Neiman Marcus
Neiman Marcus

The Stories Behind 12 Outrageous Neiman Marcus Holiday Gifts

Neiman Marcus
Neiman Marcus

Since 1955, Dallas-based retailer Neiman Marcus has placed an increasingly outlandish series of “fantasy” gift items in the pages of its Christmas Book catalog, which is mailed to more than 750,000 homes[PDF] and results in priceless press coverage. The latter is the reason why you’ll see a $35 million Boeing jet offered alongside a $35 bartending set.

“[Co-founder] Stanley Marcus called them ‘stunt pages,’” Ginger Reeder, Vice President of Corporate Communications and the catalog’s longtime curator, tells mental_floss. “He understood that the gifts meant he wouldn’t have to spend quite so much on advertising.”

Despite the “fantasy” and “stunt” labels, all the gifts in the Book are real and ready to ship to legitimate buyers, and roughly half of them get sold each year. Reeder, who has overseen the catalog for 20 years and sifts through more than 200 proposals annually, was kind enough to walk us through some of the company’s more notable offerings—including the time they inadvertently delivered a dead body.

1. A BLACK ANGUS STEER WITH SILVER SERVING CART (1959) // $1925

Although the Marcus brothers had placed a strange gift in a 1955 catalog—a real tiger covered in expensive jewelry priced at $1 million—it was their response to journalist Edward R. Murrow in 1959 that confirmed the company’s devotion to the outrageous. After Murrow phoned to ask if there would be anything of interest that year for his radio listeners, the brothers came up with the idea of offering a Black Angus bull with a silver serving set. “It was a sort of, ‘What are those crazy Texans doing?’ approach,” Reeder says. “You could get it on the hoof or in steaks.”

2. HIS AND HERS CAMELS (1967) // $4125

For a time, Neiman Marcus was in the zoological business, offering a variety of ostriches, baby elephants, and other exotic animals to consumers who were apparently bored of domesticated pets. “We sold one camel to a woman in Ft. Worth,” Reeder says. “She had bought it for her mother. As the story goes, they were watching television and a story about the sale came on. Her mother said, ‘I wonder who that’s for. It’s so stupid.’ And the camel was right outside her door.” At last report, the camel was said to be easily annoyed and spat constantly.

3. AUTHENTIC MUMMY CASES (1971) // $6000

Reeder says one of the Marcus brothers discovered two authentic mummy cases while traveling in England and had them shipped to one of their first stores outside of Texas in Bal Harbour, Florida. He didn't bother to ever look inside. “Someone on the receiving dock was curious and opened the crate up and found an actual mummy,” Reeder says. “He called Mr. Marcus up and asked what to do. He said, ‘Well, we probably broke international laws by importing a dead body. I guess we’ll need a death certificate.’”

The cases and the lone occupant were bought by a museum in San Jose, a transaction that may have spelled the end for morbid gift items. “We’ve had offers to sell his and hers caskets and a working guillotine,” Reeder says. “They’re not exactly in the Christmas spirit.”

4. A FULL-SCALE STAR WARS X-WING FIGHTER (1996) // $35,000

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Prior to the 20th anniversary re-releases of the original Star Wars films, Neiman Marcus offered a scale replica of Luke Skywalker’s X-Wing Starfighter. It was purchased by a fan in Virginia who put it in his back yard. “I remember the first thing I had to do was send a film crew to videotape it being installed,” Reeder says. “In case he ever moved, he wanted to know how it was pieced together.”

5. 90 FIRST EDITION NOVELS (1997) // $185,000

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For Reeder’s first official year on the job, she worked with Bauman Books and a librarian to curate 90 first editions of influential novels, including The Great Gatsby and The Catcher in the Rye, many signed by their author. “Coming up with the list took six months,” she says. While the entire set never sold, Neiman Marcus got more than 600 calls asking for the titles of all the books on the list.

