When Liz Lange guides you through Gray Gardens—the East Hampton home made famous by the 1975 documentary in which its eccentric residents live in transcendent misery—you’ll find that there is very little gray.
Since Mrs. Lange bought and renovated the property, bulbous turquoise chandeliers have dangled from the ceiling, blue leopard wallpaper along the entrance and painted wicker chairs and golden flamingos galore.
There are still gardens galore. There is a walled garden with dahlias and digitalis on one side of the house and a topiary on the other. There’s also a discreet plot, etched with an elegy on a lover of the house’s famed former residents, Big Edie and Little Edie (both Bouvier Beales): “Spot Beale. A nobler lord never lived. Loved by everyone who knew him. Died May 29, 1942.”
Here Mrs Lange, 55, walking barefoot and dressed in a paisley caftan, broke the pace for thought. “The WASPs really know how to bury their dogs,” she said.
The Beales were Catholic, not Protestant, but Mrs. Lange used the acronym to refer to a formerly white, Christian, wealthy class of rulers and tastemakers. That upper class loomed large in the minds of some 20th-century immigrant families whose American dreams included bulldozing past the stuffy guards of the financial, educational, and cultural institutions that granted that status.
Mrs. Lange made her name as a designer of maternity wear. More than a fashion line, the Liz Lange brand reshaped the way many women thought about dressing during pregnancy, eschewing the Peter Pan collar muumuus in favor of form-fitting, sophisticated styles in stretchy materials that match today’s trends. the field of women’s clothing followed. She started the company in 1997 and ten years later sold it to a private equity firm for tens of millions of dollars.
Less well known is that before she was Liz Lange, she was Liz Steinberg, a scion of the corporate raider family headed by Mrs. Lange’s uncle Saul Steinberg, the chairman and chief executive officer of Reliance Group Holdings, and her father, Bob. Steinberg, his deputy.
New York City’s excesses of new money from the 1980s were epitomized by the Steinbergs, especially Mrs. Lange’s publicity-loving Uncle Saul (who died in 2012 at age 73) and his third wife, Gayfryd.
The Brooklyn-born grandchildren of Russian and Polish-Jewish immigrants, Saul and Bob made their way to immense wealth and instilled a sense of mission in their families to use brains and bank accounts to get past gatekeepers of old money. As Mrs. Lange grew up, she heard her family members joke about the dwindling power of that ruling class. “Lots of lineage, no dough” was a common family refrain, she said.
What Mrs Lange did not see coming is that “no dough” soon applied to the Steinbergs as well.
Mrs. Lange had always toyed with the idea of sharing her family story. If the world fell in love with “The Sopranos,” she reasoned, why not the Steinbergs?
“‘Mobsters: They’re Just Like Us,'” she said, describing the appeal of the HBO series about New Jersey mobsters as she sipped cranberry and soda from a couch on her porch.
“He has problems with his children, he has tsuris with his wife,” she continued, using the Yiddish word for “problem,” “his mother hurts, we can all understand.”
Sitting at home during the pandemic, she agreed to record a podcast episode about her life with her close friend, the journalist Ariel Levy. But there was so much material that Ms. Levy decided to make a whole series. The result is “The Just Enough Family,” which is based on Ms. Levy’s interviews with Ms. Lange; her sister, Jane Wagman; her mother, the real estate agent Kathryn Steinberg; her father, Bob; and her aunt Gayfryd.
It’s the story of how a middle-class Jewish family from Brooklyn transformed a rubber company into a financial conglomerate that paid huge dividends to Saul, Bob, their two sisters and their mother—who eventually sued her sons when the lavish lifestyle of birthday parties at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and private travel on 727s inevitably came to an end.
In 1995, Saul suffered a debilitating stroke that left Bob largely in charge. But in 1999, Reliance’s performance plummeted, with losses exceeding $300 million, and Saul fired Bob. In 2001 the company was bankrupt.
The podcast is about Ms. Lange’s memories of her own experiences, including surviving cervical cancer, her first husband’s struggle with mental illness, and discovering that Bob, whom Ms. Lange revered, had a secret life. The first two of eight episodes will be released next week.
Her self-reflection began early in the pandemic, when she threw herself into her Instagram feed, sharing photos from the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, with nostalgic captions about her youthful desire to edit Christie Brinkley’s hair (“I used to my hair diffuser, fill my hair with mousse, turn my head upside down”) and on-screen obsessions such as Tatum O’Neal, Kristy McNichol, and Matt Dillon.
