Glass-ceiling-breaking retail executive Rosalind Gersten Jacobs also forged inroads in the world of Surrealist art.
Jacobs, 94, died Dec. 21 at her New York City apartment. The native New Yorker studied drawing and painting early on before graduating from Hunter College and enlisting in Macy’s “training squad” in 1949. She started as an accessories buyer before moving up to head buyer for the retailer’s “Little Shop;” in the early Seventies she was promoted to vice president and fashion director. Her late husband Mel also excelled in the retail sphere, serving in posts including Saks Fifth Avenue’s chairman and chief executive officer. Together they amassed a significant art collection, purchasing many pieces from the artists “Roz” Jacobs befriended during her first buying trip for Macy’s in 1954.
Man Ray, René Magritte, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Dorothea Tanning Ernst, Picasso biographer Roland Penrose, photographer Lee Miller and George Orwell were among the scores of artists and creatives whom Jacobs befriended through the years. Her entrée into the Surrealist world started innocuously enough through a dinner invitation from artists and art patrons Noma and Bill Copley.
Jacobs was close friends with Man Ray and his wife, Juliet, for decades. Regardless of which hotel she was staying at in Paris, she quickly figured out how to walk to the artist’s impoverished studio on the Right Bank. As a young woman, Jacobs posed for Man Ray, when he was experimenting with Polaroids — a few of those images are part of The Centre Pompidou’s permanent collection. Man Ray’s original 1924 “Le Violon d’Ingres” photograph of Kiki of Montparnasse was among her purchases and one that the Surrealist personally suggested she buy. Duchamp’s 1953 sculpture “Feuille de vigne femelle” (that he signed “affectionement,” after Jacobs informed him that a rousing houseguest had inadvertently used it as an ashtray) was another acquisition.
Miller’s son Antony Penrose said Friday, “Roz was immensely supportive of bringing art into the United States, particularly at the time of the Man Ray exhibition in New York [at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1973]. They did a huge amount. They connected Macy’s up to it all. There was a lot of advertising and a lot of publicity, and I suspect quite a lot of financial support for the exhibition from both Roz and Mel.”
Jacobs and Miller related to each other in many ways, particularly through the work of Man Ray. (Miller, a model-turned-photographer and photo journalist, was once muse, student and lover to Man Ray.) Immediately at ease with what amounted to the key modern artists of the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies, Jacobs “was not the kind of person to be over-awed by famous people. She was very natural and unsnobbish. She just got on with people in a very easy way,” Penrose said.
“Roz had a great eye and she could really choose well. It was brilliant. Visiting her apartment in New York was an absolute treat because I would see things that I might have last seen in Man Ray’s studio. It was a beautifully appointed apartment crammed with art treasures,” he added.
Jacobs’ watchfulness included noting such curiosities as the socks that Man Ray used to cover the toilet seat in his downtrodden Paris studio so that it wouldn’t be so cold to sit on. Staying at Le Meurice on what was basically a secretary’s budget, Jacobs once spotted Salvador Dalí, who was ensconced in a spacious studio. After noticing how his “tall, skinny fashion models” were painting mustaches around the keyholes of their own hotel doors, Jacobs phoned Man Ray to share the news. In a 2015 video interview, Jacobs said the artist told her, “They’re not fashion models — they’re transvestites and Dalí keeps them around him all the time.”
Jacobs also visited Magritte in his Paris studio. After purchasing a piece from him in the early Sixties, he was concerned for her well-being getting home in the rain and asked that she inform him upon arrival. Busy covering shows, she neglected to do so. Two years later she approached the artist and his wife at a Museum of Modern Art dinner and asked him if he remembered her. Magritte said to his wife, “Oh, look. It’s the girl and she’s arrived all right.”
The art-fashion conversation was somewhat of a give-and–take with the Surrealists, according to Jacobs, who once told WWD, “Man Ray would have been a good reporter because he kept asking questions about fashion. The artists loved retailing and had a tremendous interest in merchandising and fashion. They wanted to know what we were seeing in fashion.”
In 2000, the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami borrowed the Jacobs’ then 150-piece collection for a special exhibition ‘Sweet Dreams and Nightmares: Dada and Surrealism from the Rosalind and Melvin Jacobs Collection.” Roz Jacobs noted that, “Each piece was bought from an artist I knew. I can’t even call it a collection. It’s more like an accumulation.”
She also amassed jewelry designed by such artists such as Man Ray, Roberto Matta, Pablo Picasso, Max Ernst, Niki de Saint Phalle and Noma Copley, among others. Jacobs once recalled hosting a party for Man Ray in 1965 in her New York home. As the party wound down and the guests cleared out, Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp unexpectedly became inspired. When the guest of honor’s ebullient wife Juliet started jumping on the Jacobs’ bed, the famed artists started cutting abstract patterns from the paper dress that she was wearing, until she was completely bare. Jacobs explained, “They were trying to create art — the idea that they were doing it was surreal. But you could see a twinkle in Man Ray’s eyes. They just wanted to see her naked.”
A self-described “very fortunate bystander,” Jacobs told WWD in 2000, “I just would have liked to have bought more of their art, and I wish I kept those scraps of paper from Juliet’s dress.”
Throughout her life, Jacobs grasped the power of connections. True to that, she was known to say, “It’s not the menu that counts. It’s the man that you sit next to,” according to her daughter Peggy Bader. It has not yet decided what will become of her parents’ art collection, which includes 150-plus Dada and Surrealist works and nearly 100 post-war and contemporary photographs. Man Ray’s 1948 painting of Julius Caesar, Tanning’s 1943 “Moeurs Espagnoles” painting and Magritte’s 1951 “L’autre son de cloche” painting are among the standouts. A tribute for Jacobs is being planned for early June in New York City.