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Irma Mann, at 83; trailblazer for women in Boston’s business community

Irma Mann

Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/File

Irma Mann

Irma Mann’s career with Sonesta began with a 1974 visit to one of the company’s hotels. Following her stay, she wrote a detailed letter suggesting ways to improve the business. In response, Sonesta offered her a job as senior vice president of advertising, marketing, and public relations at a time when few travel or hospitality companies hired women at the executive level.

Before working at Sonesta and subsequently launching a career as a marketing mogul, Ms. Mann had been a music critic for her hometown newspaper, The Newton Times; an associate producer at WGBH-TV; and a speechwriter and aide for Governor Francis W. Sargent — all while raising two children.

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“She was a very brave woman and just a powerhouse and a trailblazer,” said her daughter, Elizabeth of New York City. “She inspired so many people and so many young women especially. She had an incredible heart and she wanted everyone to do well.”

Ms. Mann, who also led many workshops for working women, died of cancer Feb. 14 in her Boston home. She was 83.

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At Sonesta, she created an in-house advertising agency before resigning in 1984 to found Irma S. Mann Strategic Marketing, which became the largest marketing agency in New England that was owned by a woman. The company grew into a global business with clients such as the Four Seasons and American Express before she sold it in 1999 and built the consulting firm IRMA Inc.

Ms. Mann relished being both a participant and a spectator, her family said. She was an avid skier and skilled tennis player who loved watching professional tennis matches. She played the piano and attended concerts often, particularly those featuring her daughter, an acclaimed flutist who has performed with the New York Philharmonic and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Ms. Mann also was an enthusiastic art collector who donated work to museums and, in 1981, sat for a portrait by Andy Warhol.

In an exhibition catalog essay for a 2012 Warhol show in Sacramento, Ms. Mann wrote that in 1981, she asked an art dealer friend to put her in touch with the artist. Then one night during dinnertime, the phone rang at her Newton home and “the voice on the other end said, ‘This is Andy Warhol. I heard you want me to do your portrait.’ ” When she asked what to wear, he told her: “Wear how you want to be remembered for the rest of your life.”

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Upon arriving at Warhol’s New York studio, “I stepped off the elevator and into a huge open space, where everyone there looked just like Andy Warhol,” she wrote. “Hanging on the ceiling were six clotheslines, where huge paintings of one-dollar bills were drying.”

A makeup artist wrapped her in a checkered tablecloth and “began to give me red lips, black eyes, and a very, very white face,” she wrote. “I looked like a female clown in an Italian tablecloth.” Upon arriving, Warhol declared the tablecloth “perfect” and instructed his assistant to cut part of her hair that was sticking up. She drew the line at that, and they agreed to glue her hair down instead.

After Warhol shot a series of Polaroids, they took a break for lunch and to her amazement he prepared pasta primavera, “which was actually very good.”

At the end, “Andy asked if I would like to go to an art show with him,” she wrote. “But I had to decline. It was time to go back to my ordinary, arcane world” in Newton. About three months later, “I managed to get all the glue out of my hair. Around that same time, two magnificent portraits arrived.” Ms. Mann asked why he sent two portraits instead of the one she had commissioned, and he replied, “It’s because you said you had two children and I wanted each to have one.”

Irma Fisher Mann was born in New York City to real estate developer Martin Fisher and the former Marjorie Fields. After graduating from high school in Queens at age 16, she moved to Boston, and enrolled at Emerson College, which her parents mistakenly thought was a finishing school for women.

“She was born into a certain affluence and lifestyle,” said her former colleague Gary Leopold, who bought her marketing agency and remained a close friend. “She didn’t have to go to work every day, but she wanted to. She enjoyed it.”

Ms. Mann left Emerson after her junior year to marry Allan Mann. According to family lore, she first struck up a conversation with him on Commonwealth Avenue after watching him participate in a lobster race. They raised their family in Newton and Ms. Mann became involved in volunteer work and arts education. Their marriage later ended in divorce.

At 33, she returned to Emerson, completed a bachelor’s degree in English and music and “attended commencement with a child in tow,” the college said in a statement. She later served on Emerson’s Board of Trustees, which she chaired for two years. The college awarded her an honorary doctorate in 1992.

On the board, she was instrumental in keeping Emerson’s campus from moving to Lawrence from Boston in the 1990s. She also prioritized renovating the school’s Cutler Majestic Theatre and created an ongoing lecture series that featured renowned marketing experts.

She was “a real force of nature,” Leopold said. “She would walk into a room and before you knew it, everyone knew Irma. She wasn’t loud, but she was commanding. She could really make a commotion, but she was also kind, a true mentor.”

Ms. Mann and her second husband, Dr. Norman Stearns, a Tufts University School of Medicine professor, helped build the graduate program in health communication that links Emerson and Tufts. They also established a distinguished faculty award. He died in 2010.

As a young mother volunteering in schools in Roxbury, Ms. Mann befriended Sonya Hamlin, a WGBH-TV arts program host who became a national TV personality and author. They organized and ran conferences for women in the United States and overseas.

“Irma was an extraordinary woman,” Hamlin said. “She could have been a laid-back suburban housewife, but she always looked for ways to be significant and engaged with the world. She was a smart, sharp, very creative lady, a detail-oriented perfectionist who lived up to her own demands.”

A service has been held for Ms. Mann who in addition to her daughter leaves her son, Robert of Bedford; two stepsons, Frank Stearns of Newton and Alan Stearns of New York City; her sister, Candia Fisher of New York City; two grandchildren; and three step-grandchildren.

In 1976, Ms. Mann spoke with the Globe about her “delayed career.”

“It seemed that I was destined to be a mahjongg player in Newton,” she said of her decision to return to college.

After Emerson, she received a master’s in journalism from Simmons College. That led to working in the State House, where she wrote legislation for the Governor’s Commission on the Status of Women. Ms. Mann received numerous industry awards and honors for her philanthropy and was involved with many Boston-area colleges and organizations.

“At least four times a week I’m called a ‘pushy woman,’ ” she said. “But that’s because I have deadlines to meet and goals to achieve, and there’s no soft way to get things done.”

Kathleen McKenna can be reached at kmck66@verizon.net.
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