Friends of Dell Williams, the founder of the country’s first woman-owned and -run sex boutique, are remembering the petite former WAC, Hollywood actress and Fifth Avenue advertising executive as a tireless advocate for the liberation of the female libido practically up to the time she died March 11 at her Upper West Side apartment. She was 92.
“Dell Williams’ awareness (of) the ignorance women had about their own sexuality and her role in educating them revealed a whole new dimension to feminism and brought spice to the movement,” Jacqui Ceballos, the former president of the National Organization for Women’s New York chapter, wrote in an email from Phoenix.
In 1974, during the height of second-wave feminism in New York and about a year after she organized the NOW chapter’s first sexuality conference for women, Williams sowed the seeds of Eve’s Garden, in the kitchen of her 12th floor apartment on West 57th Street, as a mail-order business. The initial catalogue had three items: the Hitachi Magic Wand — ostensibly a massage tool — the Prelude 3 vibrator and the erotic artist Betty Dodson’s book “Liberating Masturbation.”
Before long, “the orders poured in and started to overflow onto my stove and countertops,” she wrote in her 2005 memoir, “Revolution in the Garden.” About a year later, she would open the retail operation, nearly next door to her apartment. An elegant destination on the opposite side of the block from Carnegie Hall, it featured an expanded product line, trained employees and “how-to” articles.
Men initially were not allowed in: Williams wrote that she wanted “to create an environment where women could be free to explore their sexuality in privacy, and safety.”
Kim Ibricevic, Eve’s Garden’s current manager, said Williams sought to create a sanctuary for customers eyeing products that, even in 2015, can still carry a stigma.
“She wanted to focus on the spiritual side of sex and felt that if every woman had an orgasm, there would be peace in this world,” said Ibricevic, who knew Williams for nearly 20 years.
Williams, ordained in 2001 as an interfaith minister, sold Eve’s Garden in 1998 to a Boston company but remained active in its operation.
The daughter of Jewish immigrant parents, Williams was born August 5, 1922, and raised in the Bronx. Her father, Isaac Zetlin, worked in the fashion industry, her mother, the former Sarah Bronstein, won tennis tournaments in the borough. They lived well until the Great Depression.
In her memoir, Williams describes several searing experiences, among them a date rape, an agonizingly painful illegal abortion and a year-long romantic relationship with a woman who later died of breast cancer. She took the expanded surname of her husband, Ted Willms, following the annulment of their marriage in 1960.
Her brother, Lorenz, died in 2004. Williams leaves no immediate family members.
“She was an extraordinary woman who hung on for dear life even when her health had gone,” Ibricevic said.
Elizabeth Greene-Cohen, Williams’ archivist and who was with Williams when she died, called her a “visionary, an intellectual and a revolutionary” who joined the Women’s Army Corps as an entertainer towards the end of World War II – and later worked as an actress in Los Angeles, including in 1962’s Oscar-nominated “The Cliff Dwellers.” Greene-Cohen noted that the reed-thin, always fashionably dressed Williams also was questioned by FBI agents during the McCarthy era because of her membership in the Communist Party after the war.
Williams had been home only two days after “signing herself out” of the Isabella Geriatric Center following rehabilitation for a hip fracture and had contracted an infection there, Greene-Cohen said. An Isabella social worker told her that Williams had remarked of her mission: “I just wanted to empower the women.”