Frances Bemis Papers
Frances Bemis was a public relations specialist, executive, writer, radio producer, and fashion director. She was born in Georgia on 25 June 1898, and she attended Oglethorpe University and the University of California. In the 1920s, she wrote columns for the Atlanta Constitution and Journal, and she started her public relations career by handling publicity for the Woman's Club of Atlanta. She accompanied her husband (probably Clarence Bemis) to New York City in the late 1920s, and it was there that she became a professional in the fields of public relations and advertising. (She used the name Frances Bemis professionally. She was married four times, but the names of her husbands and dates of the marriages are unknown). Hearn's, a Brooklyn Department Store that during the Depression declared itself "the bargain store of all the people," hired her as a fashion promoter and publicist in 1932. Bemis is responsible for numerous innovations in the field of department store publicity. She designed events that were guaranteed to garner press attention and bring crowds of entertainment-starved, Depression-Era New Yorkers to the free events at the store. She used celebrities and lavish shows with elaborate sets and costumes to promote new departments and features of the store, fashion collections, and holiday tie-ins. For example, in 1936-37, she staged a dog show, brought a psychologist to the store to counsel shoppers on their personal problems, hired legendary society woman Elsa Maxwell to emcee a fashion contest, and held a Thanksgiving Day circus in Central Park. In addition to writing scripts and coordinating production of these events, Bemis wrote lively releases for the press and radio. News of her events could often be found on the women's pages of New York papers, and occasionally, she made the front pages of the paper, as was the case when Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia opened ceremonies for Forgotten Man Day in 1934, a response to the National Recovery Act.
In 1938, Bemis left Hearn's department store to do free-lance public relations work with the Claire Wolff Agency. Among other projects, she directed a "College Girl's Day" for the Ford Motor Company at the 1939 New York World's Fair and staged a "Fashions Out of Test Tubes" event for the chemical industry. Her husband, (first name unknown) McLain, had joined the Army air force, and Bemis enlisted in the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps in 1943. She was stationed in Daytona Beach, where she gave radio addresses and staged entertainment for GIs and WAACs. She achieved the rank of corporal and was given an honorable discharge upon the urging of New York Times editor Ivan Veit. The Times sought a director for a war-time fashion show intended to vaunt New York City as a fashion capital while Parisian fashion houses languished under German occupation. The result, Bemis's "Fashions of the Times," was an unqualified success. Spectators filled the show to capacity, and the publicity did much to promote American fashion.
After the war, Bemis returned to Atlanta to become Director of Special Events at Rich's Department Store. She drew great press for her "Fashionata" show (1946-47), which used local socialites as models in a typically lavish production. In 1947, Bemis took a position as Director of Feature Events at New York City's Abraham and Strauss Department Store. She stayed at A and S until 1954 and continued her successful formula of spectacular events, luminous personalities, and innovative consumer services. Her personal interests in the fine arts, radio, and literature were reflected in several shows in which she showcased notable artists and performers, including Betty Smith (author of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn), the Met Opera's Rise Stevens, and radio and TV star Morey Amsterdam.
In 1956, Bemis moved to St. Augustine, Florida for a retirement of sorts. Though she no longer staged fashion extravaganzas, she used her considerable creative energy for civic and charitable activities. She worked as a publicist for the city of St. Augustine, wrote for the local papers, volunteered at an art gallery, and took an interest in advocacy for civil rights and the mentally ill. She was murdered in November, 1974.