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The not-so-secret Jewish history of Neiman Marcus

For decades the department store Neiman Marcus, which on Thursday filed for bankruptcy, was known for its Fantasy Gift Guide, a lavish Christmas catalogue calculated to appeal to the uber-wealthy. Highlights from he 2019 catalogue include a Moet & Chandon vending machine ($35,000, champagne not included) and consultations with streetwear experts famous among people who spend thousands of dollars on streetwear. “Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” star Rachel Brosnahan was drafted to reveal the year’s offerings, possibly because her character, Midge, embodies the mythical department store shopper: a coastal, cosmopolitan, Jewish-but-not-too-Jewish woman who worries about what she’s spending on hats — but not that much.

But while Neiman Marcus came to represent a kind of mid-century Manhattanite Jewish identity, it was founded by three Jews making their way in America’s heartland, who offered their customers Another kind of luxury: ready-to-wear apparel, a novelty for women accustomed to visiting dressmakers or sewing their own clothes.

Siblings Herbert and Carrie Marcus were born in Kentucky to German-Jewish immigrant parents, a biography in the Jewish Women’s Archive reports. But they spent much of their upbringing in Texas and began their adult lives working for various Dallas department stores. When Carrie married Al Neiman in 1905, the three moved to Atlanta and launched an advertising business. It was so successful that in 1907 they were offered the chance to promote a then-unknown brand, Coca Cola — a proposition which they rejected, thinking it too risky.

Instead, they decided to sell the company, returned to Dallas and embarked on a project that turned out to be just as risky: founding a department store just before a major economic collapse, the Panic of 1907, caused the stock market to fall 50%. Despite economic hardship, the newborn Neiman Marcus stayed afloat thanks to newly-minted oil barons who were rising to prominence throughout Texas. They wanted to dress like their money was old, and Carrie Marcus Neiman, who had grown up reading European fashion magazines in a cultured, multilingual household, knew exactly what to provide.

Marcus Neiman quickly established a reputation for impeccable taste and customer service. From scouting trips to Paris and New York she brought home practical picks from the year’s collections, along with handpicked items to fulfill special requests. What’s more, she herself became a force in the industry, hosting annual fashion shows that made Dallas into a sartorial destination. Yet she was reluctant to capitalize on the store’s success, refusing to establish outposts in other cities in hopes of drawing tourists to her own.

Even as she became one of her community’s notable characters, Marcus Neiman and her family were also part of a minority that struggled for inclusion in a city whose population was largely homogenous. Perhaps because of this, the Neimans and the Marcuses were active in organizing Dallas’s nascent Jewish community. Banned from country clubs (as were Jews in much more diverse cities), they became prominent members of the Columbian Club, a hub of Jewish social life. In the late 1930s, Herbert Marcus led efforts to raise money for Jews fleeing Hitler and Stalin.

In 1950 Stanley Marcus, Herbert’s son, became the store’s president. Under his tenure, Neiman Marcus became a purveyor not just of goods but a fantasy of luxury and refinement that, for many customers, was far from actual reality. Marcus created an annual award that brought designers like Coco Chanel and celebrities like Grace Kelly to Dallas, wrote James McAuley in a New York Times Style Magazine tribute. He turned the retail floor into a rarified, semi-cultural space by displaying fine art alongside Schiaparelli gowns. Still excluded from country clubs, the younger Marcus befriended luminaries like Lyndon Johnson; according to an oral history, he warned the Vice President of danger just before President John F. Kennedy’s fatal trip to Dallas in 1963.

Neiman Marcus’s current bankruptcy doesn’t mean it’s going anywhere, company executives said in a statement. The retail giant is entering a period of restructuring, and while its 43 stores are closed due to social distancing requirements, CEO Geoffroy Van Raemdonck assured customers that doors will reopen as soon as possible. “We continue to be focused on creating the magic you know and love through unparalleled luxury experiences,” he wrote in a letter. What may be gone for good is the last glimmer of a consumer dream the Neimans and the Marcuses created when they stocked Picassos alongside suits for businessmen and hosiery for their wives — the idea that a department store wasn’t just a place to buy things, but a place to be.

Irene Katz Connelly is an editorial fellow at the Forward. You can contact her at [email protected].

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