Rousseau’s story has been oft-told over the years: Born the middle of three daughters into a socially prominent family in Roslyn, New York, Lilly McKim attended all the right schools (Chapin, Miss Porter’s) with all the right people (Jacqueline Bouvier was a schoolmate at Miss Porter’s) before eloping in 1952, at age 21, with newspaper scion Peter Pulitzer. The pair moved to Palm Beach, where Pulitzer operated a successful citrus grove business, and his bride quickly had three children: Peter Jr., Liza and Minnie. The couple threw fabulous parties, famously tossing water on the tiled kitchen floor of their great big house overlooking Lake Worth so that everyone could do the twist after dinner. Lilly herself became known for “not giving a whit,” according to her longtime friend Susannah Cutts, accruing a menagerie of dogs, cats, monkeys and even a calf (“those awful animals,” Rousseau says now). But then, in 1958, Lilly’s sunniness began to fade. “I had terrible anxiety attacks,” she says, “so I went to the nuthouse.” The nuthouse was a psychiatric hospital in Westchester County, New York—“I can’t really remember how long I was there, but my cousin was there too, so that was nice”—and she returned home armed with but one piece of medical advice: Get a hobby.
“Peter said, ‘Well, why don’t you sell my oranges?’” recalls Rousseau, who promptly started pulling her station wagon up her tony neighbors’ driveways, delivering fruit. The stand quickly followed, though Lilly discovered her crisp white shirts and shorts were becoming ruined with juice stains. “So I went to the five-and-dime, bought some fabric, took it to the seamstress, and she did it up,” Rousseau says, noting that she wanted dresses that were “colorful and cotton and cool,” with slits up the sides for bending over. She even hung a few up in the stand, selling them for $22.50 a piece.
The town went wild. “I couldn’t keep up with all the orders!” she marvels. Soon Lilly was flying regularly to Key West, where she created the prints along with a “gay as your hat” designing couple who ran a textile business called Key West Fabrics. Together they dreamed up lime green palm trees, bursting sunflowers and sky blue shells, all whimsical motifs plucked from Lilly’s sun-dappled life. Within a year she was shipping orders to retailers from Lord & Taylor and Saks Fifth Avenue to now-defunct specialty stores like Nan Duskin and I. Magnin. In 1961 a Lilly
Pulitzer shop opened off Worth Avenue. The unlikely designer’s fame was all but cemented a year later, when Lilly’s school pal, first lady Jackie Kennedy, appeared in Life magazine wearing the Lilly Pulitzer Classic Shift (while most of the dresses cost about $25, Lilly charged Kennedy $75 for hers, “because that was made out of very expensive curtain fabric.”).