Chatting online with her followers reminded her of her early days with Liz Lange, when she spoke directly with customers about how clothing affected their confidence in the workplace.
This fueled her own professional confidence and late last year Ms. Lange bought Figue, a line of caftans and flowing dresses sold at Neiman Marcus and Shopbop. (Items range in price from $295 to $1,500.)
“Before the pandemic, I spent a lot of time staggering in high heels and little dresses and it wasn’t very comfortable,” she said.
“Liz saw everyone dressed in sweats and athleisure and with Figue she says, ‘That’s great, but can we add a little glamor and hedonism?'” said her friend Simon Doonan, the author and former creative ambassador for Barneys New York. (He’s also the husband of Mrs. Lange’s best friend since college, Jonathan Adler.)
“I went for a walk with Liz and she’s wearing a caftan,” Mr. Doonan said. “She knows we would never have seen Marisa Berenson and Bianca Jagger in yoga pants.”
Mrs. Lange’s first designs for Figue will be released in October. “I’m finally feeling like a professional again,” she said.
An ‘identity crisis’
When Ms. Lange came up with her new approach to maternity wear in the mid-1990s, she was a college graduate and working as a fit model and fabric buyer for an aspiring fashion designer. She was recently married to Jeff Lange, a hedge fund executive, and when many of her friends started getting pregnant, she found themselves either stuffing themselves in clothes that didn’t fit or wearing ugly tent-like dresses.
She took a $25,000 loan from her father, made samples of maternity designs in stretchy, form-fitting fabrics, and reached out to friends and celebrities to offer made-to-order services. The news spread and soon she had a crush on business.
Pregnant actresses and models were featured in magazines like People Who Wore Her Pieces. Nike asked her to co-develop a maternity line with the brand and she teamed up with Target.
Her first show at New York Fashion Week — the first maternity show ever held there — was on the morning of September 11, 2001. As her models walked the catwalk, Ms. Lange spotted videographers from NewsMadura and “Good Morning America.” racing from the tent of the venue.
By October, Reliance was bankrupt and ordered to liquidate. That same month, Mrs. Lange was diagnosed with cervical cancer.
Shocked by the uproar and spurred on by her first husband to spend money, she sold Liz Lange in 2007. Ms. Lange said the price was between $20 million and $60 million.
However, after the sale, she realized that she had left more than just a job. “I felt a real sense of loss,” said Ms. Lange. “It was almost an identity crisis.”
She had more time to spend with her children, Alice, now 20, and Gus, now 22, but the cracks in her marriage were also becoming more apparent. She and Mr. Lange broke up in 2009 and finalized their divorce in 2014. (Mr. Lange died in 2018.)
Renovation and rejuvenation
Ms. Lange had continued to work with Target as the face of the brand she no longer owned, spending a few days a month selling an affordable line on the Home Shopping Network. It was a lucrative gig, but in 2018 she got bored and quit.
At the time, she was with her current husband (a corporate attorney who asked not to be mentioned in this article because the media mishegas isn’t his thing). They married in 2015 in Gray Gardens, which they had rented.
In 2017, they bought the house for $15 million from Sally Quinn, then the widow of Ben Bradlee. Although the house had been refurbished after the days of Big and Little Edie, Mrs. Lange had something more elaborate in mind. She oversaw a renovation that involved raising the house to accommodate a 4,000-square-foot basement.
She brought in Mr. Adler to help her with the interior. “A good interior designer should be a slimming mirror for your client,” he said, “reflecting her at her best.” The result is a colorful smorgasbord of what Mr. Adler calls “eccentric American glamour” with unmistakable undertones of WASP style (think shabby chic — minus the shabby, plus a little LSD and a lot of money).
Last summer, in the conservatory overlooking the walled garden, Mrs. Levy held podcast interviews with some members of the Steinberg family. The project provided them with an opportunity to connect during the pandemic, Mr Steinberg, 78, said in an interview. “I’m a private person,” he said, pointing out that he’d avoided the press in his professional heyday. But his daughter’s friendship with Mrs. Levy calmed him down. (Mr. Steinberg recalled that it was partly his brother’s attention that led to the family’s tabloid status as a cautionary tale, and Mr. Steinberg replied, “I know very well.”)
Mrs. Lange is curious, and a little nervous, to witness the reaction to her family saga, which is rich in money and privilege. “I don’t think my family story is more important or even as important as many of the other stories being told today,” she said. “But I think it’s a pretty crazy story, and who doesn’t love a crazy story?”