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"When Women Ran Fifth Avenue" by Julie Satow highlights visionary women in American fashion

New book tells story of "When Women Ran Fifth Avenue"
New book tells story of "When Women Ran Fifth Avenue" 03:50

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In the early 20th century, visiting a department store on Fifth Avenue wasn't just about the shopping. It was a complete experience. 

The book "When Women Ran Fifth Avenue" by Julie Satow profiles three women who made it happen. As Satow writes "men owned the buildings, but inside women ruled."

Satow talked to Mary Calvi about Hortense Odlum of Bonwit Teller, Dorothy Shaver of Lord & Taylor, and Geraldine Stutz of Henri Bendel. Each woman transformed the stores they headed, and revolutionized how America shopped. An excerpt of "When Women Ran Fifth Avenue" is below.

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"When Women Ran Fifth Avenue" by Julie Satow 


From the publisher: The twentieth century American department store: a palace of consumption where every wish could be met under one roof – afternoon tea, a stroll through the latest fashions, a wedding (or funeral) planned. It was a place where women, shopper and shopgirl alike, could stake out a newfound independence. Whether in New York or Chicago or on Main Street, USA, men owned the buildings, but inside, women ruled.

In this hothouse atmosphere, three women rose to the top. In the 1930s, Hortense Odlum of Bonwit Teller came to her husband's department store as a housewife tasked with attracting more shoppers like herself, and wound up running the company. Dorothy Shaver of Lord & Taylor championed American designers during World War II–before which US fashions were almost exclusively Parisian copies–becoming the first businesswoman to earn a $1 million salary. And in the 1960s Geraldine Stutz of Henri Bendel re-invented the look of the modern department store. With a preternatural sense for trends, she inspired a devoted following of ultra-chic shoppers as well as decades of copycats.

Julie Satow lives in New York.

"When Woman Ran Fifth Avenue" by Julie Satow (Amazon) $23

"When Women Ran Fifth Avenue" by Julie Satow (Kindle) $15

Excerpt: "When Women Ran Fifth Avenue" by Julie Satow 

As ice gathered several inches thick on the Hudson River and the mercury plummeted below freezing, Hortense Odlum stepped from her chauffeured car onto the Fifth Avenue sidewalk. Gripping her felt hat to her auburn updo, she stared at the Art Deco skyscraper looming above her, at the two-story entryway made of filigreed bronze and glass and the words "BONWIT TELLER" etched prominently into the limestone facade. A morning rush of passersby leaned against the gale, men lugging briefcases as they trudged toward glass-walled boardrooms and women in nubby woolen coats ready for a day serving coffee and taking stenography. It was the height of the Great Depression, but even the ranks of the jobless seemed purposeful, huddling against the tall buildings to shield themselves from the biting cold, their bare hands outstretched in the hopes of a Christmas coin.

Hortense pulled her fur coat around her and stepped gingerly through the revolving doors. At once, the scramble and blizzard outside fell away as an atmosphere of hushed grandeur and a blast of warm air enveloped her. She looked about the store's main floor, with its maze of glass counters and mirrored columns, the clacking of high heels against marble echoing through the vast space as a handful of early morning shoppers wandered the aisles. Eyeing the bank of elevators sitting along the far wall, Hortense walked toward them, clasping her purse nervously as she asked the operator for the eleventh floor. She exited into a reception area, behind which were a series of doors where Bonwit Teller's management had its offices. The secretary showed her to a nearby couch. Moments later, an elderly gentleman, dressed nattily in a three-piece suit with a shock of silver hair, stuck his head from behind one of the large wooden doors and waved her inside.

Paul Bonwit, the seventy-year-old merchant, gestured for Hortense to sit across from his imposing, presidential desk, and she took her seat with a small, polite smile. Mr. Bonwit, who had come from Germany in his youth and founded his store four decades earlier, had spent countless hours charming wealthy housewives with his old-world manners and continental accent. But as he launched into his standard line of questioning, asking after Hortense's trip into Manhattan and how her children were faring, his typical ease faltered and the air between them became stiff and awkward.

Bonwit Teller had been one of New York's most exclusive, well-appointed department stores. But three years into the Great Depression, its rows of mink coats and shelves of Baccarat glass sat unsold, and, teetering on the cusp of bankruptcy, Mr. Bonwit had been forced to sell. The new owner, Floyd Odlum, was a Wall Street tycoon and one of America's richest men. So far, Mr. Bonwit had managed to keep Floyd at bay, holding on to his large, carpeted office and his position as store president. But now Floyd's wife had made a sudden appearance, and Mr. Bonwit was confounded by the arrival of this forty-one-year-old mother of two. While she had shopped plenty, Hortense had never worked—and certainly not in a store. "There's a small office down the hall, Mrs. Odlum, where I hope you'll be comfortable," Mr. Bonwit finally ventured. "And by the way, my secretary will be glad to take your dictation when you need her."

Hortense's face reddened. She didn't want to be there any more than Mr. Bonwit wanted her to be. But her husband had asked her to make the rounds of the store and report back on her impressions. And while she had had little idea how to proceed, Hortense was willing to try nearly anything to please Floyd. "What would I do in an office?" she replied, nervously. "I wouldn't know how to act in an office, and I wouldn't have the faintest idea of what to say to a secretary."

As their meeting concluded, Mr. Bonwit may have felt relief at Hortense's ignorance of the corporate world. But as he took his guest by the elbow and gently guided her toward the door, he had little way of knowing that Hortense's inexperience belied an instinctive business acumen. That by the following year, their roles would reverse, with Hortense occupying the corner office at Bonwit Teller, sitting at the stately desk as her secretary took dictation, supervising more than one thousand employees, and directing a store that boasted record-breaking sales. Hortense was setting herself on a path that would thrust her into a career that she had never intended, that would challenge her notions of womanhood and force her to confront difficult truths. It was the start of a journey that would lay the groundwork for an evolution of the grand department store and a metamorphosis of American fashion.

From WHEN WOMEN RAN FIFTH AVENUE: Glamour and Power at the Dawn of American Fashion by Julie Satow. Reprinted by permission of Doubleday, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2024 by Julie Satow.

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