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Walter Hoving; Tiffany's No-Nonsense Leader

November 29, 1989|From Staff and Wire Reports

NEW YORK — Walter Hoving, who ruled Tiffany & Co. with a firm but kindly hand for 25 years, imposing uncompromising standards of taste while sharply increasing profits, has died.

The retail executive, who refused to sell diamond rings for men, stock silver plate or provide charge accounts to customers who had been rude to his employees, was 91. He died Monday at a hospital in Newport, R.I., to which he had been admitted Nov. 14.

A longtime resident of New York City, Hoving had lived full-time in Newport for the last year.

When he bought a controlling share of Tiffany & Co. in 1955, it was doing $7 million worth of business a year and appeared to be fading. By 1980, the main store and its five branches were taking in about $100 million.

Called imperious by some, a zealot by many and uncompromising by all, Hoving would not bend his policies even for someone as lofty as a U.S. President.

One of the most popular of the stories that make up the Hoving legend is about the time in 1962 that John F. Kennedy called him for 32 Lucite calendar mementoes to be given to those who had been close to him during the Cuban missile crisis.

Hoving supposedly replied, "We don't sell plastic." Kennedy resubmitted the order, this time for silver.

The only time he permitted silver plate at Tiffany was in 1977, when he offered for sale a series of "Try God" pins. Hoving was a deeply religious man, and the profits from the sale went to homes for troubled girls.

"Design what you think is beautiful, and don't worry about selling it," he would tell such designers as Elsa Perrett and Jean Schlumberger. "That's our job."

Hoving resigned as chairman in 1980, a year after the company was bought by Avon Products. It is now publicly owned again and its stock is listed on the New York Stock Exchange.

Hoving was born in Stockholm in 1897 and moved to the United States with his parents in 1903. He earned a bachelor's degree from Brown University.

During his career, he worked at R. H. Macy & Co., Montgomery Ward & Co. and Lord & Taylor, the latter as president.

In 1946, he founded the Hoving Corp., whose properties came to include the Bonwit Teller department store. He sold it in 1960.

He is survived by his third wife, the former singer and actress Jane Pickens Langley, a son, daughter and four grandchildren.

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