Sarah Tomerlin Lee was born in Union City, Tennessee on August 18, 1910. Her father, Charles G. Tomerlin, was a department store executive whose work entailed revitalizing stores that were experiencing low sales. Due to the nature of his work, the family moved often and lived in various cities, including St. Louis, Cleveland, Detroit, and Indianapolis.
Sarah Tomerlin Lee attended Randolph Macon Women’s College in Lynchburg, Virginia. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1932 as President of her Class, having majored in both Greek and Latin. While in college, Lee would spend her summers studying advertising at Columbia University’s School of Business in New York City. Upon graduating, Lee began working for a department store in Utica, New York where her father was an executive, writing advertising and promotional copy.
In 1936, Lee moved to New York City and found a job writing advertising copy for the New York City department store, Bonwit Teller. It was there she met her future husband, Thomas (Tom) Bailey Lee (b.1910-d.1971), who was Director of Display at the time. The two married in 1938 and had two sons. (Materials related to Thomas (Tom) Bailey Lee’s career as a prominent New York-based designer of sets, displays, exhibits and interiors make up a significant portion of this collection. See Biographical Note for Thomas (Tom) Bailey Lee for more information.)
At the start of World War II, Lee left Bonwit Teller to work as a copy writer, and later beauty editor, at Vogue Magazine. She stayed at Vogue for five years before moving on to become cosmetics editor at Harper’s Bazaar, writing feature articles about the beauty and health trends of the day.
After the birth of her second son in 1950, Lee retired from her position at Harper’s Bazaar and became a de-facto freelance advisor to several cosmetics manufacturers including Helena Rubenstein, with whom she had a lifelong friendship, as well as Elizabeth Arden, Jacquelin Cochran, and Lilly Dache.
Lee eventually returned to work as an account executive for the advertising agency, Young & Rubicam. She stayed at the agency until 1954 when she was appointed Vice President of Hockaday Associates, a New York City-based advertising agency which specialized in fashion and home furnishing accounts.
As a copywriter, Lee distinguished herself through a literary prose style and knowledge of history which she brought to the myriad projects she worked on. Of particular note is her campaign for the perfume company, Prince Matchabelli, and her feature articles for Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar.
As an advertising executive Lee was responsible for creating some of the more recognizable campaigns of her time. It was while advising Elizabeth Arden that Lee designed the “Red Door” promotional campaign, using the spa’s famous painted red doors in their packaging and promotional materials. Lee was also responsible for writing the tag line, “Just wear a smile…and a Jantzen”, a popular and long-running campaign for the self-same swimwear company.
In 1959, Lee was appointed Vice President of Lord & Taylor. While there, she directed the advertising, public relations, and display of the store. She managed a staff of more than eighty people, created and placed millions of dollars’ worth of advertising, and oversaw twenty writers and layout artists as well as twelve illustrators. She was also in charge of the display of store windows, and the store’s interior displays.
It was during this time that Lee was named President of The Fashion Group (1960-1963), a non-profit organization of women executives in the fashion and home industries. At the time, The Fashion Group had twenty-seven branches in the United States, with chapters in Hawaii, Toronto, London and Paris. During her presidency, the membership totaled four thousand with fifteen-hundred in New York alone. During her tenure, Lee was responsible for instituting a retirement plan for members of the group.
In January 1965, Lee was named editor-in chief of House Beautiful magazine. Lee’s six-year long editorship was marked by an effort to highlight individual interior designers, decorators and craftsmen, making them into public figures. Of particular note are her editorials for the March 1965 issues, “The Individualist”, and the two-editorials in the October and November issues of 1966 focusing on decorators and designers. She wrote that designers were “Somewhere east of the architect and west of the decorator,” (October 1966 issue), and “extraordinary men and women who are artist-historian-designer-colorist-entrepreneur-teacher-psychologist-idealist-sophisticate-romantic-ace shoppers-of-the-world” (September 1966 issue).
Lee’s life and career was suddenly altered when, in July of 1971, her husband Tom Lee died from injuries sustained in an automobile accident near their home in Greenwich, Connecticut. He was 61 years old. At the time, his firm, Tom Lee Ltd., was under contract to finish the interiors of the Inn on the Park hotel in Toronto, Canada. Although Lee had no experience or formal training in interior design, she assumed the Presidency of the firm and completed the project.
Sarah Tomerlin Lee remained the President of Tom Lee Ltd. for the next three decades, designing the interiors of over forty hotels, inns, and clubs in the United States, nineteen of them in New York. When Tom Lee Ltd. merged with the architectural firm Beyer Blinder and Belle in 1993, Lee became President of the Hospitality Division of the Interior Design department until her retirement in 1997.
During her tenure as President of Tom Lee, Ltd. the firm focused almost exclusively on hospitality design. The firm was well-known for their expertise in restoring historic hotels, most notably The Helmsley Palace in New York City, The Willard Hotel in Washington D.C., and The Bellevue Hotel in Philadelphia. Her projects also included contemporary spaces, such as The Parker Meridian in New York City, The Doral Saturnalia Spa in Miami, and The New Orleans Meridian in New Orleans.
In addition to her career as an advertising executive and interior designer, Sarah Tomerlin Lee authored several publications. After the initial establishment of the Air Force Reserve in 1948, Lee was commissioned by the United States Office of Information Services to write a booklet, the “Air Force Reservist in Your Family”. In 1954, she wrote a booklet for the Sterling Silversmiths Guild of America titled "Sterling to Live By", and in collaboration with the Fashion Institute of Technology, Lee edited the book American Fashion: The Life and Lines of Adrian, Mainbocher, McCardell, Norell, and Trigere, published by the New York Times in 1973.
Lee was an active member of several boards of trustees throughout her career and received numerous awards. She passed away on Easter Sunday in 2001, at the age of 90.
Honors, Awards and Distinctions
1932 Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, AB, Phi Beta Kappa, Class President
1982 The Decorators’ Club, Medal of Honor
1986 Interior Design Magazine’s, Hall of Fame
1986 Widener University, School of Hospitality Management, Doctor of Applied Arts (Honorary)
1987 Moore College of Art, Doctorate of Fine Arts (Honorary)
1988 American Society of Interior Designers (ASID), Designer of Distinction
1988 Network of Women Executives, Woman of the Year
1990 American Society of Interior Designers (ASID), Designer of Distinction
1991 New York Landmarks Conservancy, Honor
1998 New York School of Interior Design, Doctor of Fine Arts (Honorary)
1999 American Society of Interior Designers (ASID), Designer of Distinction
Professional Organizations and Board Memberships
The Fashion Group, President, 1960-1963
Randolph Macon Women’s College, Trustee 1964-1981, Trustee Emeritus 1981-2001
New York Landmarks Conservancy Co-founder 1973, Vice President, 1982-1985
American Craft Council, Trustee 1969-1979, Trustee Emeritus 1984
The Decorators’ Club, President, 1995-1997
Merchant’s House Museum, Board of Directors 1985-1991
Cosmopolitan Club, National Arts Club, Fortnightly
New York School of Interior Design, Board of Trustees, 1990-2001
Sarah Tomerlin Lee Collection, New York School of Interior Design Archives, New York School of Interior Design, New York, NY.
Mott, Frank L. A History of American Magazines. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1938. Print.
Lee, Sarah Tomerlin. “The Decorators – Part I.” House Beautiful, September 1966.
Lee, Sarah Tomerlin. “Focus on Decorators.” House Beautiful, October 1966.