The untold truth of Lilly Pulitzer

When you think of Lilly Pulitzer, what do you envision? Perhaps the brand with its bright pink playful logo and fashion to match? What about the glittering and whimsical stores themselves — the ones that dot up and down the east coast and beyond? It could be that you hadn't heard of Lilly Pulitzer until you first saw the affordable clothing line featured at your local Target

Nevertheless, what you do or do not know about Lilly Pulitzer the brand is far eclipsed by Lilly Pulitzer the woman — the woman who started the iconic company of the same name and who lived a life arguably as colorful as the dresses you see today. Here are some things you may not know about the lady behind the label.

She was a child of divorce

Vanity Fair reported in a 2003 profile that before Lilly Pulitzer married into the Pulitzer family, her surname was McKim. Both her mother and father, Lillian Bostwick and Robert McKim respectively, were from "old-line families."

The article explains, "McKims were rich, but Bostwicks were richer: Lillian's grandfather Jabez Bostwick helped create the Standard Oil Company." However, money cannot buy happiness nor love, it seems. The report goes on to explain that the couple divorced when little Lilly was just six years old.

Still, Lilly Pulitzer's childhood was stable and affluent. "I had a party every year," she explains to Vanity Fair. The article continues, "Thinking back on it," Lilly says, "We just had everything."

She went to school with Jackie O

Pulitzer and former first-lady (and forever fashionista) Jaqueline Onassasus Kennedy were classmates growing up, or as a profile of Lilly Pulitizer in W Magazine puts it, "school pal[s]."

Of course, at that time Jaqueline, or "Jackie," was using her maiden name of Bouvier. Vanity Fair reports that Lilly attended the same prestigious boarding schools as both Jackie and her younger sister, Lee Radziwill.

Pulitzer's longtime friend Kathryn Livingston wrote more about the connection with Jackie Kennedy in her book Lilly: Palm Beach, Tropical Glamour, and the Birth of a Fashion Legend (via Scribd). According to Livingston, Jackie Kennedy would later go on to wear one of Pulitzer's signature creations, a dress fittingly called Lilly

Livingston wrote, "When Jackie and little Caroline [Kennedy's daughter] were later photographed in matching Lillys, both the cotton shift and the Pulitzer name gained national attention from their association with the promise and style of the young administration."

She dropped out of college and helped deliver babies

Long before Jackie Kennedy would wear one of Lilly Pulitzer's famous dresses — in fact, long before Pulitzer would even think of entering into the fashion world — Pulitzer went to college. That is, she briefly went to college.

Pulitzer said in an interview with Vanity Fair, "I went for two months. I couldn't stand it. I loved my boarding school, but I didn't know what I wanted to do. I didn't have a career."

So, what did she do instead to fill her time? According to the interview, "[S]he worked as a nurse's aide in Kentucky and at a veterans' hospital in the Bronx." Pulitzer herself added, "I liked it. Just giving time."

Livingston further described Pulitzer's newfound job in Lilly, "She would frequently ride a mule or a horse through the woodsy Kentucky hills, delivering medicine and supplies to needy mothers and newborn babies in remote outposts. Sometimes Lilly would be asked to lend a hand in home births. At other times she served as an assistant nurse-midwife in the delivery room of the Mary Breckinridge Hospital, which had just been built at the top of Thousandsticks Mountain by the time Lilly arrived in 1949."

Now how's that for exciting work? While most everyone would think dropping out of college would be a pretty terrible idea, in Pulitzer's case, it seems to have worked out just fine.

She eloped at the age of 21

Lilly McKim met Peter Pulitzer and, in no time, she was a Pulitzer herself. The two lovebirds eloped in 1952 when Lilly Pulitzer was just 21, according to an interview she did with W Magazine.

If you're wondering if she married that Pulitzer — of the famed Pulitzer Prize — the answer is yes. Vanity Fair reports, "Lilly met a young man named Peter, the brother of one of her girlfriends. That would be Herbert 'Peter' Pulitzer Jr., golden-boy grandson of fabled family patriarch Joseph Pulitzer."

Vanity Fair continues to tells the spontaneous love story in a profile of Pulitzer: "In 1952, on a day when she was supposed to be having tea on Long Island with her friend Nancy Harris, Lilly was off to Maryland, eloping with Peter Pulitzer."

How did Lilly Pulitzer's family react? About as you'd expect given that it was the early 1950s after all. "Everyone was shocked," Vanity Fair reported. "Family and friends were hardly aware Lilly knew Peter, let alone loved him. When Peter called Robert McKim to say, 'I've just married your daughter,' McKim asked, 'Which one?'"

