Before alumna Marilu Marshall spoke at the Dean’s Forum at Miami Law, the cosmetics executive sat down to talk about the arc of her life and career.
Like legions of lawyers of a certain generation, the J.D. ’69, was influenced to become a lawyer watching Perry Mason, a popular television drama in the late 1950s and early 1960s about a defense attorney who advocates for the wrongfully accused.
Marilu Marshall, J.D. '69, with Miami Law students
Even though she watched the show with her grandmother, who was firm in her belief that women should marry well and be taken care of and become wives and mothers, Marshall secretly harbored every intention of becoming Perry Mason, and not Della Street, Mason’s secretary who came from a well-to-do family fallen on hard times.
As art-imitates-life, Marshall’s mother was widowed when Marilu was very young, causing the family to move to Coral Gables from New York, beginning her mother’s lifelong career as a secretary. Lawyering wasn’t an option for women to Marilu’s old fashion grandmother; the only three acceptable career paths for women were nurse, secretary, or teacher.
“I dismissed the idea of being a teacher because I am not patient,” she says. “I couldn’t be a nurse; I could not stand the sight of blood. My mother was a secretary, so I could do that.”
But she persisted in her lawyerly aspirations. “My grandmother told me, ‘you can’t do that,’” she says, though Marilu’s mother assured her she could do whatever she was willing to work hard enough to achieve.
Marshall never wavered in wanting to emulate Perry Mason—catch the guilty and make the world a better place—not throughout Coral Gables Elementary School, Ponce de Leon Jr. High School, Coral Gables Sr. High School, or the University of Miami, where she graduated with a full scholarship with a business degree in 1966.
She accepted a full scholarship at Miami Law and connected with the school’s first female dean, M. Minnette Massey who would become “the single most important person in my law school career and education.”
Marshall says that Massey both guided her way and was instrumental in Marshall working for the federal government, even though the dean had counseled her to practice in the private civil sector.
When Massey realized that she couldn’t talk Marshall out of becoming a prosecutor, she steered her toward the federal government and helped with the connections. Marshall was the first woman trial attorney at the Organized Crime and Racketeering Section at the Department of Justice.
From Justice, Marshall joined a congressional commission, charged with studying legal and illegal gambling in the United States and issuing recommendations as to what forms of gambling should be legalized. Marshall and the report received a good bit of media coverage, ending up with Playboy offering her an in-house position.
She would stay at Playboy for eight years before jumping in to the casino business for another 11 years in Atlantic City, New Jersey, a city her report helped build. From there, Marshall joined Cunard Line, operator of the Queen Mary and the Queen Elizabeth ships, as general counsel and chief administrative officer for another dozen years. Estée Lauder recruited her from Cunard, where she has been ever since.
“I like to say that I’ve changed jobs without changing careers,” she says. “I went from crime to congress to casinos to cruise ships to cosmetics and the only thing they all have in common is that they all start with letter C but there is no similarity.
“I encourage young people who feel like they are stuck in a situation to take risks and follow opportunities that are interesting to them even though they may not have been in their planning process. They can nevertheless lead to a very exciting career.”
Marshall has no regrets about not becoming the Della Street to the Perry Mason. She finds being at Estée Lauder during the increased attention to women in the workplace enthralling. It’s a company founded by a woman selling products primarily to women with a great pool of female talent, she says.
“We are rather unique: 84% of our global workforce is women, 40% of our board of directors, and 50% of our senior leadership is all women. Unfortunately, that is still unique in the corporate world. There is still a way to go.”