Lilly Pulitzer Remembered

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“Bill, you look like you want a cookie.”

Lilly Pulitzer—Lillian Lee McKim Pulitzer Rousseau, to be exact—looked knowingly at my husband, Bill Rollnick, who in turn looked as if he had been caught with his psychic hand in the cookie jar! Our barefoot hostess disappeared.

Out came a freshly baked tray of ginger snaps from Lilly Pulitzer’s kitchen—and what a kitchen. Who knew Lilly loved to cook? Who knew her kitchen would have the look of a professional galley…well, nearly. Lilly Pulitzer had a Lilly fridge! When I saw her brightly colored patterned refrigerator, I wanted to lug it home. The secret of Lilly revealed itself: her brightly colored patterns offered happiness, sunshine, and home-baked cookies.

When Bill and I first met Lilly, she was more “granny” than icon, but that sunny sense of style remained with her—in her personal manner as well as in her fabulous, eccentric home. Where else could one find that fridge, huge antique birdcages, palm trees, elephants, Chinese cloisonné ducks, exotic patterns everywhere, Sirjan Persian rugs, cats, brightly colored cashmere and patchwork throws, fringe lampshades, storks, carved Indian screens, an outdoor pagoda with an elaborate hanging chandelier that spoke of fabulous moonlit dinner parties, the utterly unexpected replica of the Statue of Liberty casually implanted in her garden (undoubtedly to beguile her grandchildren), and a ghost that her grandson, Bobby Leidy, swears watched television in the guest cottage.

I never saw the ghost; gosh, I never even wore those spunky pink dress bouquets that made preppy, blond, and circle pins so ubiquitous during the 1960s. But meeting Lilly Pulitzer brought out my own inner sunshine and cookies. I gushed. I was a fan. Luckily, she was gracious as well as iconic.

Hard to believe an empire began over spilled orange juice spots, but what a beginning. Actually, Lilly’s bio was one improbable turn after another: After the proper preparatory schools—Chapin School and Miss Porter’s—she became a drop-out from Finch College (my alma mater) after one semester, and worked as a midwife assistant in Kentucky and as a volunteer at the Veterans Hospital in the Bronx. Then, the elopement with Peter Pulitzer, the orange juice stand on Worth Avenue, which leads us to the orange juice stains that produced the brightly colored mini dresses that made her name so famous. Even the madcap cartoonist Rube Goldberg couldn’t design a better formula for a wacky way to fame!

Lilly always seemed comfortable, at ease, and utterly at one with her surroundings and her fame. It was clear that her home was not created by a decorator, but was the result of her life and the accumulation of all that pleased her, lovingly assembled for the pleasure of her family.

Hillie Mahoney, who loved her Lillys because they were so “cool, colorful, carefree and comfortable (a young mother’s dream), thought that although Lilly was a ‘socialite,’ she was a serious working one, as well as a wonderful mother. She did most of her socializing around her home with friends and family, constantly in and around her house. She was a wonderful friend, close to her husband, her children, and her sisters and remained involved in her business long after she sold it.”

 I hope the orange juice spots and other Lilly legends are true.  I hope magic was part of Lilly Pulitzer’s every day routine. I know Bill and I felt that relaxed enchantment of her space. It is no more, of course. Lilly died nearly two years ago. Her home is razed, her furnishings dispersed, the cupboards of photographs bequeathed, her gardens flattened and her delicious meals no more, but her style in the manner of all things Lilly remains with us. Her memorial services at the Church of Bethesda-By-The-Sea in Palm Beach was awash, not in mournful black, but in brightly colored Lilly prints—a legacy of happiness, sunshine, and home-baked cookies.