Yikes!

She had quite a collection of unusual pets

Lilly and Peter Pulitzer settled into their new life together in Palm Beach, Florida, but they by no means became an old boring married couple. Vanity Fair highlights, "Right from the start they were a bold-faced statement, an alternative life-style, the Social Register's Adam and Eve, Tarzan and Jane. Lilly even had a rhesus monkey, Goony."

Not the most traditional of house pets, to be sure. Fortunately, her husband totally on-board. Susannah Cutts, a longtime friend of Pulitzer, tells W Magazine that the couple had a "menagerie of dogs, cats, monkeys and even a calf."

Lilly and Peter threw wild parties together

Keeping in tune with their Tarzan and Jane lifestyle, Lilly and Peter Pulitzer had some wild get-togethers. In Lilly, Livingston reveals some of what went on at these informal shindigs: "Lilly and her husband threw casual dinner parties in their big bright kitchen that could seat more than thirty people…. After dinner, they used the empty champagne bottles to slosh water on the tile floor, making it slippery for dancing that sometimes went on until four in the morning."

Livingston explains that the Pulitzers' "turn-of-the-century clapboard house was a place to which everyone wanted to go: full of children, dogs, music, energy, and fun." Imagine being invited to one of those phenomenal parties in Palm Beach circa 1960s. It would be a hard opportunity to pass up.

Still, Pulitzer was a very private person

Despite Pulitzer's sense of adventure, she was still a deeply private individual, according to Vanity Fair. "Even her closest friends complain of how tucked away she keeps her feelings — 'a sphinx,' one calls her." 

She identifies with her zodiac sign — a Scorpio. "They do everything in excess," she told the magazine, "but keep things very close to the chest. I'm not into horoscopes and all that, but it is telling. Scorpios hold everything in." It's hard to imagine someone so full of personality and yet, all the while, quite closed off.

She spent time in "the nuthouse"

Although she was fairly reserved, one could still assume Pulitzer was all sunshine, all the time. In reality though, Pulitzer went through a dark period. Vanity Fair reported, "She'd had three children in four years — Peter, Minnie, and Liza." Even though she loved her kids "more than life," one friend explained that she was dealing with "too many babies, one on top of another, and a whole new environment. She was a New York—Long Island girl, and suddenly she was here [in Palm Beach, Florida].'"

With today's medical knowledge, one could attribute Pulitzer's change in demeanor to postpartum depression. "I had terrible anxiety attacks," Pulitzer herself explained to W Magazine. Thankfully, she sought help or, as Pulitzer so bluntly and yet somehow politely (as only Pulitzer could) stated, "I went to the nuthouse." 

The article clarified, "The nuthouse was a psychiatric hospital in Westchester County, New York." It was there that Pulitzer received an interesting treatment plan. "She returned home armed with but one piece of medical advice," wrote W Magazine, "Get a hobby." And get a hobby, she did.

She started a juice stand

Peter Pulitzer already owned orange groves in Florida so, according to Vanity Fair, he suggested Lilly sell some of his produce.

Lilly Pulitzer explained, "'It started in the [station] wagon…. Just delivering fruit to houses. Then I had the place to store the fruit and write the orders for the gift boxes. And then I went to the Via Mizner and had a little juice stand with the bags of fruit.'"

Pulitzer ended up meeting and going into the fruit-selling business with a friend and former fashion editor of Harper's Bazaar, Laura Clark (then Laura Robbins). It was alongside this fashion-minded friend that Pulitzer would come up with her brand. 

"Lilly, the gal who'd never cared a fig for fashion, had given her Palm Beach seamstress some patterned fabric: Make me a shift (something to hide juice stains, and also her thickish waist)," Vanity Fair relays. 

Laura Clark told the magazine, "We went over to West Palm Beach and bought some remnants and had her dressmaker and mine run a couple up. They were fine. They were amateurish. And we started selling those. We just arbitrarily sold them for $22. And there was an absolute stampede." 

With that, Lilly Pulitzer the brand was born and Lilly Pulitzer the woman was, perhaps, reborn.

She often went commando

Pulitzer, who was already known for nearly always being barefoot, designed her dresses with a cotton lining in order to be worn sans underwear. Vanity Fair explains, "Lilly had never liked wearing underwear in the Florida heat." 

If you've ever been to Florida in the summer, it's really not hard to see why Pulitzer would be anti-panties.

Her fashion saved her life

When Pulitzer began selling her cotton shift dresses, it's doubtful that she imagined they would would one day save her life. 

