Remembering Helene Fortunoff

Remembering Helene Fortunoff

Esther Fortunoff-Greene recalls her smart and savvy Jersey-born mother

In 1997, some of the Fortunoff and Mayrock families are at the Source Mall in Westbury; from left, David, Ruth, and Louis Fortunoff; Isidore Mayrock; Esther Fortunoff; Rachel and Elliot Mayrock, and Helene and Alan Fortunoff.
In 1997, some of the Fortunoff and Mayrock families are at the Source Mall in Westbury; from left, David, Ruth, and Louis Fortunoff; Isidore Mayrock; Esther Fortunoff; Rachel and Elliot Mayrock, and Helene and Alan Fortunoff.

Most people who grew up in metropolitan New York or northern New Jersey — most specifically in Brooklyn, on Long Island, anywhere near Paramus or Wayne, or in Manhattan, but really anyplace at all in New York or North Jersey — knew the name Fortunoff.

That was the huge store where you could wander around the most extraordinary lighting fixtures — you didn’t have to know anything about lighting fixtures when you were a kid to be transfixed by how very many crystals there were — and housewares and silverware, and most of all the acres and acres of jewelry cases, with gold and silver and diamonds and rubies and pearls whispering or sometimes even yelling your name.

All of that was the work of a remarkable family, the Fortunoffs, whose instincts in retail, well-honed by decades of experience, guided the stores.

One of the most talented and formidable of the second generation, Helene Finke Fortunoff, died on November 8. She was 88, and she left a record of accomplishment not only as retailer but as a trailblazing woman in retail, as a trailblazing specifically Jewish woman in retail, and as a Jewish philanthropist, whose giving to both Jewish and non-Jewish causes and to Israel was guided by deeply Jewish values.

And she was from New Jersey.

Ms. Fortunoff — whom we will call Helene here, not to be too familiar, but because this story will be full of Fortunoffs — was born in Paterson and grew up in Fair Lawn. Her parents, Tilly Kraut Finke and Samuel Finke — “they had been Finkelsteins but they shortened it,” her oldest child, Esther Fortunoff-Greene, said — owned a wholesale plumbing and heating supply store, where Helene would work after school.

Helene Fortunoff in 2004

“My mother had a great high school experience,” Esther said. She also skipped two grades and loved to sing; “one of our funny family memories is about how we would get embarrassed by her singing at temple.” That was Temple Sinai, in Roslyn Heights; the family lived in Old Westbury. “You know how there’s always someone at services who sings out operatically? That was her.”

Her family supported Helene from the beginning, Esther said. “They said, ‘You are smart, you are beautiful, and you are capable. You can do anything you want to do.’” Helene always knew that it would involve business.

She went to Syracuse University as a business major, and then transferred to NYU. That’s where she met Alan Fortunoff, in a real estate class. He went on to law school; she graduated from college when she was 20, “and she joined the family business working full time,” Esther said.

That family business, Fortunoff, had started in 1922, as a pushcart in East New York, Brooklyn, at the Livonia Market. Alan’s parents, Max and Clara, kept it going through the Depression, and then grew it into a single store.

As World War II ended, veterans came home and the GI Bill helped them establish themselves. Housewares became an increasingly successful business, and by the time Alan and Helene got married in 1953, Fortunoff grew to fill nine stores in a three-block area. “And I was born 11 months later,” Esther said.

Max and Clara had three children — Alan, Marjorie, and Lester — who all worked in the business, as did all of their spouses; later, so did the cousins in the third generation. Marjorie — later Marjorie Fortunoff Mayrock — “took my mother under her wing, and taught her how to buy for retail,” Esther said. Every second-generation Fortunoff got some departments to oversee; Helene’s were shower curtains, bathmats, and luggage. Alan had silver; that was mainly flatware and serving ware. Silver was big then but since has gone far out of fashion, Esther said.

