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Marge Cowan Dies at 68; Remembered as 'Queen of Florida', Transformed
 the Diplomat in Hollywood, Florida into a Luxury Resort

By Elinor J. Brecher, The Miami HeraldMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

February 23, 2009 - No one could throw a party like Marge Cowan.

Two hundred guests? Two hours' notice? No problem!

"She'd have a full orchestra and ice sculptures -- everything," said daughter Debbie Fishman of Hollywood.

Of course, it helped that Marge and her husband, Irving, owned the old Diplomat Hotel on Hollywood beach, which her father, supermarket tycoon Sam Friedland, opened in 1958 as The Envoy.

The hotel was failing when Marge and Irv took it over in the 1960s. With flair, charm and chutzpah, they transformed it into a luxury resort -- and themselves into one of South Florida's glamour couples.

"Both Irv and I are competitors," Marge once told The Miami Herald. "Not with each other but with the world."

For 52 years, they costarred in a romantic spectacular that ended with Marge's death last week. Marjorie Doris Friedland Cowan, born Oct. 24, 1940, in Philadelphia, died at her Hollywood home, three years after suffering a stroke. She was 68.

Marge Cowan collected Picasso and Chagall, bred racehorses, co-produced a Broadway musical and underwrote a school for the deaf in Israel.

Wanting to do something useful in her mother's memory, she established the Hattie Friedland School for the Deaf for youngsters 6 to 21. The Jerusalem school admits both Jewish and Arab students -- some of whom have developmental disabilities as well -- and is considered an educational model in the Middle East.

A dedicated fashionista, Cowan once owned a French couture label -- Paul-Louis Orrier -- and designed her husband's wardrobe.

If she couldn't see celebrity hairdresser Vincent Roppatte at his New York salon, she flew him to wherever she was -- every third week for 40 years.

Roppatte, who used to shop with Marge in Paris, said that "when she walked in [to the Diplomat lounge] with the opening acts, there was a certain aura that took over.

"She was truly the Queen of Florida."

A Miami Beach High School student when she got married, Marge Cowan was the mother of two daughters by 18 -- and much later, a son, Jonathan, of Hollywood.


An epic entertainer, she "never let a holiday or excuse go by to celebrate," Cowan told The Herald in 1970. For that interview, she spun her chestnut-brown hair into an enormous beehive and wore a necktie made of pearls.

That year, declaring Marge and Irv "beautiful people," the newspaper described a life of hard work and exuberant play: the pool table, the boat, the antique cars -- a Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost and a 1927 Armstrong Siddeley -- and a stable for their daughters' horses.

Debbie and her sister Cindy, now of Los Angeles, were national-champion equestriennes. Accompanying them to events from Madison Square Garden to the Kentucky State Fair, Marge came to love, then breed, horses.

Among her champions: War Chant, ninth-place finisher, of 19, in the 2000 Kentucky Derby.

Adopted as an infant, Marge grew up in the penthouse of the Shelbourne Hotel on South Beach. Sam Friedland, who owned the Food Fair and Pantry Pride supermarket chains and J.M. Fields variety stores, also owned the hotel, now part of Irv's Cowan Enterprises holdings.

Margie Friedland met her future husband -- a cattle buyer and U.S. Coast Guard veteran nine years years her senior -- on a double date at the Fontainebleau Hotel pool.

"She never told me what her real age was," said Cowan, who was Irving Cohen at the time. "I always tell everybody that I should have been arrested."

They married in 1956, two months after she turned 16.

Irv soon became the Diplomat's president and at Marge's prompting -- after an airport customs agent mistook him for an Irving Cohen of ill repute -- changed the name to Cowan.

"A good hotel in that era was show business," Irv said. "You had to create the illusion and sell it."

And no one did that better than Marge, who styled its interiors, nurtured promising employees and helped her husband sign top acts.

"Our first time in New York, we went to William Morris," the talent agency, seeking A-list entertainers like Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. and Bob Hope.

Irv recalls: 'The agent says, 'You can't afford that kind of talent,' and Margie says to him: 'Since when did you become clairvoyant? You haven't seen the hotel or the size of the room. You don't know what we can afford.' That set the tone."

The Cowans didn't just book the big names; they befriended them. They produced a Broadway bio-musical about songstress Peggy Lee, who in 1966 feted them at her Beverly Hills home. The guest list included Judy Garland and Rock Hudson.

Comic Tommy Smothers once gave the Cowan girls a collie. Dionne Warwick and her family spent a Christmas at the house on Diplomat Parkway.

Davis and his wife, Altovise, "are my bother's godparents," said Debbie Fishman. "I remember being sick and having Judy Garland by my bed stroking my arm. Liza Minnelli was a good friend of my mother's. So was [actress] Joey Heatherton" and the original Rolling Stones drummer, Bill Wyman.

"I'd wake up and the Rolling Stones would be laying by the pool," Debbie recalled.


Banker Leonard Abess remembers attending a long-ago party in California for Marge, his lifelong friend, and Irv.

He kept pointing out people he thought were celebrity impersonators: Lucille Ball, Robert Stack, Danny Thomas, Rosemary Clooney, Jack Haley Jr., Kay Starr.

'My wife says, "I don't think those are look-alikes.' We were the only two not-famous people there."

That, said Abess, was Marge's public side. In private, she was attentive and gracious, the kind of friend who never forgot a birthday.

"My mother was in bed, dying," Abess recalled. "For two years and every other day, Margie would send over fresh-squeezed orange or grapefruit juice for her, with a handwritten note."

Marge Cowan was buried next to her mother, Hattie, on Wednesday wearing a pantsuit trimmed in her favorite color: purple.

The family suggests memorial donations to Jerusalem Foundation Hattie Friedland School of the Deaf, 420 Lexington Ave., Suite 1645, New York, NY 10170.


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