Florence Pushker, 89, model, fashionista
BY MAUREEN O’DONNELL Staff Reporter September 7, 2013 12:04AM
Updated: October 9, 2013 7:56PM
When she was a 14-year-old girl dreaming of fashion and glamour, Florence Pushker didn’t just read Vogue.
She went to Fishman Fabrics, bought material, and had a dressmaker copy the clothes in the magazine.
She saved her dollar-a-week allowance so she could eat salad at the Pump Room. But she was really there to watch the movie stars who dropped by Booth One for a little food and publicity.
Mrs. Pushker had the kind of beauty that has been likened to a strawberry sundae — red hair and creamy skin. It carried her into a career in modeling, boutique ownership and retail sales.
Her sophistication inspired other fashionistas, including Steven Stolman. He credits his career to being exposed to Mrs. Pushker’s effervescence and style in Connecticut in the early 1970s.
West Hartford was a great place to grow up, he said. But it was also a nucleus of preppy fashion: “Volvo wagons, Labrador Retrievers, L.L.Bean shoes and corduroys with whales embroidered on them.”
Enter Florence Pushker, who moved there with her husband, Harvey, for his business. “To a kid like me, who was just obsessed with the world of Vanity Fair and ‘W’ and fashion,” Stolman said, “it was like Princess Di moved across the street.”
When other boys were collecting Hot Wheels, he was studying the Norell dresses in Mrs. Pushker’s closet. “She showed me how a proper dress should be made,” he said. He learned about bound buttonholes and handset pockets. He discovered that a Norell was put together so beautifully, “you could wear it inside-out.”
Today the fashion designer heads Scalamandre, an 80-year-old maker of luxury goods for the home.
“Florence’s tutorials gave me a base to build on,” he said.
Mrs. Pushker, 89, died Aug. 26 of liver cancer at her Lake Shore Drive apartment.
Even in her final hours, she was fashionable. Her daughter, Mariann Pushker, recalled what happened when she told her mother how pretty she looked in her blue-and-white nightgown. “With her eyes closed, she said, ‘It’s Oscar.’ ”
Marian leaned closer.
“Oscar de la Renta,” Mrs. Pushker said.
Her parents, Rosie and Mort Herman, moved north in 1919 from Anguilla, Miss., because they felt it “was not a place to bring up a nice Jewish girl,” Mariann Pushker said.
The Hermans owned a cleaning-product firm. Young Florence graduated from Lake View High.
While at a train station to see a boyfriend off to college, she was discovered by the Patricia Stevens modeling agency. Soon, she was appearing in ads for Coca-Cola and 7UP, and the Sears catalog. Glamorous yet wholesome, she was cast as an all-American girl or young mom.
She headed to Arcadia University in Pennsylvania with her ball gowns and two fur coats. Eventually, she decided modeling was more lucrative than college. She was making $35 a day — outstanding money when minimum wage was 40 cents an hour.
She met her husband, Harvey, on a “fix-up” and was taken with his good looks and style. They wed and moved to Glencoe, but enjoyed nights out at Chicago’s Chez Paree and Mr. Kelly’s. Before a big evening, Mrs. Pushker would engage in a beauty ritual of the time. She rested on a downward-tilting slant board that made the blood rush to her face to give her a healthy color.
When her children grew older, she began working at the Red Garter, a Glencoe lingerie shop. After her husband’s job took them to Connecticut, she started a boutique, Jamari, named for her daughters, Jan Main and Mariann Pushker.
After eight years in Connecticut, they returned to Chicago, where Mrs. Pushker worked in sales for Bonwit Teller, I. Magnin, Gucci and the 28 Shop at Field’s. Grateful customers trusted her to make them look their best.
She met fashion stars like Michael Kors, who became a household name with his stint on “Project Runway.” She reminded him to remember women d’un certain age. “He was this cute, chubby, Jewish boy, and she said ‘Michael, you should be designing for your mother,’ ” her daughter said.
“She was the coolest, hippest,” her daughter said. Mrs. Pushker recently saw the film “Ted,” featuring a profane teddy bear, and loved to go out to what she called “swingin’ bars.” She might start conversations with, “What’s going on with Apple?”
“When ‘50 Shades of Grey’ came out, she wanted to read the book. I said ‘Mom, ok, I’ll get it for you.’ She said ‘This is a very well-written book.’ I said ‘Mom, don’t tell your friends’ — and she said, ‘Well, when is the second part coming out?’ ”
She was a surrogate mother to many, warm yet knowledgeable about the world. People said they could talk to her about things they wouldn’t discuss with their own moms. One friend remembered how Mrs. Pushker saved her from humiliation when she was small. She wet herself at school, and Mrs. Pushker threw a coat over her and rushed her home.
After her friends passed away, their children stayed in touch and became her friends.
She was “the kind of woman you would want to be,” said author Michele Weldon, an assistant professor of journalism at Northwestern University. “You could get advice from Florence on anything from fashion to decorating to a career to dating. . . .she was like a great aunt.”
“She knew how to play Jewish geography better than the rest, from the Adelsteins to the Zukers. . . .Aunt Florence knew who was related to whom, how many wives they had, and who was nice,” her niece, Lucy Moog, said in her eulogy. “Before there was Facebook there was Florencebook.”
She couldn’t walk down the street without stopping to admire babies and dogs. And she couldn’t not give advice. “Never go out of the house without lipstick,” she’d say, or “You know, dear, you really need two inches cut off your hair.”
Funeral services were Aug. 30. In addition to her daughters, she is survived by her brother, Leonard Herman.