He says his first name is Nudie. He also says his middle and last names are Nudie. And if that isn't the truth, and it probably isn't, it is true that he has put western clothes on everyone from Tom Mix to Robert Redford -- including Gene Autry, John Wayne, Audie Murphy, Elvis Presley, Gloria Swanson, Cher, Elton John, Liberace and Princess Margaret.
He's 78, and honest tears flow when he talks about his history -- about his parents' origins in Europe, or how in 1938 he left Brooklyn, where he lived (and Broadway, where he sold G-strings to showgirls) and moved to California. In the four decades since, he has become king of cowboy couture.
He's a tailor, he says, not a designer, and when he got to California with his wife she attempted to set up shop in his garage.
"I went to see a friend of mine, Tex Williams," he says. "Well, he wasn't exactly a friend -- I knew of him though. I went to see him and asked him if he could loan me $150 for a sewing machine. He was out mowing his lawn and he said, 'Would I be mowing my lawn if I had a sewing machine?'"
Nudie turned away and Williams called after him, "I got a horse and saddle that I'd like to sell, since I can't afford the feed. Sell it for $150 and I'll loan it to you."
Nudie carried off the sale, got the $150 (minus the $15 commission he had to pay) and started sewing shirts and pants. Williams was his first customer, then Williams' country-and-western band, then Roy Rogers. "Then it went like lightning, and after a year and a half the drawers were so full of money he moved out to a shop."
Twenty years later, he's sitting in the back of his shop, in North Hollywood on Lankershim Boulevard wearing a wide-brimmed palomino hat with silver band. several gold chains, a copper bracelet, western jacket and boots in two different colors.
There's a story about that, too. "When I was a kid I had no shoes to wear," he begins. "In the wintertime I'd come to school with rags on my feet, then hang the rags on the steam heat to dry.
"One day my teacher came in with a pair of boots she found in the trash. They were two different colors and two different sizes but they fit me -- and it felt so good I made up my mind then that I'd never wear two boots that matched."
The boom in cowboy clothes hasn't affected his business much, but it can't hurt, either. He's got just about all the film, television and country music customers. And he has other customers, like the man from Belgium who came in recently and bought $18,000 worth of real Indian rugs. He's the same guy who bought a $35,000 silver saddle a year ago. (Right now there's a handmade silver saddle in the works for Liberace.)
Nudie won't say how big his business is. He guesses he's got about $500,000 in stock in the store, and a skilled staff of about 20 who handmake boots, saddles, belts, just about everything for his clients.
"There isn't a man living who wouldn't like to wear western clothes," says Nudie. "Most of them are embarrassed at first and come in and stand bowlegged making fun of cowboys. But they like it because if you wear western clothes you are noticeable by both men and women," he says. When he goes to "Frisco," everyone in the plane but Nudie is in black suits and "everyone admires me," he says. "And when I go to a nightclub, everyone comes over and asks for my autograph."
Nudie made the first rhinestone cowboy suit for country music pioneer Lefty Frizzell. Frizzell, then an unknown, approached Nudie in Nashville and said, "When I can afford it, I'd like to wear a Nudie suit," Nudie recalls. "I was touched," Nudie says, and suggested that he measure Frizzell and when Frizzell could afford it, he'd send him a shirt.
Nudie went home, made him a suit, "and sent it to him for nothing," he says.
When Frizzell became more popular in the 1950s, Nudie asked if he could make him a suit with rhinestones. "I can't wear a suit like that," protested Frizzell. Nudie answered, "I done you a favor -- now you can do something for me." Nudie recalls that Frizzell was almost crying when he performed in the suit, but by the time he got off stage, 30 other performers were asking to have Nudie make them rhinestone suits.
"I guess that makes me the original rhinestone cowboy," he says.
Nudie's flash doesn't stop at the shop door. He drives a white Cadillac convertible with hand-tooled interior the steering wheel, door panels and dashboard are "decorated" with more than 1,000 silver dollars. Bull horns are mounted on the front fender, and a saddlebag is his personalized litterbucket.He replaced the gear shift with a six-shooter, the brake handles with derringers, and pistols have taken the place of door handles and armrests.
He's not much worried about anyone bothering him -- he's also honorary sheriff of Hollywood.