Irene Williams spent roughly 40 years walking most of the length of Lincoln Road, from her apartment at Michigan Avenue to the office where she worked as a stenographer in the Lincoln Building at Washington Avenue. She was a vision in so many bright colors and loud patterns in clothes she made herself. Irene Williams was someone you noticed.
Eric Smith noticed her while visiting one winter from New York. Smith created the popular E.G. Smith Socks in the 1980s, and he spent a lot of weekends in South Beach. He and Williams became friends quickly and remained close until she died in 2004. Smith's photos of her, a collection of her hats -- and her complaint letters -- are on display at the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU, (310 Washington Ave., Miami Beach, until Wednesday, Oct. 18. The exhibit is closing a couple weeks early because of Hurricane Irma.)
You can listen to our conversation here, and read it below. You can also watch Eric Smith's award-winning short documentary, "Irene Williams: Queen of Lincoln Road," below.
Do you remember the first time you saw Irene Williams?
Eric Smith: It was early in January of 1995. ... One day I noticed this little old woman dressed in hot pink. And then I noticed the next day she was there in lime green. And then the next day in orange, and then at that point I thought, "I want to meet this person." And the lovely thing is that when I first met her I had a small video camera on me at the time. I actually have recorded our very first meeting.
And that was January 25, 1995.
Yeah, there was a time stamp on the camera that I didn't turn off, which is great.
And that's how your film opens. You actually see that time stamp. What kinds of clothes drew you to her -- the clothing that she made? Can you describe some of that?
Well, she would choose bright colors, from head to toe: from the hats to the shoes, to the bag to the umbrella to the glasses and all the accessories. And these clothes were made out of terry cloth, out of fake fur, out of all these kind of wacky fabrics that she customized. They were all handmade and one of a kind -- and pretty do-it-yourself, not like haute couture, but in her own way, made with a lot of skill.
And with no patterns, she says in the film.
No patterns, all by instinct.
And there's the scene, I think it's the first day that you met her, she's wearing ...
The avocado outfit. So she had this outfit that was made out of avocado fake fur. I think there was a bag, a coat and a hat, and maybe some other little accessories. And she was telling me that she loved the color and she loved the fabric, but the only place she could find it was in the bathroom accessory department. So the hat was made from a commode cover, or toilet seat cover (laughing). And she turned it into her hat!
I was just interested in her more visually, and when she started to talk and I saw the creative, funny person inside, I just thought, "Oh there's someone in here that I'd like to get to know better." So I invited her to tea the next day.
And that started a 10-year friendship. … And then she wanted to know about my life, and about a month or two after we knew each other, I shared with her about being gay, and she goes, "Oh that's great. I thought so." She, you know, had an awareness about her.
How old were you the first time that you saw her, when you first became friends?
I must have been 38.
And how old was she?
You know, I never asked her age when I met her. And after about five years of knowing her pretty well, I said, "Irene, how old are you?" And she looked at me very sternly, and she said, "That's a question you just don't ask somebody." So at that point I kind of promised myself that I would not reveal her age or talk about her age.
But you did find out how old she was.
I did. I have to confess here on public radio that at one doctor's visit I did peek at her file (laughing) to look at her [birth] date, but I never told her, and I never shared her age. But recently when I realized that it was going to be the centennial of her birth, I thought, "OK, I think it's OK to talk about her age." She was in her late 70s when I met her.
Part of the exhibition includes a series of framed complaint letters. Who are they to and what was she complaining about?
Irene would travel and take these, like, package tours. So maybe the letter was to Greyhound (see photo in slideshow) -- and what she would do if she had a problem she would go to the library and she would find out who the president of Greyhound was, what their address was and what their slogan was. So she would start off the letter to the president and say something like, "Greyhound takes you across America." And then she would go in her next sentence, "and not so fast," and then go into her complaint. And the thing that I love about these letters is that she's very articulate. She's to the point. She doesn't hold back. But she also can criticize and compliment in the same letter. And then I love the responses, that these companies actually responded.
Susan Gladstone (director of the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU): From the perspective of the museum and putting them on display, one of the things we loved about them is they are the actual typed letters, and they're actually on the old onion skin style typing paper. And it was very important to us when we were framing them to preserve that quality so -- to make it look like the letter was floating in the frame, and so you could actually see the ridges and the edges of this beautiful old paper on which everything was typed, because she was a stenographer.
And they really are very well-written letters.
Eric Smith: And she's all self-taught. I mean, one of my favorites is just a little invoice. ... Being a freelance secretary before computers, many people would come down for the winter and still want to engage in business, and they would hire a freelance secretary.
So Orson Welles was one of those people that hired her to do some of the secretarial work while he was in town ... And she invoiced his secretary (see photo), and there was a little note in there that reveals something like, she says, "All I can say is that I never worked for someone so difficult, and I feel like I'm released from bondage."
As you can sort of tell from the complaint letters, she wasn't necessarily the easiest-going person in the world. And you said there were times when you actually kind of wanted to walk away.
Why was that and why didn't you?
Irene had a very strong sense of what was right ... And people make mistakes. People, you know, aren't perfect. And I always say in Irene's ball game it was one strike and you're out.
But I'm not like that. When I have a friend, even if we have a disagreement or problem, I work it through. That's one of the things that made our friendship strong, is that I didn't abandon her. And I think a lot of people did walk away from her because she told people what she thought, and she wasn't afraid to do that. But it kept people at a distance, and it kept people away often. It was just like, "Irene, just you know, take a breath. You know, this isn't the end of the world." (laughing)
Eric, in the film you say you wanted to know who was inside the clothes. Who was inside the clothes?
She was an early feminist. She was a single woman starting her own business, being independent. And I just saw this creative spirit, this someone who could take a toilet seat cover and make it a hat, who found ways of dealing with the fact that she had very little money but she could make the most out of it.
Irene had a sister, and her sister, Irene would tell me, would often come down and I think be embarrassed by Irene because she looked different. And I think her sister was more conventional. But in any case, I think her sister's husband passed away, and they wanted her to come up north to the funeral. And the sister called her up and says. "You're coming and you're going to wear black." Well, Irene showed up at the funeral in fire engine red patent leather from head to toe with like go-go boots, to boot. And that's how she went to the funeral. So she had her way. She was not going to wear black. And that was Irene. She was a rebel.
That the museum decided to take these artifacts from Irene's life -- they're going to preserve an important story, an important life in South Beach.
Watch Eric Smith's short documentary about his friendship with Irene Williams here: