Fortunoff: A Far-reaching Legacy

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The cachet of the Fortunoff name extends beyond Long Island as is evidenced by the unique field trip that 25 Staten Island residents took recently to meet Esther Fortunoff, the granddaughter of Fortunoff founders Max and Clara Fortunoff, at her jewelry store in Westbury. The visitors were members of the JCC of Staten Island. Many had grown up in Brooklyn where the original Fortunoff was founded and were eager to reminisce about the role the Fortunoff stores played in their lives.

The idea for the trip came to organizer Bonnie Bender when she heard Esther Fortunoff interviewed on radio. The floodgates of memory opened, she says. “I remember going to Fortunoff in Brooklyn on Livonia Avenue.” She recalled her mother’s adage: “When you care about who you’re buying for, you always go to Fortunoff’s.”

Esther Fortunoff with Bonnie, a member of the Staten Island JCC
Esther Fortunoff with Bonnie, a member of the Staten Island JCC

Bender presented the idea of the trip to her group and the excursion was so popular that 60 people had to be put on the waiting list.

The tour started at the Fortunoff Backyard Store, around the corner from the jewelry store, where Esther had a display with photos and a history of the company. Arriving at the store with her cohort in tow, Bender eagerly called out, “Are you a Fortunoff? You’re my childhood. You’re my memories. You’re my everything!” There were plenty of Fortunoffs and related family members on hand to say hello—a group that included Esther, her mother Helene and her aunt Lillian.

Esther gave a talk about the history of the Fortunoff’s empire, from Max and Clara’s pushcart beginnings in the 1920s, moving on through the openings of various stores (including Westbury in 1964), to the selling of the business in 2005, then the reopening of the Backyard Stores in 2010 and Esther’s jewelry store last year.

Ellen Steinberg, Esther Fortunoff, Helen Fortunoff, Bonnie Bender, Barbara Appel and Lillian Fortunoff (Photos by Lyn Dobrin)
Ellen Steinberg, Esther Fortunoff, Helen Fortunoff, Bonnie Bender, Barbara Appel and Lillian Fortunoff (Photos by Lyn Dobrin)

People were eager to share their Fortunoff memories. “I got my household goods there 51 years ago,” said Ruth Greenwald. “That’s where you went.” Phyllis Elman listed all the rites of passage that Fortunoff represented: “Your first piece of jewelry; bat mitzvah; Sweet 16; engagement and wedding rings; and then linens and flatware; and when you had some money, china and stemware.”

Esther says she is always so touched by the stories about her grandparents and the importance of Fortunoff employees and their service to the customers. “I am amazed by their warm memories of life celebrations and the part that Fortunoff has played,” she said.

The visit ended in a journey to the jewelry store to create new Fortunoff’s memories.

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