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SO FUR, SO GOOD

Mable Mauser is sitting at her antique desk with the spindly legs when the phone rings. The man on the line is not one of the Denver society people with whom she's worked for more than forty years. Nor is he a New York fur designer, or a rancher somewhere...
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Mable Mauser is sitting at her antique desk with the spindly legs when the phone rings. The man on the line is not one of the Denver society people with whom she's worked for more than forty years. Nor is he a New York fur designer, or a rancher somewhere in Montana inviting her to come shoot ducks, or one of hundreds of friends inviting her to shoot the breeze. Instead, the man is a new customer. He saw Mable's name in the phone book, of all places, and thought she might be able to help him.

"Did someone refer you?" Mable asks. The answer is no, and since Mable has not had a cold call in more than ten years, she is fascinated. She settles in for a good long talk, crossing her delicate ankles in their silk stockings and smoothing her elegant up-'do into place. She does not, however, rest her elbows on the desk.

The man tells her that upon the death of his wife, he found himself the owner of a light-brown mink stole. A few years later he met a woman and offered to give it to her. She said she'd like to have it, but she wanted it dyed black. Now she's thinking she might prefer a black mink coat--but what does he know from fur?

"I think I can help you," Mable decides. "I work by appointment, of course."
The man suggests he pop over right now. Mable stiffens in her chair. Now? But her curiosity overwhelms her sense of propriety. "All right," she decides, "you may see me now."

Soon after, the man arrives at the address Mable gave him: the Colonnade Building, at Colfax and Marion Street. He does not see a plate-glass display window or a mannequin draped in mink, let alone a sign advertising anything like a Big Midwinter Clearance Sale. Instead, he finds himself in a quiet, turn-of-the-century hallway with tiled floors and tiger-oak bannisters. Mable's number appears to lead to a residential apartment, unless you take note of the brass sign, about the size of a business card, that is riveted to the door. Mable's Furs.

The man rings the doorbell, and the resulting pong seems to bounce off thick, luxurious surfaces somewhere within. Then he hears the click-click of Mable's well-made leather pumps, and finally she stands before him in a tailored black suit, one gold chain around her neck--the sort of woman who could be almost any age, and you absolutely would never dream of asking, anyway. Behind her he sees gleaming hardwood floors, mirrors with beveled edges, cut flowers, antique furniture and rugs, and one velvety mink coat draped casually over a chair. This is a furrier?

"It's a salon," Mable corrects him. "Now. How tall is she? My size? How old? Forty?" She looks the man up and down. He is slim and white-haired, somewhere between sixty and seventy, and wearing slacks and a leather jacket.

"She's just a good friend," he tells Mable.
"Well, happy landing!" Mable replies. "That's the way to have it."
"She says she prefers black."

Mable excuses herself for a moment, then comes back with a black mink coat. She slithers into it effortlessly and strikes a pose. "Now, this," she says, "has a lot of oomph."

"Yes, it does," the man says, "but how many of my Social Security checks will it use up?"

"Isn't she worth it?"
The man ponders that for a moment. "No," he decides.
Mable looks the man right in the eye and laughs. "You may have to let me meet her," she decides.

"Why?"
"I'd like to talk to her about her lifestyle and interests." That way, Mable explains, she can locate the right coat at the right price. "But you need to bring her in."

"Well, okay," the man says.
As he leaves, he is talking to himself. "All I wanted to do was get my wife's fur stole dyed black, and I end up here," he mutters. The thing is, he's hooked. He'll be back. His friend, whether she deserves it or not, will end up swathed in black mink. And he'll be able to afford it--his financial priorities will mysteriously have changed. The man has been Mabled, like thousands before him in the four decades since she opened her salon.

Mable Sizemore grew up on farms in rural South Dakota and northwest Nebraska, the beloved sister of five brothers who took her with them when they went off to hunt ducks or check trap lines. On her seventeenth birthday, they pooled their money to buy Mable her first fur coat.

"It was a Wesley seal, dyed black, and it cost $120, which was an awful lot of money back then," she recalls. "After that, I was never without a fur. I did farm work just like the rest of the family, but I was brought up to be a lady. I looked at life as beautiful--velvet ribbons and white gloves and people with culture. I sought beauty. People, fashion and furs became a sort of romance with me."

As a child, Mable was constantly stealing her mother's clothes and restyling them; when she moved to Denver in 1941 to marry Fred Mauser, she instantly found work with a company she refers to eliptically as "a leading Western furrier." Under her Coco Chanel-like chic, Mable was certainly the only furrier in town who'd grown up trapping and stretching her own pelts.

By the early Fifties she felt ready to go into business for herself and opened the salon in the apartment she and Fred had lived in since 1945.

