At 16, Marilyn Friedman, who was born in Cleveland, Ohio, wanted to be a model. To that end, she started a modeling agency in Cleveland. She was only 16. It wasn’t enough to hold her ambition, so she moved to Hollywood. There, she met a guy she liked, Harry Lewis — a young actor who was starting to get good roles. But on their first date, Harry confessed he had another ambition: he wanted to open a restaurant. That night, she helped him scout locations. They found one — on Sunset Blvd. — and opened in 1950. “It was an overnight success,” says the Los Angeles Times. It was called Hamburger Hamlet, and while it helped that it catered to well-known actors as well as their fans, it was probably even more popular because of an innovation suggested by Marilyn: customers should be able to customize their burgers. Extra cheese, add peppers, hold the bun, whatever; it’s thought that the Hamlet was the first place to offer burgers exactly the way customers wanted them, rather than the “take it or leave it” fare everywhere else. “It would be a wild understatement to call her a ‘woman before her time’,” says her son, Adam. “She was extraordinarily creative, and her instincts were perfect. People who didn’t know better thought my father was the one who ran the show. But she was the woman behind the curtain.” Obviously, once the restaurant was up and running, Marilyn had married Harry.
The Hamlet quickly grew — to 24 locations nationwide — and Marilyn wrote the policy and operations manuals, stressing that a burger at one location should taste the same as any other location, a concept other chains would soon copy. Once the restaurant chain was a huge success, Marilyn went back to fashion, designing the popular “Cardinali” clothing line. It helped that one particular actress wore her fashions: Marlo Thomas, in her hit show That Girl (1966-1971). Lewis still had a hand in the restaurant, suggesting things like low-calorie entrees. (Example: the Sunflower Sandwich, on multi-grain bread and topped with sprouts.) Back then, “no one had heard of such things,” Adam Lewis said, but they sold like gangbusters. “It was always like that. She would come up with an idea, my dad would be skeptical, and then of course she would be right.” In 1987, the couple sold the chain for $29.2 million; without Harry and Marilyn, though, it didn’t grow, but rather dwindled. Harry died in 2013 at 93. Marilyn, the brains behind the “gourmet burger” that’s commonplace today, died on May 3, at 87.