Updated: Oct 7, 2019
I first met Umberto Autore in 1967. I was a 17-year old kid working after school as a sales clerk in Men’s Wear, at the Broadway department store in Long Beach, California. The store did not have a tailor on-site, so whenever a gentleman customer needed an alteration I escorted him, a few stores away in the Los Altos shopping center, to John’s Men’s Shop, where a young Italian guy fitted the garment and made the necessary adjustments. He was always perfectly turned out, favored strong cologne, and always greeted me with a million-dollar smile and the words, “how can I help you, young man?”
Eventually he opened his own clothing shop across Bellflower Boulevard, and gave it his own name, Umberto. I used to drop in, usually when there was 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 home, forty years had somehow passed.
One day I needed a suit altered and figured I’d take it to Umberto. There he was, handsome and jovial as ever, unchanged except for a head of splendid white hair. He greeted me the usual way, “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 designer jeans. I think he threw in a tie at no charge. Umberto was not only a master tailor he was a master salesman. As I wrote him a check, I told him so.
“That is how I survived. I was raised by nuns and Nazis!” He looked at me. “You think I’m joking? It’s true.”
That had to be a good story and I wanted to hear it.
“Okay. You got a minute? Come and sit down.”
He poured some fresh-brewed coffee into a Styrofoamcup, added two heaping teaspoons of Coffee-mate,handed it to me and said, “Here, have a cappuccino.” Without skipping a beat he continued, “Can you believe this? I arrived at 10 this morning and had two customers already waiting at the door. Three minutes later, four more arrived. They come from all over. You know why? I’m the only one who knows how to custom tailor anymore. I’m so busy I hardly have time to breathe!”
What about his story? I was in suspense! Nuns and Nazis? He was happy to tell me all.
Umberto takes as much time as he needs to perfectly fit a suit or tell the story of his life. The latter activity took nearly four years in which I recorded interviews with him at what became regular Thursday night dinners. Umberto told of his early childhood during the Second World War, and his remarkable story progressed from there. I knew I had to write it down. Unquestionably he is the hero of the tale; therefore, I wrote it from his point of view. Still, I researched available historical sources in order to correlate as much as possible Umberto’s vivid memories with essential facts of the period.
The purpose of this book was to depict a triumph of the human spirit during last century’s most devastating war. A sequel could be written about the success this man has achieved in America ever since; about his iconic men’s store, Umberto International Clothier, entering its sixth decade of business in Long Beach, of which Umberto is justifiably proud.
Umberto’s primary devotion, however, is to his family-- his beloved wife, Rosanna, whose strength, support and love sustained Umberto during their marriage of forty-nine years until her death in 2008. She provided Umberto with a big, beautiful Italian-American family of his own. Together they raised four wonderful and successful children, and three grandchildren.