When Herbert Marcus opened a store in Dallas with his sister Carrie and her husband Al Neiman in 1907, the oil business had yet to boom and the future metropolis was still a provincial town crisscrossed with unpaved streets. But together they created Neiman Marcus, which brought high-quality ready-to-wear clothing to an eager customer base. Carrie and Al Neiman divorced in 1928, and Herbert bought out Al’s shares. Carrie continued to work at the store and became a guiding force as Neiman Marcus expanded into new markets.
It would be easy to underestimate her role in Neiman Marcus’s success; in those days women didn’t get a lot of credit for their contributions to retail empires. Her great-niece Jerrie Marcus Smith has spent years collecting stories about Marcus’s many achievements, and this month she will publish an intimate biography that chronicles how a driven young person became one of fashion’s most talented pioneers.
Below is an excerpt from A Girl Named Carrie: The Visionary Who Created Neiman Marcus and Set the Standard for Fashion.
In time, customers not only relied on Carrie for fashion advice but, after having come to know her intimately, confided deep secrets, from their greatest personal triumphs to their biggest disappointments. If a longtime customer had a wandering husband, chances are Carrie knew about him. If another customer needed a new outfit for an occasion with a man who was not her husband, chances are Carrie knew about him, too. Customers figured that if Carrie could be trusted to tell the truth about how they looked in a particular outfit—she never hesitated to kill a sale if the outfit didn’t meet her high expectations—she could guard their solemn secrets.
For years she probably knew more than anyone about the vagaries of high society in Dallas, and she became a vast repository of confidences from many longtime customers. Some came into the store to see her even when they did not intend to buy anything. Carrie, after listening carefully to their stories, usually sent them on their way with some good advice—and often a purchase. Her knowledge, in its way, shaped Dallas society well beyond the clothing that the city’s most elegant residents brought home. Because of Carrie, Neiman Marcus was considered Dallas’s arbiter of fashion and taste, and that included many areas in addition to fashion. When a Dallas doyenne was preparing to entertain an important guest, she might call Neiman Marcus to ask for pointers. What would make an elegant dinner? What should she serve and how should she serve it?
The store also received inquiries about travel. Where would Carrie suggest they vacation, and when? The calls became so frequent that she eventually had to ask others to help field some of the requests. If she felt inclined, Carrie did not always wait to be asked but rather volunteered her own original ideas about style, taste, entertaining, and excursions. In 1949 she read that the Duke and Duchess of Windsor planned to visit the Mexican ranch of two of the store’s clients, wealthy Dallas oilman Clint Murchison and his wife Virginia. Carrie telephoned Virginia with just the right suggestions for preparing the Murchisons’ ranch house for the royal visit. “It would be nice if you had some linen hand towels with the duke and duchess’s monogram and their crest,” Carrie offered. Virginia was thrilled with the idea, and equally thrilled when the beautiful linens arrived at the ranch only three days later. Upon seeing the towels, the duchess waved one at Virginia and exclaimed, “They’re marvelous!” Several decades later, Virginia was still grateful to Carrie for her stroke of genius—and still shocked that the duke and duchess took all 12 towels home with them.
This story appears in the November 2021 issue of Town & Country. SUBSCRIBE NOW
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