I first met Umberto Autore in 1967. I was a 17-year old kid working after school as a sales clerk in the Men’s Wear department of the Broadway store, in Long Beach, California. Because there was no tailor on site, if a gentleman’s purchase required alteration, I would escort the customer to John’s Men’s Shop. There a young Italian guy, himself always dressed to the nines, fitted the garment and tailored it perfectly. Whenever I brought in work, he would greet me with a million-dollar smile and the words, “How can I help you, young man?” This was Umberto.
A few years later, he opened his own shop on Bellflower Boulevard, and named it Umberto. From time to time, I would drop in to the shop, usually during a clearance sale. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t a big spender, his greeting was the same and he treated me like his best customer. I lost touch when I went off to college, travelled and lived in other places, started a career, got married, and raised a family.
By the time I returned, forty years had somehow passed. One day, needing an alteration Itook it to Umberto. There he was, handsome and jovial as ever, unchanged except for his once-black hair, now splendid white.
He greeted me as usual, “How can I help you, young man?” The next thing I knew I had purchased a new suit, a sport coat, slacks, several shirts, and a pair of designer jeans. I think he threw in a tie at no charge. Umberto was not only a master tailor he was a master salesman. Writing the check, I told him so.
“That is how I survived. I was raised by nuns and Nazis! You think I’m joking? It’s true.”
There had to be a good story behind that teaser, and I wanted to hear it.
“Okay. You got a minute? Come and sit down.”
He poured fresh-brewed coffee into a Styrofoamcup, added two heaping teaspoons of Coffee-mate,handed it to me and said, “Here, have a cappuccino.” Then he took a seat and said happily, “Can you believe this? I arrived at 10 this morning, two customers already waiting at the door. Three minutes later, four more. They come from all over. You know why? I’m the only one who knows how to do custom tailoring anymore. I’m so busy I hardly have time to breathe!”
What about the story? I prodded. I was in suspense! Nuns and Nazis?
Umberto fits a suit and tells his story to perfection. For The nearly four years I recorded interviews at what became our Thursday night dinners. He related details of his early childhood during the Second World War and all that followed, I wanted to get it down in writing. I wanted to capture the trials he experienced and his strength, developing as he did into a successful and remarkable man.
Umberto is the hero of the tale I wrote. It’s his point of view. At the same time, I did as much research as I could to corroborate his memories. I fleshed out the characters je described all of whom played important parts in the story.
Umberto’s trajectory demonstrates how hard work, imagination, courage results in the triumph of the human spirit. As a boy he faced war; as a teenager he dealt with displacement and surprises. The story is that of a boy’s struggle to do more than merely survive – but rather, to become a good man. I see this story as a bildungsroman, that is, the story of a boy who begins unformed and takes a path to growth, maturity. His achievements are evident in every stitch at Umberto International Clothier. His years tailoring gorgeous creations for celebrities like Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack, Elvis Presley, Robert Goulet, and former Rams’ quarterback Vince Ferragamo, is another good story.