A Turtle’s Tribute:
As a prominent player in Dallas’ thriving apparel industry in the 1950s and ’60s, Bud Knight consorted with some of the era’s most glittering names in fashion, show business and politics. Yet to the end of his life, the Iowa native never lost his taste for meat loaf.
Knight’s jobs at Neiman Marcus, at the California-based I. Magnin, and, back in Dallas, as president of the high-end Lester Melnick stores required him to rub elbows with both starlets and mobsters. His endless supply of stories included taking smoking breaks with Bette Davis and fitting President Lyndon Johnson’s daughters for their weddings.
Mr. Knight, 79, died Monday in his Turtle Creek Boulevard apartment of complications from leukemia. Services will be at 11 a.m. Saturday at the St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Dallas, 6525 Inwood Road. Bernard Eugene Knight was born on Sept. 16, 1931, the son of a barber in Ottumwa, Iowa.
He arrived in Dallas in 1957 with no retail experience. His first job was as a floor manager at the downtown Neiman Marcus. “I think he made maybe 80 bucks a week,” recalled Lester Melnick, who was then a Neiman’s buyer.
Within days, Mr. Knight came to the attention of Edward Marcus, Neiman’s general merchandise manager and the brother of company president Stanley Marcus. “He called me and said, ‘What do you think of this kid?’ Within a few weeks, he promoted Bud. Officially, he was a buyer, but really he was Mr. Marcus’ assistant. Essentially, they gave him the run of the place.”
Mr. Knight surprised his bosses by asking to be put in charge of buying maternity clothes. The idea of a male in that job at that time was so novel that he was invited to appear on the CBS show What’s My Line?
In 1965, Mr. Knight was hired away by the I. Magnin department store in California. He was unhappy there and quit after a few years to return to Neiman’s. Mr. Melnick, who by then had founded his women’s stores, wooed away Mr. Knight in 1967. He worked there as fashion director and, later, as president, until his retirement in 1992.
In 1974, he co-wrote a novel, with Melvin Isaacson, called The Store , set in a fictional emporium in a fictional Southwestern city. The disguise fooled nobody – the events and characters were clearly modeled on Mr. Knight’s experiences at Neiman Marcus. The book was a moderate success and the buzz of the fashion world, but Stanley Marcus refused to speak to Mr. Knight for a year.
Undeterred, Mr. Knight dined out on his inside stories of fashion and celebrities long after retirement. His maternity customers included actress Jayne Mansfield (“She wasn’t too thrilled about the idea of being pregnant”) and singer Phyllis McGuire. Ms. McGuire’s boyfriend, mobster Sam Giancana, paid for her purchases with cash he pulled out of his shoe.
Mr. Knight often recalled a reception on the lawn of Stanley Marcus’ Lakewood home in which designer Coco Chanel insisted on speaking only French – until she stepped into dog excrement and uttered an unmistakably Anglo-Saxon phrase.
The egos of his clients were frequent sources of Mr. Knight’s reminiscences. Some of his customers, he said, would have the Neiman Marcus label re-sown upside down in their coats, so that the name could be easily read when the garments were draped across a chair. He became skilled in fitting-room diplomacy. “A customer sees something in a fashion magazine that is on a tall, willowy, 6-foot, no-busted, broad-shoulder, no-hipped, long-legged blonde,” he said in a 1983 interview. “And then this little plumpy dumpy comes in and tries to squish her little body into it.”
Mr. Knight never entirely abandoned his modest Midwestern roots. When dining out at some of the toniest restaurants in Dallas and Manhattan, he often ordered meat loaf and mashed potatoes or liver and onions. Among his last requests was for a bowl of the pea salad from Dunston’s steakhouse in Dallas.
He traveled extensively during retirement with Chet Flake, his partner of 45 years. The two visited all seven continents. They were married in September 2005 in a civil ceremony in Vancouver, British Columbia, and then in a religious service in the Anglican cathedral there.
Mr. Knight was a constant attendant at plays, musicals and concerts. He was active as a volunteer or officer in a variety of local organizations, including the Turtle Creek Chorale, Dallas Summer Musicals, the AIDS Resource Center and Bryan’s House.