NEW YORK — Ernest Graf, an immigrant who escaped Nazi Germany and rose to become a leader in the American fur industry, died Sunday at his Upper East Side home here. He was 83.
The cause of death was pancreatic cancer, according to his son, Edward, who heads up the family business, Ben Kahn Furs. Admired for his encyclopedic knowledge, athletic pursuits and youthful spirit, Graf worked six days a week until his illness recurred three months ago.
Born in Nuremberg, Germany, Graf went on to serve as a master sergeant and meteorologist in the U.S. Air Force from 1941 to 1945.
When his father realized the situation with Hitler was escalating around 1933, he got word to the then-teenage Graf and his brother to sneak out of their summer camp in Germany, meet family friends at the Swiss border and from there, travel to Amsterdam. In a recent journal, he wrote, “Rudy and I left Germany by bikes, and crossed the border at Konstanz to Kreuzlinger. Three weeks earlier, I swam across Lake Constance.”
From Amsterdam, a family relative, Carl Laemmle, who was then head of Universal Pictures, made arrangements for the Grafs to relocate to the U.S., eventually settling in the Washington Heights section of New York.
During a 2001 interview, Graf said, “I am a very active person. I try to make the most of every day and don’t like sitting or being in one place for very long.”
An avid reader, Graf belonged to three or four book clubs at one time. After reading about the University of Chicago’s Great Books class in the Fifties, Graf adopted the curriculum and set up his own book club that carried on for 50-plus years. Graf’s group was believed to be the oldest book club in the U.S.
A member of the James Joyce Society, Graf was reading “Finnegan’s Wake” prior to his passing. He was also an opera buff and read to the blind weekly. Last spring, Graf, a cousin of Albert Einstein, said he was eager to take his granddaughter to the extensive Einstein exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History. “I think she’s ready,” he explained of the two-year-old.
His athletic pursuits were equally challenging, from dogsledding in Alaska and Greenland to completing his first triathlon at the age of 81. A devoted skier, Graf and his son heli-skied in the Canadian Rockies and, at the tender age of 75, he tackled New Hampshire’s Tuckerman’s Ravine, a treacherous rite of passage for skiers that can only be reached by hiking. A member of the 80-Plus Ski Club, Graf often skied on Wednesdays, which were free for octogenarians. Sundays were dedicated to cycling 40 to 70 miles.
After graduating from what was then CCNY, Graf used a three-day pass from the army to wed Rhoda Kahn, a fellow New Yorker. The marriage gave him the opportunity to join her family’s business, Ben Kahn Furs. He rose through the ranks, learning the sales side and eventually becoming president of Ben Kahn Furs.
Halston and Valentino were two of the designers Ben Kahn worked with over the years. Elizabeth Taylor, Jackie Onassis, Barbra Streisand, Muhammad Ali, Reggie Jackson and Walt Frazier were some of the celebrities he dressed along the way.
“The thing about Ernie is, he developed this huge celebrity clientele. But when he was around, they felt he was the celebrity,” said his daughter-in-law, Ann Graf.
Steve Gold, the North American director of Saga Furs, said Graf suited up stars decades before magazines would chronicle celebrities’ fashion appeal. “At a time when fur was popular but not merchandised in a modern way, Ernie understood the importance of public relations,” Gold said. “He was not just a great furrier, but also a great promoter.”
In 1975 when Saga was ready to do its first national advertising campaign, the group arranged for Richard Avedon to shoot Ernie Graf and his wife, Rhoda. Gold said, “I wanted to find the furrier with the biggest and best personality in the U.S. We played off the burgeoning reputation of Ben Kahn Furs.”
During the sitting in Avedon’s studio, Graf attempted to tie his necktie in the traditional way instead of the “folded-over” Seventh Avenue style popular at that time, which triggered a few laughs, Gold said.
“Ernie made that campaign, which won a number of awards,” Gold continued. “He kept that picture on a dresser in his bedroom.”
Industry publicist Sandy Blye recalled an incident when she was hailing a cab on Second Avenue a year or so ago and eyed a cyclist headed straight toward her. “I thought, ‘This guy is going to run into me,’” Blye said. “Then he stops a foot in front of me, takes off his helmet and it’s Ernie. He laughed, ‘I knew you thought I was a kid messenger.’”
Stanley Schulman, president of Alixandre Furs, said, “He really was one of the mentors in the fur business when I first entered 51 years ago. He and his father-in-law were the pinnacles of the fur industry.”
In addition to his wife of 63 years and son, Graf is survived by two daughters, Julie McGovern and Ellen Power. No funeral services will be held. A reading of Graf’s preferred prose and memorial bike ride is planned for April 18. It will follow his favorite path alongside the Hudson River.