NEW YORK — Steven Kaufmann, a descendant of Pittsburgh’s Kaufmann retail dynasty and a fixture in the late designer Bill Blass’ circle of high society friends, died Tuesday at his Manhattan home. He was 90.
Kaufmann was diagnosed with lung cancer less than a year ago, said publicist Paul Wilmot, a friend. He retired from PBM Apparel Co., the former Bill Blass men’s wear licensee, last year and remained in good spirits just a week ago, correcting a friend who had meant to compliment Kaufmann when describing him as “the last of the boulevardiers.”
“He asked me, ‘Did you ever look up what boulevardier means in the dictionary?’” said Tom Fallon, a longtime design associate of Blass who works for the Carlisle Collection. “He said it isn’t very attractive. But I meant it in the best sense of the word, that I had run into him on the streets so many times over the years and he always was perfectly dressed.”
Kaufmann was a member of the family that founded the Kaufmann’s Department Store chain — the son of Nathan and Selma Kaufmann. He was a cousin of Edgar Kaufmann Jr., who owned the famed Frank Lloyd Wright-designed house, Fallingwater, in Mill Run, Pa.
Steven Kaufmann arrived in New York after World War II, having served as a noncommissioned officer on the Queen Mary, which carried troops to Europe from the U.S. He became part of a group that included Blass, Glenn Bernbaum (who owned and operated Mortimer’s restaurant until his death in 1998) and Jerome Zipkin, the society walker who died in 1995.
Former First Lady Nancy Reagan described Kaufmann as “a nice man who will be missed by many. I’m sure he will be missed by his many friends.”
Thanks to family money, Kaufmann did not have to work for most of his life, but after he suffered losses in the stock market while in his 70s, Blass hired him at PBM, then known as Pincus Bros.-Maxwell, the master license for Bill Blass men’s wear, Fallon said. PBM is in the midst of transferring the Blass men’s business to Neema Clothing Ltd.
David Pincus, chairman of PBM, described Kaufmann’s role there as that of an ambassador to the brand, building client relationships and working the industry black-tie circuit for the firm.
“He was probably the most lovable person, a father figure, a grandfather, rabbi, patron saint that anybody could ever have working for them,” Pincus said. “We’ve been in business for 95 years. I’ve been at this firm over 50 years, and I’ve never had anyone that was so loved and cared so much about anybody in our office or any customer that we had.
Kaufmann cut a dashing figure, wearing fine-tailored clothing with high collars and always a tie.
“He was a true raconteur and boulevardier,” Wilmot said. “The joke was always that Stevie lived life in reverse, which is the best way. Everybody should live their lives that way, having fun in their youth and then working at the end. He remained curious to the end. That is the way to hang on to your youth.”
Fallon recalled that when he met Blass in 1968, Kaufmann was already part of the regular crowd at holiday parties with Bernbaum and Zipkin. Blass and Kaufmann spoke every day for as long as he could recall, noting that Kaufmann was one of only four individuals who were named in the designer’s will when Blass died in 2002.
“I once asked Blass, ‘Who, of all the people you’ve met in your life, who could you tell me is really happy,’” Fallon recalled of a philosophical conversation he once had with the designer. “He said, ‘That’s easy. Stevie Kaufmann. He’s enjoyed his life more than anybody I ever knew.’”
Kaufmann is survived by Edward DeLuca, his companion for 18 years.
Funeral services were planned for 11 a.m. Friday at Temple Emanu-El, 1 East 65th Street at Fifth Avenue.