Location: New York, NY
Marital Status: Married
Education: Design School
“I remember a schoolmate whose father owned the local car dealership. She had the most beautiful clothes. Her skirts matched her sweaters and her coats; her stockings stayed up. Nothing of mine ever matched—it used to drive me crazy.” Even more dispiriting: Barbara was admitted to college, but didn’t have the money to go. Instead she married at just 17 “to get out of the house” and went to work as a page for a large corporation.
Even as a young wife working 9-to-5, Barbara had big dreams. She attended design school at night, where she learned to make her own clothes. Soon she was telling her husband that she wanted to work for Vogue. “You can’t do that—that’s for rich girls,” he replied. Barbara was undeterred. She put on her very best (homemade) outfit and marched to Conde Nast where she asked for the personnel office. “I told the interviewer, ‘I want to work for Vogue. I want editorial—not advertising. I want to take the summer off—I’ve never had any time off. And I want $85 a week.’” The interviewer said, “We’d hate to lose you on account of salary.” Barbara took the job—for $65 a week. You can’t have everything.
That determined spirit—coupled with immense talent—helped Barbara work her way up the editorial ladder, eventually becoming the Editor-in-Chief of Brides, a position she held for 30 years before deciding to leave in 1994. Since then she’s devoted her unique chutzpah to reviving and transforming the Museum of Arts & Design as Chairman of the Board.
Tell me about that first job at Vogue.
It was horrendous. I worked with all these debutantes with college degrees. I would walk in and say, “Good morning” and nobody would answer me. I’d go home at night and cry. I told myself, ‘I’m not here to win a popularity contest. I’m at Vogue; I’m where I want to be.’
You’re no longer married to your first husband.
We were married seven years. He was so much older, and he kept telling me what I couldn’t do. We got a very amicable divorce. He was a good man, but I had to move on.
When did you meet your current husband?
I met Donald Tober in 1972. We have been married 37 years. I’m very happy that I kept going until I was happily married. I can’t think of a better way to live. I say this at everybody’s wedding: “Today you can create a better life than you could ever have had alone.”
Do you two have children?
No. We talked about it endlessly and we finally agreed, “We found each other, let’s not complicate it.”
Is he still working?
Yes. I think people shouldn’t retire—if you do, you die somewhere inside. You have to have a passion in life to make you want to get up in the morning.
Do you have a passion project?
The museum has consumed me the last fifteen years. It has been a magnificent obsession, and the journey has been totally rewarding. They just gave me a Lifetime Achievement Award in November.
How did you get involved?
I joined the board in 1988, and in 1994 I knew I’d be elected Chairman. I had been grooming my replacement at Brides. I went to Si [Newhouse] and said, “I love you and I love Conde Nast, and I love Brides, but I have to go.” I was crying because it was like my home. He came out from behind his desk and I was hugging him. So many people think he’s intimidating, but we had a great relationship.
I knew I wanted to get involved in the art world, and I knew the museum was in trouble if someone didn’t give it their all.
How would you define your style?
Individual. I don’t want somebody to put me together. I want to put me together. Someone once said about me–and I was very flattered–“Barbara has the most original style; she never looks like anybody else.”
Do you have a signature item?
My thing is necklaces. I get them everywhere, but I have one favorite designer in Santa Fe, Susan Green, who makes the most beautiful pieces. I have every color she’s ever made.
Do you have a signature perfume?
Givenchy Amarige. People always tell me how good it smells.
What’s your beauty routine?
I use water, Dove Soap and plenty of Night Repair by Estee Lauder–day, night, all the time. I buy six bottles at a time. It works.
What’s your exercise routine?
I work out everyday for an hour. I have a complete routine: weight training, pulleys, Pilates sit-ups, all kinds of breathing exercises. I had a hip replacement in November of 2007, and there were a lot of complications. I was afraid I would never be able to ski and ride again. I had to work very hard to get back in shape, but I’m stronger today than I was before because of it. I’m right there with my husband and the ski instructor now.
What’s your biggest indulgence?
Sleep. If I can, I try to sleep in one day a week. Just sleep until I can’t stay in the bed for one more minute. But I haven’t done that in months.
Do you have a favorite restaurant in New York?
I have a lot of meals in the Lincoln Center area where the museum is located. There’s a restaurant in the museum called Robert, and of course there’s Porter House at the Time Warner Center. The chef is Michael Lomonaco who was the chef at Windows on the World before 9/11. I order a filet mignon and have them chili rub it and give me peppercorn sauce on the side. I like hot food.
What about a great book you’ve read?
Eiffel’s Tower by Jill Jonnes. It’s the story of building the Eiffel tower at the time of the Paris International show in the 1800s. Jonnes captures all the incredible people—artists, dignitaries, potentates–of the time. Even “Buffalo Bill” Cody brought his Wild West show to Paris. Can you even imagine what that must have been like? It’s a beautiful verbal picture of that era.
Who inspires you?
Richard Branson. He is one of the most original people in this world; gutsy, funny, crazy, imaginative, successful.
Tell me a great piece of advice someone gave you.
I was interviewing Eileen Ford and I was leaning towards her with my face in my hands. She said, “Never touch your face unless you’re washing it.” Thanks to her I’ve saved myself many wrinkles.
What is one important thing you’ve learned about money?
Pay your bills, pay off your loans, don’t overspend.
You’re a self-made woman, you really are.
Thank you. I’ve always been my own drummer.