Neiman Marcus celebrates 50 years in Fort Worth

Posted Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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This December, luxury retailer Neiman Marcus has been celebrating 50 years in Fort Worth.

Just imagine.

When the store opened here in the spring of 1963, Leonard’s, Fort Worth’s popular everyman’s department store, had just opened its famous subway, and the country was still months away from losing its president.

A gallon of gas cost a quarter, the minimum wage was $1.25 an hour, a respectable annual income was a tad less than $6,000, and a sporty Cadillac Eldorado went for a hefty $6,600 plus change. That year, the Neiman Marcus Christmas catalog fantasy gift was a two-seater mini-submarine priced at what was then an eye-popping $18,700 — about the price of a Ford Fusion today.

During the past half-century, Neiman Marcus has become more than a centerpiece of Fort Worth’s luxury retail experience. It’s a destination with a loyal following, the site of hundreds of charity benefit events and a place with a thousand stories.

For decades before that Fort Worth opening, Neiman’s had been the hub of Dallas glamour — an iconic department store that thrummed with sophistication. Even sales associates radiated an aura of refinement and elegance that epitomized Big D at its best.

Former Star-Telegram society columnist Lloyd “Cissy” Stewart once noted that while Fort Worth’s social set acknowledged the blistering rivalry between the cities and were loath to spend their money in Dallas, they really couldn’t stay away from Neiman’s. The stately downtown store was a shimmering palace of sumptuousness, goods and chic fashion. Stanley Marcus, the merchant prince himself, would likely greet them and treat them like royalty.

But the 30 miles between the cities might as well have been 30,000. The cities were divided by attitude and a staggering dose of civic pride. And then, Neiman Marcus opened a stand-alone store on Camp Bowie Boulevard on Fort Worth’s west side, and somehow Fort Worth and Dallas didn’t seem so far apart after all.

In 1977, the store moved to Ridgmar Mall. With more than a dozen years of hindsight, Stewart called the opening of that first Fort Worth store “the beginning of the Metroplex.” If the well-heeled crowd of 1963 had any reservations about a Dallas merchant horning in on Cowtown’s best turf, it quickly discharged such notions.

‘Know thy customer’

The first store manager, the fun-loving Tom Barnett, and his stylish wife, Virginia, were quickly welcomed into Fort Worth’s inner circles. Barnett was a genius at remembering the names of customers, their children and even their dogs. He encouraged the sales staff to do the same. “Know thy customer” was the store’s motto: history, accomplishments, disappointments, shoe size, etc.

Sales associates such as Jo Throckmorton became as close as members of the family to some customers, and it seemed she was always on call.

But the holiday season has always been the measure of a retailer, and Neiman Marcus determined early on not to be outdone in either service or quality of goods.

For decades, the Christmas catalog’s fantasy gifts have represented the ultimate in opulence and indulgence. At various times there were baby elephants offered for $5,000 each, a stuffed tiger covered with precious gems for $1 million, a pair of yellow diamonds for $2 million, a robot for $17,500, Napoleon Bonaparte’s glasses for $90,000, ermine bathrobes, airplanes, hot-air balloons, a Chinese junk and more.

Christmas morning 1964, a fantasy gift was delivered to a Fort Worth estate. It was a surprise that required the help of several sales associates, including Throckmorton, and a cowboy, who had been hired to help deliver the gift: a full-grown camel. Erma Camel had landed in a Texas honey pot. She had the devotion of her owner and the run of the grounds and soon became a legendary figure on the city’s west side. Often visited by Marcus himself, Erma lived a long and happy life there.

But the Shar-Pei puppy offered for $2,000 in the 1983 catalog apparently wasn’t as good at making friends as Erma had been. Melba Todd, a former public relations director for the Fort Worth store who finished off her decades-long career with Neiman Marcus in the Dallas corporate office, remembers the day the woman who bought the dog came into the Ridgmar store delighted to say that she had found it a new home.

“That dog even had expensive tastes,” she told Todd. “He ate noting but Oriental rugs.”

Todd wasn’t a sales associate, but she participated in the annual holiday contest that was meant to encourage the staff to come up with creative ways of merchandising. Working with a team, Todd remembers approaching a gentleman who often gave his wife furs and suggesting that he purchase another.

She explained that the team would arrange a beautiful luncheon in the Hedges, the store’s popular restaurant: Waterford crystal, the finest china, flowers, the works. A model would come to the table in the coat, take it off and place it on his wife’s shoulders. Better yet, they would promise that dessert would bring another dazzler.

