My very first recollections are of playing in a store and in its warehouse with kind, merry, fascinating women and men. My happiest childhood memories are of traveling with my father on exciting trains and ships to mysterious and foreign places – New York, Paris, Berlin, Milan, London – where he was buying things for “the store.”
When, at the age of twenty in 1947, I graduated from Harvard, I went to work at the family store, A. Harris & Company, as automatically and unquestioningly as the son of a medieval stonemason would have followed his father’s craft. Or perhaps more accurately, it was as some minor noble’s heir assuming his father’s fiefdom, for despite the disadvantages of their religion, these Jewish merchants resembled the petty German princes in their own localities. My uncle died in 1950, whereupon his son and I ran the store until we sold it in 1961 to Federated Department Stores. There is, therefore, probably no retail practice, moral or im, legal or il, successful or un, that I have not tried myself; not an important merchant of the period whom I have not met; not a way to support (or undermine) a local institution I have not learned; not a mistake I have not made – at least once.
It seems to me that the recorder of a history in which he and his family took part cannot be only a recorder. It would be arch to pretend that my family and I were not responsible for acts and omissions, good and bad, that could appropriately illustrate this history. Therefore, I have on occasion found it justifiable, despite the temptations of modesty and pride, to mention some. This puts me in the position of exposing my own family’s closet, which seems only fair given the others I have revealed.
When Al Neiman and Herbert Marcus opened their store in Dallas on September 10, 1907, they were already late.
The town’s very tentative beginning had been some 66 years earlier, when John Neely Bryan, with his Cherokee friend Ned, his pony Neshoba Tenva (Walking Wolf), and his dog Tubby, arrived in November 1841 at an uninhabited ford in the Trinity River. Bryan too was late. He had come to open an Indian trading post, but the Indians were gone.
There was no good reason for a town to grow here. There was no confluence of important rivers; in fact, the Trinity was at best only intermittently navigable and on occasion went dry.
Promotion was what built Dallas, early and late. An early victim of Dallas flack-ery arrived from Missouri in 1844 and complained in his journal: “We soon reached the place we had heard of so often; but the town, where was it? Two small log cabins – this was the town of Dallas, and two families of ten or twelve souls was its population.”
Once Dallas had railroad connections, its chances for growth were at least sufficient to tempt the braver – or more footloose – Jewish “terminal merchants,” such as the brothers Sanger who followed the building of the Houston & Texas Central from Houston through Millican, Bryan, Hearne, Calvert, Bremond, Kosse, Groes-beck, Corsicana, and finally to Dallas.
The first Sanger to come to America was Isaac, who arrived in 1851. He clerked with cousins in New Haven and NewYork until he had saved enough money by 1858 to indulge his “Texas fever,” opening a store in McKinney, a village so far north from Houston that goods sent up by ox-wagon were four weeks in transit.
In 1854 Isaac helped to bring over his brother Lehman, who “went to New Haven where I stayed with my uncle Mandel-baum for a while. . . and in order to brighten up in the language went to peddling with a basket of notions about the city.”
After four years of such brightening up in Chicago and Georgia, Lehman joined Isaac in McKinney, where he took charge of the store while Isaac opened a branch in Weather ford, Texas.
In 1856 Isaac and Lehman brought over their sixteen-year-old brother, Philip, who went to work in Georgia peddling for their cousins, the Hellers.
Isaac, Lehman, and Philip all enlisted in the Confederate army and Philip was slightly wounded.
At the war’s end, Lehman was too poor to buy a horse, so he “tramped it afoot” back to Weatherford, where a friend with whom he had left $300 in gold miraculously still had it and turned it over. Lehman then set off by stagecoach for Waco and Houston. He passed through the village of Millican, the northern terminus of the Houston & Texas Central, and decided it was a good place to set up as a storekeeper with Isaac. So, after a brief buying trip, Lehman returned to Millican where, for $5 a month, he rented half of a tiny store from a cobbler who occupied the other half. His entire inventory of dry goods and groceries could be “contained in one small Saratoga trunk. I paid cash. Could have bought goods on credit, but things looked rather ’squally’ and it was against my policy to involve myself until things looked more settled.”
Isaac and Lehman took on as a partner Morris Lasker, the younger brother of the German Liberal politician Edouard Lasker. Morris later moved to Galveston, where he became a prominent merchant and banker. His son, Albert Lasker, was first a pioneer and then a giant in national advertising – the new form of merchandising that would determine how Americans spent their money.
Although Morris Lasker and the Sang-ers would in a few years become rich, “In those days we all slept in the store by making pallets on the floor. Beds were a luxury, the limited space of the room did not permit beds and we preferred to sleep in the store as a matter of precaution.”
As the railroad pushed north to such now almost forgotten villages as Calvert, Kosse, and Groesbeck, the Sangers had to push forward too, because their customers were very widely distributed, and if the terminus of the railroad moved 30 miles closer to them and the Sangers didn’t open a store there, another “terminal merchant” would take over the trade. In 1870 the Sangers opened a branch at Bre-mond and another at Corsicana, and finally, in 1872, on the courthouse square of the newest terminus, Dallas.
As Dallas boomed, so did Sanger Brothers, until by the turn of the century it was the greatest dry-goods company west of the Mississippi. Not only did it have large retail department stores in Dallas and Waco but also a wholesale business second in importance only to that of Marshall Field in Chicago.
With their escalating wealth, the brothers enjoyed an ever grander style of living and at least as grand a manner. There was, of course, a rationale to justify why the exemplary thrift of many years was now replaced by lavish luxury. If the storekeeper, so the reasoning went, was authoritatively to set the style for what people should wear, the storekeeper’s family had to set the styles as to how families should live – how they should build, furnish, and decorate their houses, train and costume their servants, and how they should entertain.
The first posh residential area, away from downtown Dallas by only a dozen blocks, was called “The Cedars” – and the two most important houses in it were those of Philip and Alex Sanger. Philip’s was an outright copy of a summer mansion he had seen at Long Branch, on the Jersey Coast. Built in 1885 at the corner of Ervay and St. Louis streets, Philip’s home was grand enough that even half a century later as critical an observer as Edna Ferber would declare: “It’s worth a trip to Texas just to see it!”
