Gertrude G. Michelson, a retired senior vice president and board member at Macy’s, whose influence extended well beyond the walls of Macy’s to other corporations as well as academic institutions, died Saturday morning, after a long illness, at her home in Greenwich Village. She was 89.
This story first appeared in the January 13, 2015 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Born in 1925, Michelson, known as “G.G.,” first graduated Columbia Law School — she was one of six women in the class of 1947 — before joining the executive training squad at Macy’s.
In 1948, she became assistant to the labor-relations manager, and 15 years later rose to vice president of employee personnel, becoming the first woman to hold that slot.
In the Seventies, she was senior vice president for personnel, labor and consumer relations and became known as the “consumer czarina.” She rose to hold senior positions in human resources, labor relations and external affairs and was responsible for collective bargaining with the Teamsters and 14 local unions. She was considered by executives at the store as a “conciliator par excellence.” She became a mentor to top retailers, including Macy’s chairman and chief executive officer Terry Lundgren, as well as Michael Gould, the former chairman of Bloomingdale’s, even though Gould never worked with her. The late Edward Finkelstein, the former chairman and ceo of Macy’s, relied on Michelson for advice on many issues, whether dealing with unions or the mayor’s office. The two were in Macy’s executive training at the same time.
“She was a mentor, a teacher, a confidant and, most of all, a friend,” said Gould. “She touched everyone she came into contact with, from the rank and file to the ceo of many companies she was involved with.”
“G.G. was a trailblazer in so many ways, not only at Macy’s but in the very fabric of New York City, American higher education and corporate governance,” Lundgren said. “Her impact on several generations of business and community leaders is remarkable, and her active involvement continued until very recently.”
Because she was so influential on a range of areas, Michelson maintained an office on the 13th floor of Macy’s Herald Square headquarters for many years after her retirement in 1992, because executives like Lundgren wanted her around.
“In labor matters, she managed to get along with both sides and could handle confrontations. She was very cognizant of the workers and not just the executives,” said Don Eugene, a former Macy’s chief financial officer, now partner in the Callydus Group.
Michelson served on several boards, including General Electric, Irving Trust, Quaker Oats, Harper Row and other major corporations. She also served on the boards of Spelman College and the RAND Corporation and was once governor of the American Stock Exchange. In 1980, she was named to the board of trustees at Columbia University and was elected to its chair in 1989, the first woman to lead the overseers of an Ivy League school. She was influential as a board member in the determination that women should be allowed to attend Columbia, after more than two centuries of being a male-only institution.
She served as deputy chair of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, served on the emergency financial control board to help pull New York City out of its fiscal crisis in the Seventies and was picked to be on several commissions under the administrations of New York City Mayors Edward Koch and David Dinkins.
Michelson is survived by her daughter Barbara Michelson, her sister Mildred Terr, son-in-law Jim Heffron, three granddaughters and four great-grandchildren. Her husband, Horace, and her daughter Martha predeceased her.
Plans for a memorial service will be announced at a later date. No funeral service was held.