Lillian Vernon, Mistress of Mail-Order Catalogs, Dies at 88

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Lillian Vernon
Lillian Vernon. Photographer: Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

Lillian Vernon, whose kitchen-table notion to sell monogrammed handbags and belts spawned one of America’s best-known mail-order catalog businesses, has died. She was 88.

She died Monday in New York City, according to the New York Times, citing her son Fred Hochberg, chairman and president of the U.S. Export-Import Bank.

Peddling knick-knacks and doo-dads such as door knockers, welcome mats, personalized bookmarks, pewter place-card holders and crocheted Christmas ornaments, Vernon created a retail brand embraced by consumers, especially women.

Among her shoppers, according to her younger son David Hochberg, were Nancy Reagan, Betty White, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Gregory Peck and Hillary Clinton, who once said that as first lady of Arkansas during the 1980s, she would peruse the catalog hoping “that if I just ordered one more thing, my life would finally be in order.”

The company went public in 1987 and five years later reported $260 million in sales, an all-time high. In 2003, H. Strauss Zelnick’s ZelnickMedia, based in New York, backed by private-equity firm Ripplewood Holdings, bought the business for $60.5 million.

Vernon, who along with her son, David, owned 40 percent of the company, received about $24 million from the sale. She became non-executive chairman.

“I’ve sold my name, but I am still the face and heart and soul of the business,” she said, according to a 2004 story in the Times.

The retailer went through further ownership changes and a bankruptcy filing in 2008. That year, the company was acquired by Current-USA Inc., a division of closely held Taylor Corp., based in North Mankato, Minnesota. Now named Current Media Group, it was acquired Oct. 1 by Regent Equity Partners, based in Los Angeles, Karen Lenihan, a spokeswoman for the unit, said in a telephone interview.

Durable Brand

Through it all, Vernon took pride in the durability of the brand she created, David Hochberg said in a 2012 interview.

“Given the grim retailing environment, where so many retailers are gone or have been restructured,” he said, “she’s happy the brand is still thriving.”

As Vernon recalled in her 1996 memoir, “An Eye for Winners,” inspiration struck in 1951 in her apartment in Mount Vernon, New York. She was then Lillian Hochberg, newly wed and four months’ pregnant with her first child.

Paging through women’s magazines such as Seventeen and Glamour, she came up with an idea for supplementing her husband’s income from running a clothing store: she’d sell handbags and brass-buckled belts, personalized with initials. Her startup funds would be $2,000 in wedding-gift money; her supplier would be her father, who ran a leather-goods business.

‘Stylish Image’

“I saw the bag as petite -- to convey a neat and stylish image -- with a shoulder strap and a heraldic metal crest on the front,” she wrote. “The initials were to go on the strap. The wide, waist-cincher belt would buckle in back and have a tab on the front for initials that matched those on the bag -- the first matching bag and belt set ever!”

For $495, she bought an ad in Seventeen’s back-to-school issue, offering the bag for $2.99 and belt for $1.99. In three months, she said, the orders totaled $32,000.

Step by step, she built her company, mailing an eight-page catalog to 125,000 customers in 1954, branching out to jewelry, reaching $500,000 in sales in 1958 and incorporating as Vernon Products Inc., a reference to Mount Vernon, in 1960. She renamed the company Lillian Vernon Corp. in 1965 and adopted Lillian Vernon as her own name in 1990.

Shopper’s Quest

In the 1970s, she became a regular at trade fairs in Europe, then in Hong Kong and Tokyo and, from 1980, China. Her perpetual quest: to find new and unusual items for her growing clientele. She had faith that her personal tastes reflected those of her readers.

“I like my house organized with corner racks, pullout dish things, drawer dividers,” she said, according to a 1992 Forbes magazine story. “I wouldn’t sell anything I wouldn’t use myself.”

Lilly Menasche was born March 18, 1927, in Leipzig, Germany, the second child of Herman, a lingerie merchant, and Erna Menasche. One of her early memories, she said in her memoir, was hearing anti-Semitic slurs directed at her and her brother as they walked to school following Hitler’s ascension to power in 1933. She said her family was ordered from their home by Nazi officials who turned it into a headquarters.

Fleeing danger, the family moved in 1933 to Amsterdam, then in 1937 to New York City.

Family Affair

Vernon attended New York City public schools. After two years at New York University, she went to work at her father’s leather company. She married Samuel Hochberg and had two sons, Fred and David. Both would join her company, David handling public affairs, Fred serving as president and chief operating officer before becoming deputy, then acting administrator of the Small Business Administration under President Bill Clinton and, later moving to the U.S. Export-Import Bank.

As Vernon told it, she and her husband clashed at work after he joined her company. She found him lacking “the entrepreneurial spirit.” In 1969, she flew to Mexico to get a divorce. He kept the wholesale end of the business, while she kept the mail-order catalog.

Vernon’s second marriage, in 1970, was to Robert Katz, a manufacturer of Lucite products sold in her catalogs. That marriage ended in divorce in 1987. She later married Paolo Martino, a salon owner.

Her charitable donations to New York University established an endowed professorship and the Lillian Vernon Creative Writing House. During Bill Clinton’s presidency, when she was a major Democratic donor, she was named chairman of the National Women’s Business Council.

(Updates with latest ownership in the eighth paragraph.)

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