Martin Greenfield, Tailor to Sinatra, Obama, Trump and Shaq, Dies at 95
Martin Greenfield, Tailor to Sinatra, Obama, Trump and Shaq, Dies at 95

Defying boundaries of taste and time, Martin Greenfield made suits for President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the gangster Meyer Lansky, Leonardo DiCaprio and LeBron James. Men skilled in the arts of power projection — along with fashion writers and designers — considered him the nation’s greatest men’s tailor.

For years, none of them knew the origins of his expertise: a beating in Auschwitz.

As a teenager, Mr. Greenfield was Maximilian Grünfeld, a skinny Jewish prisoner whose job was to wash the clothes of Nazi guards at the concentration camp. In the laundry room one day, he accidentally ripped the collar of a guard’s shirt. The man whipped Max in response, then hurled the garment back at the boy.

After a fellow prisoner taught Max how to sew, he mended the collar, but then decided to keep the shirt, sliding it under the striped shirt of his prison uniform.

The garment transformed his life. Other prisoners thought it signified that Max enjoyed special privileges. Guards allowed him to roam around the grounds of Auschwitz, and when he worked at a hospital kitchen, they assumed that he was authorized to take extra food.

Max ripped another guard’s uniform. This time, it was deliberate. He was creating a clandestine wardrobe that would help him survive the Holocaust.

“The day I first wore that shirt,” Mr. Greenfield wrote seven decades later, “was the day I learned clothes possess power.”

He never forgot the lesson. “Two ripped Nazi shirts,” he continued, “helped this Jew build America’s most famous and successful custom-suit company.”

Mr. Greenfield died on Wednesday at a hospital in Manhasset, N.Y., on Long Island, his son Tod said. He was 95.

The miseries and triumphs of Mr. Greenfield’s life exemplified the classic tale of immigration to America. He faced agony abroad, then penury in his adopted home. With workaholic energy, he built a business and made a name for himself, gaining fortune and esteem. Late in life, he finally reckoned with the tragedies of his youth that he had tried to leave behind.

The culmination of his hopes and efforts was his business, Martin Greenfield Clothiers. It managed the improbable feat of thriving by doing the opposite of the rest of its industry.

Local garment manufacturing had been declining for decades by the late 1970s, when Mr. Greenfield set up shop in the East Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, in a four-story building that had housed clothiers since at least 1917. He refused to manufacture overseas and never changed his standards.

As a result, Greenfield Clothiers was able to offer services that New York’s designers and wealthy suit-wearers could hardly find anywhere else. It is now New York City’s last surviving union clothing factory, Tod Greenfield said in an interview for this obituary in March last year.

There, some 50 garment workers, each with a particular expertise, put together a single suit over about 10 hours. They operate machinery manually, allowing them to customize every press and fold of fabric; to align patterns over suit jacket pockets flawlessly; and to render fabric stitching invisible.

The traditionalism of the shop’s techniques is embodied by several century-old buttonhole-cutting machines still in use. A year ago this month, a rusted dial on one of the contraptions indicated that it had cut about 1,074,000,000 buttonholes.

The old factory became a congenial setting for political, artistic and athletic patriarchs. The acknowledgments section of Mr. Greenfield’s 2014 memoir, “Measure of a Man: From Auschwitz Survivor to Presidents’ Tailor,” enumerates the people “we have had the privilege of working alongside”: Gerald R. Ford, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Donald J. Trump, Joseph R. Biden, Colin Powell, Ed Koch, Michael R. Bloomberg, Frank Sinatra, Paul Newman, Martin Scorsese, Denzel Washington, Michael Jackson, Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony — among many, many others.

A hand-sewn Greenfield suit became a low-frequency status signal most of all in New York City. The former police commissioners Raymond Kelly and William J. Bratton have both been Greenfield patrons.

Proximity to power gave Mr. Greenfield a stock of quips and anecdotes. Making a suit for the 7-foot-1 Shaquille O’Neal, he wrote in his memoir, “required enough suit fabric to make a small tent.” When The New York Post in 2016 asked him about Mr. Lansky’s tastes, Mr. Greenfield recalled that mobster’s orders exactly: 40-short, navy, single-breasted suits.

But he knew when to be discreet. “I met him once at the hotel,” Mr. Greenfield said of Mr. Lansky. “He was a very nice guy to me, and I knew he was in charge. That’s all I’m saying!”