Lilly told Sun Sentinel, "I followed the doctor's advice [to get a hobby] and came out a lot stronger, and I haven't stopped since. After I got out of the nuthouse I became much more assertive." It seems Pulitzer's hobby pulled her out from under the grips of (speculated) postpartum depression brought back her sunny disposition. 

In addition, her fashion also quite literally saved her life.

While Pulitzer and Laura Clark were flying to Key West, the pilot failed to remember to refuel the aircraft. Vanity Fair details the event, "[T]heir cowl plane went down into shark-infested waters off Marathon. It was almost dusk, and they were stranded on a submerged plane." But all hope was not lost.

The article continues, "Clark took off her bright-orange Lilly and flagged a passing helicopter." While Pulitzer was too humble to give credit to her line of brightly colored dresses, she instead attributed their rescue to the female anatomy… Vanity Fair wrote that even though her head was bleeding at the time, she can look back at that time with humor. She told the magazine: "T*ts will get 'em every time."

At the time of her interview with Vanity Fair, Lilly was 71 years old and, apparently, still hilarious.

She divorced Peter Pulitzer and married his coworker, the love of her life, days later

Lilly and Peter Pulitzer's divorce came as suddenly as their elopement. The couple's youngest daughter, Liza Pulitzer, told The New York Times, "It was traumatic. None of us even saw it coming. Because there was never any fighting."

According to Lilly, just days after the divorce was finalized, Lilly Pulitzer married Enrique Rousseau. Sun Sentinel describes Rousseau as a family friend and Cuban emigre. Interestingly, Rousseau actually also worked with Peter Pulitzer.

"When Enrique came here [to the United States] he lost a lot of money in sugar," Lilly explained to Vanity Fair, "and then he went to work for Peter Pulitzer. He was building a Howard Johnson on a beach in Miami, and Enrique took over the building, watching it. And then he became the manager. And then he married me."

However, this was no rebound fling. "My parents remained the best of friends," Liza Pulitzer explained to The New York Times, "[B]ut the love of her life was Enrique." Sadly, in 1993 after 23 years of marriage, Enrique Rousseau passed away.

Pulitzer reflected on the love of her life in an interview with Vanity Fair, "Very, very wonderful guy. You would have loved Enrique. We were very Cuban. We had the entire Cuban nation in our house. We screamed Cuban, we ate Cuban, we laughed Cuban. Caca Rousseau, the Crazy Cuban. I don't know why we started calling him Caca. But we all did. Term of endearment."

She almost made winter wear

Pulitzer's line of warm weather dresses became incredibly successful, and yet, retailers still had their opinions. According to W Magazine, one retailer in particular thought Pulitzer ought to make autumn-appropriate clothing. Pulitzer disagreed saying, "Oh, but you don't understand, it's always summer somewhere."

So instead, Pulitzer added more summery clothing, including swimwear, and made upwards of $15 million. Indeed, she knew what she was doing. But that's not to say Pulitzer never faltered.

In an interview with Sun Sentinel she admits, "At one point, I got out of my element with resort wear. It was snowing up north, so we had to do winter woolies and printed velvet. But when the velvet I'd ordered came back from the Orient, it all said Lilly Rulitzer. We laughed ourselves sick.”

If not for the spelling mishap, we could be seeing winter jumpers today instead of the iconic summery shifts, which is almost too weird to imagine.

She filed for bankruptcy

Pulitzer began to notice a pattern of decreasing profits. Fashion was changing in a big way in the 80s and Pulitzer made the decision to file for "Chapter 11 [bankruptcy]," according to The Daily Beast.

"I started it as a lark, and I followed my whim. It worked for 25 years, but it wasn't going to work forever," Pulitzer told Sun Sentinel.

Pulitzer decided to take the opportunity to focus on her children after her business shut down, reports W MagazineNearly ten years later, Pulitzer ended up selling the Lilly Pulitzer license and the brand began to see a revival under new management. All the while, Pulitzer was kept in the loop as she became a consultant for the revitalized brand, The Denver Post explains.

According to Vanity FairPulitzer even had the final say on design. If she wasn't fond of a certain print or even a particular color, the item was scrapped. 

Even her funeral was a colorful affair

Lilly Pulitzer, the woman whose passion and fashion were both larger than life, passed away on April 7, 2013. She was 81, Vogue reports.

While saddened to lose Pulitzer, many fondly reminisced on how she impacted their lives for the better. Pulitzer's funeral service was held at the Episcopal Church of Bethesda-by-the-Sea in Palm Beach, Florida and, in true Lilly Pulitzer fashion, friends and family came dressed in bold bright colors as you can see in the WPBF 25 News video above. This sounds like just the thing Pulitzer would've loved.