Fashion / Style

A Revealing New Book and Dallas Exhibit Explore the Overlooked Genius Behind Neiman Marcus

Jerrie Marcus Smith Sets the Record Straight on Her Great-Aunt

BY // 11.22.21

All photos courtesy of the Marcus family.

Jerrie Marcus Smith has always been fascinated by her great-aunt, Carrie Marcus Neiman — the enigmatic force behind Neiman Marcus, which she co-founded in 1907 with husband Al Neiman and her brother Herbert Marcus. Like many women of the era whose achievements were overshadowed by their male counterparts, Carrie’s trailblazing role has been mostly overlooked by history, says Smith, age 85.

Carrie died in 1953 when Smith was a teenager, and she’s made it part of her life’s mission to set the record straight, researching and gathering anecdotes over the decades about her great-aunt, logging the details away with an idea to pen her biography one day. Many people — including Smith’s late father, Stanley Marcus, and her good friend, Pulitzer Prize winner Doris Kearns Goodwin — suggested she “stop talking about the book and just write it,” Smith says with a laugh. “But it was hard to get started because I wasn’t a biographer. I was an avid reader, but I wasn’t a writer.” Years went by, until the pandemic of 2020 finally forced her hand. “Everybody had a blank sheet for a year, and I thought, ‘It’s now or never.’”

carrie marcus neiman
Left: Herbert Marcus kisses 2-year-old granddaughter, Jerrie Marcus, on the steps of their Dallas house in 1938. Right: Carrie Marcus’ bridal portrait, April 1905.

Smith’s book comes out this month — A Girl Named Carrie: The Visionary Who Created Neiman Marcus and Set the Standard for Fashion (University of North Texas Press). And, it was worth the wait. The book paints a captivating picture of Carrie Neiman: “the stern looking lady in the black dress” who intimidated Smith as a child but was, in reality, “the quiet genius behind the success of the internationally famous emporium known as Neiman Marcus.”

A reserved beauty with smoldering features and a regal demeanor, Carrie had innate style and an eye for the best. She didn’t come from money — her family had been German Jewish immigrants who eventually made their way to Hillsboro — but they were cultured and intellectual. Growing up, Carrie loved classical music, read books in several languages, and devoured European fashion magazines. She was married and just 24 years old when Neiman Marcus opened on Elm Street in downtown Dallas, a city that was in many ways still uncivilized, with unpaved streets bustling with horse-drawn carriages and saloons. But it did have a symphony orchestra, a Shakespeare club, and a contingency of wealthy citizens.

carrie marcus neiman
The Marcus family on Carrie Marcus’ front porch on Swiss Avenue in Dallas.

Carrie was a Jewish woman in a town dominated by Christians and males, but her taste and sophistication made Neiman Marcus an immediate success. She introduced European ready-to-wear and haute couture for the first time to Texas. “Carrie had only one job, but it was the most critical job of all,” Smith writes. “She was in charge of buying all of the merchandise for the new store … She stayed close to her original ideas of fashion — sophisticated, clean lines and good-quality materials — and returned with some of the latest women’s styles from New York and Paris … She knew that the store’s hopes for success were completely dependent on her choosing the right clothes.”

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Neiman Marcus became one of the most talked-about and successful stores in the world, thanks to the enduring values Carrie instilled, including the dictum that the customer was always right, Smith says. In his book Minding the Store, Stanley Marcus credited his aunt for much of what he learned while under her tutelage. An iconoclast in the world of retail, Carrie was also a maverick in other ways, divorcing Al in the 1920s at a time when divorce was scandalous. After Herbert died in 1950, Carrie became chairman of the board of Neiman Marcus — one of the few women in the country to hold such a position — and oversaw the company’s first branch store at Preston Center a few years before her death at age 69.

Much of Carrie’s legacy has since been lost to time — something Smith hopes to rectify. “It was really important to me to reveal the importance of this unrecognized woman,” Smith says. “Someone had to talk about her.”

In tandem with the book launch, a new exhibit, “An Eye for Elegance: Carrie Marcus Neiman and the Woman Who Shaped Neiman Marcus,” will open at SMU’s DeGolyer Library on December 2, a date Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson is set to declare “Carrie Marcus Neiman Day.”

To order the book, visit carriemarcusneiman.com

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