by Megan Vered (San Rafael, CA)
The shop, narrow as a stick of Doublemint gum, was owned by Anna Bentley and her husband Oscar, originally from Bratislava, Slovakia. Their last name had once been Buchinger, but in 1939, after the Nazi invasion, they fled to England where they changed their name and opened a corset shop. Mrs. Bentley had been a corsetière in Vienna before marrying Oscar, helping women curve in all the right places. Being up close and personal with women was her sweet spot. In 1951, she brought her old-world skills across the ocean when she and her husband emigrated to Berkeley. They opened their store just as I was coming of age, ripe fruit for the picking. Mrs. Bentley had a home operation where she and her team of workers, which included her daughter and friends, dyed fabrics and garments in every shade of the rainbow. Tie-dye was all the rage. Until then, I’d been stuck with the ho-hum underwear selection at JC Penny’s; Bentley’s took the experience of shopping for lingerie to a glitzy new level.
“You must fall into it, dahlink,” Mrs. Bentley commanded in a thick central European accent. She had swished open the dressing room curtain without asking permission, and now stood directly behind me, her teapot frame swaddled in too-tight clothing. There she was in the mirror, tiny teeth square as Scrabble tiles and the faint hint of a mustache on her upper lip. Her hands cupped my budding breasts. “Lean over and fall into it.” She urged me forward, peppermint breath hot on my neck.
Once I righted myself, Mrs. Bentley’s sure palms smoothed the bottom of the barely discernible cups. She adjusted the straps with an efficient tug. “There. Much better.” She stood back and admired her handiwork, lips forming a confident knot. I couldn’t imagine that my breasts were anywhere near as glorious as those of the sophisticated, shapely girls who shopped there. I did my best, in my lavender lace, to adopt a 28 AA sense of cool. My body was still under construction, but in the dimly lit dressing room, I could almost imagine a day when I would have meaningful curves.
So caught up in the insecurity of my own reflection, I failed to see the tragedy in Mrs. Bentley’s eyes as she shaped and shifted my budding bosom. Eighty-five percent of the Slovakian Jews were murdered by the Germans, which included Anna and Oscar Bentley’s parents and close relatives, although I understand that a handful of them made it to Palestine. I never thought to probe into Mrs. Bentley’s past or that of any other older Jew in my community. If my mother was aware of Anna Bentley’s back story, she never said a word. Even though we were expected to watch devastating black and white films in Sunday school, there was a collective hush when it came to acknowledging those who had brushed shoulders with the Holocaust. It would be years before I would realize that people I saw every day at temple, the grocery store, the pharmacy, had fled Europe, lost family, or had a number tattooed on their arm.
Perhaps by surrounding themselves with color the Bentley’s washed away the heartbreak of history. Perhaps by tending to young girls like me on the brink of bloom they were able to forget, if only for one moment. Perhaps it brought a sense of repair to usher me and my friends into womanhood from the inside out, helping us become safe, secure, well-supported. Mrs. Bentley, whose dark wool skirts, modest blouses, and practical pumps read more school marm than sex goddess, brought a sense of daring identity into our young lives at a time when our knees wobbled with self-doubt.
Mrs. Bentley intimidated me with her weighty touch and stern eye, but at the same time she offered me a delicious opportunity to explore the boundaries of my femininity, an opportunity to break free from my mother’s secret, suffocating life. The endless hooks of her long-line bra, the wiggling to squeeze into the girdle, the painstaking unfurling of sheer stockings that clipped into garters. My teenage lingerie drawer was stacked with excitement, unlike my mother’s monochromatic drawer.
I lost track of Mrs. Bentley once I graduated from high school and moved away, but to this day, when my high school girlfriends and I get together someone invariably shimmies her bosom and cries, “You must fall into it dahlink!” We all remember the dozens of bras that dangled from Mrs. Bentley’s right wrist like colorful bangles as she bustled around the tiny store. She was always ready to size you up and had all the tools for a quick alteration. A worn, yellow measuring tape hung from her neck and a red pin cushion hugged her left wrist. Pins poked out from between her teeth like miniature pick-up sticks. We all remember the terror of being topless in her dressing room and the feel of her strict palms against our budding chests. And yet, in today’s faceless world of on-line and chain store shopping, there is no comparison to the personal touch we received as girls.
Anna Bentley died in 2009 at the age of 96, having outlived her husband by thirty-five years. I was just one of many giddy girls who visited her shop, one of many self-obsessed teenagers with no regard for her past. It is only now as I explore the contours of her life that I see a woman who saved herself and us by turning her sorrow into bursts of vibrant color.
Megan Vered is an essayist and literary hostess. Her essays and interviews have been published in Kveller, The Rumpus, the Maine Review, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and the Writer’s Chronicle, among others. Her essay Requiem for a Lost Organ was long listed for the Disquiet 2022 Literary Prize and she was a finalist for the Bellingham Review’s 2021 Annie Dillard Award for Creative Nonfiction. She holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Megan lives in Marin County, where she leads local and international writing workshops and serves on the board of the UC Berkeley Library and Heyday Books. Her memoir, A Dance to Remember, Confessions of a Medical Maid of Honor, is currently under review for publication.
3 responses to “How Mrs Bentley’s History Formed Me”
As the author of the recently released historical novel The Corset maker (inspired by my mother, also a Jewish corsetiere and survivor from Warsaw, Poland,) I was very moved by this essay. The instructions Mrs. Bentley gave her young customers, her privacy curtain and her exacting eye were so reminiscent of my mother’s tiny shop in post WWII Łódź, Poland. Thank you Megan Vered for sharing your experience.
Fabulous essay, brilliantly-written slice of life, rendered as only Megan can do.
I had that wonderful bikini underwear in every jewelled colour. So many Danskin leotards. Most memorable was trying on bras and Mrs. Bentley ripping the curtain open to expose my 12 year old body. One of the best stores in Berkeley. I still catch myself with Bentleys snapshots. Steph, Paula and I lived there.