By HENRY ALLEN
Half a century ago and by accident, Lilly Pulitzer staged a fashion coup that flung orange, blue, pink and green shifts and blouses into the air like so much confetti.
She was already the barefoot Palm Beach hostess who could seat dozens in her kitchen for dinner and pose for magazine spreads with the handsomest husband in town. She would become the founding mother of a country called Lilly Land.
Lilly Land is as much an attitude as a selection of here's and there's—Nantucket, Bryn Mawr, La Jolla, Grosse Pointe, Scottsdale, Greenwich, Short Hills, Far Hills—anywhere that rich women want to dress as if they have imaginations, as if they are "interesting," to use the word the way some women do, as the opposite of "mousy."
Ms. Pulitzer's secret of success may be that she is a born-rich woman who understands this struggle. "I don't think I'm very interesting," she once said to a Vanity Fair reporter. "I like my work. I like what I gave. And that was it. It was so easy."
By Kathryn Livingston
Wiley, 244 pages, $24.95
Some women brood on their dullness like Chekhov characters staring out windows. What's interesting about Lilly Pulitzer is that she confesses it cheerfully and by so doing persuades us that it might not be true. The case for it can be made, however—she was never known for working the fashion shows with a chrome-steel attitude or swanning around with Paris couturiers. Winter and summer, she liked being in Palm Beach, Fla., where her clothing was a sort of folk art of the very rich, summer clothes for a world where, as she said, "it's always summer somewhere."
Now, at 80, a Palm Beach homebody, she is the subject of a short, airy biography by Kathryn Livingston, "Lilly: Palm Beach, Tropical Glamour, and the Birth of a Fashion Legend."
To my surprise, I learned that I kind of like her. Surprise because I grew up with my nose pressed to the window of Lilly Land, but I was looking out, not in, seeking freedom from Connecticut cocktail hours, rich people complaining that they were broke ("totally stoners"), mixed doubles in tennis, and porch parties where women wore hair pulled back as tight as the silk on Christmas-tree balls. Once in a while a man would wear a necktie as a belt, a Brooks Brothers buccaneer.
I found refuge in bohemia, where I became acquainted with the cockroach and sank so low as to work for newspapers that weren't the New York Times.
I have never returned. Still, if I see a woman in buttercup shorts or a Lilly blossom dress, I'm back in a world of young altar-guild matrons looking devil-may-care in designs that were playful but not naughty, flamboyant but not gaudy, girlish but not coy—these differences are all the difference in Lilly Land.
There's no sign that Ms. Pulitzer sat for an interview with Ms. Livingston. So the author depends on research to bring us tall, teak-tanned and dark-haired Lilly McKim, of Standard Oil and Carnegie steel money, who graduated from Miss Porter's School in 1949, not long after the future Jacqueline Kennedy—later Mrs. Kennedy would appear in Life magazine wearing a Lilly shift.
Brave Lilly McKim quit finishing school to spend some months riding horses into the backwoods of Kentucky, teaching pre-natal care. (One smiles to imagine her in jodhpurs, trotting into some ragged clearing. I like to think that she knew better.)
She eloped with Herbert "Peter" Pulitzer, scion of the newspaper family and owner of Floridian orange groves to which he commuted in his seaplane.
In 1957, after bearing her third child, she fell into a postpartum depression that put her in a fashionable Westchester hospital sometimes known as "Bloomingdale's." After months of treatment she would be discharged with a prescription from her doctor: "There is nothing wrong with you; you just need something to do."
Do? Citizens of the old Palm Beach don't do something; they are something. Nevertheless, she loaded her station wagon with her husband's oranges and grapefruits and peddled them to neighbors, back door to back door. Ms. Livingston quotes the South Florida Sun Sentinel, which in turn quotes Ms. Pulitzer saying: "I had a wonderful time and I made $30,000 in a couple of months." This is the inflation-adjusted equivalent today of close to a quarter of a million dollars. Perhaps the laws of economics veer into another dimension in the money-warp of Palm Beach.
