Mamie’s Purse

For an inaugural ball, a victim of war created an evening bag for the First Lady of a war hero

"This is ridiculous," exclaimed a frustrated chief of security as the well-dressed crowd pushed and shoved to get a better view of the famous couple. "You’ve seen Presidents before."

"We’ve never seen one like this before," an eager woman responded.

The year was 1953. Under a waning moon, Dwight D. Eisenhower and his wife, Mamie, arrived at their first inaugural ball, the final event of one of the longest days in the history of Presidential inaugurations. Inside the National Guard Armory in Washington, D.C., blue and gray fabric draped all four walls, gold bunting with white stars bordered the ceiling and chandeliers wrapped in gold cast a soft light on gleaming floors.

The First Lady sparkled under the lights, dressed in a pale pink peau de soie gown studded with rhinestones and wearing matching gloves. Her dress caused a stir when the press glimpsed a photograph of her modeling it days before the ball. In her hand she carried a small, rounded silk pouch, the same pale pink as the dress. It was the most remarkable part of her outfit. With its overlay of pink lace reembroidered with pearls and rhinestones, and its double rhinestone closure, the bag was an unlikely testament to everything President Eisenhower had fought for.General Eisenhower’s role in the defeat of fascism in Europe eight years earlier had helped carry him to this moment. Mrs. Eisenhower exuded a unique brand of glamour tempered by a Midwestern practicality that many found irresistible. The couple represented a new era of possibility at a time when America’s role in the world was greatly expanding. The crowd cheered wildly at their arrival at the inaugural ball, and throughout the evening they couldn’t keep their eyes off of them, virtually ignoring the celebrity performers.

The pairing of First Lady and bag was poignant because the bag’s creator might not have survived the war had it not been for soldiers like General Eisenhower. "While he was trying to save Europe and the world, my family and I were trying to survive," Judith Leiber, the bag’s designer, now says. And both the new President and the designer had flourished in the war’s aftermath.

"Making the bag was a great honor, and I made a second inaugural bag for her when Eisenhower was reelected," Leiber says. At the time of Eisenhower’s first election, Leiber worked for the designer Nettie Rosenstein who, after calling upon her best artisans, gave the gown and bag to Mrs. Eisenhower. It would be ten years from Mamie Eisenhower’s first inaugural ball before Leiber began designing bags that bore her own name, but from then on almost no First Lady would be without one.

Founding her own company in 1963 marked a turning point in Leiber’s designs. Her more recent signature pieces are known as minaudières—small, beaded cases in whimsical shapes, such as polar bears, roses, pigs and watermelon slices.

Despite her success, Leiber did not exactly choose her career path. She was born Judith Peto in Budapest, where her father, Emil Peto, worked in a bank and later in the jewelry business. In 1939 she traveled to London and was accepted to King’s College where, at her parents’ urging, she planned to study chemistry. She went home to Budapest to visit her family before returning to England for her first semester. World War II broke out before the summer was over, putting an end to her studies.

Although Hungary was a reluctant ally of the Nazis, throughout much of the war it had one of the highest concentrations of Jews left in Europe. As the war progressed, professional employment became increasingly limited for Jews, artisan guilds being one of the few avenues left open to them. A vague interest in handbags and a strong eye for color prompted Judith Peto to apply to the handbag-makers guild in Budapest, the first woman to do so. She was accepted, and started out sweeping the floor and cooking the glue. She would complete all three stages of her guild training—apprentice, journeyman and master—before the war ground to a finish in May 1945.

In March 1944 a special unit of the German Army moved into Hungary to begin rounding up Jews living in rural areas and subjecting those in Budapest to increasing persecution. By July 1944, the Germans had deported to death camps 437,000 Hungarian Jews, primarily from outside the cities.

At first, the Peto family stayed in the Jewish Community house, where the two daughters mended underpants for Jewish men, a job that was considered important enough to keep the Peto girls from being deported. Through a friend in the Swiss legation, Mr. Peto acquired a Swiss schutzpass, a document that gave the bearer safe passage. Soon the family moved to the Swiss house. Unfortunately, the pass was only for Mr. Peto.

"The son of a neighbor found that my father’s pass was written on an Olympia typewriter, and he went around the building and another person had such a typewriter," Leiber recalls. "He added ‘and family,’ which saved our lives." But as Russian troops pounded Budapest, the Nazis became determined to eliminate the remaining Jews.

"When we were marched to the ghetto from the Swiss house where we were protected, we were not sure what our fate would be," Leiber says. "The Russians were shelling the city from the east, and the Germans knew they would have to retreat across the Danube toward the west and that their commander was going to kill all the Jews in the ghetto. [Swedish diplomat Raoul] Wallenberg went to see him and told him, ‘You kill the Jews and you will be hanged.’ So he desisted, but the Russians hanged him anyway."

After the war, Judith Peto started making handbags from her home and later at a little factory belonging to a friend. "I did all the work myself," she says. "Cutting the parts, paring the leather, putting all the sections that went into a bag together, sewing, turning if needed, filling out the interior after turning, framing, packing and sometimes even delivering it to the customer." She worked with limited materials, but eventually a couple of secretaries at the American legation helped her to sell her handbags to their coworkers. Women at the legation became important clients and the source of valuable American dollars. Her father taught her the essentials of business and later worked for her company until he was in his 80s.

In 1946 Judith Peto married American G.I. Gerson Leiber. She came to the United States with him the following year. Mrs. Leiber retired three years ago after selling her company. She estimates that she has created more than 3,000 different designs over 30 years. She is thankful for the good fortune that spared her immediate family during the horrors of World War II and has tried to put that part of her life behind her. "You know it happened, but you move on," she says. "In the end, I am here in America and it is wonderful."

Judith Leiber met Mamie Eisenhower once. The future First Lady was touring Nettie Rosenstein’s showroom. Mrs. Eisenhower would never know that she had met the creator of the evening bag that would help her sparkle under the soft lights of her first inaugural ball. She also did not realize that the evening bag, which now rests in an octagonal, smoked-glass case in the First Ladies Hall of the National Museum of American History, represented much more than just a permanent accessory to a historic moment.

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