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As far as such icons go, this one's elusive—more obscure than an Audrey or Katharine, but no less chic. She was at the height of her visibility from the late 40s to late 60s, which makes evidence of her contributions hard to come by today. You might glimpse her on the A&E Channel, if it were to air the 2001 episode of Biography titled "Jackie Gleason: The Great One," in which she discusses the 13 years she spent as Gleason’s (mostly) live-in girlfriend. (What she doesn’t talk about on the show was how she dressed the rotund comic genius, picking out fabrics for his custom-made Earl Benham suits, his Sulka dress shirts, the Bronzini ties that had to be lengthened four inches for him.) I once spotted her in a creaky record store, on the cover of the Gleason album The Torch With the Blue Flame, which was released by Capitol Records in 1959 (when she was 27) and imparted new meaning, at least for me, to the songs "I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face" and "My Silent Love"—songs she later claimed to have helped him choose. The photo itself was taken a year earlier, in the living room at Gleason’s "Round House" in Peekskill, New York. She had recently moved in.
I’ve pieced together a few stories about her, some having to do with her days as a showgirl at the Tropicana in Vegas, and one (my favorite) about a date she had with Frank Sinatra in 1967. The two had been introduced by her friend Toots Shor at his eponymous restaurant. Shor reportedly approached her at the bar and said, "Frank’s inside having dinner and wants to meet you, but I told him he’ll have to come out here."
But her identity was well established before all that. In the late 40s, she got her start at age 12 as a model in New York, posing on the covers of teenage, romance, and detective magazines. She’d never gone by her given first name, Martha, having been nicknamed "Honey" as a baby, but it was her modeling agency that urged her to change her last name, Ebmeyer, to Merrill.
She was 16 when she married her first husband, Gerry Sorrentino. The marriage didn’t last, but it did produce three children. The eldest, Diane (who went on to establish a distinct, more organic style of her own), is my mother.
"Nani," as I call my grandmother, has always embodied not just good taste, but the kind of taste that relies less on money than on an intrinsic appreciation of individualism. Her look has always been put together but never too structured—thoughtfully composed without conforming to popular notions about what’s fashionable. It’s a style that transcends trendiness. "People used to say, 'What are you wearing?"" she told me on the phone today. "I’d say, 'My clothes.'"
Though I don’t have as many occasions as I’d like to don the exquisite, tailor-made things she’s passed on to me—a beaded, red velvet bolero jacket; a pair of Parisian leather-and-lace gloves; wide-legged, high-waisted, brown satin dress pants (I actually did get to wear those recently, to the Reader’s People Issue party)—it’s inspiring to have such things in your wardrobe. The mere presence of those pieces has managed to bestow a measure of classiness on my own, far more haphazard style, to sway me toward more classic, timeless purchases.
Nani’s body is fragile these days. Her signature Jacques Heim silk grosgrain skirt and favorite black alligator shoes (a token of affection from Gleason, in exchange for her willingness to make him sugar-cinnamon doughnuts at 2 AM one night) are long retired. But her mind is as sharp as ever. And her style is still spot-on.