In Dallas, they call it simply The Store. It is Dallas's Louvre, the marble cathedral from which issues The Word, the place visitors are taken when they ask to see the city. George Sessions Perry was once heard to say that you have to burn butane on Olympus' highest crag to really discribe Neiman-Marcus, Scooter Miller, a Dallas import who raises funds these days for Washington charities, puts it differently. "Neiman's? It's like going to a club."
And now, at last, Washington will get to see what they are talking about.
And when it opens Monday, I'll be greeting an old friend. I married a Texan and went to live in Dallas back when there wasn't even a branch of Neiman's in the posh suburbs and the Houston store wasn't dreamed of. I have sampled the mystique first hand, and don't imagine you know all about it just because you get the gift catalog to see the his-and-her conversation gifts.
I don't know how things have changed since Neiman's merged with Broadway-Hale; but when I knew Neiman's, it was such a religion in Dallas that a carnival con man was able to make a pile before he was run out of town for selling fake Neiman-Marcus labels to those who couldn't afford the real thing. Every coat at the opera, at the theater, at the symphony carried the real thing, like Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval; and it is said that the arts were supported in Dallas by the store in order to create occasions to wear its clothes.
Back in 1953, one out of every dozen Dallas citizens carried a Neiman charge-a-plate, and they wouldn't have felt they could hold up their heads without one. It is absolutely true that a Dallas customer, living in the suburbs, once refused to accept delivery of her purchases from a Neiman's driver who was driving an unmarked truck because the real Neiman vehicle hasbroken down.
"Come back with them when the Neiman truck is fixed," she said, firmly shutting the door in the driver's face.
Neimen's is famous for the unblushing way with that it advertises $45,000 sable coats as if they were mere trinkets, but that's just to make talk among the outlanders. Big spenders do indeed write in on postcards for these come-on's; but, for most Texans, Neiman's is where you buy everything you need, except maybe gas for the car and soap for the washing machine. Every last Texan has been so imprinted by the style of the store that even when an ad for one of Neiman's dresses inadvertently omitted Neiman's name, the dress was a sellout - with 300 mail and phone orders in a state, not noted for its understatement, Neiman's represents very expensive good taste. For a long time, a buyer in Corpus Christi had a sign on his desk announcing, "I don't care how many NM ordered"; but it is common knowledge that Neiman's class influence has upgraded the merchandise bought by other Dallas stores.
Neiman's still get checks for $43,000 written in pencil, and for a long time a West Texan automatically sent the store $11,000 every month just in case he needed anything. The New Yorker once ran a cartoon featuring a barefoot wife watching an oil geyser spurt in the front yard and then turning to her husband with starry eyes to inquire how late Neiman's stays open. But though Neiman's advertises $265 diamond-studded swizzle sticks and his-and-her yachts, Stanley Marcus, Neiman's guiding spirit, has had, through the years, a reputation for playing gentle Pygmalion to the suddenly rich. He once refused to sell a full-length mink to a customer for his daughter just embarking on her first year in an Eastern boarding school.
Reports from Dallas say Stanley has moved his offices to a bank nearby; but in the days when the store was exclusively his, it bore the mark of his tastes - from the perfume in the elevator to the menu in the Ziodiac restaurant. A friend of mine once went to try on a suit in the men's department and, in the moment of truth when he was assessing his imagine in the mirror, forgot to watch his wallet, in his pants pocket near the door. When it was lifted, Stanley Marcus replaced the money with his personal check.
"They're more than a store," says Scotter Miller, and they are certainly that. Good customers never call a ticket broker in New York City when they want to get into a hit show; they call Neiman's New York office. Its Paris office has arranged for more than one baby sitter for visiting customers, and in Dallas, Neiman's has gone bail for at least one customer tossed into jail for drunk driving, billing his account the next month for the tab. Brainwashed by the originality of the store's gift wrapping, an author once brought in the manuscript of his first novel for wrapping and, naturally, subsequently placed it with a publisher.
There's no denying the fact that Neiman's does things with flair. When the store was remodeled in 1951 to the tune of $7 1/2 million, a wooden barricade had to be eracted on the street to protect passerby from overhead construction. All that raw plywood was terribly mundane, tacky - totally out of keeping with the image. It was near Christmas and something had to be done. Neiman's design expert turned the unpainted barricade into a lush garden in which grew trees, flowers and huge bunches of grapes. Stars winked overhead. Neiman's wasn't deterred by the $57,000 price tag nor by the city council's decree that the decorations would be a fire hazard. The eventual decorations were made from wrought iron.Neiman's customers like things nice.
Neiman's Texas customers rely on Neiman's taste with a touching faith. One gentleman regularly bought for his grandchildren, until the child grew too large, anything that the small mannequin in one of Neiman's windows wore. Customers regularly call up and order window displays sent right over; and the store once recreated an entire display window, featuring a $20,000 sapphire mink, in a customer's home for Christmas morning. Neiman's has specially decorated with precious jewelry more than one Christmas tree for customers and spares on effort to give its clients what they want. A good customer once called to say that it was imperative that he have a steer head over his fireplace within the hour. The store already was closing its doors. Customers' service employees slipped across the street and talked to a restaurant out of the one over its bar until they could replace it a few days later.
To work at Neiman's is different. Even the skinniest young things is, or at least was, required to wear a girdle and must wear her hair in the current mode that is part of the fashion picture that Neiman's pushing. When the New Look hit the fashion world after World War 11, a sign appeared in the washroom used buy the staff, warning that Neiman's customers must be served by clerks wearing the new style. When Tallulah Bankhead journeyed from New York to deliver a lecture, deploring the new fashion and urging women not to become pawns of the designers, her audience listened respectfully - attired in the new, calf-length full skirts Neiman's was featuring.
Electra Waggoner Wharton Gailey Gilmore, a Texas oil heiress of no mean resources, once spent $20,000 in a single day at Neiman's, forgot something and came back the next day to spend $20,000 more. But there have been one or two men who were resistant to the ambliance, and their remarks have lived after them. H. L. Hunt, who when he died was one of the richest men in the world, was shown a $100 hat at Neiman's and pushed it aside in favor of a $20 number.
"I believe this one is more my type," he said mildly.
"I'll tell you what Neiman's like," say Scooter Miller. "If there's a little old $2.98 bag everybody else is selling, they don't sell it that way. They send somebody to Paris to buy silk and they hire a desinger to lay it out and then somebody takes it to India to have it made up.
"Oh, Neiman's has really broadened Dallas' horizons."
But then there was the rancher who came in from West Texas, who stood in the perfumed and lushly carpeted first floor turning slowly on his heel to take it all in - diaphanous stain nightgowns, jeweled stamp boxes, sable throw rugs.
"May I help you?" inquired a clerk.
"No ma'am, he said finally. "I was just lookim' I've never seen so many things in all my life that I can do without."
Neiman's we can hardly wait. And please stay the same.