"I picked Capitol Hill because I felt as though the families whose ancestors had built Denver would feel comfortable here," she says. And she wanted them to feel at home once they got inside, too, wrapped in an atmosphere of "comfort and sincerity. I wish always for privacy," she explains. "I wish for unlimited time to enjoy looking at the furs. To see oneself in the background of a home atmosphere. I would bring the furs out one at a time until you found one you liked. But usually, you'd like the first or the second."

Not that shopping at Mable's was ever a speedy process. A few weeks after the grand opening in March 1953, she told a Denver Post fashion columnist, "I discourage hurried buying by serving my client coffee and conversing with her about her tastes and activities." To ensure that such conversations took place in a convivial atmosphere, Mable left those who walked by on the sidewalk practically no clue that a commercial business existed just inside the Colonnade's doors.

"No display window, I never wanted that," she says now. "The sun is terribly damaging to fur. I have never had a sale, either," she adds. "Sixty, seventy, eighty percent off--of what? I offer tremendous prices, if you want quality. We have no second line at all, but I always have a nice selection of top-of-the-line."

Nor has she ever wasted a moment worrying about animal-rights protesters: "My clients know what they want. They are not the type to be concerned with public opinion." Competition from Denver's bigger furriers, doesn't trouble her, either. "Darling," she laughs, "I am the bigger furrier."

Big enough, at any rate, to almost immediately start attracting the kind of customer who goes by her husband's name--Mrs. Henry Fisher Gates, Mrs. Elliott Roosevelt--and who, when Mable first set up shop, appeared at charity luncheons in white gloves, dark lipstick, a hat and a pocketbook large and heavy enough to serve as a weapon. And a fur, winter or summer, even if only a stole or a wrap. When Mable did not go out into Society--to put on a fashion show, pick up a brace of coats for storage or deliver some new confection--Society came to Mable.

"I wouldn't dare mention any names, but Mable had the elite of Denver," recalls Jane Smith, who began presenting fashion shows with Mable in 1950. "She always looked perfect, and yet she was very down-to-earth--as comfortable with a rancher's wife at stock show time as the most elite social leader in Denver. Everyone went to her because, you see, she is so extremely knowledgeable. She's an authority--not just in the care, but in the selection. She'd just look at you and tell you what color and style. Autumn Haze, she'd say. Or Black Diamond. I bought several coats from her over the years, and I'm down to just one--Autumn Haze. It's a mink, of course. I suppose she's the most elegant woman I've ever met."

And she hosted everyone, elegantly, in her salon, where they sat amid antiques and three-way mirrors and perhaps one or two coats hanging on a stainless-steel rack. Visiting dignitaries--all documented in Mable's scrapbook--included a host of Mrs. Someone Someones the Third, as well as several decades of Colorado Wool Queens, who wore mouton jackets designed by Mable and run up in her workrooms.

Business was so good that Mable and Fred, who did everything from bookkeeping to deliveries, moved to an apartment one floor above the salon and rented more rooms to house the alterations studio and storage vaults. When something more formal was called for, Mable and Fred would hold a fashion show and "champagne-style brunch."

Mable and her shows and her furs popped up in Town and Country and Vogue, where stoles graced the shoulders of gamine models. How did the world outside Denver find Mable? She avoids the question, saying only that "a customer recommends me because they are happy." Among the happy throng represented in the scrapbook is a Mrs. Corbin of Tokyo, who wrote in 1960 to thank Mable for talking her into two fur stoles instead of just one. The Cerullian, she admitted, had proved every bit as useful as the white mink.

"Well, she was a pearl broker," Mable recalls. "Her lifestyle could be extremely formal. You have to understand the lifestyle. And you have to understand my clients. There is an implicit confidence. They call or visit, they ask me for a certain fur, a certain designer, they tell me how much they wish to spend, and I get it for them."

Her salon has not changed by so much as a slipcover since 1953, even though the strip of Colfax outside her door has turned decidedly seedy and Mable is now on her third generation of clients--often from the same family. Perhaps that's why she has trouble delineating between a customer and a friend. The people who shop at Mable's obviously enjoy drinking her coffee, eating her paper-thin slices of fruitcake and revealing their innermost selves almost as much as they enjoy wearing her furs. By the time the fur-coat-buying process is over, Mable and her client are intimates who will proceed to spend many hours on the phone or around Mable's kitchen table.

"I'm the last of my line, and my patrons are my family," Mable says. "I doubt I've ever sold a coat to anyone who didn't become a friend. At the same time, though," she adds, "I value privacy. I may know a lot of people, but they don't all know me."

