When we think about fashion labels with notorious pasts, we think about Gucci or Versace. But there is one forgotten about fashion label that an estimated one in seven women owned and its founder and designer, Nell Donnelly, was once caught up in a kidnapping that was solved by the mob, and I recently acquired a dress featuring her label, Nelly Don.
Ellen Quinlan, fondly known as Nell, was the twelfth of thirteen children when she was born on March 6, 1889 in Parsons, Kansas. She learned to sew at a young age, and tended to the mending needs of the family, as well as making clothing for her dolls, not knowing she would soon be making clothes for the masses. Even as a child, her skill was noticed, as it was said she never needed a pattern. Nell graduated from Parsons High School and moved to Kansas City, where she met and later married Paul Donnelly. Wanting to continue her education, Bell went to Lindenwood College in St. Charles, Missouri, where she was the only married woman, graduating in 1909 and returning to Kansas City.
By 1916, Nell wasn’t a fan of the current fashion of the time, and began making her own dresses. Other women expressed interest in her innovative designs and she soon began making and selling her dresses at George B. Peck Dry Goods Company, the most prominent department store in Kansas City, where they sold out quickly. Just a few years later, Nell founded her own fashion company, the Donnelly Garment Company with the label “Nelly Don.” Nell felt that women should have nice and stylish items to wear at home, and her brand focused on the house dress.
From 1928 to 1947, the Company was housed at 1838 Walnut Street in Kansas City, a building that still stands today. By the late 1920s the Donnelly Garment Company had over 1,000 employees. The majority of the employees were women, who were offered a variety of benefits, including pension plans and insurance. Other unique offerings including an on-site cafeteria and medical clinic, as well as a rec center for employees. Employees wanting to further their education, by way of night school, could have their tuition paid for by Nell, who also created a scholarship fund for employee children. Additionally, photos from the Kansas City Public Library show that the Company threw many parties for their employees over the years.
The success of her company soon made Nell a millionaire, and a target for ransom money. On December 16, 1931 a group of kidnappers arrived at Nell’s home, while she was away, there, blocking the driveway with their car, they waited for her. When Nell arrived, driven by her chauffeur, George Blair, the pair was unable to pull into the driveway, and a man shoved a gun in Blair’s face. Other members of the kidnapping group entered the car, pushing and blindfolding Blair. One of the kidnappers tried to put a bag over Nell’s head, but she put up a fight, later saying “I got my Irish up.”
Soon, Nell and Blair were put into a different car, and driven to a house where the kidnappers demanded Nell write her own ransom note, threatening to kill Blair and blind Nell if she failed to do so. The kidnappers demanded $75,000 in specific bills, and that the police were not to be involved. Meanwhile when Nell did not return home that night, her husband, Paul, called friends to inquire about Nell’s whereabouts, none of them had seen her. Seemingly unbothered, Paul went to bed.
In the morning, the ransom note was delivered to Nell’s lawyers. Lawyer James E. Taylor found the note, and went to the Donnelly home to inform the household. Paul cooperated and did not call the police as per the note’s instructions, but he did call James A. Reed, who was another one of the Donnelly’s lawyers, as well as a close friend, in addition to being the former mayor of Kansas City, and former US Senator. Reed was in Jefferson City, preparing for a trial, but upon receiving news of Nell’s kidnapping, requested a postponement, which he was granted. His reason for departing from Jefferson City soon made its way to the press and the police, who later found the Donnelly’s car behind the Plaza Theater.
Reed informed the kidnappers, via public statement that the ransom would still be paid, as long as they did not harm Nell. Reed then made a bold move, and contacted Kansas City mobster, Johnny Lazia, threatening to incriminate Lazia and his mob operations via radio unless he aided in locating Nell. Mob members located some of the kidnappers at a farmhouse, where they gave themselves up and informed them as to Nell and Blair’s location. On December 18, a new face arrived where Nell and Blair were being kept, and said to them “Mrs. Donnelly, there has been a mistake. These men are from out of town. You have a lot of friends. We have come to rescue you.” Nell and Blair were blindfolded once more, and taken to an intersection and told to walk until someone came to them. Someone indeed recognized the fashion icon, and called local authorities. Soon Police Chief Lewis Siegfried arrived and took them to the police station and then home.
Due to racist ideas, Blair, a Black man, was instantly thought of as having some involvement with the kidnapping, despite being described as a good and upstanding citizen by those that knew him. Police were reported to have beaten Blair’s wife, Savannah, in an attempt to gain information regarding the kidnapping. After the ordeal, Blair returned to work for Nell, and continued to work for her for the remainder of his life.
Between Nell, Blair, and the mob, the police were able to track down two suspects, and then started to hunt for the rest. Martin Depew, the brains behind the kidnapping had fled to South Africa, but in the spring of 1932, he was discovered and extradited back to the United States. After being found guilty, he and a few other of his comrades were given life sentences, while others involved received 35 years.
But just why was Reed so keen on locating Nell? And why did he risk his legal career by involving the mob? The answer is love. Prior to her kidnapping, Nell and Reed began an affair, and even birthed a son, David, who, in order to avoid scandal, was said to be adopted. Perhaps the kidnapping broke apart an already fractured marriage, and in November of 1932, Nell and Paul divorced, with Nell buying out Paul’s share of her company. On December 13, 1933, just a few days shy of the second anniversary of her kidnapping, Reed and Nell married, with Reed legally adopting David. Their marriage lasted just over ten years, with Reed passing away in 1944.
The love of house dressed thrived in the 1950s, and by 1953, the Donnelly Garment Company was the largest manufacturer of dresses in the world. Just a couple of years later, in 1956 Nell sold the Donnelly Garment Company, but it continued to live on as Nelly Don Inc. until it closed after filing for bankruptcy in 1978. Based on the cut and label of this dress, I think it was made within the last decade of the company. Nell went on to live to be 102, passing away in 1991.
As for the ransom? It was never paid.
Want your very own piece of Nelly Don history? You can find vintage Nelly Don dresses, and even sewing patterns, on Poshmark, Etsy and Ebay.