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Mollie Parnis; Dress Designer for the Famous

July 20, 1992|BURT A. FOLKART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mollie Parnis, whose wearable, durable and distinctively American clothes were seen on the backs of First Ladies and entertainment stars, is dead.

The daughter of poor Austrian immigrants, who with her late husband crafted a multimillion-dollar empire of style from a simple showroom, was believed to be in her 90s when she died Saturday of congestive heart failure in a New York City hospital.

She had always refused to divulge her age, telling questioners with a mischievous smile: "I am of a certain age, as everyone knows, and my normal life expectancy is about five minutes."

From the time Miss Parnis opened her first dress business during the Depression until she retired in 1985 to become a consultant to her former customers and a social magnet for the esteemed, she was a testament to her own simple styles.

By that time she also had become affluent enough to afford her own dresses, which ranged upward to several thousand dollars and brought in $10 million a year in her firm's better years.

But her designs had always been pricey. In 1933, she opened her first salon with Leon Livingston, a man she had met when he was in the silk business and she was working at a blouse manufacturer's showroom. By then he had become her husband, and their smart, ready-to-wear, always comfortable suits and dresses began at $50, high at the time.

Although unable to either sketch or cut, Miss Parnis was able to verbally convey her fashion concepts to others and she became what she called the firm's "editor" while her husband handled the business and labor demands of New York's garment district. Their shop thrived from the start.

Circumstances had limited her to a high school education, and in years to come--as her designs gained her entry to the White House and other homes of the rich and famous--she lamented her lack of formal learning.

But she compensated for it by becoming a voracious reader and world traveler from which emerged an informed mind coupled with a sardonic demeanor that did not suffer pretension well. She was known for cutting people off in mid-sentence if she thought their replies to her pointed questions were wandering.

She also became a celebrated art patron and nationally famed hostess. "Going to Mollie's" was an event anticipated eagerly by such famous men as Kirk Douglas, Henry Kissinger, Mike Wallace, President Lyndon B. Johnson and their wives. She designed gowns for First Ladies ranging from Mamie Eisenhower to Betty Ford.

After her husband's death in 1962 she retired, but only for a few months and then re-entered the business world and reopened her Park Avenue apartment filled with fine china and paintings. A Matisse painting she had purchased for $25,000 over her husband's protests years earlier was worth millions at her death.

After her only son, Robert, died in 1979, Miss Parnis established the Livingston Awards for journalists younger than 35. Three prizes of $5,000 are awarded annually.

She also established the Mollie Parnis Livingston Foundation of New York, which through expenditures of more than $1.5 million encouraged the growth of small parks throughout New York City's neighborhoods.

Survivors include a nephew.

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