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Keeping the Faith

NEW YORK — Faith Keane Reichert is a lively, energetic and opinionated woman who is a former copywriter, television host and New York University marketing professor. In her retirement, she has kept up with her many interests, which include the...

NEW YORK — Faith Keane Reichert is a lively, energetic and opinionated woman who is a former copywriter, television host and New York University marketing professor. In her retirement, she has kept up with her many interests, which include the Roundtable of Fashion Executives, a group of fashion people she and some friends founded in 1949 when they felt that the Fashion Group had become too big, so large that it was no longer possible to get to know people.

But Reichert is a bit different from even the most enterprising of retirees. The reason: She was born in 1901. That isn’t a typo.

These days, she has a little trouble getting around and must use a walker. But otherwise, her health is excellent. What makes Reichert even more remarkable is the fact that she comes from a family of four siblings, all of whom are still alive and doing well. She calls her 93-year-old brother her “baby brother.” Her 99-year-old brother still runs his own law firm with his two sons.

Then there are she and her sister, who, she says, are “polar opposites.” Her sister, for example, always has regular mealtimes and knows exactly what she needs to eat to maintain her health. Reichert, who doesn’t like to eat, says she has “no idea” what’s important in a healthy diet. She also smoked for 80 years. In a recent checkup, however, her lungs were completely clear. She says she only stopped smoking because she had to have a hip replacement, and lighting up wasn’t allowed in the hospital.

After her husband, Philip, a prominent cardiologist, died in 1985, Reichert did a great deal of traveling. She has a photograph of herself dancing on one of her trips to Egypt. That evening, she had asked a stooped-looking elderly man sitting nearby how old he was. He said, “Oh, very old,” and finally admitted to being 72. In the photograph, she looks as if she’s in her early 50s, but she was in her late 80s at the time.

If this youthfulness and family background sound unusual, it is — enough so that she and her siblings are being studied by both the Albert Einstein and Harvard medical schools. The doctors think that there may be a genetic reason for the fact that these four siblings (which they believe to be the only group of four in this situation in the U.S.) have enjoyed such long, healthy lives. They are hoping, of course, to find a genetic marker that might one day reap benefits for others.

Reichert, however, gives no indication of her age in a conversation that covers her many intellectual and fashion interests. But then, she has always been forward-looking.

In 1951, she was working for the Alden’s catalogue, which at that time was the third largest in the country. Elsa Schiaparelli was around, and Reichert came up with the idea of Schiap doing a capsule wardrobe for the catalogue, which would feature five looks, one to be shown on the cover. The two met and hit it off. The designer agreed to do the project if the money could be arranged. So Reichert went out to the Midwest to meet with her board of directors to get their approval and finalize the financial details. Unfortunately, none of the members of the board was in fashion; they’d never heard of Schiaparelli, and they didn’t like her name. Reichert’s brilliant idea was summarily vetoed.

Other rendezvous came off a bit better. One day, in the infancy of television, Reichert was watching a program that featured a fashion show with a man doing commentary. She thought the narration was so inept that she called the station to complain. She ended up talking with a producer, who suggested that she have lunch with him, and he offered her her own program. The show was called “F.Y.I.,” and its premise was that women would write in asking a question on a postcard. If the same question came up 15 times, Reichert would do a program on it, using an expert to unravel the conundrum for an hour. At the time, she says, the taboo words and topics included “sex,” “breasts” and “cancer.”

For Reichert, what’s changed most during her long life is the social mores regarding sex and intimacy. “You must realize that, when I came to Cornell in 1922, I had never seen a passionate public kiss,” she says. “There was no radio and television. You would never have seen that in my day. Being pregnant in public was regarded as too intimate. In my generation, if we had a date with a man, the idea that it would end up with a kiss was entirely too intimate. Since I was at Cornell during Prohibition, that meant that certain illegal activities were good. So you would expect us to be very free sexually, but that freedom to break the law [about alcohol] had nothing to do with any freedom about sexual relations.” She did, however, touch on all of TV’s taboos in a groundbreaking television program on breast cancer. In 1952, at the end of her first year of hosting “F.Y.I.,” she received a special microphone award, the precursor to the Emmy.

The next day, she resigned. While Reichert enjoyed doing television, in those early days, the schedules of presenters were particularly taxing. She quit because she hadn’t had a vacation for a year, and because, one evening, a top administrator at NYU had asked if she would teach a marketing course at its business school. It seems they had no one to teach it, and the school was overrun by men who were attending classes on the G.I. Bill. Reichert’s husband was delighted, negotiating her contract so that she would have two months off every summer, and they could go on vacation.

Reichert had other jobs, too. She was the fashion editor of Liberty Magazine. As early as the time when she first went up to Cornell, she created her own position when she realized that she had brought the wrong clothes to school with her and she suggested to a local department store, Stern’s, that they set up classes to tell young women what to take to college. She was involved in setting up the Camp and Campus Shop there, which also gave advice about camps for children.

Reichert is keen to let people know how junior sizes were developed. She says that a woman named Helen Valentine was the editor in chief of Seventeen at the time, and she had the idea that manufacturers should cut clothes differently for young girls. So she went to St. Louis and approached manufacturers about creating clothes cut on the new size lines. As an inducement, she offered them free advertising in her publication for six months. Several accepted, and a whole new fashion frontier opened.

Lately, one of Reichert’s notions is that the designer Paul Poiret is underestimated in comparison with Chanel, because he achieved much more. Specifically, he took women out of corsets — a monumental achievement, since corsets had been an integral part of women’s dress for millennia. It would surprise no one who knows her to hear that Reichert is pursuing and researching this idea with the energy of a 25-year-old.