Burt Tansky has at least one frustration upon his retirement today from Neiman Marcus: The retailer's famous Christmas Book catalogue has never offered the fantasy gift he requested.
"This year he said, 'You still didn't do my gift,'" admits Ginger Reeder, vice president of Neiman Marcus Group and longtime overlord of the fantasy gifts. "He has always wanted me to do a gift where you could be what you dreamed of being when you were a kid, like a surgeon for a day. I said, 'You can't be a surgeon for a day.'"
Reeder went round and round with Tansky, pointing out that she couldn't make a carte blanche offer because it wouldn't be possible to, for instance, argue a case in front of the Supreme Court, or even pilot a tugboat for a day. She researched what they could offer — a cowboy on a cattle drive, a volunteer fireman — but that didn't measure up.
"He couldn't believe I couldn't get that worked out," Reeder says. "He'd say, 'Somebody could do this for me if they were really trying.'"
Nor would he ever reveal his own childhood dream, she adds.
On the whole, however, Tansky left the catalogue's hallmark fantasy gifts to her and never vetoed a single one.
The flashy, press-generating tradition began in 1959 when fraternal Neiman's executives Stanley and Edward Marcus garnered international publicity for the catalogue by presenting a Black Angus steer, "on the hoof or cut into steaks," along with a silver-plated cooker.
Over Tansky's tenure, the book has proffered a trip into space, a custom backyard golf course by Jack Nicklaus, a $1.44 million submarine, various flying machines, a 305-carat diamond and dozens of other extravagances.
"Burt always says 'Fine,' shaking his head, and he says, 'Would it kill you to get me a gift that would sell?' And I say 'That's not the point.' And he says, 'I know, I know, but would it kill you?'" Reeder says, laughing at the ritual teasing.
Tansky did influence the annual selection of a limited edition luxury car, a Christmas Book tradition since 1995 that has sold out every year except during the doldrums of holiday 2008.
"He wanted big engines with lots of power," Reeder recalls. "He always had an opinion about the price, and I learned early on to get him the horsepower and engine size, and he always wanted to know the torque, but I could never remember to ask about the torque. I don't even know what torque is, really."
An auto buff and owner of a vintage Jaguar, Tansky was particularly enamored with the 2005 Maserati Quattroporte, which sold out of the 60 available in 36 minutes, and the 2007 BMW M6 convertible that vanished even faster — 50 gone in one minute, 32 seconds — at $139,000 a pop.
Of all the people she has worked for, Tansky gave her the most freedom to fail, Reeder points out.
"If you failed he'd have your back, but he wanted you out there pushing and trying," she says. "He wanted to be sure I knew to explain my thought process, and he wanted to hear about it."
Tansky approved some fantasy gifts despite his doubts.
"He thought the  chocolate portrait, the Bosco portrait, was the craziest thing he'd ever heard of," Reeder notes. "He said, 'That's insane.' And it sold right away.
"He still owes me a Diet Dr. Pepper for the Maker's Mark distillery tour [last year]. He doesn't drink, so the idea that people would be brand-loyal to bourbon he couldn't understand at all," she continues. "It was a home run — we sold seven of them, as many as they could do, and I had 10 or 15 people on a waiting list."
And while he loved the look of it, Tansky questioned whether the company could sell 200 of the retro Ford Thunderbird that was presented in the 2000 catalogue.
"I said, 'I don't pick the amount — it's the car company,'" Reeder recalls. "He said, 'It's too many,' and we had never sold 200 — the most we had done was 75 cars. He came to the [Christmas Book] dinner the night before and he was taking bets on whether we would sell them or how fast. They sold out in about two hours, and he said, 'Go for it if they tell you they can sell 200.'"
One of his strongest reactions was to a video of last year's Cupcake cars, the whimsical, surreal vehicles that look exactly like giant frosted cupcakes and spin in place.
"He laughed and laughed and said, 'This is perfect. I can't imagine anyone would ever buy one, but it's the funniest thing I've ever seen,'" she recalls. "Publicity-wise, it did exactly what fantasy gifts are supposed to do. The 'Today' show had it twice, and [David] Letterman had it, and 'Sally Forth,' a nationally syndicated comic strip, featured it — and we'd never had that before."
Overall, Tansky emphasized the same message for the fantasy gifts as former company chairman Stanley Marcus.
"He reinforced that the only thing that matters is that it's the very best of what it is," Reeder says. "He understood that the point was to emphasize that Neiman Marcus was a store where you could get the finest of everything, even if it's a submarine."
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