At least, they don't know all of her.
There's the Mable who over a week of interviews offers the bold-brushstroke story of her life, sharing enthusiasms for children and dogs, becoming wild and Western when discussing her gun collection, talking--but pointedly not asking--about the nature of romantic love. She has a wide-ranging sense of humor. She forgives sloppy appearances, while still warning that one day we must make something of the "gifts" God gave us. This Mable drinks a lot of coffee and eats a lot of chocolate. She laughs. She descends into low gossip and ascends into Good Books.

During this same week, Mable feeds a photographer Scotch and potato chips, as well as a completely different slice of herself. To the usual, generalized praises of her late husband--"He was a wonderful man, the romance never died"--she adds uncharacteristically specific details. She met Fred in a Nebraska grain elevator in 1928. He took one look at her and told her brother she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. He died sixty years later in her arms.

There are many more Mables. Thomas Hansen, a CPA who's done the salon's books since 1981, knows a sort of Auntie Mame Mable. "Mable's husband is gone, and she has no family nearby," he says. "Neither do I. We've gotten into the habit of going out to dinner quite a bit. We share the same birthday, and that's always quite an occasion for us. She's always suggesting we fly off to Vegas together." If they ever do, Mable will probably gamble in something black and understated. "I've never seen her look anything but elegant," Hansen says. "Once, we were going up to Berthoud together, and I said, `Mable, don't you have a pair of blue jeans or something?' She was just mortified."

But when they go out to dinner in the summer and Hansen shows up wearing Topsiders and no socks, Mable simply raises her eyebrows. "She'll sigh and say, `We'd better go somewhere casual, like the Ship's Tavern,'" he says. "And 99 percent of the time, that's where we go. The thing is--she loves the Ship's Tavern."

"It's my favorite restaurant," Mable admits. "I love fine dining, I love interesting people. I love young people. I don't have very many old friends; I suppose that's terrible."

But is it?
"Oh, I don't know," Mable laughs. "Maybe not."

Is it unladylike to spring out of bed every morning at 5, the last of your line, eager to get to work and happy to stay there until 10 p.m. or so? Mable often wonders. "I do always take a break in the evening for dinner," she concedes. "But I can't help feeling as though I'm on a mission. I have no plans to quit or sell."

Not when the fur business is so full of "developments," Mable marvels. "Men are buying fur now to wear themselves! All ages, all styles. I think that's so wonderful."

"I'm one of them," admits Hansen, who has bought two fur-and-leather coats from Mable. "And Mable really does find what you need. I always tell my friends: You can shop around anywhere, but you'll end up with Mable. She has the best prices, and she knows what you want. I love bringing people over to introduce them. When you open the door, it's like stepping into another era, a different age. My friends always are stunned."

So was lesbian novelist Rita Mae Brown, who passed through Denver five years ago and somehow ended up at Mable's. In short order, she bought a full-length natural lynx coat and began a correspondence with Mable, who keeps Brown's letters folded up inside her autographed works of fiction. Mable's favorite is a New Year's message from 1990:

"Dear Mable: Well, we all survived Christmas--and now the New Year is upon us with the attendant forced gaiety and hope. Each December 31st I rummage around in my Greek and Latin books for a maxim to guide me through the year. This year I happened to pick up Seneca and read the following: Scorn pain. Either it will go away or you will."

"Scorn pain. That is exactly right," Mable says. "If you wish to be unhappy, no one can help you. You have to find something to love. You have to observe beauty and appreciate it. You have to be interested."

That's what clients are for.
"She has a couple of categories of customers," says Hansen. "She has the older, established society people, and then she has the up-and-coming Junior League type. I know of one woman who stores up to fifty pieces with Mable. And then she's got that section that's small, of people who are only ever going to buy one fur, and it's a big deal--the biggest purchase they'll ever make, outside of a home."

"Oh, the joy," Mable says. "He wants to do something lovely for her, and you can nearly see into their marriage, the life that they've built and the life that they've led."

More commonly, husbands send their wives in to pick something out--but Mable prefers to focus on the men who brave the ultrafemininity of the salon. "I particularly remember one man who had just sold the business he'd had for 45 years," she says. "He brought his wife in to buy her a mink. They'd built the business together, and he wanted to reward her. But she picked out a little old squirrel stole. She just didn't think she'd be comfortable in a full-length mink coat." That satisfied the wife but not the husband, who had his heart set on buying a mink coat.

"He came back the next day with his secretary," Mable continues. "She'd worked hard for him and been loyal, too. He bought her the mink and she accepted it graciously. If a man wants to buy a woman a fur, she should take it graciously and lovingly," she concludes. "It's such a moment for him--he so much wants, well, to do it. There is almost no way to describe how important it is to him."

No such tensions surfaced in Fred and Mable's marriage.
"Every relationship, business or otherwise, needs a nice guy, a quiet man behind the scenes," says Hansen. "Fred was that. He ran the office, kept the books, did some deliveries, and he died a couple weeks short of his 92nd birthday with a full head of white hair, very active to the last."