The enormous house, its wide, railed verandah and the double stairway leading up to it, the attic turrets (where the white servants slept) and lacy trellises were all of wood painted a deep beige. Inside, too, wood declared the wealth of the family: Honduran mahogany, cherry, rosewood, and oak, four-foot-high wainscoting, dark-stained paneling, and mantels intricately carved by Italian workmen Sanger brought down from New York.
Some of the workmen stayed on in Dallas and applied their talents to other houses in the booming city. In Philip’s house their elaborately carved shelves, nooks, brackets, cabinets, and columns displayed a bust of Sarah Bernhardt as l’Aiglon, the mandatory Italian marble sculpture of Cupid and Psyche, and countless bisque, porcelain, terracotta, and glass bibelots, bric-a-brac, gew-gaws, knickknacks. In those days in America there was an endless supply of maids to dust them. The same endless supply often guaranteed the immediate replacement of any maid who was so wickedly careless as to break one of these Victorian treasures, or so stubborn and foolish as to resist the sexual opportunings of the master of the house or the first fumbling efforts of his sons.
Alex Sanger’s three-story cream brick mansion was designed to be, if possible, even more elegant than Philip’s, with chandeliers from Louis Comfort Tiffany, an ivory board in the library on which children and neighbors were expected to list the books they borrowed, and – an almost scandalous luxury – a “powder room” with inside plumbing just for guests. The butler’s pantry had a sink used only for washing fine crystal, and there were two extra dining rooms, one for white servants and poor relations, another for blacks.
Their usual style of living followed wherever Alex Sanger and his family went with children, grandchildren, guests, and servants to escape the torrid Texas summers: on a European grand tour, or to Marienbad or Mackinac. Often it was to Rangeley, Maine, where other retail royalty – the Hutzlers of Baltimore, the Gimbels of Philadelphia – also had “cabins” that approached the common concept of a cabin about as nearly as the “cottages” of Newport approximated the usual cottage.
Although family rivalries, envy, and greed for personal advancement were not allowed to injure “the store,” competition in social matters – especially among female members of the family – was intense and unrestrained, and it extended to every level of the household. Adolph, Philip Sanger’s German gardener, was not satisfied merely to supply every room of the house year round with flowers and plants from (he cutting gardens and greenhouse. These had to be better, rarer, more surprising than those supplied by Alex’s gardeners. If at Cornelia Sanger’s first tea party after the New Year the center of the table boasted an enormous epergne full of forced violets and lilies-of-the-valley long before any such had graced the Alex Sanger house, it was a triumph for Adolph as much as for his mistress.
Cornelia’s lady’s maid, Australia Center, felt a personal responsibility to try to keep Cornelia better coiffed and dressed than Evelyn Sanger, Alex’s daughter-in-law, who was the mistress of his widower’s house until he died in 1925. Australia Center’s goal was not an easy one, because Evelyn was a “tearing beauty,” who floated through Dallas society in her famous pastel chiffon gowns inspiring the admiration – some said inflaming the passions – of generations of Dallas men, of whom the millionaire Dallas mayor Henry Lindsley was only the most prominent.
No other event offered so great an opportunity for competitive elegance and extravagance as a family wedding. When Philip’s beautiful daughter Lois married the handsome and notorious Clarence Linz – an heir to the finest jewelry store in town, Linz Brothers – Dallas’ always overwrought society journal, BeauMonde, was sorely taxed to describe adequately “one of the most fortunate marriages of all times.”
Clarence Linz would prove to be one of the most compulsively adulterous husbands in Dallas history and perhaps its most extraordinarily inept businessman as well, repeatedly snatching failure from the very jaws of success. A partner in the city’s first dial telephone company and in what is still one of its greatest insurance companies, he would lose both these potential fortunes and make himself instrumental in the family’s loss of Sanger Brothers to outsiders. Yet the marriage would last for over fifty years.
Not to be outdone by Philip, Alex’s only child, Elihu Sanger, had laid on a wedding feast for his Cousin Lois that, according to Beau Monde, was “so preeminently smart it was right up to the minute according to the swellest New York edicts.”
Even in that day of extravagant and fatuous society reporting, perhaps no one in America surpassed the Beau Monde’s editor, Iowa-born Mrs. Hugh Nugent Fitzgerald, in her ability to combine malapropism with hyperbole and cliche with tautology. Every rich Dallas family, Jewish or Gentile, had its favorite Fitz-geraldism. In my own family it was her reportage of the honeymoon plans of my father’s older brother and his fiancee, including the breathless revelation that “The bride will air her lingerie at Atlantic City.” Admittedly, this is not quite up to her description of Helen Adams, whom Mrs. Fitzgerald reported she saw on the golf links “gracefully swinging her caddy.”
The Sanger family had already for many years provided the model and measure of elegance when young Herbert Marcus began his Dallas retailing career as a shoe clerk at Sanger Brothers. Born in Louisville in 1878 of recently arrived immigrant parents, he had at fifteen followed his older brother Theo to the Texas village of Hillsboro, 55 miles southwest of Dallas, in the hope of earning enough to help support his parents and three sisters.
Marcus never finished grade school, let alone high school or college, and this was a source of acute embarrassment to him all his life. But it was probably also a significant factor in his great success. My uncle, Arthur Kramer, was put through both the University of Texas and its law school by the sacrifices of his large family, but he early left the bar to marry my grandfather’s daughter Camille and so enter A. Harris & Company. At any dinner, cocktail party, or meeting, Kramer invariably seized the first opportunity to tell his Herbert Marcus Story. “For years Herbert was so humiliated by his lack of education,” Kramer would confide with obvious relish, “that he finally decided to educate himself by reading the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica from cover to cover. And so, when you heard him at a dance, apropos of nothing at all, begin to expound on Dickens and Dostoevski, you knew he was in Volume D. But he became successful so fast that he gave it up in the middle of Volume M and, therefore, if you ask him about Thackeray and Tolstoi, he thinks it’s a cloak and suit manufacturer on Seventh Avenue.”
