Solow act: Former Pittsburgher's novel delves into psychology of shoplifting
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Long before she became an advertising star, a porn magazine editor, and a hot new novelist, Jennifer Solow would dress up in a gold leather trench coat, matching go-go boots and a feather boa in her hair for a trip to Downtown Kaufmann's.
Memories of Kaufmann's and her Squirrel Hill childhood influenced Jennifer Solow's novel about filching fashion.
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Even at age 5, the Squirrel Hill girl could make an entrance.
Those childhood trips to Kaufmann's, trailing her pretty young mother, became the basis for the fictional Loevner's Department Store in her new book, "The Booster."
Like Ms. Solow, her fictional protagonist Jillian Siegel is a hopeless fashionista with a bulging closet and a shoe fetish.
But there is one big difference between Ms. Solow and Jillian.
The novelist pays for her Pucci dresses and Patricia Fields jackets, while her fictional creation Jillian stuffs her designer goodies into her Gucci purse. Jillian, the niece of the original owner of Loevner's Department Store, is a "booster," or shoplifter, for a Peruvian theft ring.
So does art imitate life?
OK, true confession time. When she was 9, Ms. Solow would steal candy with her best friend in the store near Wightman School in Squirrel Hill. They nicknamed it "cutting," an expression she incorporated into her novel.
But Ms. Solow's klepto days ended uneventfully with penny candy.
A graduate of Winchester Thurston and the Rhode Island School of Design, the 41-year-old author interviewed compulsive shoplifters to research her book.
The result is a heart-stopping look at the pathology of a fabulously dressed shoplifter who chats up clerks as she pockets stuff and more stuff, reciting the mantra, It is mine. It is mine. It is mine.
"It started sounding to me like an overeater or a bulimic," Ms. Solow says during a phone interview from her home in Mill Valley, Calif. "You just need to gorge yourself. You never have enough. I talked to women who walked out of stores with fur coats. I talked to a 98-pounder who stole a gilded mirror off the side of the store."
And what of that most famous klepto, Winona Ryder? "All I can say about the Winona incident is that she's not the only one out there with a secret."
Ms. Solow's finely crafted novel received a starred review from Publishers Weekly. Her literary debut seems at odds with the photo, taken by famous fashion photographer Terry Richardson, peering provocatively out of her Web site, www.jennifersolow.com. "FAMOUS AUTHOR" is emblazoned on a tight tank top, under a black leather jacket and underpants on a city street. In her book cover photo, her knees strategically cover flesh.
But Ms. Solow has always been a brainy provocateur, a tad wild for Pittsburgh.
While her friends were wearing ripped jeans and fair isle sweaters to Shady Side Academy dances, she was wearing a wrap-around leotard over Gloria Vanderbilt jeans, doing line dances to Donna Summer as preppies gaped at her. "I always lacked couth," she quips.
Her mother, Nan Solow, a teacher at Fox Chapel Country Day School, remembers a strong-willed, creative and wickedly funny daughter with born fashion flair.
"She always wanted to stand out from the crowd," says Mrs. Solow. "She had a wonderfully messy room growing up, clothes on the floor, on the doorknob. She would emerge from her room looking fantastic, with wonderful concoctions."
Whether it was dressing, painting or drawing, her mother says, she would always "push the limits, try something new and land on her feet."
(Her father, Donald, an architect, and her cousin, Sylvia Sachs, book editor of the former Pittsburgh Press, also live in Pittsburgh.)
But underneath her fashion-forward dress and piercings was a quiet self confidence, says her high school boyfriend, John Beach, a Fox Chapel native who became a voice-over talent. "She was way ahead of her time. I was always proud to be with her."
Even in California, she is known as "that girl with the pole in her house." Pole dancing, she says, is "monkey bars for grown women." She loves to provoke by wearing incongruous combinations, such as an Armani jacket over Brazilian cut jeans.
You didn't really expect demureness from the former editor of Core, "the dirty magazine for smart people" she started in the early '90s with her then-husband while they were newlyweds.
Instead of Hustler-style smut, she says, this was a "high-class" sexual magazine on lovely paper with frank discussions of sex and reviews of vibrators and the peep shows at Times Square. A frustrated writer, she even penned a dirty comic strip.
"It was beautiful provocation," she says.
"Our Tribeca loft was Playboy Mansion Tribeca," she said. Except the not-as-buxom women wore cooler outfits than Playboy bunnies.
Meanwhile, the ferociously ambitious Ms. Solow was climbing up the ladder of the advertising world, culminating in the job of managing partner and creative director of Kirshenbaum Bond in San Francisco.
She helped create memorable campaigns, including the "Wendy" Snapple campaign, early Ikea ads and Target commercials that helped turn the discounter into Tarzhay.
The mother of two was raking in money and awards, and she had flown to New York on Sept. 10, 2001, to pitch a Breck commercial.
The next day, the world changed, and as she watched people jump out of burning skyscrapers, it hit her. Advertising was not what she was supposed to be doing. She wanted to spend more time with her kids. She wanted to write.
She quit her job by January and spent three years writing her book.
Ms. Solow only had to look at her own closet for inspiration for Jillian.
Like her protagonist, the writer is stylistically confused, buying both Armani and strip shop get-ups, vintage Pucci and Jean Muir dress, outfits from Patricia Fields in New York, the costumer for "Sex and the City."
"I walk into my closet and I have absolutely nothing to wear, but it is filled to the brim. Why can't I decide to be somebody? I have 85 different looks."
Ms. Solow promises not to wear anything twice during her readings and signings in Pittsburgh. She will speak about "The Booster" at noon tomorrow at the Mystery Lovers Bookshop in Oakmont; at 7 p.m. tomorrow at Barnes & Noble in Squirrel Hill; at 2 p.m. Saturday at Borders Books at Northway Mall; and 2 p.m. Sunday at Joseph Beth Booksellers at 2705 E. Carson St. at the SouthSide Works.
Correction/Clarification: (Published April 5, 2006) Sylvia Sachs, retired book editor of The Pittsburgh Press, is a cousin of novelist Jennifer Solow. Their relationship was incorrect in a story yesterday about the novelist.Terry Richardson
Jennifer Solow will be in town this week to discuss her book "The Booster."
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First Published April 4, 2006 12:00 am