Lillian Vernon (born Lilian Menasche) was the daughter of Jewish Germans who fled to Amsterdam during the rise of the Nazis in 1933, immigrated to New York in 1937. She attended NYU, but left after two years to marry the owner of a dry goods story in Mount Vernon, NY. With $2000 of their wedding money, Vernon, who was also pregnant, decided to start “a mail-order business on her yellow Formica kitchen table,” reported The New York Times. “With the help of her father, who by then was in the leather goods business, she advertised a personalized leather handbag for $2.99 plus tax—and a matching belt for $1.99—in the September issue of Seventeen magazine. The ad generated $32,000 in orders, and the Lillian Vernon brand was born.”
That business—Lillian Vernon mail order catalogs that specializing in selling low-cost gifts and personalized items—wooed millions. Reported the Times:
A middle-class homemaker herself, Ms. Vernon had what she called a “golden gut” for knowing what women wanted — often even before they knew. Her products were as diverse as “rescued shards” of Ming vases, fashioned into pendants and bracelets, and the all-pink Lady Tool Kit, complete with hammer, screwdrivers, wrenches and sometimes a power drill.
Her catalogs attracted celebrity customers, among them Frank Sinatra (monogrammed lint removers), Arnold Schwarzenegger (plastic shoulder shields for suits), Princess Caroline of Monaco (a Wild West costume for her daughter) and Steven Spielberg (a tool caddy).
Ms. Vernon was credited as the first to create seasonal catalogs for Easter and Halloween. She was also an innovator of the gift-with-purchase concept, offering, for example, one potholder for each season for every $10 purchase; that meant spending $40 to get the whole set.
At one point, according to the Times, it took in nearly $300 million in annual revenue, operating through two websites, 15 outlet stores and nine catalogs. In 1995, the Lillian Vernon company was listed on the New York Stock Exchange, making Lillian Vernon the first woman to own a publicly traded company on the American Stock Exchange. She died on Monday in Manhattan, at the age of 88.
Jonathan Zalman is a writer and teacher based in Brooklyn.