Sometime in the 1960s Famous-Barr produced shopping bags emblazoned with the slogan, “You’re Never Far From Famous-Barr.”
That was so very true insofar as I was concerned. I found myself at Famous-Barr far more than I would have liked as an adolescent because my mother worked there. Her name was Helen Weiss and she was in charge of public relations and special events.
Though I am pretty sure she didn’t have to, my mother worked pretty much round the clock at her job. On many evenings, rather than hire a baby sitter, she dragged me along to one of those never far stores.
There she would spend hours schmoozing with managers, buyers, and sales clerks while I entertained myself by wandering through the store, making funny faces in the mirrors in the costume room, thumbing through novels in the book store, eating samples at the candy counter and ordering up gelatin cubes with whipped cream in the Tea Room.
I had the run of the place till 9:30 p.m. when a recording of bugles sounded signaling the store was closing for the night. I knew then I had yet another half hour to go because mom just wouldn’t leave till the security guards shooed her out.
I have to tell you that never being far from Famous-Barr was rather burdensome for me. But for my mom… it was anything but. She loved those stores and everything in them, especially the people. Had I been paying more attention, I would have appreciated that mom wasn’t just having fun nor just working a job. She was making history along with thousands of others who made Famous-Barr into a special place where St. Louisans didn’t just buy stuff. They made memories. Just about everyone of a certain age in St. Louis can recall a special moment at one of the Famous stores whether it was the first time they laid eyes on Santa, tried on a confirmation or prom dress, or met a movie star.
That’s why I am so grateful that Edna Gravenhorst has produced this wonderful book that describes a golden age in St. Louis retailing. My mom worked at Famous-Barr beginning in 1962 and would not retire until 2007, when she was 81 years old. That was long after the May Co. sold the Famous-Barr stores and all of its other properties around the nation to Macy’s. It took a lot of persuasion to get Mom to retire. She was afraid she might die once she left. And, in fact, a year later she did.
Gone too are the legends that made Famous-Barr so great, Morton “Buster” May and Stanley Goodman, perhaps the best known, but also Joan Van de Erve, the hard-driving marketing executive, and Jerry Loeb, a former May chairman, and Eula Fulton, the legendary buyer in women’s fashions.
Of course Famous-Barr was a great place even before my mother got there as Edna recounts. Mom just wanted to be part of it all. How she got there is a bit of a story in itself. Like many women of the ’50s, mom did not have her sights set on a career. She played mah-jongg. She did volunteer work. When she wasn’t campaigning for Democratic candidates she was working for the Nursery Foundation, which had an annual event called the Book Fair. It was held in the Clayton Famous-Barr parking lot. That’s how mom got to know the people at Famous and talked her way into a part-time job coordinating special events.
They didn’t pay her much. I remember the store manager as a joke gave mom her pay in a candy box filled with shiny coins where the candy would go. Had he just given her the Mavrakos chocolates, she likely would have come out ahead. And, of course, those bean counters at the May Co. knew that my mom would spend her earnings and more at Famous on earrings, shoes and the latest designer clothing. That’s how she rolled. She always looked great. (That’s a gift she passed along to my sister, Jean, also a fashion plate, a foodie, and a backer of worthy social causes.)
The May Co. got its money’s worth from mom and more. Helen Weiss was a prime mover behind Famous-Barr sponsoring the first Independence Day celebrations under the Gateway Arch, the forerunner of Fair Saint Louis. She introduced St. Louis women to the Wonder Bra by having it roll up in its own limousine. She hosted such stars and luminaries as Sophia Loren and Elizabeth Taylor, Mickey Mantle and Hank Aaron, Julia Child and Craig Claiborne. And she was a tireless advocate for worthy causes and initiatives, including making the stores more accessible to the disabled and advocating for the store to have both black and white Santas.
Of course, she was not above some flim-flammery. There was the time when Famous-Barr was promoting merchandise from Spain and planned an event featuring Spanish Flamenco dancers. At the last minute though, the dancers called to say they couldn’t make it. Mom got in touch with some folks of Hispanic origin on St. Louis’ south side. They put her in touch with some dancers. The troupe arrived just in time – from New Mexico. To maintain the illusion she instructed them not to talk with anyone in English.
Other than that I’d have to say my mom was an exemplary role model. You don’t have to take my word for it. There are legions of women who worked with my mother who say she blazed a trail. One of them is the legendary Maxine Clark, who worked for the May Co., before going on to be the founder of the iconic Build-A-Bear Workshop. “She taught me not to fear people in power – particularly men,” Maxine said at mom’s funeral service. “No one was too important or too unimportant to Helen – she had a heart and soul enough for all of St. Louis.”
My mother gave her heart and soul to Famous-Barr and always considered it a bargain. Thanks to Edna for honoring her and all the people who made Famous-Barr a heavenly place.
Richard H. Weiss
St. Louis, MO