NEW YORK — Hanne Merriman, former president of Garfinckel’s, the defunct Washington, D.C.-based department stores, died of breast cancer on July 4 at Sibley Memorial Hospital in Washington. She was 61.

Merriman headed Garfinckel’s from 1981 to 1987. She began her career at the company in a junior sales position for the misses’ dress department. She rose to become a buyer, divisional manager, executive vice president and ultimately president.

While at the helm, Merriman opened stores and expanded the mail-order business. But later, in an uncertain economy, Garfinckel’s faced decreasing profits and declared bankruptcy in 1990.

Before leaving in 1987, Merriman and a management buyout group made an unsuccessful bid for Garfinckel’s, which was then owned by Canadian developer Robert Campeau of Campeau Corp.

Dorothy Roberts, chairman of Echo Design Group, a business associate and close friend of Merriman’s, said that “she was really one of the premier retailers in the country.’’

Merriman held other executive posts, including president of Honeybee Inc., a New York-based apparel retailer. In the early Nineties, she was president of Nan Duskin Inc., an upscale women’s retailer in Philadelphia, and most recently had been working as a consultant.

In the mid-Eighties, Merriman had become a board member with various companies. J. Patrick Spainhour, chairman and chief executive of Ann Taylor Stores, outlined her integrity, honesty, straightforwardness and willingness to help and be involved in any way she possibly could. “Hanne had been a remarkably helpful board member,” he said. “She was just a pristine person that I very much liked, personally as well as from a business perspective.”

Merriman is survived by her husband, Richard; her mother, Marie Nielsen; a stepdaughter, Wendy S. Merriman; two brothers, Carl Gelder and Jorgen Nielsen, and a sister, Birgit Campbell.

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