In the mid-20th century, a small cadre of women introduced wine, design, fashion, and French cuisine to Minnesotans. They mothered the Twin Cities’ cultural landscape to maturity, transforming it from flyover to fabulous.
Jeanne Auerbacher: Merchant Queen
Addressed by many as “Madame A,” Jeanne Auerbacher was queen of Dayton’s Oval Room for more than 30 years. Her couture black wardrobe, accentuated by quirkily mismatched black-and-white pearl earrings, gave her a sense of authority as she approved—or disapproved—of shoppers’ selections. (“Dress your figure,” she’d advise, “not your memory.”) A native of Strasbourg, France, Auerbacher came to Minnesota in 1922 with her husband, William. In the 1930s, after his broom and mop factory failed, she found work in fashion, first at Young-Quinlan, then Raleigh’s, and finally at Dayton’s. ¶ On buying trips to New York, her regal demeanor earned her the moniker “the Merchant Princess” on Seventh Avenue, and her early support helped many young American designers, including Adrian and Norell, rise to international prominence. When she died in 1975, at age 76, Madame left behind a committed group of devotees—and a closet of amazing clothes. “My mother had true style,” recalls Auerbacher’s only daughter, Margot Siegel, 87. “And she maintained that style right up until the end.”
To make a city, you need to settle the wilderness. To make a great city, you need to civilize it. And while tiny to midsize towns all over the Midwest managed the first part of this equation in the late 1800s and early 20th century, only a few choice places mastered the second: Minneapolis is one of them, St. Paul another. ¶ By the time World War II came around, the Twin Cities had changed from cow towns into cultural centers. Their citizens were importing New York designs to their department stores, French wines to their liquor shops, and notable classical musicians to their concert halls. And most of this cultural pollination was done by women—or rather, ladies—usually for little or no pay. ¶ Before Fritzi Haskell delved into the caves of France, most Minnesotans had never tasted a Bordeaux or a Côtes du Rhône. Before Jeanne Auerbacher claimed the throne at Dayton’s Oval Room, Minnesota matrons resigned themselves to looking matronly. Before Dorothy Levy opened the chic Chateau De Paris, fine dining in Minnesota meant going to the steakhouse. Before WAMSO (the Women’s Association of the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra) and the female-run Schubert Club, Minnesota’s classical-music scene was an afterthought. Before the Goldstein sisters revolutionized the University of Minnesota’s home-economics department, design was a tedious housewife’s chore. And before Dorothea Burns took the reins of the Hallie Q. Brown Community Center, St. Paul’s dynamic African American community lacked its own stage to perform on. ¶ While these women can’t be given all the credit for the Twin Cities’ contemporary cultural profile, their accomplishments still prove astonishingly significant—especially considering the context of their time, when a woman couldn’t be a mail carrier, much less a CEO. What follows is a tribute to some of our state’s leading ladies, the women who had the chutzpah to roll up their sleeves and build communities, places where people don’t just reside—they live.
WAMSO and the Schubert Club: O, Pioneers!
