Gracial (a cultured man, and a hero of the wartime Resistance). The country’s aristocrats went to the Queen’s furrier, Calman Links, in Knightsbridge, then owned by Joseph Links, the author of thrillers and a very famous guide to Venice. (That shop shut in 2001, in part under the pressure of behind-the-scenes vicious campaigning.)
No philosopher, Jack hated the anti-fur protestors mostly – one felt – because he could not conceive how anyone could fail to share in the joyousness of the trade he himself loved so much. A younger generation of furrier came to dominate the councils of the trade, and conducted their PR and lobbying in a more sophisticated way. Jack’s irascibility, and perhaps his anger at being yesterday’s man, made his relations with the new generation a little awkward. But it was amazing how many people would fetch up at his shop for a picnic lunch of pastrami and scandal about the trade.
He was a man who enjoyed giving hospitality almost more than receiving it.
Jack was not a cultured man. The catchiest bits of opera were great, on the record player. Noel Coward in cabaret was all the theatre he needed. Sinatra, seen often, in London or Las Vegas, was his idea of heaven. He owned bits of racehorses, for the sheer fun and swank of it. A succession of cars – Rolls’, Jaguars, a Citroen-cum-Maserati and an Iso Rivolta (the last seldom worked) – were his playthings, bought and sold on a whim.
Jack was not a man for the outdoors. His haunts were the best hotels and restaurants of New York, the French Riviera and nearly any Continental city. A walk that did not involve golf with convivial friends to trade and gossip with was so much wasted time. Hardly surprisingly, the farming and trapping that underpinned his trade were of no interest to him. He was no more squeamish or concerned about any of that than he was about the fowl whose livers were being stuffed for his prodigious consumption of foie gras, washed down with red wine – a meal which he liked even his last years when he was short of money.
His idea of rusticity was a visit to the Iles de Lerins, a little pine-scented archipelago off the coast of Cannes. But it had to be accompanied by a game of backgammon with [his] best friend, the very successful Anglo-Canadian furrier] Denis Grosvenor as they moored for lunch on modest gin palace, “Top Cat”, owned by the latter.
Not that he was grand. He was fond of having been the “king of the rabbit trade” – a fairly plebian business, if profitable. He enjoyed reminding the young that there had once been a useful line in cat’s fur, got from the RSPCA’s humane killing programme, and worn by the working classes as a “warmer” against aches and pains. He was completely without pretension, and until the final year or two of his life, when he couldn’t get out much, he was known and greeted affectionately by every sort of person around his West End haunts. He could be loud, abusive and difficult as a customer, but that didn’t stop restaurateurs treating him “like a King” (his delighted description of good service) as he insisted that no gravy or sauce pollute any dish which was set before him. He abhorred vegetables, except all-but-burnt chips. Long after he’d had to give up leaving massive tips, there were places where he could go and still be treated like royalty. [Not in the Independent: One Italian “trat” sent rare fillet of beef hamburgers round to his hospital bed, gratis, off and on throughout the long months of treatment in a sprawncy private hospital which a long-suffering insurance company coughed-up for, not without complaint. ]
In his last four years, a very sick man, he and his wife Deirdre (who nursed him at home, usually alone, right until the end) were host to a devoted, very mixed company of people, who tended to gather on a Friday night. Something of the Jewish Sabbath eve attended these suppers, but there was no religious symbolism or ritual, and several non-Jews and confirmed atheists were regulars. But even when it was a matter of tubes, zimmer frames and bags and pills – all the accoutrements of disease management and old age – they were warm and hilarious. In pain, Jack would hold his guests’ hand and declare himself completely in love with each of them. Those who loved him back, lost him, really, only in the last month or two – when it was a relief that he was awash with pain-killers, wine, and whisky.
Jacob Zwirn, known always as Jack, born 22 April, 1923 in London; died 5 March 2004 in London
Married first, Doris Rosen, in the mid 1940s, by whom there were three children. Doris died in 1965. Two marriages followed, and he is survived by his children and third wife, Deirdre.