From seamstress to rich industrialist to kidnap victim and cultural icon, Nell Donnelly Reed lived the most fascinating 102 years of anyone who ever called Kansas City home.
Let’s begin with seamstress, which set everything else in motion.
“Nelly Don” made dresses, great ones. Not ritzy fashion for the runway but smart and wildly popular dresses for everyday women.
During the height of her success, “every 15 seconds somewhere in the world a Nelly Don dress was purchased,” said filmmaker Terence O’Malley in a TV documentary about her.
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Employing as many as 1,200 in Kansas City’s thriving garment industry, she offered benefits that kept stitchers happy, healthy and educated.
And she did such things beginning around the 1920s, when women weren’t expected to do them.
Hang on. We’ll eventually get to her kidnapping.
She was born Ellen Quinlan in Parsons, Kan. Twelve siblings called her “Nell.” She mended clothes for her family and made dresses for her dolls.
At age 17 she came to Kansas City and married Paul F. Donnelly, a fellow tenant at her boarding house.
Paul was credit manager for a shoe company. He supported Nell’s desire to pursue a college education. She graduated from Lindenwood College in St. Charles, Mo., before revolutionizing the apparel industry.
It started with her own wardrobe.
Rejecting the drab and shapeless house dresses of the period, Nell Donnelly made for herself form-fitting clothes that wowed the women in her neighborhood.
“I’m sure the word ‘sexy’ never entered into it, but possibly that is what it was,” observed the late historian Jane Flynn, author of “Kansas City Women of Independent Minds.”
Nelly Don in 1916 arranged to sell 18 dozen dresses to the George B. Peck Dry Goods Co. in Kansas City. She bought two electric sewing machines, hired two helpers and they started stitching from her bungalow near 31st and Montgall streets.
When husband Paul came home from World War I, he found his wife’s enterprise had grown to 18 employees and $250,000 in sales.
Paul and Nell built the Donnelly Garment Co. together. Paul officially was the company’s chief executive, but Nell kept the product moving.
Nell wore a size 16. She once said her aim was to allow women large and small to “look pretty when they are washing dishes.”
She designed the Handy Dandy Apron with pockets, which almost all of her dresses had.
According to a Kansas City Star profile in 1931:
“Mrs. Donnelly went to Paris and Vienna for the loveliest textile designs she could find, soft in color, graceful in motif. She translated them to her own designs, into color-fast fabrics with luxurious finish which would withstand much tubbing.”
The dresses were modestly priced, which allowed the Donnelly Garment Co. to prosper even through the Great Depression.
In the most tumultuous of times, Kansas City became a ready-to-wear manufacturing center with the Donnelly company its crown jewel. It boasted paying the best wages in the industry.
Nine out of 10 Donnelly company workers were women, and for decades they voted against unionizing.
Nelly Don provided her workers life insurance and on-site medical care. In 1939 her factory was one of the first in Kansas City with air conditioning.
She offered free tuition for night courses and awarded college scholarships to her employees’ children.
Fortune Magazine named her America’s most successful businesswoman.
Which accounts for the kidnapping.
In December 1931 headlines nationwide erupted with news of Nelly Don’s abduction. She and her chauffeur, George Blair, were rustled by three gangsters outside her home, now the National Museum of Toys and Miniatures on Oak Street.
The crooks demanded a $75,000 ransom from Paul Donnelly. They threatened to blind her and kill Blair.
Paul Donnelly turned the matter over to an able next-door neighbor named James A. Reed.
James A. Reed — former mayor, U.S. senator and three-time Democratic presidential candidate. He was close to Tom Pendergast, the boss of Kansas City’s political machine in the 1920s and ’30s.
He negotiated with the local mob to have Nelly Don and chauffeur Blair freed within 35 hours of their capture.
Even before that deal, Nell and James A. Reed had become intimate with each other. Sometime in 1931, Sen. Reed, then 70, got Nelly Don pregnant.
She was 42 when her only child, David, was born. She divorced Paul Donnelly two years later. (He reportedly was an alcoholic and manic depressive who had cheated on her.)
Nelly Don married James A. Reed in 1933.
During World War II the Donnelly Garment Co. expanded its product line to include coveralls for Rosie the Riveter.
Nell Donnelly Reed sold the enterprise in 1956 and absorbed herself in civic affairs.
She served on the Kansas City public school board throughout the 1960s. In the 1970s she sat on boards of the Kansas City Art Institute, Midwest Research Institute and Starlight Theater Association.
In 1981 she resurfaced in the news by shooting a seven-point buck. She was 92.
Before her death a decade later, she donated to the state 800 acres, now the James A. Reed Memorial Wildlife Area.
As for tributes in her name, there remain a faded few. You can search eBay for collectible clothing bearing “Nelly Don” tags.