She ended up running an orange juice stand off Worth Avenue. The stand would be the Plymouth Rock of Lilly Land.
It happened like this: The orange juice stained her clothes. She bought colorful five-and-dime fabric that would hide the stains, took it to her dressmaker and had shifts made. Friends saw them and wanted them too. She found a manufacturer in Key West who made them up in Sea Island cotton.
Soon Palm Beach was Lilly Land, as if some explorer had come ashore and planted a flag with her name on it. By 1962, at the Palm Beach Day School's field day, "every grown-up woman on the scene—without exception—was wearing a vibrantly printed, sleeveless new shift called 'a Lilly,' " Ms. Livingston writes. Lilly had become a uniform, camouflage for combat in the jungles of paradise.
In Naples, Fla., the Lilly store has a Lilly-patterned Jeep parked in front, reports my sister, the spirited Julie Thiele of Naples and Stamford, Conn. As it happens my sister has never worn Lilly. She once called it, with democratic snobbery, "an over-the-top advertisement for good schools, good sports, lifelong affluence and as such can start to seem tasteless." A Lilly shift can also smack of aspiration, of the dread "trying." The Lilly line today divides its clients into "Chic Elite, Suburban Belles and Aspiring Customers."
These may also be the readers of the book. They should be warned that it gives short shrift to Lilly Pulitzer herself. Is the problem that she is not all that interesting? What they'll get instead is a book that's half society history—28 pages that take Miss Porter's School back to 1843, 21 pages on the history of Palm Beach, and 53 pages taking the McKims, Pulitzers, Phippses, Guests, Carnegies and so on back to the 18th century.
Ms. Pulitzer's bloodlines are traced like those of a racehorse. She comes from horse people. Her stepfather was Ogden Phipps, breeder of horses and owner of miles of Florida coastline. When these people say people are well-bred, they don't mean well-raised, as most of us do. Well-bred people are the offspring of winners, genetically superior, regardless of the ethics and morals of how they live or waste their lives. Ms. Livingston describes it all with an attitude of either awe or self-satisfaction. (I mean, is she a Livingston Livingston?)
In the late 1960s came the surprising divorce of Peter and Lilly, and soon her marriage to an exiled Cuban aristocrat named Enrique Rousseau. There was little scandal compared with the ruckus over Peter Pulitzer's second divorce in 1982, which enthralled the media with charges of ménages à trois, cocaine, death threats and occult rituals. Roxanne Pulitzer publicly denied that she had "slept with" a trumpet. (Did she mean "strumpet"?)
The same year, Lilly Pulitzer's sales were $15 million, but she may have sensed that Lilly Land was losing luster. The new empowered woman was dressing for boardrooms, not beaches. Her look was drab Calvin Klein or Alcott & Andrews "power suits" with floppy bows substituting for neckties, the fashion equivalent of feminism's hairy legs.
In 1984, the year of Alcott & Andrews' founding, Lilly Pulitzer's company declared bankruptcy. She reacted with so-it-goes aplomb.
By the early 1990s, however, Alcott & Andrews had gone bankrupt too, and Lilly Pulitzer was listening to a pair of Harvard MBAs propose a re-start. With her as design consultant, they turned her fun into classics sold across America— Short Hills, N.J., alone has four Lilly vendors at Neiman Marcus, Saks, Bloomingdale's and The Mall.
The company has changed hands yet again. Lilly Land lives on. Now we have the biography, a book to attract those who love the upper class, who believe in the virtues of breeding, especially if they don't have it themselves, who defend themselves against their own envy by electing to be proud to curtsy.
The rich we have always with us, so what's to begrudge? Lilly Pulitzer may be right that she is not that interesting, but I kind of admire her shrugs at both failure and success, her barefoot aplomb.—Mr. Allen, a former writer and editor for the Washington Post, won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 2000.