The unlikely marriage of Neiman and Marcus

THERE WAS A time when a Neiman-Marcus label was worth 10 extra points at an SMU sorority rush. Thanks to The Store, Dallas women were tagged by Walter Win-chell as being the best dressed in the world.

There are 21 stores now-stretching from Florida to California, all operating under the direction of Carter Hawley Hale, a national merchandising conglomerate-but in the old days, Neiman-Marcus had no master. Books have been written about the glory days at Neiman’s and its impact on the city. But the birth of the store-the unlikely marriage of Neiman and Marcus-is a story in itself.

Abraham Lincoln Neiman was born in 1880 and was raised in a Cleveland orphanage. Called “Al” because of his initials, Neiman left the orphanage as a teen-ager and became a traveling salesman. He was a born huckster, and by the time he was 24, he had opened his own business in Room 208 of the Fort Worth National Bank Building in Fort Worth.

As president and general manager of the American Salvage Co., Neiman was in the business of putting on sales. In those days, the claims that an advertiser could make in the local newspaper or in a store window were limited only by the copywriter’s imagination. Neiman would work a deal with a department store whereby he would agree to draw a crowd no matter what it took: a brass band, a flagpole sitter, a hot-air balloon or a full-blown parade down Main Street.

In return, the department store would claim to have merchandise that, alas, had to be sacrificed at ridiculous prices because of a fire or some such calamity. Every blouse or petticoat that went out the front door was replaced by like merchandise brought in by Al through the back, close-outs that he had “bought right” from his connections among the manufacturers and jobbers.

In January 1905, Al Neiman made a deal with A. Harris and Co., one of the leading department stores in Dallas, to put on a sale. While at the store, Neiman met Carrie Marcus, a descendant of German-Jewish immigrants, who at the tender age of 21 had already become one of the store’s top saleswomen. Carrie had a regal bearing, a striking composure and an enchanting gaze that could make a gentleman swoon. Al undertook a whirlwind courtship of this pearl of the Texas prairie, and on April 25, 1905, by virtue of the authority vested in Dallas Justice of the Peace William H. Richburg, Neiman and Marcus were married.

Carrie had a brother named Herbert who had worked since age 15 at a general store in Hillsboro, Texas, sweeping floors and stocking merchandise. Before long, he escaped to Dallas, where he wound up with Sanger Bros., a merchandising firm of even more prominence than A. Harris. By the time Al and Carrie were married, Herbert Marcus had worked his way up to buyer for the boys’ department at Sanger’s.

Being the son of an impoverished immigrant, Herbert hadn’t enjoyed the luxury of a spoon-fed education, so he set about educating himself. Arthur Kramer, a contemporary of Marcus who had married into the A. Harris family, often made light of Herbert’s efforts at self-education.

“He decided he would read the entire <I>Encyclopedia Britannica,” Kramer related years later. “By the time he was through the D’s, he could speak profusely on Dickens and Disraeli, but when you mentioned Tolstoi and Thackeray, he thought you were talking about suitmakers on Seventh Avenue.” Although it was intended to degrade the ambitious Marcus, the story more often had the opposite effect.

In 1905, Herbert’s wife, Minnie, gave birth to a son named Stanley, and Herbert’s ambition continued to swell. Offended by an offer of a raise of a mere $7.50 a month at Sanger Bros., Herbert succumbed to brother-in-law Al’s enticement to join him in the salvage business. He resigned his position at Sanger’s, and Herbert and his family, along with Al and Carrie moved to Atlanta, where they made the services of the America Salvage Co. available to merchants of the deep South.

American Salvage was a smash in Atlanta, at least from a financial standpoint, but for Herbert and Carrie, it was an abhorrent way to make a living. They spent many an evening discussing the aesthetic qualities of merchandising before retiring to prepare for a return to the world of gaud and gimmick.

By 1907, the trio from Texas had developed a valuable holding, and tempting offers to buy them out were being presented. One of the more intriguing opportunities was a chance for a straight swap: American Salvage for the Coca-Cola bottling franchise for the state of Missouri. Coke was far from unknown by this time, so the offer had to be seriously considered by the astute entrepreneurs, but another offer came along at about the same time that gave Herbert and Carrie a chance to breathe life into their dream. American Salvage was sold for $25,000, which became the grubstake for The Store.

