Dell Williams, who in 1974, after being humiliated by a department-store clerk when she tried to buy a vibrator, was moved to start Eve’s Garden, the New York boutique widely described as the nation’s first sex shop catering specifically to women, died on Wednesday at her home in Manhattan. She was 92.
Her death was confirmed by a friend, Mary Elizabeth Greene-Cohen.
A former actress, advertising executive and Army Wac, Ms. Williams was for four decades a nationally known advocate of women’s liberation, sexuality and sexual health — a stance founded on the premise, as she often put it, that “women have a right to sexual expression.”
She was consulted frequently by the news media on subjects including Valentine’s Day (“Using sex toys is fun, sensual and can bring a couple closer”); vibrators (“Even if it collects dust in your drawer, I say hold on to it”); and the furor around Britney Spears’s 2003 song “Touch of My Hand,” which celebrates female masturbation.
“In the past 50 years or so, even as the medicinal and moral fears of masturbation have ebbed, the stigma still remains — and that’s what is shameful,” Ms. Williams said at the time. “Hopefully, Britney’s honesty and her song can help women overcome feelings of embarrassment and instead embrace something so natural.”
When Ms. Williams founded Eve’s Garden at her kitchen table, discussions of female sexuality in general, and female orgasm in particular, had long been taboo. What sex shops there were — mostly seamy red-light-district affairs — were owned by, and catered to, men.
Today, thanks partly to Ms. Williams’s work, the women’s sex-product industry is a multimillion-dollar concern nationwide.
Begun as a mail-order business, Eve’s Garden has for decades operated a discreet brick-and-mortar store from an upper floor of a Manhattan office building at 119 West 57th Street, between Sixth and Seventh Avenues. For the timid or the out-of-town, the shop still sells by mail order and, in recent years, via a website, evesgarden.com.
Among its offerings are: myriad vibrators, including the Rabbit, a model made famous by an episode of the TV show “Sex and the City” in which Charlotte, played by Kristin Davis, becomes inseparable from one; mint-, cola- and banana-flavored condoms; and a welter of “Fifty Shades of Grey”-licensed products, including the Submit to Me Beginners Bondage Kit, at $60, slashed down from $70.
The shop also sells books, including Ms. Williams’s memoir, “Revolution in the Garden” (2005), written with Lynn Vannucci. The book chronicles her theatrical training with the Method actor Paul Mann, her life in the Communist Party and the feminist movement, her Army career and, in her words, “how a nice Jewish girl from the Bronx ended up owning a sex toy store.”
The daughter of Isaac Zetlin and the former Sarah Bronstein, Dell Zetlin was born in Manhattan on Aug. 5, 1922, and reared in the Bronx. Her given name, according to family legend, was in honor of the socialist journalistFloyd Dell, a staunch champion of the birth-control advocate Margaret Sanger. The surname Williams, which she adopted in adulthood, appears to be a variant of the surname of a man to whom she was briefly married.
When she was an older teenager, Ms. Williams’s memoir recounts, she was raped by a date. Later, after a brief wartime romance, she became pregnant and underwent a painful, terrifying illegal abortion.
In 1945, Ms. Williams enlisted in the Women’s Army Corps. As an entertainment specialist at an Army hospital in Tuscaloosa, Ala., she produced and performed on a daily radio show broadcast to patients, and later toured military bases in a WAC musical. After her Army service, she was involved in theater in Los Angeles before returning to New York, where she pursued a career in advertising.
Eve’s Garden was born of an epiphany, if not quite a miracle, on 34th Street. In the early ’70s, Ms. Williams took a workshop from the sex educator Betty Dodson, an advocate of women’s masturbation. So that women might experiment in private, Ms. Dodson recommended the Hitachi Magic Wand, a cylindrical vibrator nominally sold for aching muscles.
Off Ms. Williams went to Macy’s to buy a Magic Wand. There, she wrote afterward, she found herself face to face with a “pimply 20-something” male sales clerk.
“What do you want it for?” he asked in a carrying voice.
“I left Macy’s that day,” she wrote, “clutching my precious, anonymous brown shopping bag and thinking: Someone really ought to open up a store where a woman can buy one of these things without some kid asking her what she’s going to do with it.”
Ms. Williams’s marriage to Ted Willms was annulled. No immediate family members survive.
Her other work includes helping to organize a 1973 conference on women’s sexuality in New York that drew more than a thousand women and nearly 100 men and attracted coverage in the news media. She was featured prominently in “Passion & Power: The Technology of Orgasm,” a recent documentary film about the history of the vibrator.
Among the other offerings at Eve’s Garden are personal lubricants, instructional DVDs and, for $79.95, the current incarnation of the Hitachi Magic Wand.