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Remembering a Palm Beach Legend: Lilly Pulitzer

Remembering a Palm Beach Legend: Lilly Pulitzer

It was a sunny day in South Florida in 1959. A pretty brunette in her early 30s was selling freshly squeezed orange and grapefruit juice from a stand near citrus groves.

The lady was Lilly Pulitzer, and she was not in need of making money from the stand. She was the wife of Pete Pulitzer, a multimillionaire who owned citrus groves. Lilly’s stand was a hobby for a wealthy wife who had grown bored.

Lilly Pulitzer, nee Lilly McKim was born into a privileged family in New York. She met ultra-rich Pete Pulitzer while on vacation in Palm Beach, Florida. He was the grandson of famed newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer, whose gift to Columbia University was used to establish the Pulitzer Prize. She shocked her family by eloping to marry Pete in 1952.

She became the hostess of many parties at their lavish Palm Beach estate in a relaxed atmosphere, making the”elite in bare feet” trendy. Needing more of a “purpose in life” led her to the opening of the juice stand. Then it was quite literally spilled juice that led her into the fashion world.

She and friend Laura Robbins, former editor of Harper’s Bazaar opened the stand together. The two women decided they needed to wear clothes that wouldn’t show juice stains, so Lilly enlisted her personal seamstress to sew them up something cool, comfortable and colored to camouflage the bright yellow and orange stains. The dresses got rave reviews.

They began selling the loose “shift style” dresses in an ocean of tropical colors at their stand. Soon dress sales exceeded juice sales. The dresses evolved into a casual line of clothing popular in the Palm Beach area only. The line went global when Jackie Kennedy, former classmate of Lilly’s, wore one of the dresses on vacation. Then everybody had to have a “Lilly”.

The company took a downturn in 1984 but was revived in 1990 by Sugartown Worldwide and acquired by Oxford Industries for as much as $80 million. Lilly died at her home this past Sunday, April 7th, 2013. Her colorful designs are available today in an array of products from bedding to jewelry.


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