Written by Roberta Gratz
The year we were married,1965, Donald told me he was making some equipment for Henri Bendel’s department store. He didn’t explain what it was, just that it was an ‘apparatus.’ He explained that he had gone to the studio of the man who designed the apparatus and that it was some new kind of exercise equipment. I don’t remember if he told me that the studio belonged to a man named Joe Pilates; it would have meant nothing to me at the time.
I had been learning about Donald’s metal fabrication business (started in the 1920s by his father and a partner) since before we were married. I was especially interested in the big name sculptors and architects he was working for. I was fascinated, as well, by the variety of ‘oddities’ he was fabricating.
What he described to me sounded weird (who had ever heard the name Pilates before?) but Bendel’s? Well, that meant something to me as far as top of the line fashion goes.
Time went on. I did not get access to any Bendel’s discounts and he was doing other things that interested me more. After all, I was a newspaper reporter at the New York Post covering all sorts of city development issues, including planning, architectural design, the art world and neighborhood change. And he was working for the best of them: Barnet Newman, Isamu Noguchi, I.M. Pei and Phillip Johnson.
Then in 1968, he started telling me he was working with this woman, Romana, to replicate that Bendel’s ‘apparatus’ and it would be a new line of production for Treitel-Gratz, the company’s name before it was changed some years later to Gratz Industries. “She’s a genius,” I remember him telling me, something he didn’t say about too many people but, most importantly, a wonderful person. Time went on, the equipment was produced and one day, he asked me to meet him at Romana’s studio on West 55th Street. We were going somewhere nearby and he was anxious for me to meet her and to see the apparatus.
I relented. Indeed, she was so sweet and friendly and the rapport between them was a real love match. But the Pilates stuff? I still wasn’t so sure. It looked as weird as it sounded and all those beautiful bodies, mostly dancers as I recall, working out intimidated me.
Donald Gratz, right, and artist Barnett Newman in the Treitel-Gratz workshop during fabrication of Newman’s sculpture Here 111, 1966. Source.
For years, Donald urged me to try Pilates with Romana. I resisted. “Why should I when you won’t do it?” Romana never stopped trying to get him to try. Then he fell off a ladder installing something on a job and broke his knee. He went to Romana and together they worked out something with a leather bean bag for him to exercise with. (Gratz Industries now makes this ‘bean bag’ roll up device in canvas). Eventually, he got better but still never got on any apparatus or Pilates machine.
Then, in 1982, I was in a very serious car accident – broken pelvis, one leg shorter than the other. Pain continued for two years and then a dislocated shoulder added to my problems. Finally, I relented to his pleadings. I went to Romana. She, of course, could not have been nicer. She changed my life. She cured the shoulder pretty quickly and though not the difference length of my legs, she got me back in shape and I’ve continued a Pilates regular ever since. I went to the 57th Studio. It always amused me. I had something of a reputation around the city, as a book author and city activist. But when I walked into Drago’s on 57th Street, I was a REAL celebrity because I was MRS. Donald Gratz. No one knew anything about what I did but they only cared that I was married to the ‘genius’ Donald Gratz.
Over the years, others have tried to knock off our equipment but without Romana’s imprimatur, nothing really survived but poor knock-offs. Romana fiercely protected the relationship between her and Donald. There was no contract. No signed document, no piece of paper of any kind. Just an old-fashioned dedicated working friendship. She endorsed only Gratz Industries equipment and Donald bent over backwards for her. Romana’s Pilates still uses our equipment.
Since both Romana and Donald died, many have tried to match our incomparable standard and never succeeded. They make claims they can’t support. Buyers lined up after Donald died but I refused to sell the company, committed to maintaining the standard of excellence achieved during all those years. The spirit of both Romana and Donald persist on the shop floor of Gratz Pilates in Philadelphia.
As our poster with Joe Pilates on our reformer says: “He invented it; we make it.”