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They Revolutionized Shopping, With Tea Sandwiches on the Side

WHEN WOMEN RAN FIFTH AVENUE: Glamour and Power at the Dawn of American Fashion, by Julie Satow

In 1980, Donald J. Trump made the front page of The New York Times after assaulting a pair of scantily clad women at a Fifth Avenue department store.

That the women were made of stone and were attached to the building of Bonwit Teller, in the process of being razed and replaced by Trump Tower, was of little comfort to the trustees at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which had been promised these Art Deco bas-relief beauties — long hovering over pedestrians, now shattered.

The sculptures’ significance was allegorical as well as architectural: Department stores, though erected mostly by men, have always been feminine domains. “The Ladies’ Paradise” is the English title of Émile Zola’s 1883 novel, set at a store modeled after Le Bon Marché, still standing in Paris despite the ravages of e-commerce. Patricia Highsmith framed her 1952 lesbian romance “The Price of Salt” at the fictional Frankenberg’s, based on Bloomingdale’s.

Now Julie Satow has written a group biography of the department-store doyennes who ran the show — and these places in their heyday really were a form of theater — for the male founders and owners whose names adorned the facades.

It was clever to convene these three queens from different periods, along with shorter sketches of figures farther from Fifth Avenue, like the Black entrepreneur Maggie Walker, who in 1905 opened the St. Luke Emporium for her community in segregated Richmond, Va.; and Beatrice Fox Auerbach of G. Fox in Hartford, Conn., the inspiration for the savvy scion Rachel Menken of Menken’s on “Mad Men.”

Each might not have sustained a biography of her own, though Odlum did write a dissembling memoir, “A Woman’s Place,” long out of print, from which Satow draws. Considered in aggregate, they are a force. You can imagine them milling around the great perfume counter in the sky. After “Suffs,” maybe “Spritzes”?

Stutz, who died in 2005, is still remembered by a certain cadre of Manhattan aristocracy, and her portrayal is fleshed out by interviews conducted by the author, who has contributed to The Times (including the Styles section, where I used to work) and previously wrote a book about the Plaza hotel.

Not that “fleshed out” is a phrase readily applied to Stutz, who these days would have almost certainly been canceled for fat-shaming; under her oversight, Bendel’s only stocked up to the equivalent of a contemporary size 6. But she also revolutionized retail with a winding “street of shops” that opened inside the store in 1959 (“Street of Flops,” sneered the then-president of Bergdorf Goodman after he toured it). At a weekly open call known as the Friday Morning Lineup, young artisans vied for a coveted spot in her inventory as if trying to get into a nightclub.

Shaver had arrived in New York long before, from Arkansas by way of Chicago, on a lark with her sister, who would design popular and weird Little Shaver dolls featured in Lord & Taylor’s Christmas windows.

Hired by the store’s president, a third cousin of her mother’s, Dorothy worked her way up through the ranks (eventually getting his job) and changed its practices: opening the Bird Cage, a famous restaurant serving tea sandwiches; introducing the kind of personal shopping refined to a high art by Betty Halbreich at Bergdorf; promoting American designers in a French-obsessed era; and, in general, establishing “that department stores could rival galleries, and even museums, as cultural arbiters,” Satow writes. Abashed to be granddaughter to a Confederate who joined the Ku Klux Klan, Shaver also used her power to promote racial equality, up to a point.

The Debbie Downer of the trio is Odlum, devastated after her husband, a Wall Street tycoon who’d bought Bonwit, left her for a manicurist at Saks (and later aviator). A salon colleague asserted in his own memoir that the scandal was the basis for the Clare Boothe Luce play “The Women.”

Odlum supervised innovations including moving hats (“harmless whimsies,” a.k.a. impulse purchases) from an upper floor to prominence, a club for men to ogle lingerie models while their wives shopped, and a best-selling novel by the head of advertising that romanticized the life of an assistant buyer.

“A big store adds such a lot of glitter and fun to the prosy business of everyday living,” read one line. This was certainly true when Salvador Dalí was commissioned to do displays, and crashed a bathtub filled with dirty water through Bonwit’s window in a fit of artistic pique.

Odlum married three more times but remained bitter, blaming her workload for trouble rearing her children. “When my grandmother died,’’ a grandson tells Satow, “I remember my father saying something along the lines of, ‘Well, the old witch is finally dead.’”

There is in fact something Oz-like about the Technicolor world of the department store, with its pneumatic tubes that swooshed cash and sales slips up to the ceiling; the display director who took one mannequin, Cynthia, everywhere, including El Morocco; the limitless variety of goods ranging even, at one store in Oklahoma City, to babies for adoption.

If the suburban mall did this institution damage, the 24-7 grand bazaar of the internet made it a ghost town. Satow’s book has one longing for that delightful hush when the gates rolled down, the doormen went home and shopping gave way to sleepytime.

WHEN WOMEN RAN FIFTH AVENUE: Glamour and Power at the Dawn of American Fashion | By Julie Satow | Doubleday | 320 pp. | $32.50

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