Marilyn Riseman’s last public appearance was at the opening of the glittering new Chanel boutique on Newbury Street in November. She was beaming while surrounded by tens of thousands of dollars of jewelry and couture. She even did a bit of shopping. Boston’s fashionable set, which populates these parties, circled the city’s society queen.
“Just gorgeous,” Mrs. Riseman said, looking around at the hand-set crystal tiles, thick carpets, and walls of Venetian plaster. “I absolutely love it.”
Mrs. Riseman’s presence was a constant at these grand fêtes. The socialite and former party planner, who at one time owned a chain of avant-garde clothing stores across the country, died of pancreatic cancer Tuesday in her Beacon Hill home. She was 86.
With her distinct midnight-black bobbed hair, kabuki pancake makeup, and blazing cherry lipstick, Mrs. Riseman became Boston’s beacon of style, an irreplaceable fixture on the city’s party circuit.
“I can’t imagine the Boston fashion scene without Marilyn,” said Jay Calderin, founder of Boston Fashion Week. “The word loss doesn’t begin to cover it. Marilyn was always so accessible, engaged, and incredibly generous with anyone who sought out her opinion or asked her to lend her creativity and considerable clout to a project.”
A tireless supporter of local fashion, she showcased up-and-coming Boston designers at
her weekly fashion shows at Brasserie Jo at the Colonnade Hotel.
The diminutive Mrs. Riseman always looked soigné in Yohji Yamamoto and Sonia Rykiel ensembles that were, as a rule, black and white. Red was the accent color. In 2012 the Boston Design Center held a retrospective of her clothing called “Beyond the Fringe: The Fashion World of Marilyn Riseman.” At 85 she modeled for the high fashion line Ohne Titel and was a regular in the front row at the design house’s shows during New York Fashion Week. She was a one-
woman brand with a signature look and a celebrity status in Boston among fashion lovers. In society pages, she was the unique beauty smiling with her mouth open and eyes wide as if always taken by surprise.
She was never seen without her distinctive hair and makeup, worn in the same flawless fashion for the past 30 years, except perhaps by neighbors who caught her bringing out her trash.
“Fashion was her armor, and she always made a statement when in a room,” said designer Michael DePaulo.
Mrs. Riseman was not a haughty society doyenne, but a spitfire known for her salty, R-rated tongue and brutal honesty. She was a brash, bawdy, opinionated, fun-loving woman who was fiercely loyal if she took kindly to you and simply fierce if she did not.
However, she was more than Boston’s fashion icon. Her granddaughter, Joanna Prager Johnsen, said Mrs. Riseman was a loving grandmother and close friend to many. She also worked as a mentor to those who asked for her help.
“Most people viewed Marilyn as strong and powerful,” said her friend Jane Conway Caspe. “But she was extremely sensitive, loving, and caring as well. The combination of her strength and compassion was something I admired about her most.”
Born Marilyn Sagansky, she was the youngest child of Harry “Doc” Sagansky, the dentist-turned-legendary Boston bookmaker with a syndicate once estimated to be worth $90 million. Mrs. Riseman detested the term bookie and said in a 2012 interview that she much preferred to focus on his philanthropy than his headline-
“The one thing I would say is that he would never let his kids gamble,” Mrs. Riseman said during the interview, which she turned into a four-hour afternoon of reminiscing and dishing. “He always had tremendous principles. And so I really couldn’t hate him. I always felt like he was more principled than the men who were in legitimate business.”
‘Fashion was her armor, and she always made a statement when in a room.’
Her father was part-owner of two Boston nightclubs, the Latin Quarter and Club Mayfair, and Mrs. Riseman grew up surrounded by the swirl of celebrities who came through the city.
She learned the fine art of rubbing shoulders with the stars — she once dined with Frank Sinatra — at her father’s clubs. Meanwhile, Sagansky would pal around at the old Ritz Carlton on Arlington Street with his business partner Mickey Redstone, the father of Viacom owner Sumner Redstone.
Mrs. Riseman learned about parties from her father, and learned about fashion and shopping from her mother. As a teenager she obsessed over the covers of fashion magazines, seeking out the same outfits as the models vamping in Vogue. But her mother instructed her to stay away from trends, teaching Mrs. Riseman to use her instincts rather than mimicking models.
It was a formula that worked. In 1966, Mrs. Riseman opened her successful Newbury Street store Apogee, designed by her prominent architect husband, William Riseman. He was also an accomplished artist and was best known for designing movie theaters across the country.
In the late 1960s, Apogee was as cutting-edge and trendy as any Carnaby Street shop in London.
“Most stores in Boston were just racks of clothes, just ugly and plain,” she said bluntly in the interview, as she was wont to do. “Who wants to be around that? I wanted stores that were as breathtaking as the clothes.”
She opened five more of the stores, shuttering the Newbury Street location after her husband died in 1982. Mrs. Riseman always spoke proudly of her late husband and his talent. Although suitors came knocking after he passed away, she was uninterested, instead focusing first on party planning and then becoming an integral part of the city’s fashion scene. Anyone who spent any time with her in her Art Deco Beacon Hill apartment with the cheetah-print carpet soon realized that the focus of her world was the faux fur-covered phone where she kept up with the scene (“I don’t really like computers,” she said) and her dogs.
A service will be announced for Mrs. Riseman, who leaves her daughter, Marcy Prager of Chestnut Hill; three brothers, Robert Sage of Newton, Burton Sage of Concord, and Norman Sagansky of France; two grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.
Mrs. Riseman steered clear of alcohol, did not drive, and despite running with a crowd 50 to 60 years her junior, was always the one with the best zinger in the room. All eyes were on Mrs. Riseman.
“What’s my secret? Why have I been around so long?” she said at a dinner at Menton last year. “I don’t put up with people I don’t like. I don’t want their energy. It’s the good energy you want to have around you. I want to have fun, and don’t have any . . . time to worry about the rest of it.”Christopher Muther can be reached at christopher.muther