From a marketing standpoint, there was no particular reason to establish a quality merchandising venture in Dallas. Most of the Texas oil was still in the ground-in fact, none of the three principals had ever seen an oil well. Chicago and New Orleans would have been more obvious choices and were seriously considered. There was a good deal of cotton money in Dallas, but Sanger Bros, and A. Harris seemed perfectly capable of satisfying the fashion demands of the North Texas blackland. Yet Dallas had something that no other city had: Carrie and Herbert’s intimate relations- mother, father, brother, sister, uncles and cousins-all 62 of them.

The quality of life in the city was a matter of perspective. The 1907 Dallas City Directory described the towering buildings as “reaching up toward the clouds eight, 10, 14 stories high,” and the “electric lights that give the nighttime the brightness of the day.” But the promoters of the subdivision of Highland Park, which opened in the wilds of northern Dallas that same year, claimed that downtown Dallas was nothing but “business houses, saloons, dust and heat’- definitely not a desirable place to reside.

Beulah Culpepper’s mother agreed with the Highland Park people. On Elm Street, where Neiman-Marcus would be located, there were 46 saloons. Culpepper later told the late Dallas writer Frank Tolbert that before she could get permission to go to work for the store, she had to promise her mother that she would turn her head toward the street each time she passed a saloon on her way to work, which must have been like following a walking tennis match.

Not only was the store in the wrong place, but it was the wrong kind of store. Ladies of quality and breeding wore only clothes that were made to order. The more money they had, the farther they went for fittings-to Europe, to New York, or at the very least to the quality dressmakers at the better Dallas stores. Now here were three upstarts who intended to establish a business that sold ready-made clothing at tailor-made prices.

And they didn’t even get along with each other. Stanley Marcus describes the relationship between his father, Herbert, and Al Neiman as “tempestuous.” In a variation of Don Meredith’s famous quote about Landry and Grant, if Al Neiman and Herbert Marcus were in an ego contest, there would have been no loser. Carrie, at times, appeared to be more devoted to the Marcus family than to Al. And Al, who had had no one to dote over him as a child, was making up for lost time, concentrating heavily on the pleasures of the moment, especially in the areas of food, drink, entertainment and female companionship.

By May 1907, the company had been chartered, and arrangements were made for a one-year lease of an old building at the corner of Elm and Murphy for the astronomical sum of $9,000. Fixtures, equipment and other start-up expenses soon consumed most of the $25,000 nest egg, and it was necessary to borrow more money from friends and relatives to buy merchandise.

In June, Al and Carrie left for a shopping trip to New York by way of the Akard Street trolley, the MK&T Railway to St. Louis and then the Penn Central the rest of the way. Although a Dallas competitor had already spread the word in New York about why the Neiman-Marcus business was doomed to failure and was such a horrid credit risk, the couple was armed with $17,000 in cash. To hold down the cost of the trip, Carrie and Al holed up at Sampson’s Boarding House on Columbus Avenue. All that remained was for them to figure out what to buy.

This is where Carrie came in. Since Neiman knew very little about quality merchandise, all they had to go on was what Carrie liked or didn’t like-which is the main reason why the store at Elm and Murphy survived to father 20 offspring. Carrie Marcus was a woman of impeccable taste, with an uncanny knack for sensing which fashions would thrive and which would fade into oblivion. She selected the very best in satin, silk, taffeta and wool, topped off the buying orgy with fine sables and laces, and returned with Al to Dallas with little more than trolley fare for two.

It was decided that the store would open on Tuesday, September 10, 1907, the day after Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year. All the money was spent, and everything was riding on Carrie’s selection of merchandise and the ability of the three brash young merchandisers to convince the affluent ladies of Dallas that the Neiman-Marcus concept, although a radical departure from tradition, was well-justified. But in late summer, Herbert was stricken with typhoid fever, and Carrie was rushed to Millikin Hospital on Akard Street, where she remained in critical condition after a miscarriage. There was no one left but Al, the fire sale promoter.