The stores were a magnet for shoppers across the metropolitan area; “The quality was better than in other places, the prices were low, and the selection was a step up from what people might get in their own neighborhoods,” Esther said. “In early trips to Europe, my family brought back products that not everyone had.

“They had to pick one day a week to be closed, so they picked Friday,” she continued. “That means that they were open both Saturday and Sunday, so people all over the tristate area could drive there.” There was enough on-street parking to make that easy, she said. “And it was fun.”

The stores were successful because “they were very into volume,” Esther said. “They wanted and needed crowds.” But Helene wanted more. “My mother was a woman who liked jewelry. She was often approached by jewelry makers and manufacturers. People would visit the store with samples. And my mother decided that she wanted to go into the jewelry business.

“So she and my father went into that new business.”

Part of the reason Helene and Alan could do that so easily — and part of the reason why the family hasn’t fractured, hasn’t turned in on itself, hasn’t provided any plotlines for “Succession” — is “because of the wisdom of my grandparents,” Esther said. “They basically sold the business to their three children separately, so each of these families owned a part of their business, had their own storefronts, and incorporated separately.

Helene Fortunoff on a buying trip in Santa Fe in 2004.

“So they ran their own stores and their own lives. They were able to stay friends, because they were not in each other’s businesses.

“A lot of people sell their businesses when they’re around 60,” she continued. “My grandparents did it when they were younger, and their kids were younger, so the second generation could do more.” It’s not as if Clara and Max weren’t involved in the business after they left it formally. They were. But the pressures on them lightened.

“My parents had the silver and parts of the housewares business, and my aunt and uncle had pretty much everything for the home, but not for the kitchen. And Lester had garden and outdoor stuff.”

As a jewelry buyer and retailer, Helene was in a man’s business. “It was a 100 percent male business,” Esther said. She also was a Jew in postwar America working with Holocaust survivors. Because many of the chasidim in the business wouldn’t shake her hand, much less do business with her, she brought her husband along to many of those meetings, although the jewelry business was hers, not his.

She also learned that at least then, “Holocaust survivors, at least the ones she worked with, didn’t talk about their experiences.”

The jewelry business grew explosively, the stores in Brooklyn continued to expand, but the neighborhood started to change. The family continued to live in Brooklyn, Max and Clara still in East New York, the next generation a little farther away, all still close. “I went to the Yeshiva of Flatbush, and all of my cousins did too, and my siblings after me,” Esther said. “We weren’t Orthodox, so it was a little unusual, but it was nice to be with my cousins, our parents got to have us at school for a much longer day, and I really enjoyed it.”

Soon, though, the stores did move, and so did the Fortunoff and Mayrock families. They all went east, to Long Island; the families went to Old Westbury, and the stores to Westbury, near Roosevelt Raceway and to the mammoth granddaddy mall that is Roosevelt Field.

The huge store opened in 1964. “They all came together and pooled their resources and divided up a 150,000 square foot space, so there were sections for the furniture and the china and the crystal and the rugs and the lamps and towels and sheets….” Her voice trailed off, remembering. “My mother ended up with 20 showcases of jewelry, and my father had this giant wall of flatware. It was an incredible thing.”

The family continued with their separate fiefdoms. “My grandmother kept pots and pans. She had that until she died. And my grandfather had window shades and curtain rods and things that had to do with window treatments. They both worked literally until they died” — remember, though, that formallyf they had retired. “My grandfather left the store, mostly, when he was about 82, but we set up cameras in the house for him so he could see the stock room in the store.”

The Westbury store was a great success, and the jewelry department flourished. “We brought in salespeople from Brooklyn, and we had to hire a lot more,” Esther said. “My mother innovated.

“She would hire women as salespeople. Some of them were women who had never worked before. Some of them were teachers and would go home, feed their families, and come in and work the nightshift. She also had to add buyers, and they were all women.

As Helene and Alan Fortunoff accept an award, Esther beams next to them.

“She did that for two reasons. She could relate to women better. And she also knew in her heart — and I think this is the key — that women understand jewelry better than men do. They are the ones who are wearing it, and who are picking it, even though sometimes men chose for women.