When it first launched in Minneapolis in 1956, the Symphony Ball wasn’t just the social event of the season. It was a life-saving soiree, a fundraiser that put the then cash-strapped Minnesota Orchestra on sound footing, netting almost $13,000 in a single night. And the musicians had an all-female volunteer association to thank. The group, called WAMSO, would go on to throw the bash every year, and by 1959, when the theme was “Night in Paris,” the well-heeled guests were showing off as much with their wardrobes as they were with their pocketbooks (as this snapshot of competing Eiffel Tower hats suggests). WAMSO, which today welcomes members of both genders, has now raised over $10 million for the orchestra. Meanwhile, over in St. Paul, the Schubert Club, founded in 1882 by a group of well-connected women who called themselves “The Ladies Musicale,” was bringing big time international stars to rough-and-tumble Pig’s Eye. (Among them was pianist Vladimir Horowitz, who played St. Paul on his first ever trip to the United States, mere months after his Carnegie Hall debut in 1928.) Still active, the Schubert today stands as one of the oldest arts organizations in the nation. “These women were truly visionary,” says the club’s executive director, Kathleen van Bergen. Photo by Star Tribune/Minneapolis-St. Paul 2011
Fritzi Haskell: Wine Before its Time
Fritzi Haskell entered the wine business in post-Prohibition 1934, when she and her husband, Benny, a middleweight fighter and convicted bootlegger, wanted to open a liquor store in downtown Minneapolis. Because of Benny’s troubles with the law, however, he couldn’t obtain a liquor license. So Haskell’s opened with Fritzi at the helm. Though her entrée into the business world was through this particular back door, Fritzi quickly became an industry leader in her own right. On her early buying trips to France, she was often the lone woman touring wine cellars and sniffing corks; after Prohibition’s repeal, hers was the first American store to import a container of French wine for sale in the United States. From there, Fritzi’s business took off, and Minnesota became home to one of the finest selections of wine in the country. Photo courtesy of Haskell’s
Dorothea Burns: Welcome, Neighbors
Around the Hallie Q. Brown Community Center, she’s often referred to as Mrs. Burns, and the honorific suits her. Born to Southerners who emigrated north, Dorothea Burns has lived much of her life in and around HQB, a former settlement house for African Americans in the heart of St. Paul. “My first memories of Hallie are when my mother brought me to the nursery school,” says Burns (pictured above, third from left in the back row). From there, her involvement grew. A volunteer Girl Scout leader at the center in 1958, she eventually became the center’s assistant director, a post she retired from in 2006. Women have always been the center’s drivers, providing the countless volunteer and staff hours needed to keep it operating through economic ups and downs. The Penumbra Theater is housed here, and, in pre-civil-rights days, many famed black entertainers, including Lena Horne, stopped by the center for exclusive neighborhood performances. “There is a line of strong women here,” says Lou Bellamy, Penumbra’s founder and artistic director. Adds Mrs. Burns: “This neighborhood is our home, and we wanted it to be a beautiful place to live.” Photo courtesy of Hallie Q. Brown Community Center
Dorothy Levy: A Taste of France
Dorothy Levy’s love affair with all things French began when she was just a child. “My mother and grandmother taught me French,” she says. “I fell in love with the language.” After she married Morris Levy Jr., a fellow Francophile whose family ran Minneapolis’s Hotel Dyckman, Dorothy found a way to introduce Minnesotans, many of whom had never even tasted French bread, to the glories of Gaul. In the early 1950s, the couple opened Chateau De Paris, the state’s first authentic French restaurant. Focused on authenticity, Dorothy hired a chef from France, and the restaurant quickly became the region’s premier locale. There was nothing else like it for hundreds, maybe even thousands, of miles. “Salesmen from New York would make a special stop on their way to the West Coast,” says Levy. A music buff, she often organized salon-style lectures and gatherings at the Chateau before opera or orchestra performances. Afterward, performers were invited back to her restaurant for café au lait and—a treat!— crème brûlée. Photo courtesy of Dorothy Levy
Harriet and Vetta Goldstein: Beauty in the Ordinary
It wouldn’t be a stretch to call them design revolutionaries. In 1910 and 1914, when sisters Harriet and Vetta Goldstein joined the faculty of the University of Minnesota’s home-economics department, they worked to impress upon their female students, many just months off the farm, the singular importance of incorporating aesthetics and beauty into the seemingly mundane aspects of life. The Goldsteins’ textbook, Art in Everyday Life, published in 1925, quickly became a Bible of sorts for anyone interested in building a life of beauty and grace. ¶ Steeped in the teachings of the American Arts and Crafts movement, these strong-minded daughters of Polish immigrants helped shape a burgeoning American aesthetic—and a generation of Minnesota homemakers—with nuggets of wisdom, like, “When we surround ourselves with beauty, art actually becomes a part of our life and personality.” Harriet died in 1974, and Vetta in 1982. But the sisters’ art collection, a reflection of their well-honed philosophies, eventually became the backbone of the Goldstein Museum of Design at the University of Minnesota. Photo courtesy of the Goldstein Museum of Design