Marilyn Marks Cooper, who dressed women in the Philadelphia area for decades, died Jan. 18 after a 14-month bout with cholangiocarcinoma, a rare form of cancer. She was 77.
Born in Paterson, N.J., in 1941, Cooper was among the first American B’not Mitzvah in the Conservative movement in New Jersey, a distinction that she held on to dearly, according to her son, Neil Cooper. Israel was always close to her heart, and “she loved being Jewish,” Cooper said — especially when it came to singing prayers.
She was particularly close with her mother and grandmother, Yiddish speakers who taught her stray phrases that she used for the rest of her life. Cooper always retained vivid memories of watching her grandmother, like so many Jews who escaped the horrors of the Holocaust, work with HIAS to locate her family that was left behind in Europe.
After graduating with a degree in business and marketing from Drexel University in 1963 (a period wherein she was named “Miss Drexel”), she began her journey into the business world, selling women’s clothing bought from local and New York designers out of her closet at Oak Hill Estates in Penn Valley. Her uncles back in Paterson, owners of their own clothing store, had introduced her to the business.
At the same time, she was caring for her two young children, Neil and Alyson, on her own. With all those pressures combined, to survive was an accomplishment.
“She just had so much strength and spirit and willpower, to make things happen and get things done,” Neil Cooper said. “She needed to make things happen and she figured out a way to do it.”
The son was effusive when he described his mother’s business career — he cited her “determination, strength, charisma, and personality” as key traits that helped her succeed — but it was those same traits, he stressed, that helped her unite her family. In the same way that her determination eventually helped her open The Clothes Garden in Narberth and Wynnewood, establishments for women’s clothing that lasted for almost three decades, it also helped her “to have the family be cohesive and together,” Cooper said.
“She knew how to bring people together,” he said.
She also sent them to greater heights, with many of those who worked for her going on to their own successful careers in clothing.
For a brief period, Marilyn Cooper was also part owner and president of Nan Duskin, once the place to go for designer clothing in Philadelphia, with branches in Stafford and Baltimore as well. She and her brother, Louis Marks, who co-owned the store along with other investors, filed for bankruptcy in 1994. The store was closed in 1995, swept along with many independent high-end fashion stores that suffered as formal evening wear became a relic.
Still, Cooper landed on her feet, eventually opening the popular Gabrielle in Bala Cynwyd with her daughter-in-law, Susan, along with a young women’s version of the store, G-Lizzy.
Her last year was difficult. She had, in her son’s words, “seven surgeries, five rehabs, four hospitals and four falls over 14 months” dealing with an aggressive cancer. And yet, in her final month, she was still able to attend a Stand With Us event honoring her son, an evening that culminated so much of what she valued.
“She loved life,” Neil Cooper said.
Marilyn Marks Cooper is survived by her husband of 40 years, Larry Cooper; son Neil; daughter Alyson Silverman; stepchildren Glenn, Julie and Andrew; and grandchildren Matthew, Daniel, Gabrielle, William, Jonathan, Hannah, Ethan, Gabriel, David, Nicholas and Max.