Nathan Cummings (1896–1985) was born in Saint John and went on to become an American businessman, investor, and philanthropist. He was the founder of Consolidated Foods, which later became known by one of its product lines, Sara Lee Corporation.
Cummings was the first child of Jewish parents who had immigrated from Lithuania. His Canadian birth was a result of chance, as his parents mistakenly disembarked in Saint John, believing it to be their destination, New York City. The family later moved to Waltham, Massachusetts, where they set up a small shoe shop. They subsequently moved to Manchester, New Hampshire, and eventually relocated their business to Montreal around the time of World War I. Cummings was unable to finish high school but attended the Dry Goods Economist Training School in New York for a year before returning to work with his father. From the age of fifteen, he sold shoes and, at nineteen, took on the job of traveling salesman for a shoe manufacturer.
By 1924, Nathan Cummings had established his own shoe shop and factory, but the business struggled during the Depression, leading him to declare bankruptcy in 1932. Determined to overcome these challenges, he paid off his debts and started anew.
By the mid-1930s, Cummings had invested in McCormicks, a Canadian biscuit and candy company. The success of that business, which he sold to Weston in 1939, led to an invitation to manage the Baltimore-based coffee, tea, and sugar chain, C.D. Kenny Company. Cummings acquired the company in 1941, and its continued prosperity enabled him to expand his holdings and establish a business empire.
Over the next decade, Cummings invested in company after company. In 1945, he set up his corporate headquarters in Chicago and formed the Consolidated Grocers Corporation as a holding company. Time magazine proclaimed him the “Duke of Groceries.”
In 1954, the company name was changed to Consolidated Foods Corporation, which Cummings thought sounded ‘less old-fashioned.’ In 1985, the name was changed once again to Sara Lee Corporation, adopting the name of one of the company’s best-known brands, which Cummings had acquired in 1956.
Nathan Cummings retired from the company in 1968, but remained as honorary chairman and stayed active in company affairs until his death in 1985.
Cummings’ first wife was Ruth Lillian Kellert, whom he married in 1919. She passed away in 1952. In 1959, he married Joanne Toor; the couple divorced in 1976. At the time of his death in 1985, Cummings was survived by three children from his first marriage, Beatrice Cummings Mayer of Chicago [1921-2018], Herbert Cummings of Paradise Valley, Ariz., and Alan H. Cummings of Palm Beach; a sister, Mrs. Monroe Abbey, of Montreal; four brothers, Maxwell, Benjamin, Ralph, and Harold, one sister, Minnie, all of Montreal, and nine grandchildren. Cummings was also related to MGM’s legendary studio boss Louis B. Mayer, as their mothers were sisters.
In 1992, a history of the Cummings family titled David and Bessie Komiensky, Jewish Lithuanian Immigrants: A Brief Family History, was commissioned by friends as a surprise gift for Herbert Kellert Cummings and published by Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.
Starting in the 1950s, Cummings became a major donor to hospitals, universities, arts organizations, and Jewish causes. His endowment established the Nathan Cummings Arts Center at Stanford University and the Joanne and Nathan Cummings Art Center at Connecticut College in New London (Joanne Toor Cummings, his second wife, passed away in 1995). He made significant contributions to the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the Art Institute of Chicago. In 1949, he founded the Nathan Cummings Foundation, which received most of his estate (estimated at $200 million) upon his death. The foundation funds initiatives aimed at building a socially and economically just society.
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