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26 Apr

Love those ‘Lillys’


Lilly Pulitzer, whose name itself epitomizes the colorful fashions of Palm Beach and the Hamptons, not to mention the pinks and greens of Locust Valley, died recently at the age of 81.
Former Executive Editor of Town and Country Kathryn Livingston has written the only Lilly Pulitzer biography: Lilly; Palm Beach, Tropical Glamour and The Birth of a Fashion Legend,  a 224-page tribute published by Wiley.
I met Kathryn recently and we spoke about her book. She told me that Lilly was a very private person and never wanted an authorized biography, although the women spoke several times and Kathryn interviewed friends and former schoolmates of Lilly. It took Livingston two years to write her book and apparently Lilly enjoyed it so much, she gave copies to 25 of her closest friends for what would be her last Christmas, 2012.
Lilly was born in Roslyn in 1931. Her name was Lillian Lee McKim and everyone Lilly was her nickname. Her parents were Robert and Lillian Bostwick McKim. Lillian senior, heir to the Standard Oil fortune, later divorced her husband and married Ogden Phipps in 1937.  She raised and raced horses at Saratoga and was herself a dynamo. 
Lilly and her sisters grew up in the Phipps mansion on Fifth Avenue and attended school with other children of prominent families who had homes on Long Island. At both Miss Porter’s and Chapin schools, Lilly’s classmates included the Bouvier sisters, Jacqueline and Lee, as well as their cousin, known as Little Edie Bouvier, who later became famous for her eccentric lifestyle and dilapidated home, Grey Gardens.
Lilly Pulitzer’s fashion designs came about by serendipity. Lilly was married to her first husband, Herbert Peter Pulitzer Jr., grandson of publisher Joseph Pulitzer who established the Pulitzer Prize. Lilly and Peter, as he was known, eloped in 1952. Peter owned orange groves in Fort Pierce, Florida and the couple would travel on his private sea plane from Palm Beach to the groves. Lilly was somewhat of a wealthy hippie type who went around barefoot with a pet monkey on her shoulder. At a time when most people were very formal, the Pulitzers gave dinner parties in their large kitchen where everyone would pitch in and help cook, then dance the night away to the popular music of the day.
After giving birth to her third child, Lilly suffered from what we now know as postpartum depression, but in those days was considered a nervous breakdown and she was hospitalized for a time. To keep her mentally active and happy, her doctor recommended she ‘do something.’ So she started selling her orange juice at a roadside stand. Lilly went to the dime store to buy colorful fabric for her seamstress to create shift dresses for her to wear while working at the stand, so that her white silk or linen clothes, which were the fashions worn by the socialites of that era, didn’t become stained from the fruit juice. 
Friends began to ask her to make dresses for them and they became known as ‘Lillys’ throughout Florida. Famous women of the time including Candice Bergen, Dina Merrill and Happy Rockefeller were all photographed in their Lillys but it was a photograph in Life magazine of First Lady Jackie Kennedy with the president and their children at Hyannis in 1962 that created a sensation. Immediately, women all over the country wanted a Lilly Pulitzer dress. The dresses sold for $22 each at the time, although Lilly charged Jackie Kennedy $75, saying that the fabric of her dress was more expensive. Lilly Pulitzer dress shops opened all over the country. Purchases were wrapped in clear plastic with brightly colored ribbons, so that everyone could see the style chosen by the shopper.
Lilly and Pulitzer divorced in 1969. Lilly was a hard-working mother of three children but Peter was a playboy who had dated Jackie Kennedy and Grace Kelly before he married Lilly and it was subsequent infidelities that destroyed their marriage.
Lilly kept the brand name for her design company and married her second husband, a handsome lawyer named Enrique Rousseau. Lilly and Enrique had a happy marriage. He was from a family in Cuba who made their money in sugar. According to Livingston’s book he counted writer Ernest Hemingway as one of his friends. Rousseau died in 1993.
Livingston's book is a fascinating chronicle of social history and ‘juicy stories.’ Although, like any other person, Lilly Pulitzer's life was full of highs and lows, she was quite the fashion rock star and like all rock stars, since she has passed away there is a great interest in and revival of her work.
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