Henri Willis Bendel was born in Lafayette (then Vermilionville) on Jan. 22, 1868. His parents were William Louis and Mary Plonski Bendel.
Henri’s father died when he was six years old but his mother was an astute businesswoman who owned and operated a furniture store, a drug store, and a funeral home. She was remarried in 1878 to Benjamin Falk, who became one of the most successful Lafayette businessmen of his time. They ran a dry goods store and brought everything from high opera to slapstick vaudeville acts to the Falk's Opera House, which was above the store.
Even though the Bendel and Plonski families were Jewish, young Henri was sent to study at St. Charles College at Grand Coteau, where the Jesuits taught him more than his folks might have appreciated. He converted to Catholicism while he was a student there.
After graduation he worked for two years as a clerk in the Hiller Plantation Store near Raceland in Lafourche Parish and then for another two years in New Orleans.
He decided to go into business for himself after that four-year apprenticeship and used $1,500 given him by his mother to open a women’s clothing store in Morgan City. When fire wiped out his business shortly after it opened, it might actually have been a piece of good luck. That’s when he decided to move to New York. The decision might also have been prompted by the fact that he’d met a young lady from New York named Blanche Lehman while she was visiting in Louisiana.
His first venture there was a millinery shop at 67 East 9th Street, but it failed when a partner ran off with the money. Undaunted, and now newly wed to Blanche, Henri opened another women’s apparel shop. This one would be successful, but for tragic reasons.
Henri and Blanche had been married only two years when she died in childbirth and the child died soon after.
According to a biography by Alvin Bethard of UL Lafayette, “Deeply bereaved by the loss of his wife and child, Bendel channeled all of his time and energy into his business. Soon hats with the Bendel label were in great demand and wealthy socialites … began to patronize his shop. He also sold hats to exclusive women’s apparel stores … [and] developed a keen sense of what the New York woman wanted.”
Demand soon caused him to move to a larger store at 520 Fifth Avenue. It was a good move. He made a fortune.
He kept an apartment on Park Avenue in New York and a 40-room mansion on 80 acres at Stamford, Connecticut. He later built a chateau at Great Neck, Long Island, which he sold to the automaker Walter Chrysler. That mansion had 10 bathrooms, a music room with a huge organ that could be heard throughout the house by remote control, an eight-car garage, a greenhouse, and what was described as one of the fanciest chicken houses ever built. It was sold to the government in 1940 to become the administrative building of the Merchant Marine Academy.
Henri kept an office in Paris and opened a laboratory there where he created soaps and perfumes that were marketed under the Bendel label. He also recognized good work from other people and was the first retailer to bring the designs of Coco Chanel to the United States from Paris. During World War I he donated an ambulance to the French government in honor of his mother and continued his charitable work after the war. For that, the French made him a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor.
He bought his 213-arpent estate on the Vermilion River in 1927 and had it landscaped with camellias and azaleas. That’s how it came to be known as Bendel Gardens. The property was subdivided in 1950 by his heirs.
A nephew, also named Henri Bendel, took over operations of the store after his uncle’s death. The flagship Bendel store is currently located at 712 Fifth Avenue, and there are other stores in Columbus, Ohio; Boca Raton, Florida; San Diego; the Miami suburb of Aventura, Florida; Troy, Michigan; Dallas; Short Hills, New Jersey; King of Prussia, near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and Orange County and Los Angeles in California. The stores are now owned by Limited Brands based in Columbus, which purchased the company in 1985.
You can contact Jim Bradshaw at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.