Lee Wohlfert
May 09, 1977 12:00 PM

Mollie Parnis is, of course, an expensive label in women’s dresses. Her Seventh Avenue garment business grosses more than $9 million a year. Less well-known is Mollie Parnis’ reputation as one of Manhattan’s most interesting partygivers. “She’s a modern-day Dolley Madison,” says actress friend Arlene Francis. “What she offers,” explains Walter Cronkite, “is more like a salon—but as relaxed as old home week.”

Her regular guest list seems culled from both current headlines and Who’s Who. In addition to politicians like Sen. Jacob Javits, there are TV commentators Barbara Walters (who comes with economist Alan Greenspan), Mike Wallace and David Brinkley, and New York Times publisher Arthur Ochs. She has entertainment pals galore—Frank Sinatra, Kirk Douglas and Johnny Carson. In fact, it was Mollie who introduced Carson to present wife Joanna, who calls the matchmaker “everybody’s Jewish mother.”

Mollie’s “gatherings at night,” as she prefers to call them, are usually held on Sunday, are small (10 is tops) and-feature dinner and TV watching. There are special occasions, too, such as the dinner party for 30 in honor of Henry Kissinger before he retired as Secretary of State. (“Mollie never forgets her unemployed friends,” Kissinger joked in toast.) “She is an unusual woman,” says Barbara Walters. “At Mollie’s house you always meet the newest and brightest people. Mollie is very with-it, very informed. I would rather talk to her than almost anyone else.”

The ambience at Mollie’s is always elegant—her Park Avenue duplex is hung with paintings by Picasso, Matisse and Vuillard—and the food is wholesome, if not sublime. But as Parnis says, “Who cares what you eat, as long as the conversation is good?” She encourages her knowledgeable guests by “keeping people to one conversation, so everybody can be part of it.” If necessary, Parnis says, “I’ll break into the chatter at the table and say, ‘Okay, everybody—let’s hear what Mike [Wallace] is saying!’ ”

Parnis’ eminence as an hostess is based on her professional success. Indeed, she insists, “I wouldn’t want anyone to think of me as just the lady who gives parties.” She has a reputation as “one of the shrewdest businesswomen on Seventh Avenue” and as the designer who has dressed First Ladies from Mamie Eisenhower to Betty Ford. (Even Jackie owned a few Parnis gowns, but Rosalynn Carter has yet to order.) Lady Bird Johnson, still a good friend, not only wore her dresses to important state occasions but invited the designer to White House dinners. Mollie is frank in her appraisal of Presidents’ wives she has known. “Pat Nixon,” she recalls, “was a deeply troubled woman, but what she was troubled about I don’t know. I only saw one display of warmth from her. She threw her arms around me and kissed me one day. That was the only time.”

By contrast, she recalls, “The first time I met Mrs. Ford, she called me Mollie and was warm and cozy. She told me about the White House, the good things and the bad. Actually, I could tell most of those ladies a few things because I knew the White House better.”

The confidante of First Ladies was born poor in Manhattan. She worked in the garment center as blouse maker and saleswoman before setting up a dress factory with her late husband, Leon Livingston, in 1941. “If we’d known more about business than we did, we’d never have dared start in those days.”

When her husband died in 1959 Mollie carried on alone, and today, in her mid-70s, she is one of the old-timers left on Seventh Avenue. Her clothes, which are designed these days by Morty Sussman, have never been acclaimed for originality. (Women’s Wear Daily used to call her “Polly Harness” to disparage her somewhat matronly styles.) But they have always been popular with women who would rather be safe than sexy. “I’ve never pretended to be St. Laurent. We don’t set trends,” says Parnis, “but we are never far behind.” Even at parties she plays the shopkeeper. Spying a fancy gown she will ask, “Is that one of mine?” Told it is by another designer, she breezily replies, “Oh, well, he ripped me off, then.”

She’s equally direct about owning up to a recent face-lift. “It’s old-fashioned not to admit it,” she says, and adds, “I’ve gone through all the experiences it takes to live.” At one point she sought help in psychiatry and says, “I’m a great believer in it.” Recently she has thrown herself into civic projects, including a Dress Up Your Neighborhood program to which she annually gives $50,000. Her 45-year-old only son, Robert L. Livingston, is also an activist. Former publisher of a journalism review, More, he was recently appointed to New York City’s Commission on Human Rights—the first self-professed homosexual to hold such a post. Mollie says: “He wants to live his own life, and he’s a grown man.”

She has some rules about socializing: She refuses to attend cocktail parties or charity benefits—”I’ll send money, but I won’t go.” The one great frustration in her life has been her desire to be a journalist: “If I had a choice of being President of the U.S. or Kay Graham [publisher of the Washington Post], I’d rather be Graham.” Remarriage? She gasps at first—then admits, “Yes, I’ve thought of it and come close. But it would have been a terrible mistake. I couldn’t ask anybody else to accept everything I like—and I don’t want to change.”

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