HUDSON FALLS — Lewella Wendell always made sure Eleanor Roosevelt and Paul Newman were impeccably dressed.
The 97-year-old woman, who celebrated her birthday Dec. 17, reminisced recently about her nearly 80-year career as a seamstress, which sometimes included rubbing elbows with VIPs.
In her early 20s, Wendell was a sample maker in the dress sewing division at the premiere McMullen-Leavens Co. on Lawrence Street known as The Shirt Factory and was selected to fit former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt around 1942 for her “morning-wear” dresses during one of her many visits to Glens Falls.
“She had to have them made special because she was a very tall, angular lady and (McMullen-Leavens) had special patterns they made for her. She just couldn’t go and buy something like that,” Wendell said.
Twelve years ago, Wendell granted an oral history interview to Thomas K. Simpson, a consultant hired by the Chapman Historical Museum to curate its exhibit, “Hometown at Work: The McMullen-Leavens Company.”
According to a transcript from that interview, provided by co-consultant and author/historian Teri Podnorszki Ulrich Gay, Wendell told Simpson Roosevelt stayed “incognito” at a friend’s home that once stood near the Portland Cement Co. on Warren Street. Wendell was brought to the house by a co-worker to take the First Lady’s measurements.
Once everything was recorded, she went back to the factory where other seamstresses made the sleeves, top and skirt. Wendell was responsible for piecing everything together. She thinks the dresses sold for about $25 each at the time.
“That was an expensive dress,” Wendell said.
On every trip, Roosevelt ordered about four of the shirtwaist-style dresses with a loose skirt. They had rolled sleeves and buttons down the front.
Wendell reflected fondly on meeting the First Lady and said she treated her like a “queen.”
“She was a very gracious lady in every way. She praised me for my knowledge and things like that, you know, that made me feel good at that age,” Wendell said with a smile. “Not attractive in any way other than how she spoke to you. She was absolutely wonderful.”
During her time at the factory, Wendell met with McMullen-Leavens’ head designer, Dorothy Cox, who stopped at the young seamstress’ work station on the second floor. Cox asked Wendell to make up a sample of her innovative “action sleeves” that would allow for easier arm movement in its line of ladies’ golf shirts.
Wendell made up the sample but it never was incorporated into the McMullen apparel line, according to her conversation with Simpson.
She stayed at the factory for only a few years. She was raising a young son on her own and the pay at McMullen wasn’t very good.
Wendell began in-home sewing for customers, while also occasionally training teachers who taught sewing classes for Singer Sewing Machine Company.
Her reputation for fine work spread quickly and she established a long-time home business making suits and gowns for many area doctors’ wives. She also specialized in wedding dresses.
One of Wendell’s favorite memories is of sewing for a bridal party she never met. She was charged with making the dresses for a bride, attendants and both mothers in Texas, working only from measurements they sent her. She was thrilled when the bride mailed pictures so she could see the results of her labor.
“It was beautiful,” she said. “I got a little puffed up over it. And the little girls, they looked like little dolls.”
In her later years, Wendell began wintering in Englewood, Florida. She was hired to work in a dry cleaning/sewing/alterations shop in Boca Grande, a tony community on Gasparilla Island that was home to many celebrities. She said she used to see Katharine Hepburn riding a bicycle around the island wearing an old hat.
According to Wendell, actor Paul Newman came into the shop one day in his “grubbies” to have his shirts dry cleaned.
“He’d tie a rope around his waist to hold up his pants,” Wendell said with a chuckle. “He dressed like that because that’s the way they liked to be on the island. They could do what they wanted and nobody cared.”
Wendell said Newman asked her and the shop owner if they would be willing to make him some pants. He brought in a pair of old pants as a pattern and gave them cream-colored English flannel to use.
Wendell ended up making Newman four pairs, with the requisite button flies.
“It tickled me so because he didn’t want zippers. I used to tease him, ‘you put button flies on and you never let me fit you,’ ” Wendell said with a giggle. “He was such a gentleman and in a very nice way he’d tease me about something like a kid brother.”
Wendell was saddened when Newman died in 2008. She said she was never star struck but just appreciated his friendship. She still keeps about 10 yards of the fabric she said was used for his garments wrapped in a plastic bag on a shelf in her basement. Newman told her to keep it after the pants were finished.
“I think of it as still his. I had hoped to sometime make a suit or something, but I don’t know what will become of it. I never had anything related to anybody,” Wendell said. “I like to rub it sometimes.”
Wendell no longer travels to Florida in the winter. She was still sewing up until a year and a half ago when a stroke disabled her right side. She misses sewing terribly.
“Don’t even talk to me about it,” she said.
Wendell estimates over the years, in addition to everyday wear, she created about 200 wedding gowns and 150 prom dresses. Her closet is filled with her own expertly tailored blazers, jackets and woolen dress coats. She reveres the fur jacket that was given to her in appreciation by a Lake George client.
“I’ve had it for years, I wear it. I love it. It always looks brand new,” she said.
Wendell wishes to remain independent for as long as she can. She continues to live in her Hudson Falls home and is checked on regularly by her 77-year-old son and his wife.
If she is able to get a ride, she attends Harrisena Community Church in Queensbury and occupies “her” seat, the same one she has had for 54 years. Wendell joked that a plaque should be placed on the back of it.
She loves hearing her friends compliment her lovely clothes and said she has always taken pride in how she looks. On the day of this interview, her hair and makeup were perfect and she looked becoming in a purple and black slacks outfit with matching purple scarf. She misses wearing heels but ballet flats won’t trip her up when she uses her walker.
Wendell said she wishes other people cared as much about their appearance. She believes they are willing to put up with inferior workmanship.
The colors and choice of fabrics are “hideous” and nothing is meant to last, she believes.
“It’s the biggest pile of junk I’ve seen in my life,” she said.
Wendell, however, is proud that what she produced was wearable and stood the test of time. She looks back on her career without regrets.
“I didn’t earn a wonderful living, I never charged nearly enough for my work, I realize that now, but that’s why I had so much of it, I think. People knew I did good work and nothing has ever had to be done over,” Wendell said. “I have to think it’s been good and I’m proud for so many things I made.”