Living on Top of the Store

Bergdorf Goodman Voice

Once upon a time, the chairman and his family had a most unlikely penthouse

By Wendy Goodman

3 8 2011

Bergdorf Goodman PenthouseThe “Walnut Paneling” in the Penthouse was Trompe L’oeil on Plaster
Photo: Howard Graff reprinted with permission of House Beautiful ©1965

In the final moments of Joshua Taylor’s moving documentary Dita & The Family Business, the film-maker takes you through the halls and back rooms of the penthouse apartment where his great grandparents, Edwin and Belle Goodman, and grandparents, Andrew and Nena Goodman lived. This sprawling home happened to be located on the top floor of Bergdorf Goodman, the store the family owned. Seeing the grand penthouse vacant conjures up a feeling of nostalgia, not so much for a particular time or place, but for a bygone way of life that mixed the private and public in a heady, exotic and glamorous swirl.

Taylor remembers visits when he was a child, always feeling he was on a clandestine mission. “There was always a secret feeling to going there,” he says. “You entered from the street through a gold door and went down a long marble hall. There was not a breath of air in it. You buzzed for the private elevator, which only made two stops—the 7th floor, where my grandfather’s office was, and the penthouse. The elevator had those old accordion gates and wallpaper and a bizarre flower arrangement inside.”

I was astonished when I learned that this apartment existed, and that the family still occupied it into the 1980s. As a writer on matters of architecture and décor, I was obsessed with getting access. I sent flowers with a letter to Mr. and Mrs. Goodman, to no avail. Then, in 1996, the store hosted a John Galliano fashion show in the apartment before it was demolished to make way for the John Barrett Salon. Traces of the extraordinary life lived here lingered in the still-grand abandoned rooms, making it the perfect setting for Galliano’s haunting romanticism.

Taylor’s documentary tells the story of the store and the legendary family who created it, primarily through the life of his glamorous grandmother, Nena Manach Goodman, better known as Dita to her family and close friends. He includes footage from home movies of Nena as a young girl in Cuba, where she moved from Spain as a child. She was a dazzling, free-spirited siren who won her future husband’s heart the moment he spotted her on a yacht while vacationing in Havana in 1935.

Andrew Goodman was tall, dark and handsome and just as spirited as his future wife, but he was also a true merchant prince, groomed from birth to inherit Bergdorf Goodman, his father’s fashion retail business. Andrew’s father Edwin, who grew up in Rochester, New York, was drawn to tailoring at an early age, and with his talent and determination arrived in New York City where he apprenticed with a flamboyant Frenchman, the skilled tailor Herman Bergdorf in 1899 at the age of twenty-three.* By 1901 Goodman had become a partner in Bergdorf’s shop and in 1903 he succeeded in buying out his partner’s share of the business, although he retained his name, becoming the sole owner of Bergdorf Goodman.

The store was then located at 32 West Thirty-second Street and it was a thriving business in ladies tailored suits. But as fast as the Gilded Age mansions had gone up along Fifth Avenue in the late 1800s, they were now coming down. The Industrial Revolution had created a new class of devoted consumers and the sea changes of the twentieth century arrived with modern and ambitious commercial buildings replacing the palaces and chateaux of the carriage trade. By 1914 Edwin Goodman had built a store at 616 Fifth Avenue where Rockefeller Center is now. But retail real estate kept staking claims further and further uptown and in 1928 Goodman took a bold step and purchased a portion of the site of the Cornelius Vanderbilt II mansion on Fifth Avenue and 58th Street as the new location for Bergdorf Goodman. Edwin Goodman retained Buchman & Kahn to design a nine-story Beaux Arts building clad in marble and topped with a mansard roof, but according to legend, the first sketch of the building was made by Goodman himself at the Plaza Hotel bar across the street, on a cocktail napkin. The top floor he designated for the family apartment.

Vanderbilt MansionWilliam Vanderbilt’s Petit Chateau by Richard Morris Hunt was demolished in 1962 to make way for the store.
Photograph from the Bergdorf Goodman Archives, 1920s

Who would have suspected back then, looking up from the street, that the ninth floor windows looked out from a seventeen-room apartment complete with six bathrooms, which included one for each of the bedrooms? The penthouse was accessible by two private elevators, one from the inside the store and one from a private entrance on Fifty-eighth Street. Each elevator had telephone lines that connected its passengers to each room within the apartment, to the store switchboard and to the world outside,** the height of luxurious modernity at the time.

