The Leopard Hat: A Daughter's Story

by Valerie Steiker

In an age where woe-is-me memoirs reign supreme, can a book
documenting a blissfully happy childhood keep readers coming back
for more? If the book is THE LEOPARD HAT by Valerie Steiker, the
answer is a resounding yes.

Steiker and her sister grow up in a privileged world in '70s
Manhattan with the best schools, a lovingly decorated luxury
apartment, and most importantly, parents who dote on their children
as well as each other. This domain is ruled over by their adoring
mother Gisèle, whose forceful personality, unfailing wit, and
zest for life practically spring from the book's pages.

With a delicious flair for detail, Steiker reminisces on childhood
indulgences, such as a romp in her mother's immense closets to
search for treasure, a new word "brought home" each night in her
father's briefcase, or leisurely family vacations that allow this
tight-knit family to grow even closer. Faced with such an idyllic
picture of family life, one might find it difficult not to feel
jealous of this storied existence. Instead, the reader feels a
voyeur's sense of thankfulness at being admitted to this world of
incandescent memories and red-velvet lined foyers, even if it's
just for a fleeting look.

Steiker understands that even a memoir must be plot-driven, and her
tale is given structure through cleverly crafted chapters with
names like "Snakes in the Grass," "White Goose," or the eponymous
"Leopard Hat." After opening with a rich account of a near-perfect
childhood, Steiker focuses the narrative on the book's true
protagonist: her mother. The book's subtitle says it is "a
daughter's story" but it may, in point of fact, be a mother's
story. Gisèle's adventuresome life is far too engaging not to
be told.

To better understand the force with which her mother pursues
happiness for her daughters, Steiker revisits Gisèle's
war-torn childhood. As a Belgian Jew, Gisèle only survived the
Holocaust through the cunning of her own mother, who secured hiding
places with a secret cache of diamonds. At the war's end, she
escaped the prospect of a dull, loveless marriage to travel to
America and start anew. Among Gisèle's many adventures were
her months studying at The Actor's Studio, a youthful sojourn in
Mexico, and finally, a brief period in Los Angeles. In her late
20s, she left all that behind to return to New York, where she met
and married "her Jerry," Steiker's father.

Most vivid is the book's engrossing depiction of love between
mother and daughter --- with all its ups and downs --- a subject
that has not been this richly mined since Vivian Gornick's memoir,
FIERCE ATTACHMENTS. Gornick, one of American memoir's old guard,
explored how liberated New York women in the '50s and '60s adapted
to adulthood with decidedly Old World Jewish mothers.

What makes THE LEOPARD HAT a cutting edge memoir is the fact that
it may be one of the first American books to adequately investigate
the quandary of Generation-X women and their mothers. As the
daughters of the first generation of truly liberated women, Xers
were taught they could do anything they wanted with their lives ---
as long as it was important. In one particularly well-crafted
scene, Steiker discusses this dilemma with a like-minded colleague
who had also been told that anything was possible:

"We came to the conclusion that it was highly agreeable, but also
slightly daunting. You can't go anywhere in life if you don't
choose a direction, but taking that first step feels too limiting.
It requires a mental letting go of all those other intangible
possibilities. So as long as you don't make a decision, you stay
free --- a freedom that, because it prevents you from moving on,
quickly becomes its own kind of prison."

This statement could well sum up the dilemma of an entire

It seems that just when Steiker needs her mother the most, right on
the brink of adulthood, she is forced to navigate the perilous
world without Gisèle's watchful guidance. Many of the book's
best chapters unfold around the difficulty Steiker encounters in
struggling to live without her mother's constant love and

Many writers make the mistake of crafting a memoir to unfold
chronologically, but Steiker's ear for story allows her to
masterfully weave the disparate elements of her mother's tale
together in a way that forms a cohesive plot. Be prepared for the
enduring images THE LEOPARD HAT creates; these stories and
anecdotes persevere long after the reader closes the book for the
last time. Don't be too surprised if you find yourself rereading
passages just to enjoy Steiker's lush prose, rich descriptions, and
above all --- the talent for living she inherited from her
unforgettable mother.

Reviewed by Andrea E. Hoag on January 22, 2011

The Leopard Hat: A Daughter's Story
by Valerie Steiker

  • Publication Date: May 6, 2003
  • Genres: Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage
  • ISBN-10: 0375726209
  • ISBN-13: 9780375726200