Kramer, of course, meant the anecdote to diminish Marcus, but on most people who knew both men it had the opposite effect. It illustrated the peevish envy Kramer felt for Marcus’ obviously far greater abilities, an envy that led Kramer to imitate Marcus in business. And it illustrated Matcus’ irresistible determination to achieve by hard work in every area of his life those things that were important to him.
Marcus’ enormous ambition and, even for that day, phenomenal hard work were not lost on Philip Sanger, who soon made Herbert the buyer of boys’ clothing. Herbert had married Minnie Lichtenstein when he was so poor that they had to live with her parents, who were Russian-Polish immigrants. The Marcuses said that they were German Jews, and Theo refused to attend Herbert’s wedding because Herbert was “marrying beneath himself.” “I resented it then and I still resent it,” Minnie remembered at ninety. “We hadn’t a penny, and Papa said, ’You have to save five hundred dollars the first year of marriage,’ so every day Herbert went to work carrying his lunch in a brown bag. 1 remember how odd it looked; he was always so elegantly dressed, even then, and that brown bag just didn’t fit.”
When Minnie became, pregnant, Herbert asked for a raise. All his life he was fond of saying that if Alex Sanger had then offered him just a bit more than a $1.25 a week increase, he would probably always have re-j mained at Sanger Brothers. The offer was not only insufficient for his growing needs, but, perhaps more important, it so wounded the growing ego of the poverty-proud Marcus that he quit.
I cannot point out Alex Sanger’s lack of prescience! without confessing that my own grandfather’s was equally deplorable, for he allowed to escape from his i employment Herbert’s slim, dark, doe-eyed, younger sister Carrie, who had become one of the best saleswomen at A. Harris & Company. There she revealed a sure sense of fashion not only extraordinary for an uneducated and untraveled woman not yet twenty, but one never equaled either by her brother or her nephew Stanley and not surpassed by any other American retailer.
Carrie had married the colorful Abraham Lincoln Neiman, always called “Al,” who was an occasional employee of my grandfather. Al’s business was “putting on sales.” This consisted of helping merchants to sell their mark-downs (and even augmenting this sale merchandise by skillfully buying for them closeouts from manufacturers and jobbers) by whatever flamboyant means could be assembled: a local brass band or drum-and-bugle corps, a fire department parade, hyperbolic banners promising unbelievable bargains hung across the town’s main street. In those days – long before movies, radio, or television – street theater, usually in some form of parade, brought out most of a town’s citizens and the farm families from miles around. The imaginative and often outrageous Neiman was a wonder at whipping up excitement and helping less imaginative merchants to move their mistakes.
After he quit Sanger Brothers in 1905, Herbert moved to Atlanta with Minnie and their six-week-old firstborn, Stanley. Herbert convinced Al and Carrie to join him there, and for two years they operated the American Salvage Company, a delightfully profitable but depressingly un-chic enterprise that put on sales for merchants all over Georgia.
But Minnie missed Dallas, and all of them increasingly dreamed of owning a store there and becoming as rich and important as their former employers. So they saved scrupulously. By 1907 they were able to return to Dallas, where with the financial help of Theo, by then a successful cotton broker, they opened their own store.
The Marcus family’s publicity has often tended to minimize the importance of Al Neiman’s role in the store’s first two decades before he left in an atmosphere of scandal and acrimony. But the new store was not called “Neiman-Marcus” rather than “Marcus-Neiman” because Al was less important than Herbert.
Herbert was twenty-nine, Carrie twenty-four, and Al only twenty-seven, and to Dallas’ already successful merchants what these young new store owners were doing seemed risky to the point of foolhardiness. They proposed to open a frankly expensive store in a town as yet far from rich. Even riskier was their insistence that this store’s high-priced clothing would not be custom-made but ready-to-wear.
Fashionable rich women of Dallas in 1907 still had their clothes made to order in New York and by the best local dressmakers, including Miss Ward of Sanger Brothers, Madame Bartel of A. Harris & Company, and Titche-Goettinger’s Madame Snow. Neiman-Marcus promised that its revolutionary ready-made clothes would be even finer than made-to-order fashions. To insure the proper fit for these off-the-rack outfits Neiman-Marcus hired Madame Bartel away from A. Harris & Company, but made it plain that she would only fit and alter ready-made fashions – thus offering the best of both worlds.
For American business, 1907 was a very bad year; thirteen New York banks and several railroads failed., But Neiman-Marcus flourished from its inception. Al Neiman provided both the promotional flair and the , bargains that protected the store from a reputation of being exclusively for the very rich. Throughout its existence, Neiman-Marcus has been extraordinary in its ability to maintain its reputation and supremacy as a rich women’s store, while at the same time attracting and keeping a large trade of middle-class and working women without whom it could not have survived and grown. The store had to preserve an exclusive and expensive atmosphere for its rich clients, make them feel protected from hoi polloi, and keep them from feeling like suckers for buying high-priced fashions rather than the cheaper equivalents available in the same store and advertised in the newspapers. It had at the same time to guard against frightening away the less than rich.
While Al concentrated especially on the promotions and bargains, Herbert and Carrie put much of their emphasis on buying only what was most fashionable and of the best quality. If what the markets provided did not suit them, they specified the improvements they required and paid extra for them, as of course did their customers.
Herbert Marcus always remained fanatical about quality. Until after World War II, every piece of expensive ready-to-wear received by the store was put on a form and thoroughly inspected. If any detail of fit, any handmade button hole, the pressing and shaping of a suit lapel, or the hang of the skirt was less than the best, the garment was returned to the manufacturer.
But the chief cause of the store’s success was that Al, Herbert, and Carrie all spent endless hours on the selling floor and in the fitting rooms with customers, carefully, ingratiatingly, patiently explaining those elements of quality that made their things more expensive as well as the new fashion elements that they promised would differentiate the customer from less demanding and knowledgeable peers, precisely as they differentiated Neiman-Marcus from lesser stores. It was the “highfalutinest” kind of selling Dallas had ever seen, but it was selling at its best – and it worked.
Many years later, when Neiman-Marcus had become famous, a granddaughter of one of the brothers Sanger took a visiting New York friend through the store and was embarrassed by Herbert’s relentless selling. “He followed us everywhere, with a cashmere throw over one arm and a mink coat over the other. And as he described the virtues of each, he stroked it as one would a lover. It was mortifying – he was like an Arab in front of his souk. I never saw my grandfather do anything like that!”