“She knew that women would have more of a natural ease with the product, as opposed to having to learn it.

“I always knew that this was part of our success. Most of the staff at most other jewelry stores were men.”

Meanwhile, Helene Fortunoff had six children. “She was always pregnant,” Esther said; her youngest sibling was born when Esther was 15. That was not entirely comfortable for her, Esther said. “It was like, ‘Oh my God, my mother is pregnant….’”

Although she adored her children, Helene did not let pregnancy, childhood, or infants at home get in the way of work. She’d take 11 days off for each birth, Esther said; in fact, when she had her own child, she also took only 11 days off after the birth. That’s just how it was meant to be, she thought.

In 1969, Helene and Alan Fortunoff opened a jewelry store on 57th Street on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, and in 1974 they opened one in the Paramus Park Mall, where it became a third anchor. “My mother knew New Jersey from growing up, and we had a lot of customers from New Jersey who used to go to Brooklyn and followed us to Long Island. It just made sense.”

Esther worked in the store in Paramus; she was born into retailing, breathes it, and loves it. She learned, she said, “that New Jersey customers are nicer. Nicer than the ones on Long Island. They were definitely more polite and more patient?” Really, Esther? “Yes,” she insisted. (And, full disclosure here, we’re both from Long Island.) “Really.”

It was around this time that Fortunoff began its marketing campaign using the Source — taking off from James Michener’s popular novel, “The Source,” it was about authenticity, about going to a product’s source and bringing it back directly, still dripping, at least metaphorically, not tidied up and priced up by brokers and middlemen. And much of the impetus for it came from Helene.

The Fortunoffs were philanthropic. “My mother said that she learned about philanthropy, about giving back, from my grandmother,” Helene’s mother-in-law, Clara, Esther said. When Helene first was married, “my grandmother would take her on her rounds on Fridays,” the day the stores were closed, “to all different rabbis in Brooklyn, and she’d give them money. She’d go to the synagogues and Jewish centers and shtiebels and give them cash.”

Helene learned another lesson from her father-in-law.

“In the ’50s, my grandfather needed to go to the UJA dinner, and my father wasn’t available to go with him. No one else was able to go with him, except my mother. So she did.

Alan and Helene Fortunoff are honored by the Anti-Defamation League.

“In the car going there, he tells her, ‘I am telling you how it’s going to be.’” He explained that everyone at the dinner would be called, in public, by name, to announce how much he’d give. “Even though my mother’s mother was very involved with Hadassah, my mother had never been to a retail industry UJA dinner. My grandfather told her, ‘I am going to pledge $1,000, and no more than that.’

“To my mother, that sounds like a really big amount. It was 1958. So she was like, ‘Whoa!’

“They get there, and there’s the dinner, and my grandfather’s card was called, and he gets up and says, ‘I pledge $2,000.’

“That was an example of the efficiency of that whole card-calling business.

“Every child of my parents had to do some philanthropic thing and some civic thing, and once I was the only who was at one of the UJA jewelry dinners.” It was much later, but still a long time ago. “I was the one who stood up and said, ‘The Fortunoff and Mayrock families pledge $120,000. It was just like, ‘Whoa.’

“It was pretty incredible.” In fact, her voice shook as she told the story.

“It was my family history. I was proud that we were able to do it. And later I spoke with my mother about it. We were so proud that compared to other businesses, that were much bigger and more successful, we were giving way more.

“I was so proud.”

Helene and Alan Fortunoff first went to Israel in 1970. “The ’67 war was not so far in the past,” Esther said. “They toured a lot of places and saw a lot of things. My mother realized that there was a very small jewelry industry there. It was just starting out.

“She decided that she would start to do business with Israel. Even though at the time the designs weren’t so unique — you could get something similar in Italy, and they would go to Italy all the time — she wanted to support Israel.

