CHRONICLES: Margaret Williams

She was very tall and slender, beautifully dressed. I remember she would sit at her dressing table and put her hair in an elaborate bun,” Phoebe Ferguson recalled when reminiscing about her late maternal grandmother, Margaret Williams (née Hooker).
In the decades before her death in 1974, Margaret Williams was a key figure in introducing New Orleans to modern style. Her signature creation, The 20th Century Shop, was a bastion of avant garde design located in a renovated two-story Victorian house at 1612-14 St. Charles Ave. Tableware, furniture, fabrics, crystal – everything beautifully crafted and suited to contemporary taste was available at the shop.

Besides giving New Orleanians a local spot to indulge their modernist fancies, Margaret Williams demonstrated the way to throw a grand party and even produced a cookbook to help new brides prepare a stylish meal with few culinary skills.
Margaret Hooker Williams was born in Larchmont, N.Y., grew up in Cincinnati and met her husband, Laurance Williams, through his sister Kit, who was a friend from college. Williams came from a well known Louisiana family with a timber and oil-based fortune. (His uncle Kemper Williams would later found the Historic New Orleans Collection.) Laurance, Margaret and their three daughters Phoebe, Anne and Valerie lived just down the street from today’s Longue Vue Gardens in a plantation-style home on Garden Lane.

“The house left an enormous impression on all of us,” Phoebe Ferguson (Margaret’s granddaughter) says, noting that after her late mother Anne moved to California, the children spent vacations in New Orleans. Margaret Williams ran a formal household. There was a cook, Alberta, and a man who served the meals, Clark. “Children were not allowed to eat at the dinner table until they were eight years old,” Phoebe explains. For the younger ones, “that was a big deal, to join the grown-ups in the living room after dinner.”

Betty Wisdom, whose parents were friends of the Williams family, remembers Margaret as striking looking: “She had extremely white skin and blond hair. You couldn’t say that she was pretty but she was very attractive.”

Margaret’s daughter Valerie Williams notes that Margaret was once named to a list of best dressed women in America. “My father loved beautiful clothes and he often chose her ball gowns.  She loved that sort of glamour.” One special treat was the regular visit from New York handbag maker Martin Van Schaak. “He came twice a year – he would arrive in a taxi with all these cases of handbags that he lugged into the living room. And, he always brought the gossip from the previous city he had visited!”

While Laurance Williams served in the military in World War II,  Margaret was active with the U.S.O. but managed to remain in style. “Those were the days of snoods and platform shoes,” Valerie Williams notes. Betty Wisdom recalls, “After the war they had a lovely anniversary dinner to which my parents went – and Laurence gave Margaret an absolutely beautiful toast and tribute afterwards, which everyone said was deeply touching.”

Margaret did volunteer work and she acted in plays at Le Petit Théatre du Vieux Carré. According to her daughter Valerie, “she wanted to do something!” When Margaret’s daughter Anne was planning to marry, Margaret noticed that there was no place in New Orleans where brides could register for modern designs in china, silver or gifts. Plans for a shop with modern furnishings began.

“She talked my father into putting up the money. She taught herself how to measure for curtains and carpets. She went to market,” Valerie explains. Artist Jean Seidenberg remembers Margaret well from that time. “She was very generous with young people and my wife and I were very young then,” he points out. Seidenberg notes that architect James Lamantia designed a small shop for Margaret, created the distinctive The 20th Century Shop logo and when the business expanded, Lamantia created the bold glass storefront that dominated its section of St. Charles Avenue.

Margaret was an involved owner. “Every day that it was open she was there,” says Valerie, who worked at the shop as a teenager.  While it may not have been a consistent moneymaker, the shop had a loyal following. “Never ever did I walk into that shop and not see something I wanted. I just loved her stuff,” Betty Wisdom states.

“When she first opened the shop, I would do tricky little things for her. I became her glitter-er, putting glitter on snowball candles for Christmas,” Jean Seidenberg says.  “One day she said to me ‘how would you like to design a coming-out party for Phoebe?”

Seidenberg was working at Hemenway’s Furniture Store in the print and frame shop and he enlisted his friend Lee Bailey, an interior designer at that store, to help plan the debutante party. “It was at the grand ballroom of the Roosevelt hotel – an incredibly ugly room,” he says. “Lee found some ironmonger on Elysian Fields and he made these huge candelabra with long legs and flat planes on sharp angles like a B-1 bomber.” The color scheme of blue, green, black and white – for candles, table clothes, and painted flats – was modern and memorable and the party a grand success. “So we formed a little group – Margaret became our point man and Lee would design these things,” Seidenberg says. 

As captain of the Mystic Club carnival krewe, Laurance Williams was soon given the task of finding a new designer for the annual ball. Several groups submitted plans and Margaret’s team was victorious. “Margaret came up with the theme and Lee and I would get together and design it,” Seidenberg says. Lee Bailey would later move to Manhattan and gain fame as a cookbook author and food authority, while Seidenberg would design Mystic for 18 years. In 1953, Margaret herself was Queen of Mystic, costumed as the Greek Goddess Hera with a flamboyant patterned train and large, fan-like scepter.

Just as the needs of brides sparked the idea of a modern shop, so did the needs of young wives in the kitchen inspire Margaret’s cookbook, The Well-Fed Bridegroom.
“I don’t think anything in that cookbook was hard, it was clearly for beginning cooks,” Betty Wisdom notes. Chicken breasts with white wine and sour cream is one dish Leonard Parrish still makes and “that’s where I learned to cook,” he admits, adding,  “The best recipe in the book is for Iced Café Brulot and it’s so good!”  The cookbook’s recipes would even make it onto the pages of McCall’s magazine, according to Valerie.

Margaret Williams “loved being busy, she loved the fact that people trusted her taste and judgment,” Valerie says. After her death in 1974, her husband Laurance built a fountain in her honor – it still stands (no longer operable) in a pocket park on Prytania at Terpsichore streets. On a granite plaque is engraved “This Fountain and Garden in Prytania Walk Donated by Laurance Moore Williams in Memory of His Beloved Wife Margaret, 1906-1974.”

This urban greenspace, appropriately across from Halpern’s shop (an old neighbor of Margaret’s on St. Charles Avenue), is one more way this remarkable women continues to contribute beauty to her adopted home city.

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