In fact, Alex Sanger had long since given up selling customers and become quite grand. Perhaps not entirely coinci-dentally, Sanger Brothers by 1926 was broke. Never the merchandising genius his brother Philip had been, Alex’s role had been that of the exemplary public citizen. He was the first Jew to be appointed a regent of the University of Texas, and was a director and generous supporter of every civic enterprise of any significance in Dallas. But after Philip died in 1902, Alex could not control the store’s inventories and expenses nor the credit that its wholesale department extended to smaller Texas merchants. He failed to bring in non-family management when it became evident that the second generation of Sangers was not really interested in storekeeping and had not been given the necessary training and experience to correct matters.
In the decades following Philip’s death, Alex Sanger’s concentration on social and civic activities seemed to increase in proportion to the store’s diminishing competitive position and huge losses. And charity began at home. The store’s payroll was bloated with both incompetents and old employees, but Alex was no more able to bring himself to fire them or to reduce their salaries than he was to cut off the credit of long-time customers who would not or could not pay their accounts, even after his New York bankers, Goldman, Sachs, had cut off his own credit. In the face of increasingly serious problems, instead of retrenching, Alex expanded the Dallas store and opened a new store in Fort Worth. This was precisely the opposite of the careful policy in Millican sixty years earlier that had limited the inventory to what would fill a small Saratoga trunk and could be bought for cash, until things looked less “squally” and credit might be risked.
So enormous was Alex Sanger’s prestige because of his inordinate public service that his local and St. Louis bankers would not foreclose him; but with his death in 1925 their tolerance ceased, and the store was sold out to a Kansas City promoter.
Many of these storekeepers overextended their credit; but unlike the Sangers, not all of them who did so lost their stores as a result. In 1915 when my grandfather’s store was unable to pay its debts, its suppliers accepted a settlement of twenty-five cents on the dollar and wrote off the balance instead of forcing it into bankruptcy. In the boom years during and after World War I, A. Harris & Company flourished under my father’s merchandising.
The store had no legal obligation to repay any of the 75 percent its creditors had lost in 1915, but my father felt (and convinced his brother-in-law, Arthur Kramer) that it was a debt of honor. In thirds, in 1919, 1920, and 1921, A. Harris & Company paid off its defaulted debt, and in cases where the suppliers had gone out of business, the store donated the money to charities in each supplier’s community. The checks for the final third were sent out on February 14, the anniversary of my grandfather’s death in 1912
Stanley Marcus, who has never suffered from excessive modesty nor attributed much of Nei-man-Marcus’ success to outsiders, admits that the sellout of Sanger’s in 1926 was a turning point for his father’s store. The new management discontinued buying Sanger’s expensive lines of merchandise and summarily fired many of its oldest and best employees, who were then hired by Neiman’s, bringing with them the bulk of their established clientele. “One salesperson, alone, sold over $200,000 her first year at the store,” Stanley remembers. “Loyal customers of Sanger’s were incensed by the ruthless treatment of employees who had given years of faithful service, and they switched to Neiman-Marcus in appreciation.”
If Alex Sanger had become too grand to sell to customers, Herbert and Carrie had not, nor would Herbert’s sons. All their lives they loved selling to customers and hated losing a sale – selling became their ruling passion.
It was while listening to a top traveling salesman for the jeweler Harry Winston describe his sale of an especially expensive emerald and diamond riviere to the wife of a banker in a small Texas town that I first became aware of how very similar the sale of a high-priced luxury item is to seduction – not rape, but mutually satisfactory seduction.
Slowly, pridefully, relishing the recollection of every detail, he described his flirtation, her flicker of initial interest, his gradually increasing ardor, her gradually diminishing pro forma refusals, and how finally she joyfully, excitedly, “opened up, gave up, gave in, and I had her!”
As 1 listened, I was struck both by the reciprocal and the ritualistic aspects of the prolonged seduction: “She really made me work for it. It took me two hours to get her to say ’Yes!’ ” It was as formally choreographed as a ballet or Kabuki performance, and performance was an essential of the total experience.
Stanley is always selling. In 1946 in France, Stanley was introduced to Dwight Eisenhower, then commanding general of SHAEF. It was a time when Truman still hoped the general might someday run for the presidency as a Democrat and some Republicans hoped to convince him to run as a Republican. Stanley’s concern, however, was not with party. Although the old soldier had until then never heard of the store, Stanley urged him: “If you do decide to go for the nomination, and get it, and if you are elected, I hope that as an ex-Texan, you will buy Mrs. Eisenhower’s inaugural gown from us.” Six years later Eisenhower did just that.
Even more important than any sale, however large or noteworthy, made by Stanley or his father or Carrie, was the example set and the techniques demonstrated for the salespeople. If a woman was trying on Adrian and Hattie Carnegie suits in one of the large, flatteringly pink-lit fitting rooms on the expensive second floor, as if by magic handbags, shoes, scarves, blouses to complement the suits appeared for her inspection. If lunchtime arrived or a cup of tea seemed called for to renew the customer’s strength, the necessary refreshments also appeared – of course at no charge. But the keystone was the “clientele book,” in which each salesperson was required to keep as complete a record of her customers as could be assembled by careful listening and discreet questioning. The customer’s birthday (or her husband’s or child’s) offered an extra opportunity for a phone call and the proffer of assistance a few weeks before the date to demonstrate “personal interest.” And a call announcing the arrival of “a perfect blouse that will make the herringbone suit you bought last fall seem brand new,” demonstrated not only such personal interest but a generous effort to save the rich customer money when so many were trying to get money away from her.
For the rich, middle-aged woman who was Neiman’s best customer, whose husband ignored her for his work, his mistress, or both, whose children were hostile or had left home, Neiman-Marcus offered a blessed balm that combined cosseting, concern, flattery, attention to her desires and complaints – valuable, like her psychoanalysis, because it cost so much money, but ever so much more enjoyable.
