Marilyn Riseman: Short in Stature, High on Haute Couture

By Sheila Barth

Published October 03, 2013, issue of October 03, 2013.
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Look for an excited cluster of well-heeled celebrities at any fashion, cultural, theatrical or high society event, and you are sure to find Boston’s high society magnet, octogenarian Marilyn Riseman.

Dubbed “the kabuki socialite” by a fashion critic, and “the little person who makes a big presence” by everyone else, the petite, flamboyant Mrs. Riseman’s signature look is distinctively edgy — with her inky black, Louise Brooks’ bobbed coiffure, white face, red lipstick and huge, mascaraed dark eyes.

She primarily wears black. At her 80th birthday party, Riseman and Waltham fashion doyenne Yolanda Cellucci called themselves the dominoes; Riseman, garbed in her signature black, and Cellucci, in her classic white.

Riseman recognizes that she’s always making a fashion statement, either consciously or subconsciously. Her lavish Beacon Hill apartment is renowned for its finery, fur and flair, but she says she would never want to be seen “schlepping around my house, wearing my favorite 18-year-old bathrobe.”

Marilyn Riseman (on right) attended the opening of the Iris Apfel exhibit at Peabody Essex Museum. She is pictured with Ronnie Golden Engel of Rhode Island.
Peabody Essex Musuem
Marilyn Riseman (on right) attended the opening of the Iris Apfel exhibit at Peabody Essex Museum. She is pictured with Ronnie Golden Engel of Rhode Island.

As an event and charity fundraising planner who is on every socialite and celebrity’s invitee list, the trendsetter is always seated in the front row at designer shows.

Riseman recalls when Chita Rivera appeared in Boston in “Kiss of the Spiderwoman.”

“Some people mistook me for Rivera and asked for autographs. So I signed them,” she said.

The haute couture aficionado and fashionista gets a kick out of writers and photographers who request quotes, or want to use her photo in their ad campaigns.

“I’m shocked that I’ve become a model at my age,” she quips.

Riseman is trying to make the best of aging. “My spirit would never let you believe I’m 86, but I walk with a cane, and when I’m at a party, I sit. People congregate around me now. My balance isn’t good, so I have a collection of fabulous canes that people have given me. I made it into fashion statement,” she joked. 

Riseman’s many fans attest to her energy and spirit. “She’s engaged every day. She’s at every theater and art film opening. She has an expansive mind and a big appetite for culture and design. She’s one of the people who makes Boston Boston,” said Joyce Kulhawik, president of Boston Theatre Critics Association and 

Kulhawik, who has known Riseman for years, adds, “She has always been extremely unpretentious, very warm, with very exotic looks, and she’s always the best-dressed woman in the room.” 

Kathy Rochefort of Rochefort and Associates says Riseman has been her friend for 28 years. Rochefort has found her to be sincere, helpful, compassionate … and a great mentor.

“Everything she touches is successful,” says Rochefort, pointing out that Riseman owned a chain of boutiques, and ran fashion shows at the Ritz-Carlton and Colonnade hotels.

Born and raised in Brookline and New York, Riseman is the daughter of philanthropist-businessman Harry Sagansky. Although her mother inspired her love of fashion by taking her on shopping trips, her dad thought she wanted to enter the fashion industry so she could own all the clothes she wanted. When Riseman’s mother died of cancer at age 42, Sumner Redstone’s parents helped care for her.

She enjoys close ties with her family — brothers Robert of Newton; Norman of Provence, France; and Burt of Concord; her daughter, Marcy, and her granddaughter, Joanna.

Riseman’s husband, architect-artist William Riseman, who designed theaters for Redstone, E.M. Loew and others, helped create her first fashion boutique, Apogee, on Newbury Street in Boston, in 1966. This grew into an empire of six exclusive fashion stores. Together, the Risemans traveled to Europe on buying trips.

“When he died [in 1980], I didn’t want the stores. I was too sad to do it on my own,” she said.

Despite losses in her life, Riseman does not dwell on sadness. Her enthusiasm for life is infectious, and she prefers being with people who share her upbeat demeanor.

“Aga Khan’s girlfriend invited me to Nassau and Bellaire, and said to me, ‘I like having you around because you’re so happy.’ That’s because I don’t allow negative people in my life,” Riseman said.

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