01/24/2002DALLAS -- Stanley Marcus is the only man I knew who would send you a letter asking exactly when you intended to answer his last one. He would send you a note about something or a clipping, and then a couple of weeks later would come a note asking why you weren't interested enough to let him know your opinion.
That, of course, happened only once. From then on, his mail was the first I read and the first I answered. He was quite a guy, the Marcus of the Neiman Marcus department stores. Someone once wrote that he was hard to like but easy to admire.
Well, I certainly admired him -- he was one of the world's great merchants, after all -- but I liked him, too. More than 20 years ago, he called me and said that his son-in-law, Henry Raymont, a reporter with me at The New York Times, had told him I was writing a book retracing the American travels of Alexis de Tocqueville in the 1830s. When I was next in Dallas, he said, would I have lunch with him and his family to talk about that?
I did, of course, and he grilled me for a couple of hours, asking better and much tougher questions than most of the book critics I encountered in those days. He had, it turned out, something important in common with the author of "Democracy in America." They both cared about the middle of the country, the America generally ignored in New York and Boston, and later in San Francisco and Los Angeles.
It was not that he did not know the East. He had begun college at Amherst, leaving because in those days they would not allow Jews in clubs or fraternities. He moved on to Harvard, where he earned both an undergraduate degree and an MBA. But then it was back to Texas and work in the store his father had founded in 1907 with his brother-in-law, Abraham Lincoln Neiman. "Mr. Stanley," as he was called, made Neiman Marcus into a national icon of fashion, luxury and taste -- not the easiest thing to to do with your main stores in Dallas and Fort Worth.
To my mind, Neiman Marcus, like the GI Bill of Rights, public television and the first national distribution of The Wall Street Journal, were among the forces that spread the talent of coastal America, attracting and keeping educated young people and dynamic enterprise in smaller cities across the country -- and making the United States a bigger, better and stronger nation in every way.
Marcus retired sometime in his late 70s and then began doing what I do, writing a newspaper column, for The Dallas Morning News. It was a column I ignored that earned me the letter I began with here. It was good stuff by a wise man who did have to fight a certain tendency toward pomposity. He died this week at 96, but he was in good enough shape to give a final interview in his office to Maria Halkias of the News. He told her a story that he had told me -- and probably anyone else who would listen -- and I've always thought it was one of the amazing things I've ever heard.
Stanley Marcus was 36 when World War II began, too old to fight. But he was called to Washington within a month of Pearl Harbor and given a job by President Franklin Roosevelt: Stop civilians from buying clothes during the war so that labor and material could be used to make uniforms and tents, whatever was needed by the military.
And he did it. He stopped fashion, convincing men, for instance, to wear drooping socks because rubber was needed for war. Then he stopped design changes in women's clothing, as he described it:
"We settled on certain prohibitions, such as lengths, sleeve fullness, patch pockets, ensembles, sweeps of skirts, widths of belts and depth of hems. ... The restrictions we put into effect froze the fashion silhouette. It effectively prevented any change of skirt length downward and it blocked any extreme new sleeve or collar development, which might have encouraged women to discard existing clothes."
That story ran on Christmas Day last year. Not bad at 96. The man lived a life that counted. We should all do half as well.