At Neiman-Marcus as in other stores, customers loved being waited on by “the family,” and there was always an abundance of family available. For many years Herbert’s father, Jacob, sat by the front door of the increasingly elegant store, nodding to customers and offering each child a piece of candy. And there was no shortage of Minnie’s relatives, relations, and connections. “Sometimes the relations made a contribution, sometimes not,” Stanley recalls, “but no member of the family was ever fired.”
But if family can be a blessing to the growth of a business it can also be a curse. Al Neiman loved life, good food and drink, gambling and joking, and most especially women. Born in Chicago, he had been raised in a Cleveland orphanage, and throughout his adult life, in good fortune and bad, he enthusiastically tried to make up for his miserable childhood by having as much fun as possible. In Victorian Dallas, sexual adventures by men who could afford them were not only acceptable but practically de rigueur – provided they were suitably discreet. But Al’s indiscretions were too indiscreet. And a number of them were with women in the store – a pastime not unknown to other of the store’s owners, but like everything else about him, Al’s affairs were joyously flamboyant. To make matters still worse, unlike the ideal Victorian wife who remained blissfully ignorant at home, Carrie worked in the store.
Al’s adulteries were particularly painful to Carrie, a shy and rigidly correct person who in the many long years after her divorce was called, in the Southern style, “Miss Carrie” and was widely believed to be an old maid.
As the 1929 stock market crash and the subsequent Depression approached, Herbert borrowed $250,000 and bought out Al’s interest in the store. For Herbert, the bad feeling between his sister and Al had been terribly trying. No less troublesome had been the increasing ill will between Al and Herbert’s oldest son, Stanley – a man difficult to like and impossible not to admire.
At a Jewish summer camp in Maine, the young Stanley had problems getting along with his peers. “I was a poor athlete, a poor craftsman, a poor camper, and 1 vowed I’d never go back,” he later recalled. But at another camp, two years later, “I made up my mind in advance I was going to enjoy it by being a good camper. I resolved to go out for every sporting event, whether I was any good or not, to play the game as hard as possible, to be a good loser. . . My athletic prowess hadn’t improved, but my efforts were noticeable, and by early August I was awarded the camp’s top camper award. . . my first overwhelming success.”
The camp recollections of two other Texas merchants’ sons, Morton Sanger and Eddie Kahn, differ markedly from Stanley’s on the cause of his sudden popularity – not any heroic if futile athletic efforts but the fact that he had brought a gross of lollipops to camp and was lavish in distributing them. It was Stanley’s first triumph in public relations, an area in which no other storekeeper would even approach his genius. When he was still in grade school, Stanley had done much better in elocution than in mathematics and had thought it more important. Throughout his life, public relations rather than any form of sport or any hobby would remain his chief passion.
As a boy, except for the two summers at camp, Stanley spent his free months working at the store where he was somebody and not subject to attacks by peers who did not understand this boy so different from themselves. “Playing with other children never really interested me. I couldn’t keep up with my peers, much less surpass them.” The contrast provided by his life at the store could not have been lost on Stanley. And it seems unlikely that so brilliant a boy, who had been so unsuccessful with his peers, would not have harbored strong feelings about the necessity to “show them.”
These feelings were almost certainly sharpened two days after Stanley’s arrival as a freshman at Amherst College, “when all the new students had been pledged, I found myself a member of a group of six ’barbarians’ including two other Jews, one Chinese, and two blacks.” All social life at Amherst in the Twenties revolved around the fraternities and as a result, Stanley wrote, “The year at Amherst proved to be a most unhappy year for me, and at the same time, it was probably one of the most valuable experiences of my life.”
Stanley transferred to Harvard, where he was intellectually stimulated for the first time. He made no close or lasting friendships there, but he had his first important experience of objects as a substitute for friends in a course called “The History of the Printed Book.” It so excited him that while still an undergraduate he became both a collector and a mailorder seller of rare books.
After graduation from Harvard College, he studied briefly at Harvard Business School, but in 1926 left to work at and build the store that for half a century would be his wife, mistress, and child.
In 1932 Stanley married an employee, Mary Cantrell, whom everyone called “Billie.” Full disclosure being presently in fashion, I should point out that, at the age of six, and since then as well, I tried without success to convince Billie how much happier she would be with me than with Stanley. The reader may judge to whatever degree, if any, this has colored my appraisal of Stanley.
Herbert and Carrie were obsessed with the merchandise itself – the finest weave, the softest leather, the best quality of sewing, the most perfect shade of color, the ideal drape of fabric, the most delicate bridal veil, the newest heel shape. What Stanley focused on especially was not substance but image – the windows and interior displays, the packaging, the Ianguage and manners of the salespeople, the advertising, and (most particularly and brilliantly of all) publicity as distinct from advertising. To say that Stanley’s concern was with image rather than substance does not denigrate his contribution, for in matters of snobbery and fashion, image is often more important than substance – in a sense, indeed, image is substance – greatness is what is perceived to be great.
No New York fashion store, and none anywhere else in America, even approached in reputation or mystique that achieved by Dallas’ Neiman-Marcus, and the reason for this was Stanley Marcus.
Reputation, of course, begins at home. The first principle upon which Stanley built was exclusivity. Whatever Neiman-Marcus was to buy and promote by name must, if possible, not be available at any other Dallas store. Stanley was able to convince not only small expensive dressmakers but even large cosmetics manufacturers such as Elizabeth Arden, who sold to dozens of department and drugstores in New York, to sell to no one but Nei-man-Marcus in Dallas. On the most basic level, this meant that every time a Dallas woman wanted an Arden lipstick or a bottle of nail polish, she had to go to Neiman’s, where she usually saw something else that tempted her. But even more important was the conditioning of Dallas women, until many (whether consciously or subconsciously) believed that what was best was at Neiman’s and nowhere else, and that what was elsewhere was not the best.
With all the charm, intelligence, ingenuity, flattery, and persistence at his disposal – by means of thousands of letters, phone calls, dinners, gifts, and favors – Stanley instituted the most successful campaign of public relations imaginable. No reporter or editor from a New Mexico weekly was too unimportant to talk to; no celebrity of films or radio or the arts who visited Dallas was too minor to merit some personal attention. And of course important people – bankers, publishers, aristocrats, politicians, and their mistresses or wives – were worth larger efforts and expense. Stanley not infrequently forgot he was a husband and a father; but whether on shipboard, in Europe, at work, or at play, he never forgot to promote his store, never failed to see an opportunity for publicity or to create one.
