–and Fashion Icon Nena Ivon
By Stanley Paul
Michigan Avenue was distinctively charming in the 1960s, with smaller shops and low-rise buildings. I think the tallest structure was the Palmolive Building, where the Lindbergh Beacon rotated each night. Prominent as well was the iconic Allerton Hotel, where Don McNeill’s Breakfast Club was broadcast from the Tip-Top-Tap each weekday morning.
Giving the Magnificent Mile an austere flavor was the Gothic Tribune Tower, exciting to behold for the many treasures cemented in its foundation (from a piece of the Great Pyramid of Giza to a brick from the Great Wall of China). And then of course was the wonderful Wrigley Building near the bridge, whose white marble gave a classic touch.
The tallest shop on the Avenue would have been Saks Fifth Avenue, across the street from its present location. Among some of the other shops with unparalleled quality merchandise were Blum’s Vogue, Stanley Korshack, Bonwit Teller, Martha Weathered, Andrew Geller shoes, Holland’s Gallery, Main Street Bookstore, Bramson’s, and Panache, with its wonderful gifts and unique objet d’arts and many other wonderful emporiums.
Corner of Michigan Avenue and Oak Street. Looking from right to left: Martha Weathered, Anna’s florist, Trabert & Hoeffer, Bes- Ben, Holland’s Gallery and Mrs. Snyders. Next block: Blums Vogue, Jacques and Stanley Korshak.
By far one of the most colorful personalities on the Avenue was the extraordinary Benjamin Green-Field, a Chicago treasure. In a time when a woman’s hat was an important part of her wardrobe, Bes-Ben was the place for the fanciest. I often heard the wild stories about his amazing sales, drawing Lake Forest matrons to the Drake Hotel where they would wait in luxury for the dawn to arrive. As the sun shone its first rays on the then much smaller Chicago skyline, each woman excitedly waited in the little alley between his shop and Holland’s Gallery. There, Green-Field would stand on a ladder and throw out his hundred-dollar (and up) hats for only $5.00 each. Needless to say, the usually regal ladies scrambled for the incredible bargains.
The area around Michigan Avenue also had its fair share of extraordinary restaurants, with the lunchtime crowd’s favorite being Jacques French Restaurant in the 900 Building, standing on the corner of Delaware and Michigan (where Bloomingdale’s is now). It was impossible not to adore it with its open summer garden in the summer and continental dining room the rest of the year. What made this dining room unlike any other was its glass roof, allowing you to gaze up at the falling snow and raindrops.
Le Petit Gourmet.
Two other unique restaurants were Le Petit Gourmet and the Diana Restaurant in the wonderful (but now lost) art deco Diana Court Building. Who could forget the wonderful chicken salad sandwiches at the Drake Hotel’s Drug Store? Around the corner from this on Oak Street was Musket & Henrikson. (If they could have just franchised their egg salad sandwiches, they might still be in existence today.)
Also, on Oak Street was Eli’s Deli, the forerunner of Eli’s Cheesecakes, owned and operated by lifelong Chicagoan Eli Schulman. Speaking of desserts, the best chocolate milkshakes and hot fudge sundaes in the world were found at Mrs. Snyder’s Candy Emporium. There was also Charmet’s Restaurant, where Ralph Lauren is today, a place oft-frequented by students of the modeling school upstairs. If you were in the mood for Polynesian food, you couldn’t beat Don the Beachcomber, found just off the beaten path on Walton Street. So quaint was the Avenue in those days, there was even a Woolworth’s where you could sit and casually have lunch at the counter for less than a buck.
We couldn’t do a story on Michigan Avenue in the 1960s without mentioning a lady who I met when I first arrived in the city: the wonderful Nena Ivon. At the age of only fifteen, Nena took a summer job at Saks Fifth Avenue… she stayed for fifty-three years. Nena joked, “It was a hellava long summer job!” When she started at Saks in the late 1950s, the store was housed in a one-story building, much different than today.
I recently asked Nena about the difference in the fashion industry today, and she told me, “Stanley, nothing’s really changed, though I must say, clothes today are much more casual and disposable than they used to be. In those days, clothes were an investment, and people gave far more care to how they looked. With each new season came new outfits, and the styles changed often.” As I said earlier, Nena was one of my first friends in Chicago, a friendship that began while playing the piano for her wonderful fashion shows each Tuesday and Thursday at the Pump Room.
We often joke about her waking me at noon, asking, “How do you want your eggs?” (I never got to bed before 4 am, always entertaining the stars in my suite upstairs into the wee hours.) After I had gulped down a quick breakfast, I would play the piano as the models glided through the Pump Room, wearing the latest of fashions of the day. Nena today is busier than ever teaching several fashion classes at Columbia College, lecturing extensively and working tirelessly for her various charities. She even told me that she’s in the process of writing a book about her many years spent on Michigan Avenue, deep in the heart of the fashion world. THAT SHOULD BE QUITE A STORY!
Chicago History Museum
The Nena Ivon Collection
Columbia College Chicago