For decades, Rochelle Levitt was every bit the grande dame of Wichita’s social circles: head of Henry’s Department Store and patron to Music Theatre of Wichita, the Wichita Art Association and the Wichita-Sedgwick County Historical Museum.
She loved to dance and take her evening meals at the Candle Club. She would also throw great parties at her house.
Her friends say she lived life as she wished and had a stern admonition to those who knew her that when she died, there would be no service.
Mrs. Levitt died on May 30 after a brief illness. She was 92.
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True to her wishes, there will be no service.
“She was always beautifully turned out and wouldn’t go out unless she was fixed up,” said friend Bob Puckett, retired director of the historical museum. “She was of that era of women who dressed up, wore heels and hose and had their hair done and makeup on.”
Rochelle Inez Myers was born on Nov. 20, 1924, in Memphis. Her parents, Max and Selma Myers, moved to Kansas City, Mo., when she was a girl. She was a graduate of Kansas City’s Southeast High School and the Kansas City Art Institute, Puckett said.
And she was a connoisseur of good times.
“She would be (at the Candle Club) almost every night,” said friend Rosemary Nicholson. “She loved cocktails, and she had this big booming laugh that you could hear her across the room. She loved to play cards, especially gin (rummy). She cheated. We used to laugh about it.
“And she loved to travel – first class only.”
Mrs. Levitt once told The Eagle’s Bonnie Bing in March 1990 that she had a Halston dress she would never get rid of.
“It has bronze, peach and gold beading with pearls running through it,” Mrs. Levitt told Bing. “I want to be buried in it.”
She was not buried in that dress, Puckett said. Instead, Mrs. Levitt gave that dress to the Wichita historical museum nearly a decade ago.
She was buried in a beautiful housecoat and slippers she had custom-made in New York many years ago.
The dress was donated to the museum along with other gowns and cocktail dresses created by American fashion designers such as Halston, Oscar de la Renta and Galanos. The dresses were part of an exhibit at the museum called “Fashion Fantasia: Mid-Century, Mid-America” and were owned and worn by some of Wichita’s wealthiest and most high-profile women, including Olive Ann Beech, Marian Beren – whose family owned Lewin’s department store – and Mrs Levitt.
“She gave some fabulous things to the museum,” Puckett said. “She spent a lifetime in retailing and still subscribed to Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar.”
Longtime Wichitans will remember she was the president of Henry’s from 1978 to 1984. She also served on the store’s board of directors.
In the 1940s, she and her mother moved to Wichita. Her mother first worked at Garfields, which was a women’s specialty shop, then later for Henry’s. And that is where they got to know the Levitts.
Rochelle Myers married Leo Levitt on Sept. 19, 1948.
Henry’s had a reputation for high-quality merchandise mixed with personal service. The store was started in 1911, when Russian-born immigrant Bernard Levitt opened a men’s clothing store in downtown Wichita. His sons – Henry, Leo and Isadore Levitt – expanded the store’s business. Henry handled the men’s clothing; Leo, nicknamed “Buddy,” ran the women’s section; and Isadore handled promotion and public relations.
The Levitts were known for their philanthropy in Wichita. In 1968, when Henry Levitt died, Wichita State University’s basketball arena was named after him. The Levitt family is listed as a member of WSU’s Shocker Sports Hall of Fame.
Leo Levitt died in 1978 of leukemia. The couple had no children.
Bing recalls visiting the department store many times throughout her career.
“Henry’s was the place, the store to go to,” Bing recalled. “And Rochelle was the person who knew how to run a luxury department store. She knew her customers, the latest trends and knew how to buy.
“It was wonderful to go into the shop to pick things out for a fashion shoot. They always had what I needed.”
Mrs. Levitt served on the Kansas Economic Development Advisory Commission and in 1983 received the national Spirit of Life award from the City of Hope, a national organization that fights cancer, diabetes and other life-threatening diseases.
She is survived by a niece, Harlene Gross.
Memorial donations can be made to Temple Emanu-El, 7011 E. Central, Wichita, KS 67206.