Success, like failure, tends to snowball. The reputation of Texas was changing from Wild West to wild millionaires. And Neiman’s reputation as their purveyor of extravagances made good reading in the Depression. Fortune in a 1937 article on “Dallas in Wonderland” saw what extraordinary authority Neiman’s had achieved in only three decades. Its customers, Fortune declared, now said: ” ’You know better than I do what I need.’ The store is like a doctor or lawyer that people swear by. And dressing well in Dallas has become more than a personal matter, it has become a civic one. Perfect clothes are as much the cultural expression of Dallas as art is of Toledo.”
But Neiman’s did not just let it happen. When Louis Kronenberger arrived to research the Fortune piece, Herbert was ready with quotations from Plato and Flaubert, and Stanley had arranged his time to make the reporter’s job easy and pleasant.
Like storekeepers, magazine and wire service editors copy one another. So each story led to more.
Little that the store did was original. Its foreign “Fortnights,” of which the first provided Stanley with “the most exciting experience of my life,” were copied from the Nordiska department store in Stockholm. But Stanley did much more than copy – he perfected. These “Fortnights” were not merely displays and offerings for sale of merchandise from the particular country, say France; the store also brought over French artists and designers and writers. Through his long-cultivated connections with local institutions, Stanley saw to it that simultaneously the symphony played French music, the museum exhibited French art, the theater and ballet performed French works, the public libraries displayed French books. And in their own interest, local restaurants, antique stores, movie theaters – all hoping to profit from Stanley’s lavish publicity – offered French wares too.
Before long the countries Neiman-Mar-cus chose to honor with a “Fortnight” were making contributions to the store in six-figure sums. No other American store could successfully demand this kind of tribute, because no other American store could deliver comparable publicity, usually followed by orders for the country’s merchandise from other storekeepers.
It was standard practice for a traveling salesman seeking to impress department-store buyers with the desirability of his wares to say, “Neiman-Marcus bought twenty dozen of these,” and if perchance the statement were true, the salesman then displayed a copy of the prestigious Neiman’s order. It was, therefore, not uncommon to find on the wall of a buyer’s office at Carson, Pirie, Scott in Chicago, or Bullock’s in Los Angeles, or D. H. Holmes in New Orleans a sign reading: “I don’t give a damn how many Neiman’s bought!”
Many stores, like other businesses all over America, already gave prizes and citations when in 1938 Stanley inaugurated “The Neiman-Marcus Award for Distinguished Service in the Field of Fashion.” But by his brilliant selection of awardees and his unequaled genius for publicity, in a short time Stanley had made his the most coveted and most widely written-about prize in the fashion world – its Pulitzer, if not its Nobel Prize. Awardees included not only such designers and manufacturers as Nettie Rosenstein, Elizabeth Arden, and Christian Dior, but also celebrities who purportedly “influenced” fashion, such as Mrs. Howard (Slim) Hawkes and Grace Kelly, whose selection guaranteed the store publicity in additional places – gossip and society columns, movie and news magazines, as well as the fashion journals. Only those manufacturers whose merchandise was exclusively at Neiman’s became awardees, which not only rewarded their exclusivity and reinforced it but also tempted other great designers who had not confined their wares to consider doing so.
As with most successful businessmen, Stanley usually got the credit for brilliant ideas brilliantly executed when, in fact, they were often those of the women and men he employed. Perhaps even more than successful executives in other businesses with needs and functions less diverse than those of a great store, a very large part of Stanley’s success resulted from his ability to find, hire, and keep excellent executives. This was especially true in those areas in which he was weakest, like those requiring nuance. But even in the area in which he was unequaled, publicity, he hired and gave a large measure of freedom to talented subordinates. To help him with reporters, to write his speeches and articles, to create and dispense a constant flow of publicity, he hired not just ordinary former newspaper reporters or the usual tub-thumping hacks, but writers with flair and wit – Marihelen McDuff and Warren Leslie – in whom he developed the same combination of chien and chutzpah he possessed himself.
If as an employer Stanley was usually supportive, reasonably patient, and generous, the qualities were far less evident in his private life, in which he was unfortunately like Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and many less well-known men whose primary commitment was to their own success. The sine qua non of great success is the power to do, and according to the late Joseph Ross, one of Neiman’s ablest vice presidents, “Stanley castrated all his brothers, after which he was invariably generous to them. He gave them large salaries, important-sounding titles, lavish travel and expense accounts, charitable and civic roles to play, in fact anything in the world they wanted-except power.”
That all the power should go to Stanley was his father’s wish. “Stanley was always Father’s favorite,” his brother Edward remembered only a few weeks before he died in 1977. “When he went to Philadelphia to meet my fiancee’s parents, he spoke so incessantly about Stanley that Mrs. Blum, my future mother-in-law, finally reminded him laughingly, ’Mr. Marcus, my daughter Betty is not marrying Stanley. She’s marrying Edward.’ To this Father replied, a bit impatiently, ’Yes, yes, Edward is a fine boy. But let me tell you about Stanley.’ “
Edward believed that the acute psychiatric problems that sent his younger brother Herbert Jr. to Menninger’s and even the problems that led finally to the financial bankruptcy of his youngest brother Lawrence, were largely attributable to their father’s undisguised preference for Stanley. As was traditional in these Jewish department-store families, Herbert left each son equal stock in the store; but there was never any doubt after Herbert died in 1950 that there was only one boss and his name was “Mr. Stanley.”
From the moment of Stanley’s introduction to rare books at Harvard, he was a compulsive collector. His collections eventually came to include primitive arts, masks, twentieth-century painting, and sculpture. In the 1920s and 1930s, and again after World War II, he traveled regularly to Europe as well as to New York, and he had the money to buy when the greatest modern art was cheap. Yet, curiously enough, in those three or four decades when he and other department-store owners across America had endless opportunities to build what could have been great modern art collections, they assembled instead only what could, at best, be called interesting ones. That these men, so successful in one kind of selection, were such mediocre contemporary art collectors, seems strange.
