Nathan Cummings

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Nathan Cummings (1896–1985) was a Canadian-born 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.

Early life[edit]

Nathan Cummings was born in 1896 in Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada, the first child of Jewish parents who had immigrated from Lithuania. It was pure chance that he was born Canadian: his parents had disembarked in Saint John, the first port of call, assuming it was their destination, New York City. The family later moved to Waltham, Massachusetts, setting up a small shoe shop. They moved to Manchester, New Hampshire, and eventually relocated their business in Montreal around the time of World War I. Cummings was not able to finish high school, but was sent to 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 until, at nineteen, he took on the job of traveling salesman for a shoe manufacturer.

Business career[edit]

By 1924 Cummings had established a shoe shop and factory of his own by 1924, but the business foundered during the Depression, and he was forced to declare bankruptcy in 1932. He paid off his debts and started anew.

By the mid-1930s he had invested in McCormicks, a biscuit and candy company in Canada. The success of that business, which he sold to Weston in 1939,[1] prompted an invitation to manage the Baltimore-based coffee, tea and sugar chain, C.D. Kenny Company. Cummings acquired the company in 1941. Its continued prosperity allowed him to expand his holdings to found a business empire.

Over the next decade, Cummings invested within company after company. In 1945 he established his corporate headquarters in Chicago and formed the Consolidated Grocers Corporation as a holding company. Time proclaimed him the "Duke of Groceries."[2]

In 1954 the company name was changed to Consolidated Foods Corporation, which Cummings thought was 'less old-fashioned', and in 1985 the name Sara Lee Corporation was adopted. Sara Lee was the name of one of the company's best known brands, which Cummings had acquired in 1956.

Cummings retired from the company in 1968, but remained honorary chairman and active in company affairs until his death in 1985.


Cummings' first wife was Ruth Lillian Kellert, whom he married in 1919. She died in 1952. In 1959, he wed Joanne Toor; the marriage ended in divorce in 1976. Upon 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.[3] Cummings was also related to MGM's legendary studio boss Louis B. Mayer. Their mothers were sisters.[4]

In 1992, a history of the Cummings family entitled 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.[5]

Art collector[edit]

As Cummings became increasingly affluent, he began to collect art. His first significant acquisition was made in Paris in 1945, immediately after World War II, when he purchased Camille Pissarro's Bountiful Harvest 1893, which he noticed in the window of an art dealer. He knew nothing of Pissarro, but he was confident in what he liked.

There was little in Nathan Cummings' background to suggest an affinity with art. Later in his life he liked to tell of his first tentative encounter with art: "An advertising man convinced me that I should have a painting made of the view from my window." Cummings liked it so much that he asked the artist to paint the scene a second time - the view at night. His satisfaction with these works sparked an interest in collecting art that was to develop with the passion of the newly converted.

Cummings' collections were diverse, including French Impressionist paintings, modern sculpture, ancient Peruvian ceramics, and works of living artists such as Henry Moore, Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall, Georges Braque, Giacomo Manzù and Alberto Giacometti, who became members of his social circle. He enjoyed friendships with other celebrities, including Duke and Duchess of Windsor and Bob Hope, a good friend who emerged from a giant cake at Cummings's eightieth birthday.

As a collector, Cummings did not confine himself to the acquisition of blue-chip impressionist and 20th-century master paintings. He enjoyed contemporary art and delighted in new discoveries. He often acquired whole series of works by artists he liked, later distributing the works to friends or scattering them around the workplace. At one time he owned a fishing fleet and ensured that each of the fifteen boats was equipped with its own work of art. He bought and sold without expecting to keep the works forever, allowing old favorites to be replaced by new enthusiasms. Cummings expected that everyone would share his passion for art: as well as giving away works of art as presents, he displayed parts of his collection in the offices of his companies for the enjoyment of the staff.


Starting in the 1950s Cummings became a major donor to hospitals, universities, arts organizations, and Jewish causes. His endowment created 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 was the second wife of Cummings; she died in 1995.)[6] He made major contributions to the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and to the Art Institute of Chicago. In 1949 he established the Nathan Cummings Foundation, which received most of his estate (then estimated at $200 million) upon his death. The foundation funds initiatives to build a socially and economically just society.


  1. ^ J. Ernest Kerr, Imprint of the Maritimes, 1959, Boston: Christopher Publishing, p. 71
  2. ^ Time, "The Duke of Groceries", February 7, 1944
  3. ^ Berger, Joseph (21 February 1985). "Nathan Cummings, 88, Dies; Founded Consolidated Foods". The New York Times. Retrieved 10 December 2013.
  4. ^ Mayer, Alicia. "Family History". Blog at Retrieved 13 December 2013.
  5. ^ "ExLibris Rosetta". ExLibris Ltd. Retrieved 12 December 2013.
  6. ^ McQuiston, John T. (20 September 1995). "Joanne Cummings, Art Patron, Collector and Philanthropist, 66". The New York Times. Retrieved 10 December 2013.

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