May 25, 2023

The Most Famous Person from Hamilton County

By David Heighway, Hamilton County Historian

A question that I get asked occasionally as Hamilton County Historian is, “Who is the county’s biggest celebrity?”. Obviously, this is very open to debate. It depends on how you define who is or was an A-list celebrity.

We did have national celebrities like the Hoosier Hot Shots from Arcadia and Lucky Teter from Noblesville. Their stories are fun, but they are probably B-listers. They were fairly well-known in their time but were forgotten soon afterwards. Rex Stout, the author of the Nero Wolfe mysteries, is easily recognizable, but he left the area before he was one year old and had no memories or family connection. A strong case could be made for Steve Wariner. He has won Grammy awards and is highly respected as a performer and songwriter. However, the most likely candidate – an A-lister for A-listers – was fashion designer Norman Norell (Norman David Levinson).

Norman Norell (1922 Pratt Institute yearbook)

He was born in Noblesville on April 20, 1900. His grandparents were Jewish immigrants from Germany who settled here in the 1850s. The family established a clothing store on Courthouse Square. The business lasted until 1906, when Norman’s father, Harry, moved it to Indianapolis. However, the family kept close ties to Noblesville. In 1919, Norman went to New York to study fashion design. He began his career creating costumes for film and theater. He worked with other designers until establishing his own fashion house in 1960. He became internationally known and won many fashion awards. He was called “the dean of American fashion design” by the New York Times.

His clothes were recommended and worn by Jackie Kennedy. Marilyn Monroe wore several of his dresses, (one of which later was involved in a controversy when it was worn by Kim Kardashian). Lauren Bacall called him her favorite designer. Judy Garland gave him a photo that said, “Love from your greatest admirer.” Cary Grant insisted that Norell fashions be used in the movie That Touch of Mink. Michelle Obama wore a Norell dress at a White House event in 2010. His impact is undeniable.

Fashion designer Norman Norell in LIFE Magazine, May 8, 1944. (Wikimedia Commons)

Interestingly, I’ve found that some people are uncomfortable with the idea of Norell as the most famous Hamilton County person. Norman was not typical of the local population. He came from one of the few Jewish families in the area. Although not religious himself, his grandparents were observant of Jewish holidays and had a rabbi from Indianapolis visit on a regular basis.

His personal life was also rather different. Norman was reticent about it, but research suggests that he was in two serious relationships in his adult life.

Norman began traveling to Paris in 1926 to study and buy fashions. He was usually accompanied on these trips by his roommate, Alan Arthur. Alan was a year younger than Norman and came from Connecticut. Between 1926 and 1939, the only times that Alan wasn’t on the Paris trip were in 1927, when Norman took his mother, and 1928, when no trip was taken. According to their travel records, Alan and Norman lived in New York City at 41 Gramercy Park from 1926 to 1930, 25 West 10th Street from 1931 to 1933, and 59 West 12th Street from 1934 to 1944.

Alan Arthur’s father died in 1931, one year after Norman’s father died. Although they haven’t been found in the 1930 census, they are in the 1940 census at the West 12th Street address. Alan is listed as the head of the household with the occupation of “musician,” and Norman is listed as a lodger.

Alan Arthur draft card (Ancestry.com)

Norman Norell draft card (Ancestry.com)

The trips to Paris were suspended during the war. When Norman registered for the draft in 1942, he named Alan as his contact person. Alan did the same on his registration and also named Norman as his employer. His occupation was “musician.” However, Alan died September 30, 1944 and was buried in Connecticut in the family plot. No cause of death was listed on the death certificate. His occupation was listed as “piano teacher.”

Norman did not travel to Paris again until 1947. He had moved to 18 East 81st Street by 1951, and on his trip to Paris that year, he was accompanied by John Moore (1928-1996) for the first time. John Moore became a well-known fashion designer in his own right, and the two were together until Norman died in 1972. Several important pieces in the Norell collection at the Indianapolis Museum of Art were donated by John Moore.

Dold’s candy store (Richmond Palladium-Item, July 29, 1907)

Norell expressed his feelings about his hometown in a 1962 letter to the Noblesville Ledger.

“…when someone asks me where I was born, I always say, ‘a very small town, Noblesville, Indiana.’ I always see it the same size it was when I was born there in 1900. It is quite willful because my memories of Noblesville are very precious to me. I still see the courthouse square with horses and buggies tied up around – Caylor’s, Sowerwine’s, Lowther’s, the corner drug store, were all on the square (that was the town). Hare’s Buggy store and John Dold’s candy store were around the corner. Band concerts were held on Thursday night. The covered bridge was north of the square. So many wonderful happy memories. This is the way I think of Noblesville. I know perfectly well it isn’t like this now. Maybe I do not like the passing of time. Whatever it is, my Noblesville is very important to me…”

Levinson mausoleum, Crownland Cemetery (Author photo)

Upon his death, his remains were returned to Noblesville to be interred in the family mausoleum at Crownland Cemetery. A historical marker for Norman Norell was put up on 8th Street in Noblesville, near the site of his birthplace, in 2021. Norell is often remembered in June because some groups find him to be iconic (Gay City News; After a Queer Fashion; NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project). While no definitive statements can be made, it probably would not be inappropriate to tie a Pride ribbon on the marker.

Norell marker (City of Noblesville photo)


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