Great art is essentially the opposite of fashion – it doesn’t go out of style. But the only time it can be bought cheap is before it has been recognized and accepted, when it is not yet fashionable because it is still so avant-garde that to most viewers it appears to be distorted, even ugly.
The rich customers of Neiman Marcus – like their counterparts at Bergdorf’s, Dayton’s, or Magnin’s – wanted expensive new fashions in suits, dresses, bags, and shoes at a very precise moment. It could not be too early, or the customer would seem to her peers to be merely odd, wearing something new and strange that no one else wore and wearing it before it had received the imprimatur of Vogue, Town & Country, fashion-store advertisements and windows, or the fashion and gossip columnists. On the other hand, it was even worse if she was late, if what she wore was also being worn in cheaper copies by “every little secretary,” and the rich customer’s peers were therefore in a position to purr: “Oh, you’re still wearing that, are you? I gave mine away simply weeks ago.”
The timing that made Stanley so superb a fashion merchant may have been the chief force that stopped him from buying the really great French and American artists early and led him instead to buy the work of momentarily “fashionable” artists such as Vertès and Clave. Stanley did not have Gertrude Stein’s eye, but it would be difficult to imagine a worse buyer for Neiman-Marcus than Gertrude Stein.
In his sixties and seventies, Stanley finally gave some stature to his own collections by buying, at the high prices by then prevailing, a few pieces by artists recognized by everyone to be the most important of this century – artists whose works he had ignored in the decades when he could have bought them cheap.
But that he collected at all, well or badly, and so finally helped to set a pattern of collection was what really counted. In as tenaciously philistine a climate as existed in Dallas until after World War II, any public identification with the arts required some courage.
From 1936 to 1966, much of what did or did not happen in Dallas was determined by the executive committee of a small group of the city’s most powerful rich men, the Dallas Citizens Council, an oligarchy not unlike those that ruled the Italian city-states of the Renaissance. When asked what it was like to be the token Jew, token intellectual, token liberal, in that arch-conservative committee, Stanley smiled. “I was of course often tempted to take my bat and ball and go home. But that would not have been useful and, besides, it was more amusing occasionally to hear an idea I had suggested ten years earlier to sniggers and rejection suddenly proposed again (and as his own) by some ignorant redneck and this time to see it accepted.”
Just after World War II, at a public protest meeting called to demand the end of wartime price controls, Stanley, who would have profited immediately from their end, was the only man who spoke in favor of keeping them. It was a steamy, hot summer night and as he spoke, slowly, reasonably, calmly, from the back of a truck, he was greeted with obscenities, curses, and threats by the increasingly angry and dangerous mob. It was a courageous, a heroic performance.
The worldwide expressions of horror after the murder of President Kennedy in Dallas terrified the city’s business leaders because the “wrong image” might halt the city’s growth. On New Year’s Day, 1964, Stanley ran a large signed newspaper advertisement suggesting: “Dallas should forget about its ’civic image’ as such. The best public relations comes from doing good things and by not doing bad things. Let’s have more ’fair play’ for legitimate differences of opinion, less coverup for our obvious deficiencies, less boasting about our attainments, more moral indignation by all of us when we see human rights imposed on. Then we won’t have to worry about the ’Dallas Image’ – it will take care of itself.”
Many if not most of Dallas’ prominent citizens were richer than Stanley, but not one even approached his extraordinary reputation nationally and internationally. If the Murchisons wanted to be on the board of directors of a major insurance company, they had to buy it, but Stanley in 1962 was asked to come on the board of New York Life because its members such as Frank Stanton and Paul Hoffman wanted him with them.
Stanley was kept from membership in Dallas’ Brook Hollow Golf Club and the Petroleum Club, just as his wife, Billie, was kept out of the Shakespeare Club and the Junior League; but when the richest and most powerful members of those clubs went to San Francisco or London and were introduced as being from Dallas, the first thing they were asked was almost invariably: “Do you know Stanley Marcus?”
An important and often overlooked element in the public service of these Jewish merchants was their competitiveness with one another. Herbert Marcus was for many years the chief local money raiser for the visits of the Chicago Opera Company that brought to Dallas such stars as Tetrazzini, Chaliapin, and Mary Garden. Arthur Kramer, the president of A. Harris & Company, on every trip to New York spent time, effort, and stockholders’ money trying to convince the managers and board of directors of the even more prestigious Metropolitan Opera to include a stop in Dallas on the company’s annual spring tour. When after years of financial contributions and flattery he finally succeeded in 1939, he considered it the high point of his life, and having “whipped” Herbert Marcus was no small part of the victory.
Kramer had a variety of collections in the immense, pretentious “Tudor” mansion he had hired the English architect Alfred Bossom to design. One of these, a collection of nineteenth-century Clichy, Saint-Louis, and Baccarat paperweights, was of national distinction. But none of his other collections meant as much to him as the one he kept in an old cigar box in a locked bottom drawer of his office desk and showed to visitors with obvious joy. It consisted of some two dozen marbles, all fine agates. “I won every one of these from those rich Sanger boys,” he boasted, “and all I had to start with was two chipped glass marbles and a steelie.”
Kramer’s reputation for clear calculating coolness was unsurpassed in Dallas. According to Morton Sanger, “He peed ice water.” But under that widely admired cold exterior burned a terrible, even pathetic, yearning for recognition and approval.
Kramer had come up from selling newspapers on the street to the presidency of his seats at a symphony concert. He usually came to the concerts when he was in Museum of Fine Arts and the Dallas Symphony. According to John Rosenfield, the arts critic of the Dallas Morning News, “I never remembered Arthur using his seats at a symphony concert. He usually came to the concerts when he was in town, but he stood at the back of the house working out problems in calculus.”
Similarly, when Temple Emanu-El needed a new rabbi, Kramer and Herbert Marcus (who would, like Kramer, also serve as president of Dallas’ Reform synagogue) were the entire search and selection committee. Both men admitted privately that they were agnostics.
