By  on January 29, 2012

Joseph E. Brooks, the flamboyant former chairman of Lord & Taylor and Ann Taylor and one of the titans of retailing in the Seventies and Eighties, died Thursday at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York.

The cause of death was leukemia, according to his daughter, Elizabeth Brooks Rains. He was 84. A memorial service will be private.

“He was larger than life, very colorful, and he could be difficult but he had a tremendous heart,” Rains said. “He brought me up to be feisty.”

Brooks, a domineering sometimes controversial executive, brought a sense of elevated prestige and pride to Lord & Taylor, which he aggressively expanded from 19 to 46 stores and from $200 million to $900 million in annual sales during his 11-year tenure from 1975 to 1986. The store also became the most profitable division of the now-defunct Associated Dry Goods Corp. during his stewardship. Under his leadership, Lord & Taylor opened its first stores in Florida, and intensified its presence in Washington, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Houston, Dallas and Hartford, as well as in the New York metropolitan area.

Although he brought much growth to Lord & Taylor, he is widely remembered for establishing a tradition of playing “The Star Spangled Banner” every morning so it could be heard throughout the store just at the time the doors swung open to loyal customers waiting outside, some of whom were offered folding chairs to sit on before shopping. At the time, Brooks was quoted as saying he ordered the playing of the national anthem because the U.S.... “with all its problems, is still the greatest country in the world.”

At Lord & Taylor, another one of his traditions was the Rose Awards, a black-tie affair held at the store which each year honored a cultural icon. Beverly Sills and Norman Mailer were among the honorees. Though Lord & Taylor did heavily stock moderate merchandise and rolled it out to branches around the country, Brooks gave the store a veneer of catering to the carriage-trade and maintained its reputation for offering classic and updated American style.

Many considered Brooks a throwback to the styles of earlier retail legends such as former Lord & Taylor chief executive officer Dorothy Shaver, who was the first woman to run a major department store and built the store’s reputation by nurturing American designers and selling their products. Others have said that his authoritative aura was influenced by retail giants such as Adam Gimbel and Stanley Marcus.

He resigned from the chain in 1986 just days after the parent Associated Dry Goods was purchased by the May Department Stores Co., but the playing of the national anthem continues on to this day.

After Lord & Taylor, Brooks linked up with Merrill Lynch Capital Partners Inc. to buy the Ann Taylor specialty chain in February 1989. As chairman, Brooks ran the company as it increased sales and earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization by more than 50 percent; introduced a private label shoe line after dropping its exclusive Joan & David shoe collection; expanded the chain to 34 new markets, and achieved sales per square foot of more than $700 — among the highest in retailing at the time. Ann Taylor went public in an initial public offering in May 1991.

Before joining Lord & Taylor, Brooks ran Filene’s, Rike’s and Burdines, which were divisions of the former Federated Department Stores Inc., now called Macy’s Inc. According to his daughter, one of his sayings, “I did my best,” will be engraved on his tombstone.

Along with his wife of 61 years, Alice, Brooks was deeply involved in charitable and community affairs. They launched the International Symposium on the Neurosciences at Harvard Medical School, established a Faculty Scholar at the Center for Blood Diseases at the University of Miami School of Medicine, and are Third Century Fellows at Harvard Medical School.

Most recently, Brooks served on the advisory board of New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center, the board of the Michael Wolk Heart Foundation, and the board of the International Tennis Hall of Fame, among a multitude of community activities and charities. He was an avid tennis player.

Along with his daughter and wife, Brooks is survived by a son, Thomas, and other relatives. The family requested that in lieu of flowers, contributions be made in memory of Joseph E. Brooks to The Harvard AIDS Initiative, 651 Huntington Avenue, Boston, Mass. 02115. Brooks lived in Greenwich, Conn.

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