THE WOOLWORTHS by James Brough


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Far from the family saga the title suggests, this unimaginative popular biography is devoted almost entirely to Frank Woolworth (1854-1919), the Methodist farm boy who caught ""five cent fever"" and turned $300 worth of dry goods and a Utica, New York storefront into the ""Great Five Cent Store."" Other modest emporiums folowed; from the Northeast to the West and finally worldwide, they were all managed by friends and relatives and based on ""a new method of selling"": low profit margins, cheap labor, loss leaders, price wars, and ""letting his customers paw over the stock."" Frank, a mean-spirited megalomaniac, built a mansion on upper Fifth Avenue, the Woolworth Building (1913), and a Long Island palace where the walls of the ""music room concealed an alcove from which a private detective spied on the guests."" Devoid of a personal life and plagued by illness, Woolworth died in 1919, possibly of venereal disease--the hypothesis is new--after subsisting in later years on a diet of mashed bananas. Among his heirs, Barbara Hutton is the only standout, and the only one to whom Brough (Margaret: The Tragic Princess, etc.) devotes more than fleeting notice. Married seven times and ""the most celebrated spendthrift in the western world,"" Babs ended life a paranoiac recluse who ""insisted on her Coca-Cola being served with round ice cubes because square ones repelled her."" Brough works in a little mercantile history and some particulars on the success of Woolworth's; his tone is also less devotional than that of others (Winkler, Nichols) who've essayed the subject. But in its reliance on contrived conversations and its vagueness about dates, as well as its general thinness and flatness, the book has little else to commend it.

Pub Date: June 6th, 1982
Publisher: McGraw-Hill