6. A “LORDSHIP” TITLE (2001) // $120,000

Couples who invested in Neiman Marcus’s “time travel” package—wearing period costumes and engaging in historic reenactments—would also be afforded the opportunity to be bestowed the title of “Lordship,” a fully legitimate crowning. “A gentleman got in touch with us who had the connections to be able to do that,” Reeder says. “It would then be passed on to that person’s oldest son.” But, she says, “No one bought that.”

7. A BELL 430 HELICOPTER (2001) // $6.7 million

That same year, Neiman Marcus scored one of their biggest headlines ever when they offered a Bell 430 helicopter with a company logo woven into the carpeting. “We’re not actually licensed to sell cars or helicopters, so we deal directly with a vendor,” Reeder says. It remains the priciest fantasy gift item to ever find a buyer.

8. A MERMAID SUIT WITH MERMAID TRAINING (2003) // $10,000

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Reeder got the idea for a custom swimsuit and mermaid tail swim training while reading a newspaper article about Thom Shouse, the man who designed Darryl Hannah’s costume for 1984’s mermaid comedy Splash. “I think every little girl grows up wanting to be a mermaid,” she says. “I proposed it at least three times, but no one ever liked the idea. Then something else dropped out of the Book. We were planning a water shoot, so I called [Shouse] and asked if he could get me a mermaid tail right away.”

9. A CUSTOM SUIT OF ARMOR (2004) // $20,000

iStock

Men and women alike were afforded an opportunity to be measured for a custom-fit suit of armor faithful to the steel tailoring standards of the 15th century. Reeder says one was sold to a Connecticut couple for their adult son.

10. A #2 PENCIL SCULPTURE (2006) // $40,000

Artists Michael Galbreth and Jack Massing erected this 7-foot-tall sculpture using #2 pencils. “I knew the Art Guys, who made the sculpture, from Houston and had always wanted to offer a piece by them,” Reeder says.

11. A TRITON 1000 SUBMARINE (2007) // $1.44 MILLION

iStock

The modestly-priced Triton was the latest in a succession of nautical offerings by the catalog. In 2000, Reeder had placed a more elaborate submarine listing and subsequently received a series of prank calls. “People asking if we had it in yellow, stuff like that,” she says. Then an employee told her she had a call from someone with the New York Terrorism Task Force. “He asked if there was a privately-owned sub that he needed to be aware of. I told him it didn’t sell and that I thought it was a joke when my operator told me there was a sergeant on the line. He said, ‘When someone told me you were selling a submarine out of a catalog, I thought that was a joke, too.’”

12. A SWANKY CHICKEN COOP (2012) // $100,000

Described by the company as a “bespoke, Versailles-inspired Le Peit Trianon” building, this ornate hen house promised nirvana for its chicken occupants. “We actually advanced funds to the vendor so she could build one for the photo shoot,” Reeder says. “It never sold, but we got publicity on the Today show for it.” The coop featured a nesting area, a farming book library, and a chandelier. Why a chandelier? “You’d have to ask the designer,” Reeder says. "I don't know."

All images courtesy of Neiman Marcus unless otherwise credited.

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iStock
18 Smart Products To Help You Kick Off Summer
iStock
iStock

Whether you’re trying to spiff up your backyard barbeque or cultivate your green thumb, these summertime gadgets will help you celebrate the season from solstice to the dog days.

1. ROSÉ WINE GLASSES; $60

Rosé Wine Glass
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Wine not? When the temperature rises and beer isn’t your thing, reach for the rosé. Riedel’s machine-blown SST (see, smell, taste) wine glasses will give the sparkly stuff ample room to breathe, making every refreshing sip worthwhile.

Find It: Amazon

2. NERF N-STRIKE ELITE SURGEFIRE; $25

Nerf SurgeFire
Hasbro

Why It’s Cool: The N-Strike Elite SurgeFire (say that five-times-fast) sports a pump-action rotating drum for maximum foam-based firepower and holds up to 15 Nerf darts in its arsenal.

