“Style isn’t just about what you wear, it’s about how you live” -Lilly Pulitzer (1931-2013)
Lillian Lee McKim Pulitzer Rousseau was born on November 10, 1931. “Lilly” was born to socialites Robert V. McKim and his wife, Lillian in Roslyn, N.Y., the middle daughter of three. Her elder sister was named Mary Maude, and her younger sister was Florence Fitch. Lillian Bostwick McKim was an heiress to the Standard Oil fortune. Robert and Lillian divorced, and Lillian re-married, to Ogden Phipps, in 1937.
Lilly and her sisters, Mimsy and Flossie, had a privileged upbringing, attended the New York City‘s Chapin School, along with the young Jacqueline Bouvier. In 1949, she graduated from Miss Porter’s School, a boarding school in Farmington, Conn. She attended the long-closed Finch College (a finishing school) also in New York City, but left after one semester to work as a midwife assistant in West Virginia and as a volunteer at the Veterans Hospital in The Bronx.
While on vacation in Palm Beach, she met Herbert Pulitzer Jr., known as Peter, the handsome grandson of the publisher Joseph Pulitzer, whose bequest to Columbia University established the Pulitzer Prize. Young Lilly shocked her family by eloping with Peter in 1950, at the age of 19. The young couple settled among the citrus groves of the Pulitzer estate, holding wild parties and generally ignoring whatever was expected of them from their society peers. They had had three children within five years.
With the produce from their groves, Lilly opened a juice stand on Via Mizner, just off Worth Avenue with an acquaintance from New York, Laura Robbins, a former editor at Harper’s Bazaar.
In the course of working at the juice stand, Lilly found that squeezing juice made a mess of her clothes. Seeking to camouflage the juice stains, she designed a “shift dress.” One had sleeves and the more popular of the two, the sleeveless shift. The dresses were made with bright, colorful printed cotton.
Lilly found that customers loved her dress, so she produced more in order to sell them. The duo began selling the dresses at the juice stand, for $22. Eventually, she was selling more dresses than juice, and decided to focus on designing and selling what had become known as her “Lillys.”
Soon after, she got into the fashion business full-time, while raising her three children, Peter McKim Pulitzer of Manzanita, Ore., and Palm Beach, Lillian “Minnie” Pulitzer McCluskey and Liza Pulitzer Calhoun, both of Palm Beach.
In 1959, she became president of her own company, Lilly Pulitzer, Inc. The company’s main factory was located in Miami and the fabrics were produced by the Key West Hand Print Fabrics company. From the 1960s to the early 1980s, Pulitzer‘s bright, colorful clothes became a mark of membership for old-money families at play for more than five decades.
Jacqueline Kennedy, who attended boarding school with Lilly, even wore one of the sleeveless shifts in a Life magazine photo spread, and matriarch Rose Kennedy and Kathleen bought nearly identical versions together.
In 1966, The Washington Post reported that the dresses were “so popular that at the Southampton Lilly shop on Job’s Lane they are proudly put in clear plastic bags tied gaily with ribbons so that all the world may see the Lilly of your choice. It’s like carrying your own racing colors or flying a yacht flag for identification.”
In 1969, Lilly and Peter were divorced after she returned to New York suffering from a nervous collapse, she said, that her marriage was driving her crazy.
“That’s what life is all about: Let’s have a party. Let’s have it tonight” -Lilly Pulitzer.
She married Enrique Rousseau, who had worked for her first husband and then a hotel, in 1969. Although she legally changed her name to Lillian McKim Rousseau, her clothing company continued to operate under the “Lilly Pulitzer” label. Lilly continued to reside in Palm Beach. Rousseau died from prostate cancer in 1993.
Mrs. Rousseau continued designing until 1984, when a series of ill-timed expansions, combined with changing tastes toward more minimal designs, led the company to seek bankruptcy protection.
In 1993, the brand was relaunched by a Pennsylvania company, Sugartown Worldwide, which eventually changed its name to Lilly Pulitzer. In 2010, the brand was acquired by Oxford Industries, a Georgia based fashion company. Mrs. Rousseau continued until recently to work with the companies as an adviser and as the name and face behind the brand.
Today, the company maintains 75 Lilly Pulitzer Signature Stores (also known as Via Stores), several company-owned retail stores, sells to independently owned stores and is in major department stores.
Along with women’s clothing, the company also produces men’s clothing, children’s clothing, maternity clothes, swimsuits, country club attire, shoes, jewelry, accessories, home collection and stationery. The company launched an exclusive Bridal Collection in 2010.
Lilly was known for hosting parties barefoot at her Palm Beach home, also published a pair of lifestyle books — Essentially Lilly: A Guide to Colorful Entertaining and Essentially Lilly: A Guide to Colorful Holidays — with her friend, author Jay Mulvaney.
She has also released two desk calendar books, Essentially Lilly 2005 Social Butterfly Engagement Calendar and Essentially Lilly 2006 Party Animal Engagement Calendar. She was known to make special collections with sorority prints on them. She has held contests on her Facebook page to vote on which sororities will get their own prints.
Lilly Pulitzer‘s net sales in 2012 were $122.6 million, according to the company.
Mrs. Rousseau was widely known for her support for a wide range of philanthropic charities and causes. She supporting the children and elderly of Darfur. This lady of philanthropy was also a supporter of Stop! Children’s Cancer of Palm Beach County, Inc. and the Palm Beach Cat Rescue and Humane Society. She also actively supported the Junior League. In 2008 Lilly was honored as a “Woman of Distinction” by Palm Beach Atlantic University. She was a longtime member of the Everglades Club and the Bath & Tennis Club.
“I designed collections around whatever struck my fancy … fruits, vegetables, politics or peacocks,” Lilly told AP in 2009. “It was a total change of life for me, but it made people happy.”
Lilly Pulitzer died at her home at 710 South County Road on Palm Beach Island, at the age of 81, on April 7, 2013.
In addition to her children and sister, she is survived by grandchildren Emma and Charlotte Pulitzer, Rodman and Lilly Leas, Jack McCluskey and Robert and Christopher Leidy; her half-brother Ogden Mills “Dinny” Phipps of Palm Beach; and stepchildren Toinette Boalt and Sandra Boykin.
Quattlebaum Funeral Home is handling arrangements. A memorial service is scheduled for 2 p.m. Thursday at The Episcopal Church of Bethesda-by-the-Sea.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests that memorial donations be made to;
American Cancer Society
235 S. County Road # 20
Palm Beach, FL 33480
The Peggy Adams Animal Rescue League
3100-3200 N. Military Trail
West Palm Beach, FL 33409
RELATED TOPIC: Lilly Pulitzer Spring/Summer 2013 Collection