At A Glance

Chicago, IL, May, 2010

As a young clothing designer selling to Neiman Marcus and Henri Bendel, Maralyn’s clients included Jackie Kennedy Onassis. But because of influential parents and a mission to New Zealand, Maralyn was always grounded in loving others and teaching the gospel. In her interview, Maralyn discusses her ever positive outlook, her life with an inactive husband, and her continual quest for projects that keep her mind and spirit invigorated.

Tell me a bit about your background in the church.

I grew up in a home where the gospel was really lived.  Mother and Dad always encouraged my siblings and me to be the best we could be.  My dad always said that if you read the scriptures and go to church, you can do anything.

My father was a professor, a doctor of sociology, and my mother was an author, artist, and actress.

They served two missions to New Zealand and I was born there.  I don’t remember that first mission because we returned home when I was six months old, but my parents served their second mission when I was older.  At that time, Daddy was the mission president and said, “Maralyn, come over and visit us!”  So I went to New Zealand to visit and he called me on a mission.

I had a Maori companion.  She was only about five feet tall and I’m five feet seven and a half inches tall!  My companion was a terrific sister missionary.  I’m grateful I had the opportunity to serve a mission and learn a new culture.

I learned both from my parents and from my own experiences that the key to teaching the gospel  is love—loving the gospel, loving the people, and loving the opportunities that you have.  I think that teaching the gospel is one of the greatest challenges; it’s all about teaching and living the gospel to the best of your ability and helping others to see the good in it.

How did you get interested in fashion and the business world?

My mama—I remember she was always doing something—she always had to have a ” project.” She sewed a great deal and she taught me to how to sew when I was three years old. As just a kid, I learned how to cut a doll’s dress! It was mom’s influence. Because of her, we always had a very clean house, she cooked great meals, and she went back to school at age 50 to get her master’s degree! She was also a great painter, she wrote two or three books, she acted in plays, she was a president of BYU Women and she was a Relief Society President. Mama used to say, “to create is good for the soul.” I believe that. I think there is so much to do, so much to create.

I can remember when I went to visit her when she was about 86 years old (she died at 88). She said, “Oh honey if I just have a project, I can keep going.” I said, “Mom what more do you want to do?” I looked to mother as an example of a woman doing all that she could. As long as she had a project I could see how happy she was.

I majored in merchandising in college.  Well, I had a double major in merchandising and in textiles at BYU.  Then I had a minor in dance.  After working at ZCMI for several years, I had an interview with Jerry Stutz, the president of Henri Bendel, a high fashion store in New York City.  Jerry made me an offer to buy for their sportswear department and for their sports dresses, so I took it!  Why not, you know? The job involved travel . . . we traveled all around the world, to Paris, Ireland, England, and Italy.  We went to all the couture fashion shows. I also designed ready-to-wear for Henri Bendel.  One year, I designed a coat that was on the cover of a magazine and Jackie Onasis Kennedy called up and bought it. It was exciting!

Mama used to say, “to create is good for the soul.” I believe that. I think there is so much to do, so much to create.

Later I owned my own women’s and children’s clothing stores in Salt Lake City. I also designed and manufactured clothes for some larger department stores like Neiman Marcus and Lord and Taylor.  At one point I went back to school for Interior Design and owned an interior design studio as well.

Did your colleagues know you were Mormon?

Oh yes, when my husband and I were planning on getting married, Jerry Stutz, the president of Henri Bendel, said,” I want to give you an open house.” She called me up the day of the open house and said, “I have ginger ale, orange juice, tomato juice, and 7-Up.  What else will you drink?”  She knew I didn’t drink and neither did Jim.  We had a great time.

Tell me about your husband, Jim.

Jim was a vice president at CBS at the time we met. One day, my sister’s father-in-law, who was also the President of ZCMI, and his wife called me up.  They had been in New York for some meetings and called me at 11:30 at night.  She said, “Would you have lunch with us tomorrow?”  I said, “Oh I’d be glad to.”  If I had known it was a blind date I’d never have gone!  But I went and Jim was there.  They had known Jim for a long time. We had a wonderful time.  After that, however, he didn’t call me for two weeks.  He always kids me about that.  Anyway, he finally called; we dated, and got engaged.

Jim was not a member of the church when we met, he grew up in a Jewish family. But  he had worked closely with some general authorities who were instrumental in putting the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and The Spoken Word on CBS.  They introduced Jim to the church.  Later he was baptized and we were married in the Logan Temple.

Jim’s father died before I could meet him. But his mother lived to be 102 years old. I’ll never forget one day when I had been to visit her with my daughter. We were sitting on a terrace in New York City. Jim’s mother said, “Do you believe that there is a hereafter? Will I see my husband again?” Of course that opened the door for a conversation on testimonies and sharing the gospel. We had a nice discussion but she never joined the church.