Sweet treats would arrive under pewter domes that, when lifted, would reveal a handsomely wrapped present from the precious jewels department.

Of course, the man wasn’t able to resist such an inspired presentation. It came off without a hitch, Todd says, and her team won the contest.

Making connections

But not all of Todd’s holiday season stories are about selling. Some are about the very human connections between employees and customers.

Todd remembers a Christmas when she and Throckmorton learned that a favorite and much-loved customer had been ill and had decided not to decorate her home that year.

“So we took a wonderful lunch over there, and a tree, and all these beautiful ornaments, and after lunch we set up the tree and decorated it,” Todd says.

After Christmas, Todd called the woman. “I thought I’d pick up that tree and get it out of your way,” she said. The woman’s voice was all honeyed charm. “Think again,” she said sweetly. And so the tree and the ornaments stayed put, a gift from the store.

Todd was also involved with many of the charity events hosted at the store. She remembers that a fashion show billed as “An Evening With Oscar de la Renta,” benefiting Cook Children’s Medical Center, was all set, but then the designer arrived in a delighted dither. He’d spent the entire flight chatting up Texas-born supermodel Jerry Hall, the 6-foot beauty who was linked to rocker Mick Jagger, and she had agreed to be in the show.

“She’ll do the finale — the wedding gown,” he said. Oscar was ecstatic but Todd was worried. “There was no way I could pay her fee,” she says.

Hall turned out to be a delight with a wicked sense of humor — and a really large foot. “She wore an 11 and a half or a 12, and there wasn’t a pair of shoes in the store that would fit her,” says Todd. Hall, a real trooper, did the show barefoot.

But no one was expecting this very famous model, and Todd worried that no one would recognize her.

“We put some quackers in the audience who said, ‘Look, isn’t that Jerry Hall? Well, yes. I think that is Jerry Hall.’ 

When the show was over, Todd took a deep breath, walked up to Hall and said, “Jerry, you are so sweet to volunteer your time to do this show. You and I are so lucky to have healthy children.”

The savvy model looked Todd up and down and laughed. “You are some funny girl,” she said. “Yeah, we are lucky.” She never sent a bill.

Customer service has been a hallmark of the Neiman Marcus in Fort Worth. When a customer wanted a fur coat that matched her hair color, Russian pelts were flown in and the match made before the coat was cut.

When a customer in Hawaii called in tears because she couldn’t locate a particular dress for her daughter’s wedding, the dress was found in the Last Call racks in Cowtown and shipped immediately.

When a collector fretted over the safe delivery of delicate porcelain Boehm birds, the store bought a seat on the plane for the package. If a dress was the wrong color for a customer’s complexion, calls were made to see if the dress could be had in a more flattering color. If a holiday delivery went wrong, someone was at the store on Christmas morning to make it right.

“We did whatever we needed to do to make the customer happy,” says Norbert “Stan” Stanislav, who became the manager in the 1980s.

Playful workplace

But for all its sophisticated élan, the store also had an air of fun, plain and simple, says Leann Adams, an educator who has been the Saturday receptionist in the Couture Department for more than 40 years. The fun often started at the top, she says, contributing a story about the day that Stanley Marcus attended a store meeting dressed as Tiny Tim, after the famously eccentric singer wed Miss Vicki on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.

One Christmas Eve, store manager Barnett asked Richard Marcus, son of Stanley Marcus, to dress in a raggedy Santa suit and pass out presents to employees. Of course, Marcus had no idea that Barnett had filled Santa’s bag with boxes from J.C. Penney and Sears.

This playful attitude was evident even on the selling floor. Once, a sales associate and a customer flipped a coin to decide if she would buy a fur coat: heads she bought it, tails she didn’t. When the Neiman’s man dropped to his knees to better see the coin, the customer asked what he was doing.

“I’m a sporting man, but I’m also a praying man,” he said, then he flicked the coin into the air. It landed heads up. She bought the coat.

“I was a student at TCU when I went to work for Neiman’s in that first Fort Worth store,” Adams remembers. “I knew I was going to teach school, and this just looked like so much fun. … It has been. We’re like a big family, and the customers are so interesting. They travel and come back and tell their stories. They’re like family, too.”

Mary Rogers is a freelance writer. Reach her at mary@

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