NEW YORK — To a large degree, Ernie Graf’s career mirrored his personal life, in that family and friends were the axis and adventure made the days spin.
His admirers gathered last month at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue here to pay tribute to Graf, the former president of Ben Kahn Furs, who died in January at the age of 83.
An immigrant who escaped Nazi Germany and served in the U.S. Air Force during World War II before becoming a leader in the American fur industry, Graf was remembered for his can-do attitude, encyclopedic knowledge and athletic pursuits. After the war, he worked as a skin dealer before joining Ben Kahn Furs, his wife Rhoda’s family business, and rose through the ranks.
An early proponent of public relations and advertising, Graf was widely known for his lively conversational skill and his fondness for the word “terrific.” Despite his unflinching optimism, Graf endured his share of difficulties — a labor strike in the Seventies, aggressive antifur protesters in the Eighties and the typical ebb and flow of a business that is hitched to cold weather.
In some ways, Graf’s approach to business was similar to his approach to life. His daughter, Ellen Power, recalled how he started skiing after he got out of the Army in 1945 and continued to do so into his 80s. She said, “No trail was too icy or too steep for him. ‘All you have to do is sidestep,’ he explained.”
His son, Eddie Graf, recalled how his father insisted on closing the showroom from noon to 1:30 p.m. every afternoon for lunch — a European practice he held onto. One afternoon, a “hunched-over” woman knocked on the showroom door during the company’s afternoon break and the receptionist tried to tell her they were closed, but Graf recognized the woman, let her in and ordered her a deli sandwich. “It was Barbra Streisand,” Graf said. “She cut off a piece of her hair and asked Ernie to make a coat to match it.”
Ernie Graf reeled in other top-notch celebrities, like Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, Martha Graham, Jackie Onassis, Mia Farrow, Patti LuPone and Muhammad Ali, said Jody Donohue, who helped him with p.r. over the years. Along with new furs, showroom visitors often indulged in Graf’s winding conversations, which would delve into family history, literature, religion and sports. Topics were as varied as his personal interests, which included belonging to three or four book clubs at one time, waterskiing backward and cycling 40 to 70 miles each Sunday, even as an octogenarian.
At Ben Kahn Furs, Graf placed fur in Broadway shows like “Evita,” “Grand Hotel” and “The Women,” as well as in such films as “Tootsie” and “Bullets Over Broadway.”
“Ernie spent his life on Seventh Avenue and he was a gentleman. I spent part of my life on Seventh Avenue, and I know how unusual it is to have a gentleman there,” Donohue said.
But that didn’t mean he wasn’t indestructible. His daughter-in-law, Ann Graf, recalled how he arrived at the showroom one day last fall looking pale and unsteady and needed to lie down. “I looked at him and said, ‘Ernie, are you dying?’ and he said, ‘Dahhh-ling, we all are.’”
Graf’s skiing partner, Eli Schoenberger, recalled how Graf made fur coats for the pair to ski in. “It was a little ostentatious, but the one thing we enjoyed was watching people watch us. We would see the eyes looking at us as codgers, but Ernie took every slope,” Schoenberger said. “I wore out two fur coats and now am on my third. It has nothing to do with the quality. Ernie pushed me — I literally wore them out.”
As another tip of the hat to Graf, after the memorial, about 30 of Sunday’s attendees pedaled along the Hudson River bike path, his favorite route.