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LOS ANGELES — A young blonde, wriggling along with Desi Arnaz in the Copacabana’s conga line in New York, catches the eye of Twentieth Century Fox founder Joseph M. Schenck. She gets a train ticket to Hollywood, a screen test and invites to soirees at Schenck’s Holmby Hills pad with his glamorous pals: Marilyn Monroe, Lana Turner, Sid Graumann and Lena Horne.
It sounds like a well-trodden Tinseltown tale. But this one — detailed in retail maven Marcia Israel-Curley’s memoir, “Defying the Odds: Sharing the Lessons I Learned as a Pioneer Entrepreneur,” published this month by Overlook Press — doesn’t go tripping down familiar paths.
Israel-Curley was Schenck’s lover, but she found passion on the shop floor — and no man since has matched up to the thrill she got from Judy’s, the chain of youthful fashion stores she nurtured from a shoebox space and sold as a $100 million-plus venture in 1989.
“When I look back, I think ‘Oh my God, it was fantastic,’” Israel-Curley says with a throaty sigh, relaxing into the sofa cushions of her Beverly Hills home. After she finishes promoting the book in a personal tour that includes stops from Deauville, France to Seventh Avenue, she’ll settle at home, with her Picasso sketches and drifting tomato-red Calder mobile, and dream of doing it all over again. “I sold Judy’s at the peak of my career, at the peak of my volume. And do I miss it? Oh, I miss it. I miss it so much.”
Israel-Curley set the model for modern specialty stores by developing an “Exclusively for Judy’s” look of commissioned designs that matched, down to their bikini undies. The concept drew the youthful and chic: Sally Field, Jaclyn Smith, Twiggy, Barbra Streisand and Cher. In fact, 30 years ago, when Fairchild Publications launched WWD’s sister title W, many of the first subscribers came from Judy’s customer list .
And where the young and fashionable went, so went Judy’s, blaring Top-40 music over its speakers all along the way. In 1949, 20 years before Gap, Israel-Curley surreptitiously tried on a pair of Levi-Strauss workpants in the basement of Montgomery Ward, then bought some to resell to Judy’s most forward customers.
But during World War II, when American manufacturers cloned Europe’s boxy cuts, it was the sexy fit Israel-Curley insisted on that had lasting impact.
“I was in the habit of redesigning and correcting the fit of the clothes I purchased from Bullocks or the May Co. with an old Singer foot-pedal sewing machine,” she says. Of course, Mrs. I, as her employees called her, always cut a glamorous figure herself, resembling Tippi Hedren in the “Marni” era.
But as fun as it all was, running the show at a time when women stayed at home strained her marriage to Larry Isreal.
“Very few of my closest friends really knew me because I hid my identity to be a respectful, feminine person,” she says. “They knew I had a part in Judy’s, but they had no idea how much of a part. And that was fine with me, because it made my marriage look better.”
In 1964, she had a coming out of sorts when The Los Angeles Times named her Woman of the Year. The article began: “Is she the boss’s wife? No, she is the boss.”