When Stanley Marcus Invited Nazi Collaborator Coco Chanel to Dallas
In the late 1950s, the Jewish department store mogul salvaged Chanel’s reputation—and burnished his own
By the time Chanel visited, Neiman Marcus had established itself as a specialty store of the finest caliber—certainly on par with Saks Fifth Avenue in New York and I. Magnin of San Francisco. But for Dallas, “the Store” was—and is—more than a store. It is a veritable institution, and its nine-story Renaissance Revival headquarters on the corner of Main and Ervay Streets emanates not merely fashion or luxury but style, the prospect of an education not in what to wear but in how to live. In a 1937 profile of Neiman Marcus titled “Dallas in Wonderland,” Fortune Editor Louis Kronenberger noted that “Dallas people lead you to the store in the same spirit that Parisians lead you to the Louvre.” Indeed, for the residents of what was then—and still would be in the mid-1950s—an upwardly mobile provincial city seeking to shed its backwater Texan roots, the windows of Neiman Marcus demanded nothing short of the reverence of art. After all, in more ways than one, it was the store, with Marcus at the helm, that would oversee the transformation of Dallas into the city it sought so desperately to be.
The year after Kronenberger’s piece appeared, for instance, Stanley Marcus, marketing genius that he was, created his annual Neiman Marcus Award for Distinguished Service in the Field of Fashion, a program under which the store would recognize a select few who had revolutionized the industry in some way. One cannot imagine any other circumstance under which the likes of which Christian Dior, Yves Saint Laurent, or, for that matter, Coco Chanel would have come to a small city in north Texas where the steakhouse was still the epitome of haute cuisine. In any case, the publicity from these awards generated significant enough national attention that Dallas gradually became synonymous with a particular view of sophistication. In 1939, Collier’s magazine would proclaim that “at this moment the eyes and ears of the fashion world are focused not on Paris. Not on New York. Not on Hollywood. But on Dallas. Yes, Dallas, Texas.” In 1940, David L. Cohn, writing in the Atlantic Monthly, bought into that image, calling the city “a phenomenal city in a phenomenal state” and “a world detached from the continental United States.” Life magazine went on to feature Neiman Marcus in a photo essay shortly thereafter, and the mystique that the store had always so carefully maintained became America’s image of what Dallas was.
In a profound way, Marcus’ store was the face of the city, and the city became the store: Their ascents were parallel, and their fates were intertwined. Thanks in part to the prestige the store had bestowed on Dallas, the “phenomenal city” exploded in the 1940s and ’50s—and at a far faster rate than any other municipal area in Texas or elsewhere. National corporations began to relocate to Dallas in droves, and the city became the American Southwest’s major financial hub. A culture not merely of prosperity but of affluence pervaded what was still a small city in terms of population: The average family in those years took in approximately $3,600, which, as The Atlantic observed, meant that it could spend more in a month than an average family in Mississippi could in an entire year.
For the “Merchant Prince,” however, these times were not entirely rosy. In the mid-1950s, at the height of the McCarthy scare, an increasingly radical conservative electorate battered at the gates of Dallas’ genteel, ultimately practical, conservative establishment. Allan Shivers, the conservative Democrat, was governor, and he had delivered Texas to a Republican presidential candidate—Dwight D. Eisenhower—for the first time since Reconstruction, and a deeply rooted ultraconservatism slowly began to trickle into the annals of the Texas elite.
With heightened attention to communists and “un-American” activities came a nascent anti-Semitism, of which the likes of Stanley Marcus were the principal targets. In 1951, John Beaty, a radical right-wing English professor at Dallas’ Southern Methodist University, published The Iron Curtain Over America, a virulent condemnation of the Jews and their outsized influence over American life. His chief target was Marcus himself, who served on the university’s board of trustees and whom Beaty blamed when the university’s literary quarterly, The Southwest Review, responded critically to his pamphlet.
Marcus neglects to mention this episode in his otherwise candid memoir, Minding the Store, in which his only experiences with anti-Semitism come from his student days at Amherst and then at Harvard. His silence on the subject isn’t altogether unexpected: Marcus was in many ways the picture of American-Jewish assimilation, and taking a stand on any of these issues would only have further isolated him from the store he managed and, in a sense, the city it embodied. A founding member of Dallas’ Temple Emanuel, today the largest Reform congregation in the Southwest, he is nevertheless famous for joking that he was terrified of visiting Israel “because I might be converted.”
For the proprietor of a cultural institution that defined a city and its mores, distance from and indifference to the past were key.
In a certain sense, the same was true for Coco Chanel. When Chanel finally did arrive in Dallas on Sept. 9, 1957, she smiled for the cameras just as she had been when she landed at Love Field. She was there to sell, and sell she did. Dallas, unsurprisingly, adored Mademoiselle, and her suits flew off the racks.
Marcus also smiled for the cameras, heralding a visiting dignitary who, as he said in her citation, “revolutionized women’s fashion.” Standing at the podium, he signaled “the great innovator who emancipated the feminine silhouette … who elevated the status of costume jewelry to a position of fashionable respectability, who was the first to bring perfume from the chemist’s shop to the couturier’s boutique, who was never afraid of being copied, whose past accomplishments have had a tremendous influence on present fashions.”
The newspapers recorded the event just as Mr. Stanley hoped they would—in nothing short of glowing terms. Chanel, The Dallas Morning News declared, was tantamount to “a legend in her own time.”
What perhaps best encapsulates the visit, however, are two anecdotes Marcus recounted in Minding the Store with, of course, his trademark diplomacy.
He had gotten word that Chanel desperately wanted to visit a ranch, and so he threw a dinner party at his brother’s ranch one night in her honor. “It turned out,” he would later write, “that she didn’t like the taste of the barbecued meat and highly seasoned beans, so she dumped her plate surreptitiously under the table. Unfortunately, the contents hit the satin slippers of Elizabeth Arden, who was seated next to her.”
The other is Marcus’ personal impression of Chanel, something of which he included for all the major designers he knew. Most were glowing: Cristobal Balenciaga, for instance, “was a dedicated artist;” Christian Dior “a quiet man of superb taste;” Yves Saint Laurent “an interpreter of the social changes taking place.” He remembered Chanel, however, as “a supreme egotist,” and his praise for her social artistry was faint: “It would be an exaggeration for anyone to claim that they had ever had a conversation with Chanel, for she conducted a one-woman filibuster,” he wrote.
In a telegram to Marcus after her visit, Chanel wrote, “Always remembering fondly affectionate kindness expressed so graciously to me by your dear wife and mother all your family and associates.” All of whom, of course, were Jews. But what did that matter now? The moment had changed, and so had the “supreme egotist.”
“My heartfelt thanks and best wishes, Coco Chanel.”
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