By John Lavitt
There is nothing like a dream to create the future.
From a traditional perspective, when a man mentions the hero in his family, he tends to be referring to his father. Although I love and respect my father, I must admit I do not fall in line with this classic stereotype.
Ever since I was a young man, the hero in my family has been my mom. Beyond being a loving and present mother, Wendy Lavitt created an inspiring career as an American folk art dealer and antiques writer. But she did not enter this brave new world of writing and antique dealing by leaving the children and the home behind. Instead, she brought us right along with her. Throughout the latter part of my childhood when her work adventure began, I always felt part of the journey. In my memory, as my mother's career grew to such an extent that she eventually was included in Who's Who in America, I was right by her side, sharing in her boundless enthusiasm for antiques and American folk art.
So how did a Manhattan housewife go from painting T-shirts at school bake sales to opening stores on Madison Avenue, authoring coffee table books, curating museum shows and lecturing on American folk art across the country? All passions must ignite, so here is the spark. In 1978, the American Folk Art Museum sponsored an antique show at the famous Armory in New York City. The museum hired a relatively unknown caterer named Martha Stewart who transformed the Armory into a barnyard setting, with live chickens in coops, and bales of hay. Describing the scene as "a feast to behold," my mom was entranced by the display booths overflowing with Americana from weathervanes to folk dolls. On the spot, she decided this was the world she wanted to be a part of for the rest of her life. She has never looked back.
Do not think the road, however, was easy and smooth because it took a lot of hard work and some wrong turns to transform the initial spark into a fire. Wendy began her journey with a combination of collecting as a neophyte antiques dealer and writing for trade publications. Although her first article, for which she was paid seventy-five dollars, was accepted by a little magazine in Iowa called Antiques Journal, the collecting did not always go so well. All families have classic stories, and we have the legend of the pipe stand. An early purchase, the pipe stand remained for several years in Wendy's collection. I would lug it back and forth to the antique shows where it never was close to being purchased. Upon its return to our house, my father would shake his head and laugh, believing my mother's new passion was headed for oblivion.
My mother always paid me what seemed like a lot to a young teenager to be the official lugger. Although I initially came along because of my desire to buy more comic books, I soon grew to share her passion for collecting.
Although the antiques collected were hit and miss in the beginning, the shows she chose to attend could be even more vexing. I remember tagging along for a show in the parking lot of Shea Stadium. As my mother set up her booth, things seemed a bit off to me. Nobody else really had antiques, and most of the vendors were selling junk. I will never forget when a woman picked up an antique tea set and looked at the price on the bottom label. She snorted, "Fifty cents is too much, but I will give you a quarter for it." My mom snatched it out of her hands with the exclamation, "This piece costs fifty dollars and is from New England in the early nineteenth century. It's almost two hundred years old!" By the end of that day, not a single piece had been sold. Heads bowed, we packed up the pipe stand and headed home.
I began to appreciate her perseverance even if I had to carry all the heavy furniture on each trip. This trail of early rising, many miles, and small profits eventually led to her Holy Grail when my mother opened up a store called Made In America in 1981. It contained a vibrant display of the best of Americana, overflowing with folk art and antique quilts. For four years, it did excellent business and helped my mother reach the next pinnacle of her career. Since her first publication, Wendy had continued writing articles on folk art for various magazines. Using her formidable networking skills, she translated this early success into a book deal with Alfred A. Knopf.
In 1982, Wendy's first coffee table picture book, American Folk Dolls, was published to excellent reviews, including in Timemagazine and New York Magazine. At last, she felt she had arrived in mainstream America. The publication led directly to her curating a museum show, "Children's Children: American Folk Dolls," at the American Folk Art Museum in New York City in 1983.
Never resting on her laurels, this initial success led my mom to a long career of publishing and lecturing. Wendy has published five other books, including Animals in American Folk Art andContemporary Pictorial Quilts. As my mother researched her books, she often needed to visit various museums in New England. On the pretext of taking me to camp in Maine, we headed up the coast, stopping at antique fairs and historical societies. To bolster my lagging enthusiasm, she promised to stop at any amusement park we passed on the way and even go on the dreaded roller coaster with me. She recalls that one in Rhode Island almost did her in.
Wendy has gone on to publish countless magazine articles and curate a number of museum shows. Her courage is reflected in the choice she made when she decided to have cosmetic surgery in 1987. She wrote an article about her face-lift for Salt Lake Magazine that included a thirty-day diary of her recovery. She believed she could help other women make the right choice in regards to cosmetic surgery by being open. Arguably, she had one of the most public face-lifts at a time when most women preferred to keep them veiled in secrecy.
Wendy was a stay-at-home mom throughout her early career. She always was present for her husband and children, and in fact just celebrated her forty-ninth wedding anniversary. As her son, I do not recall a single time when I ever resented her choice to go for her passion. Rather, I am so proud of what she has accomplished. By finding a precise balance between her career and her family, my mother enriched my life by making me part of the journey she has taken since that fateful day in 1978. Yes, my mother is my hero, and I hope to be able to emulate her success, her passion and her determination in my ventures. Wendy's success reveals a wonderful truth — it is possible to have it all.