On her first day of kindergarten, a young Ethyl Cohen spent time in the principal’s office for pulling off her teacher’s hairpiece. No, she wasn’t malicious. Rather, she did so out of sheer curiosity. What was under there? she must have wondered.
“Her personality could not be contained in a box,” her rabbi, Jonathan Berkun of the Aventura Turnberry Jewish Center, said at her funeral three days after she died on April 13. “As a student, it was all downhill from there,” he joked, “but as for her creative mind and passionate spirit, both came to grow and develop like a fine wine.”
Eight days after her 20th birthday, Cohen became Ethyl Spector when she married Sheldon Spector at the Ritz-Carlton in New York — the last wedding in that original hotel before it was razed.
Spector had an oversized, fun-loving personality that captivated others — including the man who would become her husband and business partner for more than four decades until his death in 1998 at 74. When she was 19, Spector left the cold of New York to soak up the sun in Miami Beach for the winter season. But she sunbathed too much, netting a bronze burn that called for a trip to the local pharmacy for ointment.
The pharmacist who sold her homemade cream from the back stockroom at the new Sheldon’s Drugs, on the corner of 95th Street and Harding Avenue in Surfside, was its namesake, Sheldon Spector.
That night, they dined and he told her to order anything she wanted. She tested his character by ordering the priciest item on the menu — lobster. (Don’t tell her rabbi.) Seven months later, the couple wed and went into business together.
The couple’s children — Toby Spector, Becky Herrup and Stacey Hipsman — apparently inherited her sense of humor. For her obituary notice the family wrote that she was born in the year “who the hell cares, raised in NYC, [and] transcended this world too soon.”
For the record, she was born Oct. 10, 1929. She lived to 87, “a lifetime of special events and important moments,” Hipsman said at her service. “We were blessed to have you for so much of our lives.”
As Berkun noted, New York City was “the center of everything magical and exciting” in the 1940s and sister city Miami Beach jockeyed for that position in the 1950s. Spector was at the center of both cities.
No one could schmooze better than Ethyl … sourced from an authentic love of people and a desire to make others feel comfortable, happy and cared for.
Rabbi Jonathan Berkun on Ethyl Spector
Herrup remembers the time her creative mother and her friend Charles Revson, the founder of the New York-based Revlon Cosmetics, met for dinner at the Fontainebleau. Spector worked with her husband at Sheldon’s and made sure the store carried the largest line of Revlon products in the city.
“Charles was looking at her and said, ‘How is it you’re not wearing one of my lipstick colors?’
“ ‘Oh, Charles, I’m absolutely using Revlon — a combination of colors.’ That was the inspiration for the color Pink Cloud, the lustrous color,” her daughter said.
Sheldon’s became the place to go for residents and visiting entertainers from hotel row for a bite at the diner or to pick up quick goods, like food, cosmetics, drugs, trinkets or magazines. At one time, there were seven locations in Miami Beach. Members of the Rat Pack popped in. Newspaper magnates James L. and John S. Knight. Shoe designer Donald Pliner. Sen. Bob Dole. TV newsman David Brinkley.
Author Isaac Bashevis Singer (“Shosha,” “Yentl the Yeshiva Boy”) learned he had won the 1978 Nobel Prize in literature while sitting at a back table at Sheldon’s. The 2002 movie “All About the Benjamins” filmed scenes at Sheldon’s with star, rapper Ice Cube. “When I heard his name, I thought he wanted iced tea,” Ethyl Spector joked with the Miami Herald at the time.
For about 12 years, from 1978 to 1991, Spector also ran the intimate lounge and restaurant The Toast on Biscayne Boulevard in North Miami Beach.
But Sheldon’s was the biggest hit, enlivened by Spector’s familiar presence — and waist-length hair. She was still working the original cash register from its 1948 opening near the soda fountain when the Surfside store closed in 2004 after a new landlord bought the building and raised the rent.
“We had a lot of laughs and a lot of tears,” Spector told the Herald at its closing. As customers rang a gong on the street on closing day, they followed Spector. She rang it first, her makeup smeared from crying, the Herald reported.
Spector kept busy with philanthropy and volunteered for charity. With three friends, she founded the Deed Club charitable group in 1955 that supported the National Children’s Cardiac Hospital, the Deed Club Children’s Cancer Clinic and founded the Deed Club Bone Marrow Transplant Center at University of Miami/Jackson Memorial Hospital.
If she had a shower and was going to give someone a blanket, Mom would make the box look like a four-poster bed down to the lace on the outside and pillows.
Daughter Becky Herrup on Ethyl Spector’s flair for creativity
Said Berkun: “Everyone to whom Ethyl would lend an ear, or whose problem she would solve, or whom she would somehow make happy in one way or another, would affectionately call Ethyl, ‘Mother.’ ”
In addition to her children, Spector is survived by her grandchildren Bradley, Lindsey and Allyson. Contributions in her honor can be made to JAFCO Ability Center in Sunrise or Alexander Muss High School in Israel.