Obituary: Rosslyn Leiber Litman / Jewelry entrepreneur, wife of nightclub owner

Died Dec. 20, 2012

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She mingled with the stars during Downtown Pittsburgh's heyday in the 1950s, the sleek, lovely wife of Copa nightclub owner and Pittsburgh Press columnist Lenny Litman. She hosted Tony Bennett and Erroll Garner in her Squirrel Hill home. She built her own successful retail business, bringing good costume jewelry to the city's better stores. And she also raised a family.

Rosslyn Leiber Litman would never have called herself a feminist, but she ended up having it all. She was a mother and entrepreneur by day and a constant presence at her husband's nightclub at night, said her daughter, Rebecca Litman of Highland Park, because "she loved the bigger-than-lifeness of my father, and she loved his life, of being a nightclub owner and a newspaperman, someone who ate breakfast when she was serving the kids dinner."

Ms. Litman, of Shadyside, died of pulmonary disease Thursday at UPMC Shadyside. She was 85.

A native of Donora, Ms. Litman was the daughter of a prominent glass bottle manufacturer who operated the Donora Bottle Works and who lost all his money in the Depression. At age 5, she moved from the biggest house in town to the small apartment over a jewelry store. Smart, beautiful and street savvy, she graduated first in her class from Donora High School and, at a time when few women at her high school went to college, she went to the University of Pittsburgh.

In her senior year, she met Mr. Litman, then owner of Lenny Litman's Copa at 818 Liberty Ave., where Johnny Mathis, Ella Fitzgerald, Vic Damone, Sarah Vaughan and other big acts appeared between 1948 and 1959.

The two actually met at Lenny Litman's other big venue -- Mercur's Music Bar, which he owned with his brothers Archie and Eugene and which hosted some of the most prominent jazz artists in Pittsburgh -- Art Tatum, Ethel Waters, George Shearing and Walt Harper.

The 6-foot, 4-inch former Hollywood agent "decided very quickly he wanted to marry her," their daughter said, noting that her mother "had known a certain amount of struggle herself and was really attracted to the idea that he lived an unconventional life."

Growing up in the modest house on Burchfield Avenue with her brother, the late David M. Litman, Rebecca Litman remembers a domestic life far different from those of her friends, with lots of interesting visitors -- including a left-behind puppet of Senor Wences, a ventriloquist and a staple on "The Ed Sullivan Show," who had left town without it.

"We were the only ones I knew with a Pitney Bowes postage machine in our kitchen," said Rebecca Litman, noting that between mother's jewelry business and her father's side job as a correspondent for Variety, it was in frequent use.

"They were out every night and she worked every single day, which a lot of women her age didn't do," she said. "One of the great things was that my father never questioned her, never made any demands on her. She must have told me a million times -- he wanted her to do what she wanted to do."

There were some bumps in the road -- at 24, Ms. Litman was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease and spent seven years in and out of treatment.

"If anything, that experience gave her a sense of urgency," her daughter said, noting that after a visit to an older sister in Manhattan, Ms. Litman decided to bring costume jewelry and accessories to Pittsburgh. She worked out of the family's Squirrel Hill kitchen, initially selling items to gift shops for fundraisers, before starting a company called Fabulous Frauds by Roz.

She also was a mentor to other young entrepreneurs. "She took me under her wing and guided and taught me so much about the business," said Debbie Bragle, owner of Cosmetique DeStefino in Shadyside. "She knew what she was doing, she had an eye and a sense of what women wanted and what was affordable."

As the business prospered, she started selling more glamorous items to the Tres Chic boutique at Kaufmann's and other stores. "We'd open a drawer to look for a fork and there'd be a dozen bracelets," said her daughter.

Even though the Copa closed in 1962, Mr. Litman, who went on to write a nightlife column for The Pittsburgh Press, remained passionate about bringing new entertainment to Pittsburgh -- from Mort Sahl; Bob Dylan; the Rolling Stones; Peter, Paul and Mary and The Band to one of the first big Broadway road productions, "Hello, Dolly!" starring Carol Channing.

"I think my mom must have bought her Shadyside house with the 'Hello, Dolly!' money," her daughter said.

"You could have a big hit one week and a bomb the next, but my mother rolled with it. No sane woman would have opted for the life she did, but she was by my father's side every step of the way, at the club and in everything he did in his life," she said.

There will be no visitation, but a service will be held at 10 a.m. Sunday at Ralph Schugar Chapel, 5509 Centre Ave. in Shadyside, followed by burial at Ahavath Achim Congregation Cemetery.

obituaries

Mackenzie Carpenter: mcarpenter@post-gazette.com.


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