(JTA) – Helene Fortunoff, who helped turn her husband’s housewares business into a major jewelry business, died Nov. 8 at age 88 in Miami Beach, Florida.
Fortunoff became a powerhouse in the jewelry industry long before many women entered the workforce.
Talk to The New York Times in 2001, a year after her husband’s death and her promotion to president of the Fortunoff company, she spoke about her approach to work-life balance.
“I always wanted a family and a career, and no one ever told me I couldn’t have both,” she said. “I usually gave myself 11 days off for the birth of my children. I had staff to manage things at home while I worked full time at the store.
Fortunoff was born Helene Finke in 1933. Growing up in Fair Lawn, New Jersey, she started working for her father’s heating and cooling company when she was 13, according to The New York Times. Fortunoff began her undergraduate studies at Syracuse University, but transferred midway to New York University’s business school, where she met her husband, Alan Fortunoff, in a class. of real estate.
The couple married after graduating in 1953 and Helene went to work in her husband’s eponymous family home goods business, then based in East New York, Brooklyn. In 1957, Helene launched Fortunoff’s first jewelry line, which would later grow into a multi-million dollar business. In 1979, the company brought in actress Lauren Bacall as spokesperson for the jewelry line.
Over the following decades, Fortunoff became one of the largest retailers in the New York area: in 2003, according to the New York Times, the company had six retail stores specializing in high-end gift items, including its flagship location on Fifth Avenue at 54th Street and a popular branch in Westbury, Long Island. After a series of industry setbacks, bankruptcies and sales of the original company, the chain was liquidated in 2009 and Fortunoff Fine Jewelry exists only online, with the name once again under control. of the family.
The Fortunoffs were frequent donors to Jewish causes. In 1987, Alan Fortunoff created an endowment for the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimony at Yale University, adding the name Fortunoff to the records in memory of his parents, Max and Clara Fortunoff. Helene Fortunoff continued to support the archives after her husband’s death. Throughout her life, Fortunoff was honored by a number of Jewish organizations, including Federation UJA-NY and ORT, an organization that historically provided job training to Russian Jewish immigrants.
Fortunoff is survived by Robert Grossman, whom she married in 2006, and five of her six children. Her son, Louis, died in 2012 of pancreatic cancer at the age of 47.
In an obituary for Louis, David Fortunoff, another son, said The Centurion, an industry journal, that the family’s work ethic meant never stopping, even for the holidays. “The only party we could celebrate [before the business was sold] was Christmas, even though we were Jewish,” Fortunoff told the newspaper. The family spent that day, their only day off during the busy holiday season, watching movies together.
Most of the Fortunoff children followed their parents into the jewelry business, with daughter Esther Fortunoff-Greene serving as president of the company.
“She taught us how to balance motherhood and work, so that we could raise our own children as she raised us. His counsel and example have been central to our lives,” Fortunoff-Greene wrote in a blog post about her mother for Women’s History Month in 2018.
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