Find It: Hasbro Toy Shop

3. BUSHEL & BERRY PLANTS; $34

plant
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: You don’t need to have a green thumb to create a brag-worthy garden this summer. Besides producing snackable mid-season berries, these open-growing bushes can be planted immediately for easy set-up to make you look like a botanical pro.

Find It: Amazon

4. INFLATABLE DONUT; $17

Doughnut float
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: When the only dunking you’re doing is taking a dip in the pool, a 48-inch inflatable donut is the perfect way to stay afloat.

Find It: Amazon

5. STAR SPANGLED SPATULA; $21

American flag spatula
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: O say can you see by your grill’s charcoal light / Meats so proudly we cooked ... with a star spangled spatula. Depending on the specific model, these all-American grilling tools (designed in New Jersey and made in Chicago) are made of a combination of walnut and stainless steel or nylon. As an added bonus: 5 percent of the proceeds go to the Penn Abramson Cancer Center.

Find It: Amazon

6. MLB HOT DOG BRANDERS; $8 AND UP

MLB San Diego Padres Hot Dog BBQ Brander
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Take your hot dogs, sausages, brats, and more out to the ballgame without ever leaving your grill. These branders from Pangea Brands are dishwasher-safe and made of ceramic-coated cast iron.

Find It: Amazon

7. UNA GRILL; $139

grill
MoMA Shop

Why It’s Cool: This portable charcoal-heated grill is as efficient as it is stylish. The compact size lets you cook at the park, after hitting up MoMA, or anywhere in between.

Find It: MoMa Shop

8. HAMBURGER GRILLING BASKET; $21


Why It’s Cool: Made of steel and finished with a non-stick coating, this grilling tool flips four burgers at once and maintains perfect burger proportions to guarantee nobody stays hungry for long.

Find It: Amazon

9. COPPER FIRE PIT; $121

metal fire pit
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: The grill isn’t the only place for a roaring fire this summer. This 100 percent solid copper fire pit makes for the perfect gathering spot at your next BBQ, or just to warm up after a cool summer evening.

Find It: Amazon

10. BENDY STRAW POOL NOODLE FLOAT; $10

Bendy Straw Inflatable Pool Float
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Inflatable pool floats shouldn’t be boring, and this bendy straw float definitely does not suck. This unique spin on traditional pool noodles is sure to make for some cheesy jokes, but at least you’ll be comfortable floating in the pool or at the beach.

Find It: Amazon

11. GRIDDLER DELUXE; $111

Cuisinart GR-150 Griddler Deluxe
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: If you’re looking for some serious panini power, this griddler offers up a versatile lineup of six cooking options in one. And with dual-zone functions you can sling burgers while searing filets and sautéeing vegetables all at the same time.

Find It: Amazon

12. VINTAGE SNOW CONE MAKER; $30

Vintage Snow Cone Maker
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: With its old-timey design, dual cone shelf, and endless flavor options, this snow cone maker is guaranteed create a cool treat.

Find It: Amazon

13. DACHSHUND CORN ON THE COB HOLDERS; $7

Dog Corn Holders
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: While meat-lovers will inevitably scarf down a lot of hot dogs this summer, vegetarians who happen to love another kind of dog will be smitten with these stainless steel, Dachshund-shaped corn on the cob prongs. They’re a fun spin on a summer grilling favorite.

Find It: Amazon

14. ICE CREAM SANDWICH MAKER; $16

Ice Cream Sandwich Maker
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Four sandwiches are better than one, especially when they're of the ice cream variety. Make four ice cream sandwiches at once with this homemade spin on a classic cold treat.

Find It: Amazon

15. UE WONDERBOOM; $68

Bluetooth speaker
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Besides delicious food and great company, some memorable tunes are required for the quintessential barbeque. This portable bluetooth speaker offers up some booming sound in a small package, and with a battery power of 10 hours on a single charge you can keep the party going all night.

Find It: Amazon

16. ROLLORS GAME; $38

Rollors Backyard Game
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: When you’re sick of bocce, hate horseshoes, and you’re over cornhole, you might want to take up “rollors,” a family-friendly game that combines your favorite traditional backyard festivities into one game for people of all ages.