Initially, Greenfield Clothiers’ main business was manufacturing ready-to-wear suits for department stores like Neiman Marcus and for brands like Brooks Brothers and Donna Karan. Mr. Greenfield worked directly with designers, including Ms. Karan, who confessed to The Times that he had taught her garment terminology like “drop,” “gorge” and “button stance.” She added, “His genius is in interpreting my vision.”

The business changed direction after Mr. Greenfield agreed to make 1920s-style outfits for the HBO series “Boardwalk Empire” (2010-2014). His shop produced more than 600 suits for 173 characters.

Other film and TV projects followed, including for the Showtime series “Billions” (2016-2023); and the movies “The Great Gatsby” (2013), “The Wolf of Wall Street” (2013) and “Joker” (2019). The latter featured what might be Greenfield’s most recognizable creation: the crisp red suit and mismatched orange vest worn by Joaquin Phoenix, who played the title character, the Batman nemesis.

In a testament to his longevity, Mr. Greenfield dressed the early 20th-century comedian Eddie Cantor as well as the actor playing him decades later on “Boardwalk Empire.”

Maximilian Grünfeld was born on Aug. 9, 1928, in the village of Pavlovo, which was then in Czechoslovakia and is now in western Ukraine. His family was prosperous: His father, Joseph, was an industrial engineer; his mother, Tzyvia (Berger) Grünfeld, ran the home.

When Max was about 12, the German Army occupied towns around Pavlovo, and he was sent to live with relatives in Budapest. Sensing he was not wanted, he fled the night he arrived and spent about three years living in a brothel — the women there sympathetically took him in — and earning a living as a junior car mechanic.

But after sustaining a hand injury that made it difficult for him to work, he returned to Pavlovo. Before long, the Nazis forced him and his family onto a train to Auschwitz. On arrival, he was separated from his mother; his sisters, Rivka and Simcha; and his brother, Sruel Baer. He remained with his father only briefly. All of them died in the Holocaust.

He witnessed many horrors. Building a brick wall once, he worked alongside another boy who was randomly used for target practice and killed.

After a harrowing death march from Auschwitz, followed by a freezing train transfer to Buchenwald, Max was finally freed in the spring of 1945. General Eisenhower himself toured the camp, unaware that a teenage prisoner there would one day become his tailor. In his memoir, Mr. Greenfield recalled thinking that Eisenhower, an ordinary 5-foot-10, was 10 feet tall.

He emigrated to the United States in 1947, arriving in New York as a refugee with no family, no knowledge of English and $10 in his pocket. Within weeks, he changed his name to Martin Greenfield — an attempt to sound “all-American,” he wrote — and a boyhood friend, also a refugee, got him a job at a clothier called GGG in Brooklyn.

He started as a “floor boy,” ferrying unfinished garments from one worker to another. He studied every job in the factory: darting, piping, lining, stitching, pressing, hand basting, blind armhole work and finishing.

“If the Nazis taught me anything, it was that a laborer with indispensable skills is less likely to be discarded,” he wrote.

Over time, Mr. Greenfield became a confidant of GGG’s founder and president, William P. Goldman, who introduced him to the firm’s clients, including some of the leading tuxedo-wearers of postwar America. He got to pal around with Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr.

In 1977, 30 years after he had started, he bought the factory and renamed GGG after himself.

Decades later, he began discussing his experience of the Holocaust more widely, culminating with the publication of his memoir. Around the same time, he found himself labeled America’s best tailor by GQ, Vanity Fair and CNN.

In recent years he handed off the business to his son Tod and another son, Jay.

In addition to them, Mr. Greenfield is survived by his wife, Arlene (Bergen) Greenfield, and four grandchildren. He lived in North Hills, a Nassau County village on Long Island’s North Shore.

On his first day in Auschwitz, Max’s father, Joseph, told him that he was more likely to survive if they separated, Mr. Greenfield wrote in his memoir. The next day, the camp guards asked which prisoners had skills. Joseph grabbed Max’s wrist, thrust the boy’s hand in the air and announced, “A4406” — Max’s tattooed inmate number. “He is a mechanic. Very skilled.”

Two German soldiers hauled Max away. He did not see his father again.

Before they parted, Joseph said to Max, “If you survive, you live for us.”

The rest of Mr. Greenfield’s life was an attempt to follow that commandment, his son Tod said: “And that’s what he did.”