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"She was a tough cookie," Melissa says. "She told us that we had to be tough, too, or the world would wipe us up."
Flo Stevens was driven to succeed, and for most of the 20th century she did, becoming one of Kansas City's best-known entrepreneurs and a businesswoman of national standing. The chain of modeling schools and talent agencies bearing her adopted name extended across the country. (My own mother attended the Indianapolis branch in the 1950s. "Girls with poise and style," she was taught, "always find husbands.")
Flo's three daughters — Patricia, Melissa and Sheila — were groomed to be stylish, poised and popular. (Melissa's high school friends included members of a teen band called Manchester Trafficway — one of whom was future Kansas City Mayor Sly James.) They weren't just the daughters of a familiar local brand; they were walking advertisements for the family business.
The oldest daughter, Patricia, was voted Miss Teenage Kansas City in 1968. The youngest, Sheila, dressed up as the Easter Bunny every spring for the Easter parade, which her mother started on the Country Club Plaza in 1960 and kept going for three more decades.
When Patricia left the company to work for TWA, Flo set her focus on Melissa. "I was the only one who liked the business," she says. "Even though my mother would go on to fire me three times."
Melissa Stevens sent the company archives — contracts, payroll slips, brochures, correspondence, hundreds of photographs and clippings — to the LaBudde Special Collections of the Miller Nichols Library last year. But she kept something.
"Melissa didn't want to turn over the Easter Bunny costume," says Stuart Hinds, collections director for the library.
She wants to bring back the Easter parade as a Patricia Stevens event. The costume also reminds her of Sheila, who died in her own home in 1984. (The cause was asphyxiation; Melissa Stevens insists that her younger sister was murdered but won't elaborate on her theory.) "We were very close," says Stevens, who hasn't spoken to her older sister, Patricia, in two decades. "We were a close-knit family."
The bunny costume, along with most of Melissa Stevens' possessions, was put in storage last January. That winter, she vacated the place she was renting downtown, the first and fourth floors of a brick office building at 21st Street and Grand.
It was a frigid afternoon the day she collected the last objects left on the unheated upper floor that held her living quarters. Wearing blue jeans, a sweater and a fur-trimmed vest, Stevens sipped from a glass of white wine and chain-smoked cigarettes. One spacious room on the floor still had metal bars hanging from wires screwed into the ceiling; she'd used the room as a walk-in closet for her extensive collection of clothes. There was in the day an unwelcome déjà vu.
The school used to give its students a printed handout titled "Laws for Women to Live By." Rule No. 10: "Love is blind, but marriage is a real eye-opener."
"It was," Stevens says. "It really was."
She wed her husband relatively late in her career. When she and photographer Frank Messer married, she was nearly 40, and her mother was dying. When the union ended in an acrimonious divorce, she says, there came a serious shift in her fortunes. (Messer wouldn't speak to The Pitch about his ex-wife or their settlement. Each claims to have filed first.)