Find It: Amazon

17. HAMMOCK; $174

hammock
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Rest easy knowing that this 100 percent hand-woven and hand-dyed cotton hammock contributes to artisan job-creation in Thailand.

Find It: Amazon

18. VSSL SURVIVAL ESSENTIALS; $59

Emergency Survival Tent Outdoors
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Compact, convenient, and durable, the VSSL Shelter can come in handy when things don’t go quite as planned. The device—which features a lightweight emergency shelter all within the handle of a compact, weather-resistant aluminum LED flashlight—is designed to keep you safe under the worst conditions.

Find It: Amazon

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Illustration by Mental Floss. Image: Rischgitz, Getty Images
11 Things You Might Not Know About Johann Sebastian Bach
Illustration by Mental Floss. Image: Rischgitz, Getty Images
Illustration by Mental Floss. Image: Rischgitz, Getty Images

Johann Sebastian Bach is everywhere. Weddings? Bach. Haunted houses? Bach. Church? Bach. Shredding electric guitar solos? Look, it’s Bach! The Baroque composer produced more than 1100 works, from liturgical organ pieces to secular cantatas for orchestra, and his ideas about musical form and harmony continue to influence generations of music-makers. Here are 11 things you might not know about the man behind the music.

1. PEOPLE DISAGREE ABOUT WHEN TO CELEBRATE HIS BIRTHDAY.

Some people celebrate Bach’s birthday on March 21. Other people light the candles on March 31. The correct date depends on whom you ask. Bach was born in Thuringia in 1685, when the German state was still observing the Julian calendar. Today, we use the Gregorian calendar, which shifted the dates by 11 days. And while most biographies opt for the March 31 date, Bach scholar Christopher Wolff firmly roots for Team 21. “True, his life was actually 11 days longer because Protestant Germany adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1700,” he told Classical MPR, “but with the legal stipulation that all dates prior to Dec. 31, 1699, remain valid.”

2. HE WAS THE CENTER OF A MUSICAL DYNASTY.

Bach’s great-grandfather was a piper. His grandfather was a court musician. His father was a violinist, organist, court trumpeter, and kettledrum player. At least two of his uncles were composers. He had five brothers—all named Johann—and the three who lived to adulthood became musicians. J.S. Bach also had 20 children, and, of those who lived past childhood, at least five became professional composers. According to the Nekrolog, an obituary written by Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, "[S]tarting with Veit Bach, the founding father of this family, all his descendants, down to the seventh generation, have dedicated themselves to the profession of music, with only a few exceptions."

3. BACH TOOK A MUSICAL PILGRIMAGE THAT PUTS EVERY ROAD TRIP TO WOODSTOCK TO SHAME.

In 1705, 20-year-old Bach walked 280 miles—that's right, walked—from the city of Arnstadt to Lübeck in northern Germany to hear a concert by the influential organist and composer Dieterich Buxtehude. He stuck around for four months to study with the musician [PDF]. Bach hoped to succeed Buxtehude as the organist of Lübeck's St. Mary's Church, but marriage to one of Buxtehude's daughters was a prerequisite to taking over the job. Bach declined, and walked back home.

4. HE BRAWLED WITH HIS STUDENTS.

One of Bach’s first jobs was as a church organist in Arnstadt. When he signed up for the role, nobody told him he also had to teach a student choir and orchestra, a responsibility Bach hated. Not one to mince words, Bach one day lost patience with a error-prone bassoonist, Johann Geyersbach, and called him a zippelfagottist—that is, a “nanny-goat bassoonist.” Those were fighting words. Days later, Geyersbach attacked Bach with a walking stick. Bach pulled a dagger. The rumble escalated into a full-blown scrum that required the two be pulled apart.

