Rochelle Esserman Benjamin died this morning. I'm not 100% sure of her age because for much of my childhood she insisted she was 66. At her request, I called her GG (short for “greatest grandmother,” she had excellent self-esteem.) GG was an artist. She graduated RISD and became an interior designer. I saw many beautiful examples of her work but my favorite was the pair of cast steel orangutan sculptures she designed and installed hanging from the ceiling in a two-story living room in Northbrook, IL. GG was chic. GG was fierce. Her idea of casual dressing was a monochromatic turban, cape and silk scarf wrapped in a big bow underneath her chin. Every once in a while, GG would take me shopping. I was not allowed to buy individual pieces; only outfits. After Hanukkah, I walked back into fifth grade in a chunky purple cable-knit sweater, fuchsia corduroy mini-skirt, opaque purple tights and a purple bowler hat. This outfit did not make me popular but it did make me interesting. That’s one thing GG taught me. Being pretty was fine but having a look gave you power. It meant you had something to say. GG had a lot to say. Apparently the last thing she said to my uncle was to please “get hair.”
Aesthetics mattered. She wasn’t that into being Jewish, she preferred being French. My mother introduced me to Miriam, Rebecca and Rachel. GG showed me Philippe Starck, Louis XVI, Corbusier… International stars, too: Eames, Wegner, the list goes on. I spent many afternoons playing in her office, drafting my future split-level modern ranch in between shifts running my restaurant out of my grandfather’s basement. A WWII, purple-heart veteran, my grandfather was always in the basement organizing papers, drinking Cutty Sark on the rocks, waiting for GG to return from her latest adventure. She traveled, she sang and danced in the streets, she went to see an all-male, nude review. Her only comment afterwards was it would’ve been more aesthetically pleasing had they all been erect instead of “flopping around all over the place.”
We designed my first apartment in Chicago together and reimagined furniture originally bought for my mother's childhood bedroom. We went to the Art Institute, Victory Gardens (where she always slept through the play), Steppenwolf (more sleeping…) She asked me over and over why I was never dating anyone and once tried to set me up with someone she did not know and who lived out of town but whose parents had a tasteful foyer. Two years ago (when I took this picture), she wondered if the answer is because I “wanted to be free…” Her styling for me progressed—a silk chartreuse green, tie-neck blouse paired with suede, leopard print pants; a ballet pink stretch satin top with hunter green windowpane, wide-legged wool trousers and red leather kitten heels. I once asked her if something matched. She instructed, “It doesn’t match; it goes.”
In addition to making the world more vivid and exciting, she also self-published a book of letters; a lifetime of correspondence between her and her sister June. They had to self-publish because they often quoted other people in their letters and apparently that’s plagiarism. She designed mirrors and lamps that were gorgeous but too expensive to produce to ever be retailed in a showroom. She lobbied state representatives for years to legalize assisted suicide. She said what she thought and made what she conceived even if it was unpopular, unrealistic or illegal. She once slid her gigantic Cadillac underneath an 18-wheeler and walked out without a scratch. She was GG.