“She talked about Israel to her American retail friends, while she was opening more stores and having more kids. And through her efforts there was a plan for a jewelry industry mission to Israel; and working with their counterparts in Israel they created a jewelry fair in Jerusalem in 1977.

Max Fortunoff cuts the ribbon to open the Paramus store in 1974 as Helene steadies it; Alan and someof their children stand behind them.

“So she led this big mission. It was unusual for a woman to lead a trade mission, and also generally those trade missions would be led by distributors of wholesalers, not a retailer.” But those were hardly limits that would stop Helene Fortunoff.

The family established many other foundations and institutions in Israel and back at home for American Jews.

Marjorie Fortunoff Mayrock died in 1982; the family established a center for Russian studies at the Hebrew University in her memory.

Alan Fortunoff, with Helene’s support, created the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies at Yale; he had been in England, buying antique silver, when Deborah Lipstadt was tried for libel by Holocaust denier David Irving because she called him exactly what he was — a denier. And a liar. “My father was very struck by how people could deny the Holocaust. How could this even be possible?” The archive was in direct answer to that outraged question.

Alan Fortunoff died in 2000, at 67; Helene kept on working. The stores eventually closed; the retail environment had changed, and some of the cousins wanted to stop working. Two of Max and Clara’s three children died in their 60s; the next generation didn’t want to continue that pattern. The business was sold, then Esther and some of her cousins were able to buy the name back. Esther sold jewelry both online and in a boutique close to where Fortunoff Westbury had been until recently; now her business is online only.

In 2006, Helene remarried; her husband, Robert Grossman, survived her. The two of them collected 19th century British ceramics and porcelain. “They built up a world-class collection,” Esther said; some of it has been donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, to Yale University, and to the Art Institute of Chicago.

Esther is married to the writer Joshua Greene, whose book “Unstoppable,” the biography of Siggi Wilzig of Hillside, the extraordinary Holocaust survivor-turned-oilman-turned-banker, was featured in this paper.

Esther tells two stories that don’t sum up her mother — she was far too complicated and multifaceted for that — but do illuminate her.

“My mother was on the board of Hofstra University,” in Hempstead, on Long Island, “and then she became the chair of the board,” Esther said. Hofstra hosts presidential debates, “and they also had a series of conferences about the presidency. They had one with the first President Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev. My mother was the board chair then, and she was the introducer at the conference.

“My husband had been traveling to Russia, and he spoke a tiny bit of Russian. My mother, who was a pretty accomplished public speaker, decided that it would be a good idea to say a few things in Russian.

“So she learns a bit, and introduces George and Barbara Bush and she introduces Gorbachev in Russian. Which he loves. So he and my mother spent the rest of the conference bonding, and it is really cool.

“A few weeks later, my mother and I are at the Las Vegas jewelry fair. It’s morning, and we’re getting ready to work at the show. I am putting on my makeup, she has the television on, and then I hear my mother’s voice. And we go and look at the television, and we see that her introduction is on television.

“So I’m like, ‘Mom, mom, come out of the bathroom! You’re on TV! And there is my mother speaking Russian.

“It was such a crazy thing.”

Her mother credited Joshua Greene with teaching her the Russian. “That’s another thing about both my parents,” Esther said. “They both learned that it is really nice to give credit to other people. To acknowledge other people. They taught me that from a very young age.”

One more bit from a longer story, for another time. Lauren Bacall was a spokeswoman for Fortunoff when it opened on Fifth Avenue. She wanted to do it — but only partly. So when she and Esther talked, she talked not about jewelry, as she was meant to do, but about the experience of being on set in Africa, with her husband, Humphrey Bogart, and the film’s other star, Katherine Hepburn, as “The African Queen” was made.

“There was such a parallel between my mother and Lauren Bacall,” Esther said. “Two very strong, very savvy, no-nonsense Jewish woman, one from Brooklyn, one from Jersey and then Brooklyn.”

Helene Fortunoff was all those things, as well as being the mother of six children, a successful, even pioneering retailer, a shrewd reader of trends and of people, and a role model for Jewish women.

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