The reasons that men who care nothing about music and have no religious faith seek the leadership of symphonies and synagogues are doubtless many and complicated. In Kramer’s case: “His wife’s constant craving for social status and his own insatiable ambition for public recognition and power were of course very important,” Rosenfield remembered, “but they weren’t the whole story by far. Unlike those pious platitudes in his annual Christmas Day advertisement that were pure hypocrisy, Arthur’s sense of duty to the Dallas community was genuine. Modesty was not one of his failings – he gave himself at least full credit for his rise in the world – but to the limited degree that he could feel gratitude, he was grateful to the city.”
Whatever their virtues, American storekeepers, Jewish and Gentile, were not immune to breaking the law in the higher name of profit. In Dallas, meetings of the Department Store Association every month or so were attended by a top executive of each of the then-five largest stores excepting Sears, which sent no one to the meetings but cooperated with whatever programs were decided on there. The most important purpose of these meetings was to discuss three things: fixing prices; coordinating personnel policies and illegal anti-union activities; and determining the secret cash support to be given to appropriately compliant politicians, both local and national.
Prices were not fixed by item but by category and wholesale cost. For example, in ready-to-wear, anything that cost at wholesale $5.75 had to be sold for $9.95. These retail prices were, of course, floors, not ceilings. If Neiman’s had a $5.75 cost blouse exclusively for the whole state of Texas and so charged $10.95 or $12.95 for it, no other storekeeper objected – he only admired and envied.
These price-fixing, political, and anti-union activities were not unique to Dallas. They were common practices all across America throughout the first half of this century. In fact, the continuation of price-fixing practices even into our own days, and despite the purported moral and consumer protecting climate of the 1970s, was made obvious in 1977 by the multimillion-dollar penalties against Bergdorf Goodman, Bonwit Teller, and Saks Fifth Avenue.
In the early 1950s I unexpectedly received an official notification that the Teamsters’ Union demanded an election among A. Harris & Company’s delivery and warehouse employees to determine if they wanted union representation. I was still in my twenties and almost totally ignorant in such matters, so I immediately caJled the other Dallas storekeepers and asked their advice, as well as that of Waiter Halle (of Halle Brothers in Cleveland), and Fred Lazarus Jr. (head of Federated Department Stores, which included Sanger Brothers in Dallas and Foley’s in Houston). Everyone with whom I consulted agreed with Lazarus, who had cheerfully explained: “Oh, don’t worry if it’s the Teamsters. If it was the Clerks, you’d be in trouble – they’re honest. But there’s no problem with the Teamsters – just call my friend Nate Shefferman in Chicago.”
Shefferman ran an organization called Labor Relations Associates. Supposedly, it only “advised on labor relations,” and in fact one of its representatives came to any client store that had labor problems, interviewed employees and managers, and offered suggestions on personnel policies and labor negotiation tactics, for which services the client was billed and payment was made by check. But, in addition, Shefferman required a large secret payment in cash – in this case, $10,000. On learning about this, I asked: “And in return do you guarantee in writing that we will win the election?”
For this 1 received a look such as one might bestow on an especially stupid child and an explanation delivered very slowly in a loud voice, as though I were deaf as well as retarded. “You get nothing in writing, and we don’t guarantee whether or not there’ll be an election or whether or not you’ll win it. What we guarantee is that regardless of any election or National Labor Relations Board order or anything else, you will not be asked to sign a contract with the Teamsters.”
At the trial of teamster chief Dave Beck in Chicago, Shefferman turned state’s evidence and revealed that he was in effect Beck’s bagman. He sold out local workers for cash, most of which he then delivered to Beck, who was sentenced to jail for failing to pay proper income taxes on these bribes. It was revealed at the trial that Shefferman’s clients included Sears Roebuck, Associated Dry Goods, J. C. Penney, Montgomery Ward, Federated Department Stores, and many of the finest individually owned stores in America.
The payment of the $10,000 cash bribe in Dallas was divided among the Dallas stores on the basis of their volume; that is, Neiman’s contributed more to it than did A. Harris & Company because their volume was greater than ours. At the time I had no qualms about the payment. Wiser and far more experienced men than I assured me it was the way the game was played – which in no way excuses what was both an immoral and an illegal act.
By 1977 all the executives of other Dallas stores who had participated in this bribe were dead except Stanley. Not wanting to reveal without his approval what we had done, I asked Stanley if he objected. “Say what you want in your book,” he replied, “but it seems to me an unimportant and boring confession.”
The building of the great American department stores was not the result of a single brilliant or courageous stroke; it was a success that accumulated only from endless concern with countless tiny and often tiresome details. And no one knew this better than Stanley, the builder of what was in many respects the greatest American store. In some aspects of his life he was arrogant, even insolent, but when it came to the store he was a slave. No detail was so small, so insignificant, so menial, that it was beneath him. “Specialty store retailing in particular,” Stanley wrote, “consisted of a mass of minutiae, you made and kept your customers by your ability to remember small details.”
The last time I interviewed Stanley, in 1977, he had been moved out of the store he had built by the New York Stock Exchange corporation to whom he had sold it, Carter Hawley Hale. The new owners were building large new versions of Nei-man-Marcus all over the country, in California, Missouri, Florida, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. But in Dallas, Neiman’s had lost much of the fine fashion business it had once monopolized to small specialty shops that provided those small services Neiman’s could no longer give because it was too big and its new owners too far away.
The loss of this prestige business that he had spent more than half a century building did not go unobserved by Stanley. During the interview he accepted a call from a customer who complained that she had been unable to purchase a certain candy she had been buying at Neiman’s for years. Ignoring the interviewer, Stanley immediately called the store’s candy buyer and discovered that the candy had not been discontinued but was only temporarily out of stock. “You must call immediately,” Stanley insisted, giving the buyer the customer’s name and address and telephone number, “and tell her when you believe it’s coming in – don’t promise it earlier than you can deliver it. Assure her that you’ll personally see to it that she gets the one pound she wants and see if she wants to order any more as gifts or for herself for later.”
The buyer, who was responsible fornine candy departments from coast tocoast, had obviously been reluctant towaste time on a one-pound sale, for whenStanley asked that he read back thecustomer’s name and address and phonenumber, he could not. Slowly, carefully,Stanley repeated it all again.