Edwin Goodman’s instinct for what his customers wanted and would pay for was also thoroughly in step with the modern life of his time. He knew that women had moved on from the lengthy fittings and costly trimmings of custom-designed couture clothing. It was the dawn of ready-to-wear that could be purchased immediately, right off the rack, beginning a retail revolution that Goodman understood better than any of his contemporaries. Andrew was initiated into the family business and sent off to Paris in 1926 after just two years of college at The University of Michigan.*** He worked at the House of Jean Patou, learning the art of dress-making in all its aspects. After a year soaking up the language and life of Paris, the dashing Andrew returned to take up his place in the store at the side of his father and his sister Ann.

But he would still travel the world, to Paris and the continent for work, and to such exotic spots as Havana for vacation. Returning from Cuba a few years later, Andrew had made up his mind about his future bride. Nena Manach was a divorcée with a young daughter and her in-laws were initially skeptical. In the documentary, Nena describes the uncomfortable scene before her marriage to Andrew Goodman when her father-in-law Edwin insisted she sign a pre-nuptial agreement. She did sign, and according to Nena, one year later, on her first wedding anniversary, her father-in-law gave her a sable coat accompanied by an envelope which contained the prenuptial agreement torn into little bits. Her son Edwin’s version is that Nena was given the torn-up prenup upon his birth, as a reward for providing the family with a male heir (and perhaps for naming him after grandpa.)

The apartment Andrew and Dita inherited in 1953 after Edwin’s death had not changed much over the years, but they did do some redecorating when they moved in. The formal drawing room off the terrazzo-tiled foyer was furnished with elegant antiques highlighted by a magnificent Queen Anne’s secretary bookcase. Andrew Goodman’s boyhood bedroom was converted to a wood paneled study. Photographs by Howard Graff taken for a story that ran in House Beautiful mention that the updated décor was done by Jan Moran of the store’s decorating department.

It was not your typical family apartment, nor were the Goodmans your typical family, even for Fifth Avenue. Edwin Goodman started his mornings greeting family members in a bathroom as grand as a boardroom. In the documentary about her life, Nena recalls bringing the Duke and Duchess of Windsor upstairs because they needed to use the bathroom. There was a freak plumbing problem that evening and the water in the toilets was steaming hot. Upon being told this, the former King replied, “Don’t worry. What I have to do, I do standing.”

And one can imagine the dinners and cocktails that the vivacious Nena hosted in this most unusual penthouse. The Goodmans loved to entertain and sometimes those they entertained entertained back, as when another famous Goodman (unrelated), Benny, thrilled the party with his famous clarinet. Another great moment was a celebration of the 1965 premiere of the CBS Streisand special My Name is Barbra, which featured the ultimate shopping fantasy, wherein the diva belts out a medley of poverty-themed songs while trying on one wildly luxurious outfit after another. The Goodmans hosted a viewing party in the apartment, culminating in midnight dinner served when the star (then on Broadway in Funny Girl) arrived from the theater.

 

Speaking of fantasy, Edwin, the Chairman, also held the title of janitor of Bergdorf Goodman, as did Andrew when he moved in. Because the building contained workrooms, it was designated as a factory and had to abide by New York’s fire laws. Thus the “walnut” walls of the drawing room were in fact faux wood grain painted on plaster. The expanse of pale carpeting covered a concrete floor and the voluminous silk curtains hid steel casement windows. In a way, the Goodmans were pioneers of what became a New York way of life for generations of artists and bohemians—the live/work space. It may have looked like the ultimate Manhattan penthouse, but it was actually the first living loft—proving once again that the fashion-driven Goodman family was always a step ahead of the times.

— Wendy Goodman for Bergdorf Goodman

More from Wendy Goodman:
Just a Little Sleuthing

Read more from Wendy Goodman in New York Magazine

To order Dita and the Family Business, call 212 872 8960

* P. 23. Bergdorf’s on the Plaza by Booton Herndon, Alfred A. Knopf, 1956.
** P. 98. Bergdorf’s on the Plaza
*** P. 73 Bergdorf’s on the Plaza
**** P. 99 Bergdorf’s on the Plaza

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