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Permanently New York

January 03, 1988

"The Egyptian influence is again seen in the monument of Frank Winfield Woolworth (1852-1919) (Woodlawn Cemetery, Bronx, N.Y). You will recognize it first by the buxom sphinxes which flank the entrance, then moving closer, by the cut-out bronze door showing a Pharaoh attended by maidens. It seems a strange choice, perhaps, for an upstate boy who was such a terrible salesman that his salary was lowered from $10 to $8 a week. But his idea of throwing slow-moving merchandise into a bin with a sign '5 cents any item' was worth millions.

"In the end, Frank Woolworth owned two thousand dime stores. He kept his prices low by buying in the kind of bulk that could tie up a factory for years. When he imported new items from Europe such as Christmas ornaments, it caused stampedes at his stores.

"As the dimes piled up, Woolworth developed imperial tastes. He built a 56-room Italian Renaissance mansion, 'Winfield,' on Long Island and slept in Napoleon's old bed. His wife primped at a dressing table said to have belonged to Marie Antoinette. Woolworth's solid gold fixtures didn't come from the dimestore, but he did not have to shop there; when he built the 792-foot Woolworth Building in 1913, he paid $13.5 million in cash.

"Yet wealth cannot always cure human frailty. His wife, Jennie, lived in a world of her own, watched over by an attendant. Woolworth himself had several nervous breakdowns. And his transition from mansion to mausoleum was a quick one; two years after moving into Winfield, he died of septic poisoning after refusing to go to the dentist. His first employer had died of a heart attack in the dental chair and Woolworth was determined to avoid a similar fate.

"His daughter, Edna, who was said to have killed herself when her father forbade her to marry the man she loved, haunts Winfield. She has been seen wearing a faded blue dress, wandering in the gardens where she used to meet her lover in secret. Edna's small daughter, Barbara Hutton (1912-1979), inherited the family fragility. Better known to the papers during her seven marriages as the 'Dime Store Heiress,' Barbara once said, 'All the unhappiness in my life has been caused by men.' It did not cause her to swear off them, however. Her favorite husband was her third, Cary Grant. After living in seclusion on a diet of Coca-Cola for a decade, Barbara came to Woodlawn in 1979, dead of a heart attack."

"Barbara was the last of the Woolworth line. A cousin, Woolworth Donahue, who had been married to Stonewall Jackson's great-granddaughter, Gretchen Smith, as well as to TV actress Mary Hartline of 'Big Top' fame, was brought here in 1972."

"Permanent New Yorkers" was preceded by "Permanent Parisians" and will be followed by "Permanent Londoners." Will there be a "Permanent Angelenos"? Or has Evelyn Waugh said the last word?

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