Had it been possible, Herbert and Carrie would no doubt have insisted on a postponement, but everything was in place, and there was no money for a rerun. On September 1, 1907, the first ad ran in The Dallas Morning News, introducing the principals of the firm: “A.L. Neiman, a businessman of conceded ability. Herbert Marcus, for several years head of a department in one of the leading establishments of Dallas. And Mrs. A.L. Neiman, formerly Miss Carrie Marcus, too well known to Dallas shoppers to need an introduction.”

Another ad ran on Sunday, September 8, in which Neiman-Marcus proudly announced that “as well as the store of fashions, we will be known as the store of quality and superior values. We shall be hypercritical in our selections. Only the finest productions of the best garment makers are good enough for us.” This vote of self-confidence notwithstanding, the Neiman’s ad was well inside the Sunday edition of the News, while the Sanger Bros, and A. Harris ads were on Page One.

At 10 a.m. Tuesday, September 10, the grand moment finally arrived, and in the true spirit of “the show must go on,” Al personally greeted every customer who entered the store. The impressions of one visitor, who couldn’t believe his eyes on that historic day. were later recorded in the pages of Fortune magazine. This eyewitness, who happened to hail from New York, saw “dresses that tied those in L.P. Hollander’s on Fifth Avenue. Absolutely stunning evening gowns. Coats tailored to beat the band. Furs that must have come from Revillon Frères.”

“What the hell is this?” the visitor asked aloud, and somebody told him that this was Neiman-Marcus.

Even before Carrie and Herbert had regained their health, Al, with the assistance of a buyer hired by the store, had to return to New York to replenish the stock. The Store had been accepted. Not taking any chances, though, someone (probably Al), inserted this statement in the News ad of September 15: “An Erroneous Impression Corrected. Before our opening, there appeared to be current a belief that because of the elegance and general high character of the Neiman-Marcus establishment, prices would be proportionately high. This notion has been entirely dispelled by the experience of buyers in our establishment.”

Another ad that ran in The Dallas Morning News near the end of September probably marked the return of Herbert Marcus, who loved to editorialize and who had a flair for the dramatic. “Many of the women’s garments usually sold are copies of high-class models,” the ad read. “They are messed together in squalid tenement shops by inexperienced labor, with little regard for the satisfaction of the wearer. Our garments are tailored in light, clean, airy shops by the most skilled of workmen.”

Before long, Carrie was back at full strength, resuming a prominent role in the affairs of the business. Her persistence and patience, and that of Herbert, in impressing on their customers the fine distinctions between the firm’s goods and lesser quality products led to the gradual development of a clientele that understood and appreciated fine fashion.

But the best of times soon became the worst of times. Neiman could live with two Marcuses, but not three. When Herbert’s son, Stanley, finished school in the Twenties, he was given a prominent role in business affairs. Stanley and Uncle Al had enjoyed a pleasant relationship during Stanley’s childhood, but all that vanished the day Stanley entered the store. And when Herbert left for Europe for an extended visit, there commenced a period Stanley later described as a “reign of terror.”

During this period, Neiman’s marital indiscretions had become more flagrant, which was particularly embarrassing to Carrie, since they were going on right there in the store where she was working (albeit on a different floor).

When Herbert returned from Europe, Al hit him with a “buy or sell” ultimatum. Carrie opposed the split at first, but when Al admitted mat he was engaged in an ongoing affair with one of the buyers, she threw in her lot with Herbert, and in the process sued for a dissolution of the marriage. Herbert went to the bank and borrowed enough money to buy out Al for $250,000. In 1928, Herbert, Carrie and Al were divorced.

Herbert reigned as the patriarch of the Marcus clan until his death on December 10, 1950, when Stanley succeeded to the throne. Carrie, an elegant though melancholy figure in a plain black dress, remained actively in volved in the operation of the store for many years. Al had modest success in retailing ventures in Kansas City, Chicago and New York following his exile, but he had the misfortune of outliving his money. He died on October 21. 1970, in an Arlington nursing home, at the age of 95.

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