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MR. STANLEY’S WAY: Much has been written about the retail prowess of the late Stanley Marcus, whose imaginative marketing and buying skills made Neiman Marcus a retail icon.
A more personal account of the cigar-loving bon vivant and his mischievous, maddening management style emerges in Thomas E. Alexander’s new book, “Stanley Marcus: The Relentless Reign of a Merchant Prince,” to be published this month by Akin Press.
“He was one of those sort of people you could never really satisfy — there was always a way to improve,” recalled Alexander, who headed marketing at Neiman’s from 1970 through 1987 and worked directly with Marcus the first five years. “People came and went with great regularity at Neiman Marcus, and if you didn’t live up to his standards, you were gone.”
A member of the Texas Historical Commission and author of four books on Texas military history, Alexander devoted four years to chronicling Marcus’ eccentric style as well as Neiman’s history.
His backstage view reveals the more comical details of company lore, such as Lord Mountbatten, the British statesman and war hero, lobbing a tomato across a luncheon table to shatter an abrupt social chill emanating from Stanley, or an antismoking actor Larry Hagman wielding a handheld fan to blow Princess Margaret’s cigarette cloud right back in her face during a Neiman’s-sponsored dinner.
With great affection for the man he deems a “genius,” Alexander portrays Marcus as an obsessive micromanager who expected his executive team to be attentive 24/7.
“He was probably the toughest marketing master who ever lived,” Alexander said. “For those who worked for him, it’s a blessing that e-mail and Twitter and cell phones had not been invented. We all hoped somehow he’d go on a long-distance trip around the world and crash land safely on a remote island, but even if that had happened, I’m sure a message in a bottle would have shown up. I don’t think he ever slept. He worked the whole time.”
Marcus cranked out nonstop memos via Dictaphone, critiquing the tiniest details and dispatching suggestions for improving the company.
“I got 230 typewritten memos in five working days’ time,” Alexander said. “He would comment on the way the store name looked on a truck, the way the type was too small in an ad, a model’s pose.…And if you did not respond in two days’ time, you would get another memo with ‘Please let us have your reply.’”
He played mind games with executives, such as offering them their pick of his pipe collection and then reclaiming them within days. Alexander writes that the tactic was probably prompted by Marcus’ curiousness to see which implement they chose.
Marcus’ ego, once so prodigious that he rewrote the lyrics to “My Way” to reflect his own career and sang it to his associates at a company anniversary, mellowed in later years.
But he never lost his intellectual edge. At 95, Marcus, who died at 96 in 2002, told Alexander, “‘Without change, there is no challenge, and without challenge, there is only the status quo, but no progress.’” — Holly Haber