"He enjoyed every moment of the business by my side," Mable says. "We used to walk to the Capitol every night after dinner with our dogs." On rare weekends off, Fred and Mable visited friends on remote ranches, where Mable kept up her marksmanship--she still has an impressive collection of guns. But most of her scrapbook pictures show Mable and Fred dressed to the nines, seated properly on an antique sofa or standing side by side waiting to receive the fur-buying public.

In the further recesses of the scrapbook are photographs of Laura, a niece the Mausers adopted in childhood. In one of Mable's favorite shots, Laura sits on the floor, covered with a pile of fur jackets dyed in bright colors.

"She was strictly a white-glove person," Mable recalls. "She loved history, music, culture..."

But not for long. Laura died of bone cancer in her early twenties. Mable still frequently refers to her in the present tense, often picking up framed pictures of her and kissing them.

"We could not have endured her death without the sisters at the Mother Cabrini Shrine," Mable recalls. "They were so lovely to Laura. They took her through her adjustment to facing death without tears."

After Laura's death, Fred and Mable donated $15,000 worth of mink to a raffle. The money raised went to widening the road to the shrine.

"How do you live through these things? You don't," Mable says. "Not at first. When Fred died in 1989, I tried to go ahead and live my life and shut off my memories, but it didn't work. It occurred to me that my memories are my life. It gave me strength to surrender to that."

Besides, there was still work to do.

On Valentine's Day, Mable clicks about the salon in yet another perfect black outfit, debating whether to send herself red roses from her dearly departed husband. "I always do," she says, "but they want forty dollars a dozen! By tomorrow, they'll be ten. I don't think Fred would mind."

Then she rushes off to answer the phone that has been ringing steadily since early morning. All the calls, apparently, are Valentine-related--Mable addresses everyone as "honey" or "darling." Between calls, she is always politely excusing herself, exiting down a hallway and returning with something--a snack, a coat, a clipping. But never one of her four full-time employees, who are stashed somewhere in the back along with the hundred or so fur coats that Mable stores.

"They're all here," she says. "You can take my word for it."
You can take Mable's word for a lot. As to where she gets her furs, for example, "Oh, I wouldn't get into all that," she says gently. "When it comes to fur, the more mystery the better."

Mable is much more forthcoming about what happens when a fur gets to her. "Now, here's the thing one should know about our service department," she says, waiting--not unlike a fourth-grade teacher--until she is sure her words are being written down. "All of our furs are hand-cleaned, and a coat can be brought up to the style of the moment with no trouble at all. It's just like buying a house. You can always add a room."

As if to illustrate her point, Mable begins moving to another room. "I want to show you something," she says.

On a hanger in the living room rests a light-brown coat, long, with one sleeve un-hemmed. There is something extremely un-mink and un-stuffy about it...perhaps because the pelt is a mix of colors, including a silver-gray.

"Yes, and you should stop dyeing that hair of yours, too," Mable says, "since you seem to be dressing for that natural look. Now try it on. This is a fur that will melt your heart."

It does, of course. It even seems to complement black combat boots and paint-splattered jeans.

"It's raccoon. I'm going to have to let it go," Mable adds lightly, "for $900."

Fortunately, at that moment the doorbell rings. It's Cathy Davidson, an old friend and client who doubles as a registered nurse. She's come to give Mable the B-12 shot she's taken for more years than she will admit, as well as to deliver a box of chocolates.

"I wore the little black mink jacket," Cathy tells Mable. "Has it really been twenty years since I bought that little jacket? By the way, Mable, you look wonderful. Sidney sent me flowers! Did Fred send you any?"

"Not yet," Mable laughs.
"Are you still having trouble with that swollen foot? Let me see your foot."
Mable stands up and, with an indescribably sensual gesture, releases her stocking from its garter without raising the hem of her skirt. Cathy inspects the foot and pronounces it much improved. Then she picks up her black mink and flies out the door.

"Cathy used to be the nurse for our family doctor," Mable says. "Now she is Mrs. Sidney Davidson. She can come in and choose whatever coat she wants. Occasionally, she does. Have some of this chocolate. If you don't, I'll eat it all myself."

Which would be a travesty, because Mable will be eating out tonight--the Palace Arms instead of the Ship's Tavern.

"Oh, this foot," she says. "It makes me so angry. I'll have to wear these ugly old shoes to the Brown Palace."

What else?
"Well, I always wear black. I think it looks best on me, with my coloring. Also, you have to watch your age around the patrons. I try not to wear things that age me. They spend a great deal of money and entrust me with a lot. They'd like to think I'd stick around for a while."

And what about a coat?
"Oh, a cape, I think," she says. "A mink cape. Long. A Great Lakes black mink cape. What do you think?

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