5. BACH SPENT 30 DAYS IN JAIL FOR QUITTING HIS JOB.

When Bach took a job in 1708 as a chamber musician in the court of the Duke of Saxe-Weimar, he once again assumed a slew of responsibilities that he never signed up for. This time, he took it in stride, believing his hard work would lead to his promotion to kapellmeister (music director). But after five years, the top job was handed to the former kapellmeister’s son. Furious, Bach resigned and joined a rival court. As retribution, the duke jailed him for four weeks. Bach spent his time in the slammer writing preludes for organ.

6. THE BRANDENBURG CONCERTOS WERE A FAILED JOB APPLICATION.

Around 1721, Bach was the head of court music for Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen. Unfortunately, the composer reportedly didn’t get along with the prince’s new wife, and he started looking for a new gig. (Notice a pattern?) Bach polished some manuscripts that had been sitting around and mailed them to a potential employer, Christian Ludwig, the Margrave of Brandenburg. That package, which included the Brandenburg Concertos—now considered some of the most important orchestral compositions of the Baroque era—failed to get Bach the job [PDF].

7. HE WROTE ONE OF THE WORLD'S GREATEST COFFEE JINGLES.

Bach apparently loved coffee enough to write a song about it: "Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht" ("Be still, stop chattering"). Performed in 1735 at Zimmerman’s coffee house in Leipzig, the song is about a coffee-obsessed woman whose father wants her to stop drinking the caffeinated stuff. She rebels and sings this stanza:

Ah! How sweet coffee tastes
More delicious than a thousand kisses
Milder than muscatel wine.
Coffee, I have to have coffee,
And, if someone wants to pamper me,
Ah, then bring me coffee as a gift!

8. IF BACH CHALLENGED YOU TO A KEYBOARD DUEL, YOU WERE GUARANTEED TO BE EMBARRASSED.

In 1717, Louis Marchand, a harpsichordist from France, was invited to play for Augustus, Elector of Saxony, and performed so well that he was offered a position playing for the court. This annoyed the court’s concertmaster, who found Marchand arrogant and insufferable. To scare the French harpsichordist away, the concertmaster hatched a plan with his friend, J.S. Bach: a keyboard duel. Bach and Marchand would improvise over a number of different styles, and the winner would take home 500 talers. But when Marchand learned just how talented Bach was, he hightailed it out of town.

9. SOME OF HIS MUSIC MAY HAVE BEEN COMPOSED TO HELP INSOMNIA.

Some people are ashamed to admit that classical music, especially the Baroque style, makes them sleepy. Be ashamed no more! According to Bach’s earliest biographer, the Goldberg Variations were composed to help Count Hermann Karl von Keyserling overcome insomnia. (This story, to be fair, is disputed.) Whatever the truth, it hasn’t stopped the Andersson Dance troupe from presenting a fantastic Goldberg-based tour of performances called “Ternary Patterns for Insomnia.” Sleep researchers have also suggested studying the tunes’ effects on sleeplessness [PDF].

10. HE WAS BLINDED BY BOTCHED EYE SURGERY.

When Bach was 65, he had eye surgery. The “couching” procedure, which was performed by a traveling surgeon named John Taylor, involved shoving the cataract deep into the eye with a blunt instrument. Post-op, Taylor gave the composer eye drops that contained pigeon blood, mercury, and pulverized sugar. It didn’t work. Bach went blind and died shortly after. Meanwhile, Taylor moved on to botch more musical surgeries. He would perform the same procedure on the composer George Frideric Handel, who also went blind.

11. NOBODY IS 100 PERCENT CONFIDENT THAT BACH IS BURIED IN HIS GRAVE.

In 1894, the pastor of St. John’s Church in Leipzig wanted to move the composer’s body out of the church graveyard to a more dignified setting. There was one small problem: Bach had been buried in an unmarked grave, as was common for regular folks at the time. According to craniologist Wilhelm His, a dig crew tried its best to find the composer but instead found “heaps of bones, some in many layers lying on top of each other, some mixed in with the remains of coffins, others already smashed by the hacking of the diggers.” The team later claimed to find Bach’s box, but there’s doubt they found the right (de)composer. Today, Bach supposedly resides in Leipzig’s St. Thomas Church.

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