Our first baby was born in New York City, several years later we moved to Salt Lake City.  Jim took a job with a communications company and we had our other two children.  We were both very engaged in raising our family and furthering our businesses.  It was a busy time!  During the period when our children were young Jim discontinued his activity in the church.  That was a tough time.  But throughout our marriage we have had love and respect for each other and the things we believed.  There has also been a generous dose of humor –to get us through!  That’s what I mentioned earlier, we have to love—to love living the gospel and to love others no matter what!

As a woman married to an inactive member of the church, I’ve never felt like I was out of the norm. I think in our life we all struggle through different problems. I certainly have been challenged by Jim’s inactivity but it’s a rich and rewarding life. I don’t think it’s hurt me. It hasn’t hurt my testimony at all. He has been very supportive of me and my church work.

When you ask me to tell you about my husband the first thing I want to say is that he is a wonderful man and has taught me so much and I know he loves me and I love him.  Next, he is known for being an avid newspaper reader.  He reads several papers everyday and there is never a dull discussion in our home!  He keeps me on my toes!  He’s been a great father and has always been interested in the kids and what they are doing.  He still sends newspaper articles to our children and grand children about the things they are interested in.

You have such a positive outlook on an issue that many people would find difficult. What are some of the tools that have helped you in this nontraditional situation?

The most important thing is to remember you are a child of God. Through prayer you’ll be guided and directed if you do what is right.  The Lord can only help you if you are obeying his commandments.  Namely, we have to love one another.  None of us are perfect.  And therefore you have to be tolerant and give of yourself and never deviate from what you believe.  I think that’s the biggest test and challenge that we have. Always remember the gospel plan as we know it to be true and never deviate from those principles, and yet love one another.  That’s the center of the gospel.  You get the strength from prayer and the Holy Ghost.

What was it like moving around with a young family?

We did move around a lot.  Jim’s business opportunities took us around.  From Salt Lake City we moved to Boise, Idaho, then we moved back to Salt Lake for a few years, then we moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma, and from there to Chicago.  We’ve actually lived in several areas of greater Chicago too!  Well, it was a challenge.  I think the first thing that helped us was staying active in the church.  The kids and I went to church and met a lot of great members in all the places we lived.  I had many opportunities to serve and share my testimony.  In Tulsa, I was the Relief Society President.  I held callings in the primary as well.  And later when the kids were in high school I taught early morning seminary.  That was a challenge!  The kids adjusted okay to our moves because I was home most of the time.  I was home while they were in their teenage and growing-up years.  Jim was supportive and always wanted to help me out where he could.  Our kids made friends easily and Jim kept them focused on their school work.  How time flies!

After our kids moved out, we sold our business in Tulsa and retired to Chicago.  We thought Chicago would be a good place to be in order to see all the kids.

Even while moving around and getting homes settled and helping the kids adjust, I always found time to create and to learn something new.  Here in Chicago I started a business designing home textiles with antique and vintage fabric, jewelry, and handbags.  I’ve done a number of shows and have had a retail space in a great antique store called Vintage Pine.

What advice would you give women searching for who they are?

I believe in life that women have to be fulfilled as much as men.  We have a time and a season, as the scripture tells us. But too many of us forget that and we let ourselves get lost.  There are so many things to do in life and so many places to go and so much to see and so much to read.  I usually have five or six books from the library at any one time.  I can’t keep up with all of them so I read what I think is interesting.  I think that we have to keep our minds bright, too.  Jim’s mother worked for the United Nations on women’s projects well into her 90’s and my mother kept her mind going through painting and writing.

When I think of the gospel, it’s a gospel of progression.  If we want to get to the Celestial Kingdom we have to do more than what we think we can do. We sometimes lose sight of the wonderful things that can be done.  The more we grow, the more our children grow.  To stay home and take care of our children is the most important thing in life.  On the other hand, you have to be doing something so that your children see you and grow by that example.  All of us have gifts and great challenges in life that we should try and make the most of.

I would say think about what you like to do.  If you like to sing, practice singing.  If you like to read, read good books.  You might find that you want to do some painting or drawing.  Or if you like to write, start doing it. It’s a matter of doing!  I think too many of us are to the point where we think, “I’ve gone to school. . . I have my degree. . . and that’s it!”  You have to find yourself and what you want to do and figure out what you need to continue your path of growth.  It will change and take a different direction as you get older but I think it’s so important to understand that you are you.  And have fun doing it!

At A Glance

Maralyn Lavenstein


Location:
Chicago, IL

Age:
80

Marital status:
Married

Children:
Three children, six grandchildren

Occupation:
Homemaker, designer

Schools Attended:
Brigham Young University

Languages Spoken at Home:
English

Favorite Hymn:
“‘Til We Meet Again,” “We Thank Thee O God for a Prophet,” “I Know That My Redeemer Lives”—There are just so many, it’s hard to nail down just one

Current Church Calling:
Relief Society Instructor

Interview by Cassandra Arnell. Portraits by Momoko Fritz.