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Revolutionized Clothing Business : Cyril Isaac Magnin, 88; Called 'Mr. San Francisco'

June 09, 1988|MARK A. STEIN | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — Cyril Isaac Magnin, a popular San Francisco social figure who both revolutionized the way women buy clothing and befriended diplomats and presidents, died Wednesday. He was 88.

Magnin, dubbed "Mr. San Francisco" by no less an authority than columnist Herb Caen, had been hospitalized under an assumed name at the UC Medical Center since May 1. He was admitted with a heart condition, but the exact cause of death was not disclosed.

An incorrigible raconteur and one of San Francisco's most beloved natives, Magnin often was asked by elected officials to entertain important visitors to the city and the state. He was named San Francisco's chief of protocol in 1964 and continued to hold that title until his death.

As chief of protocol, the department store heir earned a colorful array of honors and titles, including a Commander of the British Empire and similar accolades from France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Spain and Sweden.

His list of honorary scholastic titles was nearly as long, recognizing his fund-raising for the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, American Conservatory Theater, San Francisco Opera Assn. and other arts groups. A particular fan of opera, he relished the joy he felt as a teen-ager at his first production, of Giuseppe Verdi's "The Masked Ball."

Praise From Sills

In Magnin's 1981 autobiography, "Call Me Cyril," opera superstar Beverly Sills is quoted as saying: "He twinkles, he's a song-and-dance man, a sentimentalist, a tough businessman, a sucker for a hard-luck story--and one of the great philanthropists. He's a prince of pleasure, a king of kindness, a formidable friend, and I am madly in love with him."

Charities, including the March of Dimes and American Cancer Society, also benefitted from Magnin's fund-raising skills, as did the Democratic Party. He befriended two Democratic presidents, Harry S. Truman and Lyndon B. Johnson. In the Johnson White House, Magnin stylists dressed the President's daughters and styled their hair.

In addition to serving as the former president and chairman of the board of Joseph Magnin Co. Inc., he was general partner and chairman of Cyril Magnin Investments Ltd. and chairman of Lilli Ann Corp.

But perhaps his favorite achievement was being chosen to play the Pope in the 1977 movie "Foul Play." He delighted in his campy cameo performance.

Cyril Magnin was born July 6, 1899, the only child of Joseph and Charlotte. His parents had met on the job at I. Magnin, the high-priced, highbrow specialty store begun by Magnin's grandmother, Mary Ann, and named for his grandfather, Isaac.

Cousin Headed L.A. Temple

Cyril Magnin was a "non-practicing Jew" but took pride in his late cousin, Edgar F. Magnin, the rabbi and spiritual leader to one of the nation's largest Reformed Jewish congregations, Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles.

Magnin's career was rooted in a dispute between his father and grandmother. Joseph split from the family in 1913, after being denied control of I. Magnin, and bought a rival store that he named for himself. But the elder Magnin could not compete with I. Magnin until he put his son, Cyril, in charge in 1937. Cyril showed a genius for marketing.

In the 1940s, he saw a flood of servicemen's wives and sweethearts into San Francisco as an opportunity to outflank I. Magnin by changing the focus of Joseph Magnin to fashions for younger women.

"In a way, we 'out-Magnined' I. Magnin by capturing and holding a brand new buying public--the younger woman," Magnin recalled in his autobiography.

The formula was a smashing success, and Magnin was credited with helping to launch a new market for "juniors" fashions. Stanley Marcus of Nieman-Marcus later called him "a great merchant who led retailing to the young market."

'A Real Pioneer'

"His influence was tremendous," said Carl Livingston Jr., son of one of Magnin's chief competitors in the postwar San Francisco fashion market. "He was a real pioneer, and there are not many of those left."

By the mid-'50s, shoppers were literally waiting in line to buy the store's clothes before they could be tagged. Sales swelled by 7% a year--and Magnin's appetite for trends grew with them.

When flower-power blossomed in San Francisco, J. Magnin's giddily joined in the fun, painting its stores psychedelic colors, outfitting its sales staff in miniskirts, stocking such shocking fare as Rudi Gernreich's topless bathing suit--and plugged it all in surreal advertisements. Cyril Magnin cheerily reveled in the "creative anarchy" that reigned in his big flagship store just off San Francisco's fashionable Union Square.

In 1969, the 36-store chain was sold to Amfac Inc. of Honolulu for three times its net worth of $11 million. New management came in and the "kookie" marketing went out. Sales skidded, and Amfac sold the expanded chain in 1977. It was sold again in 1982, but by then could no longer compete in the juniors fashion market it had virtually created. Joseph Magnin's filed for bankruptcy in 1984.

Cyril Magnin had gone on to other pursuits, notably his successful personal holding company, but he was hurt by the closing of his father's store. "It is almost like losing a friend," he said at the time.

The retailer was married first to the former Anna Smithline of New York, who died in 1948 at age 47. He remarried in 1951, to the former Lillian Ryan Helwig; they were divorced in 1961, and she died in 1980.

He is survived by his three children, Donald, Ellen and Jerry.

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