Helen Weiss, called ‘PR maven,’ ‘Face’ of Famous-Barr

BY ROBERT A. COHN, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF EMERITUS

Helen Weiss, described by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch as the longtime “Face” of Famous-Barr, and as the “PR Maven Extraordinaire,” by her son and daughter Dick and Jean Weiss, died Tuesday, Sept. 9, 2008, at her home in Clayton from complications from colon cancer.

She was 83 years of age.

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A Post-Dispatch obituary by Michael D. Sorkin, pointed out that Mrs. Weiss became a divisional corporate vice president of the old Famous-Barr department stores “at a time when men dominated the retail industry.”

Sorkin described Mrs. Weiss as “the ‘face’ of Famous-Barr and most recently of Macy’s stores in St. Louis from 1959 until her retirement last year. Her job title put her in charge of handling public relations and special events for the departrment stories. But her passion was helping people. She used her influence at Famous to persuade her bosses at the department store chain to sponsor a host of worthy causes.”

Scott H. Cohn, now of the Baker’s Footwear Group and a former buyer at Famous-Barr, one of many former Famous-Barr-May Company-Macy’s employees to have been mentored by Helen Weiss recalled, “The descriptions of Helen Weiss as an outspoken supporter of causes and her views was always evident at meetings she attended. We would be discussing an upcoming fashion show, and Helen was not shy about strongly expressing her views on who should be the MC, or in stating both her business and political views. When she came to meetings, no matter how much tension there was in the room, she could make it more interesting and fun for everyone.”

Mrs. Weiss produced the first major Fourth of July celebrations on the St. Louis Riverfront from 1964 until 1978, events which were the forerunners of the VP Fair and Fair St. Louis.

She was the prime mover behind the Annual St. Louis Book Fair, one of the nation’s largest and oldest charity book sales. The event is a major source of funding for the Nursery Foundation of St. Louis, the first interracial day nursery and child care center in Missouri. The Nursery Foundation included many members of the Jewish community among its founders, and the original location for the Book Fair was at the old Temple Israel building on Kinghshighway in St. Louis. The Fair later moved to various Famous-Barr and later Macy’s locations, and is now held in the West County Shopping Center each spring, with Macy’s continuing as a sponsor.

Sorkin pointed out that “Mrs. Weiss cared passionately about her causes, and colleagues say she fearlessly lobbied senior management. ‘She would just go down the hall and into their offices to make it happen,’ recalled Debbie Podgorski, who worked with Mrs. Weiss for 32 years.”

It was Mrs. Weiss who lobbied to make facilities accessible for people with disabilities long before the Americans With Disabilities Act made it a federal requirement.

She also urged the stores, back in the 1970s, to employ both black and white Santas for the downtown store. She also urged management to keep the downtown store open to support the revitalization of downtown St. Louis.

She was an active member of the board of directors of the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri, “and proudly called herself a liberal,” according to Sorkin.

Mrs. Weiss was lovingly remembered by her son, Richard H. Weiss, and daughter, Jean Weiss, who posted their thoughts on the WeissWrite Web site.

“Helen Weiss, the public relations maven who helped stage an array of special events that delighted millions of Famous-Barr and Macy’s customers over nearly half a century, died at her Clayton home of complications from colon cancer,” the Weisses said. Ms. Weiss began her career at Famous-Barr in 1959, at a time when many women were just beginning to establish careers outside the home. Many in retailing and other professions looked to her as a role model. It wasn’t for her ability to rise through the ranks. She stayed a mid-level executive until her retirement last year. Rather it was because she always kept about her a sense of who she was — a party giver, a fashion plate, and an unreconstructed liberal who never fell out of love with that futile Democratic presidential candidate of the 1950s, Adlai Stevenson. Her work at Famous-Barr and Macy’s included elaborate store openings, book signings for a welter of stars ranging from Sophia Loren to Mickey Mantle and Christmas extravaganzas that included not just Santa, but a cow (as in seven maids-a-milking).”

The Weiss siblings note that after their mother fell ill, “she began to hear from dozens of women to whom she had provided advice on fashion and life. One was Debby Silverberg, who worked for a short time at Famous-Barr decades ago. ‘I was one of the people she took shopping on Oak Street in Chicago,’ she wrote. ‘Helen made me try on couture, and then convinced me to buy the most expensive dress I’ve ever owned. I still have it and love it…mostly because it reminds me of Helen. She was a role model for me…a woman who succeeded because she wasn’t afraid to be herself.'”

Mrs. Weiss graduated from University City High School and Washington University. She is the widow of Richard M. Weiss, a producer and reporter at KSDK-TV, Channel 5.

Funeral services were held at Central Reform Congregation. Burial was private.

Among the survivors are her daughter, Jean Weiss (Dave Kester) of Minneapolis, a son, Richard H. Weiss (Sally J. Altman) of St. Louis; six grandchildren, Emily Weiss of Aspen, Colo.; Elizabeth Weiss of Gunnison, Colo.; Katharine Weiss, of Tacoma, Wash.; Jill Kester of Alexandria, Va. and Andrew Kester (Amber Kester) of Duluth, Minn., and John Kester of Minneapolis; and three great-grandchildren, Annalee, Silliam and Sophie Kester of Duluth.

The family suggests contributions in Mrs. Weiss’s memory to the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri, 454 Whittier Street, St. Louis, Mo. 63108, or aclu.em.org.; Dr. Perlmutter’s Parksionson Research Program, Department of Neurology, Washington University School of Medicine, 660 South Euclid, St. Louis, Mo. 63110, or St. Louis Beacon, 3655 Olive, St. Louis, Mo. 63108 or stlbeacon.org.