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Handbag designer Judith Leiber dies, hours after her artist husband

Artist Gerson Leiber and handbag designer Judith Leiber

Artist Gerson Leiber and handbag designer Judith Leiber speak at a Holocaust commemoration at The Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan in 2010. Credit: Getty Images / Amy Sussman

Judith Leiber, the legendary handbag designer known for her haute couture creations that were equal parts whimsical and luxurious, died Saturday at her home in Springs. Her husband of 72 years, Gerson Leiber, an abstract painter, died on the same day.

She was 97 and he was 96, said Ken Yardley, whose funeral home, Yardley and Pino, handled the private services.

Jeffrey Sussman, the Leibers' biographer and a spokesman for the family, described the couple as “a 90-something-year-old Romeo & Juliet. Neither wanted to live without each other.”

According to Sussman, Leiber had been in hospice care for a few weeks before her death, and her husband, who suffered from congestive heart disease, was hospitalized the day before they both died.

When Gerson Leiber came home from the hospital, said Sussman, “the nurse told me that he leaned over and said, ‘Sweetie, it’s time for us to go.’ ”

Surrounded by their friends, both Leibers died of natural causes in the same room of their home, he at about 9 a.m. and Judith about two hours later, Yardley said.

Judith Leiber was famous for the minaudière — a small evening bag that fit little more than a lipstick and some money. Her creations were status symbols coveted by movie stars, royalty and first ladies.

Touted by Vogue as the “Fabergé of Handbags,” Leiber created in a particular niche of high craftsmanship, luxury and sparkle combined with an unmistakable sense of humor.

“She was really the inventor of the handbag as a work of art,” said James Mischka, part of the design team Badgley Mischka, who has socialized with Leiber. “She was also very, very funny and a little spitfire.”

The bags, which sold for thousands of dollars, came in all shapes — from asparagus to peacocks to ice cream sundaes — often bedecked in thousands of crystals, taking weeks of handwork to create. They were coveted and collected. Sussman said opera singer Beverly Sills had more than 200 bags.

“There wasn’t a party in the ’80s where women weren’t putting their Judith Leiber trophies down on the table,” recalls Mischka, whose Centre Island home includes a sculptural Leiber dachshund minaudière displayed on a shelf.

Animals were a specialty. Leiber created a “Millie” bag for former first lady Barbara Bush in the spirit of her beloved springer spaniel. For Hillary Clinton, she made a cat bag modeled after first cat Socks.

A cupcake-shaped minaudière appeared in the first “Sex and the City” movie, garnering a new crop of customers for Leiber, and just last week Jennifer Lopez carried a streamlined Leiber bag to the Billboard Latin Music awards.

The eponymous company was launched in a small loft in 1963. Leiber sold her company in 1993 but continued designing for another five years until she formally retired at the age of 77. It is estimated that she created close to 4,000 original designs throughout her career, during which she won numerous awards and accolades, including the accessories designer of the year award from the Council of Fashion Designers in 1994.

Gerson Leiber, known to many by his nickname, “Gus,” studied at the Art Students League in Manhattan and began producing prints of New York scenes, bridges, Times Square and such. His work evolved from prints to paintings and sculpture, which has been collected by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Museum, among others.

Born Judith Marianne Peta, in Budapest, Hungary, in 1921, Judith Leiber survived the Holocaust and met her husband, then an American GI. They married in 1946 and returned to the states in 1947, where they settled in his native Brooklyn.

They purchased their Springs home in the mid-1950s and became prominent members of the community.

They had no children, Yardley said.

As recently as two years ago, Judith Leiber herself was in the process of buying her archival designs back to display at her East Hampton museum, where she and her husband created the Leiber Collection, a gallery to house their works of art and to chronicle their careers.

The couple traditionally held a Memorial Day opening party there. This year, while the gallery will operate, in lieu of an opening party, Sussman says a celebration of the Leibers’ lives will be held midsummer and open to the community.

With Ellen Yan

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