Macy’s downtown closure affects Jewish community on many levels

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

The impending closure of the downtown Macy’s store — once the largest department store, and one of the largest business buildings in the world — will hit many in the St. Louis Jewish community very hard.

For three generations, a member of the prominent Jewish May family was the head of the Famous & Barr Co.: David May, in September 1913, when the company moved to its then new store; he was succeeded at the helm by his son, Morton J. May; and then later his son, Morton D. May, took the reins. Through the years, the May family was among the pioneering “giants” of the modern Jewish community, with major leadership roles with the Jewish Federation, the Jewish Hospital and playing an active role in both the business world as well as the world of the arts.

Of direct note is the fact that during the career of Morton D. May (1914-1983), the Jewish Federation and the St. Louis Jewish Light were longtime residents of the Railway Exchange Building, which was — and is — the office section of the downtown building, which as of now is not going to be affected by the closure of the downtown Macy’s. Federated Department Stores, which later changed its corporate name to Macy’s, bought May Department Stores of St. Louis, which owned and operated Famous & Barr, in 2005. Macy’s put its name on the downtown Famous & Barr at Sixth and Olive Streets in 2006, but left the store’s iconic brass-plated corner signs in place.

Despite the corporate takeover and name change, for many St. Louisans the downtown location was, and will always be, “Downtown Famous.” Along with the Jewish-owned Stix, Baer & Fuller and the Scruggs Vandervoort Barney, downtown Famous was one of three vibrant,  successful and Jewish-owned department stores back in the day when they ruled the retailing market locally and nationally. Many of the stores, including Famous, Macy’s and Stix, Baer & Fuller, were founded by pioneering Jews who transformed pushcarts filled with rags and cloth samples into major retailing giants.

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Thousands of St. Louis children, myself included, recall fondly the adventure of going downtown to Famous, Stix, Baer & Fuller and Scruggs (or Vandervoort’s) with our moms on Double-Eagle Stamp day. For us Jewish kids, there was the not-so “guilty pleasure” of enjoying the Christmas displays that animated and enlivened the store windows, especially at Famous-Barr each season. A number of us can recall sitting on the lap of the store’s Santa Claus and confessing that we were Jewish, only to be often told, “Don’t worry, boychik! I am a Jewish Santa and I won’t forget you for Hanukkah!” It was our very own “Miracle on Sixth and Olive Streets.”

Morton D. “Buster” May was a key player in the Jewish and general community and had a private suite in the Railway Exchange Building — the same building as the Light’s offices during part of my tenure as Editor-in-Chief of the Jewish Light.

“Buster” May, as he was affectionately known by his many friends, was one of those Jewish and general community leaders who could, as Rudyard Kipling would say, “walk with kings and never lose the common touch.” For many years, the official launching of the Jewish Federation Annual Campaign would take place in Morton D. May’s private office suite. The “Special” or “Advanced” Gifts Division, generous donors who would set the pace for the annual drive, would gather around the gleaming table in May’s office and be served a luncheon of roast prime rib of beef, authentic “country style” homemade potato chips and the famous Famous-Barr French onion soup, which has been often imitated but never duplicated. May was always a relaxed, gracious and good-humored host, who would start things rolling by announcing his own generous gift. Attending those annual luncheons were such other luminaries as Melvin Dubinsky, Louis Zorensky, Alfred Fleishman, I.E. Millstone, Morris Shenker and many others.

Morton D. May was a major patron of the arts in St. Louis, having donated his huge personal collection of African native art to the St. Louis Art Museum where they are located in a permanent gallery. He was also a patron of the famous German Expressionist artist Max Beckmann, and organized a retrospective of his works at the St. Louis Art Museum. The exhibit, mounted in August 1984, was the largest exhibition of Beckmann’s work to that date. May donated some of his own Beckmann works to the museum.

Morton D. May was born on March 25, 1914, the son of Morton J. May and Florence Goldman May. He never strayed from his intention to continue the family business, including his father’s legacy of civic and philanthropic investment.  He indeed did continue that legacy.

As the location of the downtown Famous-Barr—the May Co. prepares to close the downtown department store in August, we should take a moment to reflect on the beautiful and iconic building, the contributions of the May family and to the countless memories that it holds for all St. Louisans, and especially for the Jewish community.