NEW YORK — Ben Klein was once known along Seventh Avenue as “the little king,” which was not a reference to royal lineage but rather his general portage: short and temperamental.
During his career behind the sportswear house Junior Sophisticates, where designers such as Chuck Howard, Mary Ann Restivo and Klein’s first wife — fashion’s famous Anne —started out, Klein commanded a respect that was still fresh in the minds of those who recalled the life of the entrepreneur, who died on Monday at an assisted living center near Del Ray, Fla. He was 91.
If his rule was known to be at times unpleasant, associates of Klein also pointed out that working for Junior Sophisticates, which took off in the late Fifties and early Sixties, was like being part of a big family, and that he could also be magnificently generous to his friends. In one often-repeated story, he held a long-standing reservation at the P.J. Clarke’s, the Third Avenue pub, where a table for eight was held every Sunday until 9 p.m. for Klein to entertain his friends as they came back from weekends at the beach.
“They always had a line waiting outside and they held that table,” said Joan Levan, a retired president of Associated Dry Goods Marketing, who knew Klein through her husband, Marvin Levan, a veteran of Kasper A.S.L. when it was a division of the Leslie Fay Cos.
“He always picked up the check. He literally was the best host and the best at what he did in the industry. He was very successful.”
Others recalled that the restaurant might have been willing to hold the reservation because Klein on occasion would eject the poor customer who had mistakenly taken his table anyway, but John Pomerantz, chairman of Leslie Fay, said it was due to the weight of his personality.
“We just talked about girls,” Pomerantz recalled of those dinners.
At 5 feet 4 inches, Klein thus made an unforgettable impression on many designers and competitors.
“He was a tough little guy,” said Stan Herman, who designed Mr. Mort in the Fifties and found himself chasing the success of Junior Sophisticates. “He was not bad looking. If you had to draw a picture of what a wonderful, smart, good-looking Seventh Avenue guy might have been back then, it would have been Ben Klein, only he had to stretch and say he was five-four-and-a-quarter.”Klein met his match in Hannah Golofski, a child of Russian immigrants who was 5 feet 3 1/2 inches. She had designed dresses for several companies before marrying Ben Klein. They formed Junior Sophisticates in 1948 with Morris Waldman and Arthur Sommerfield, and carved a niche in American design that combined the sizing of traditional misses’ apparel with a youthful juniors spirit, churning out styles like an unbelted chemise dress and the “little boy” look.
Herman recalled that Ben Klein had virtually picked Anne, as she had then changed her name, out of a crowd, setting off a chain of events that would include the establishment of Anne Klein’s own design house following her separation from her first husband, and from there the start of the careers of designers such as Donna Karan, Louis Dell’Olio and Narciso Rodriguez.
“He was a force on Seventh Avenue,” Herman said. “He let her have the rope and she used it well. But they had a volatile relationship. I used to have drinks with them at Bill’s [a former Garment Center hangout] to talk about life and the pursuit of happiness, and they were always screaming at each other in this marvelous love-hate relationship. Their relationship was one of those legendary things, back when we didn’t have that many husband-and-wife teams, where the husband really put the wife out in front.”
Anne Klein’s temperament wasn’t much better. She fired Karan on one occasion, and back in her early days at Varden Petites, she fired Bill Blass, who once recalled her with an epithet generally reserved for female dogs. But Ben and Anne Klein managed to work well together, as Regina Gay Marcus remembered. A former fit model, she mostly worked with Anne, but noted that Ben was a constant presence at the offices when she was there from 1953 to 1964.
“He was very generous toward people that worked for him,” Marcus said. “Just like any human being, he could be ornery at times. During season, we’d run from one show to another, but no matter what happened, if we were two minutes late, he’d go into a rage. They didn’t call him ‘the little king’ for nothing.”Although the Kleins divorced in the early Sixties, she continued to work with him until she resigned in 1965, three years before she formed Anne Klein & Co. with her second husband, Chip Rubinstein. She was replaced at Junior Sophisticates by Restivo and a succession of other designers, but the company faded away just as Anne Klein developed into one of the most prominent sportswear businesses in the country, continuing a legacy well beyond her death in 1974.
Ben Klein remarried and had children, living in California for a few years before returning to a duplex near the United Nations, where his next-door neighbor was Johnny Carson. He fell on hard times in later years, but was living in Florida with his sister, Betty, Levan said. In addition to his sister, he is survived by two children, Jonathan and Jennifer, and a stepson, David.
Services are scheduled at the Beth David Cemetery in Elmont, N.Y., on Sunday at 10:30 a.m.
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