Sallie Gail Kantor Key Litchfield Witting of Cherry Hill, who ran Alex Gowns in Upper Montclair for more than 30 years, died at her home on July 1, 2021. She was 80.
Mrs. Witting was born in 1940 in Brooklyn, the only child of Alex Kantor and Mary Band, whose families, seeking freedom and opportunity in America, fled anti-Jewish pogroms in late 19th century Russia and Eastern Europe.
In 1951, Mrs. Witting’s parents opened Alex Gowns Inc., a women’s retail specialty store in Upper Montclair, where she came to appreciate the beauty of color, balance, line, shape, texture and harmony. She embodied her passion for art in a fashion that was never dull. She could sport an iridescent-green beetle brooch on her Louis Féraud jacket as if she were headed to meet the queen for high tea, one of her favorite rituals.
Mrs. Witting was always hungry, especially for food and books. Reading and discussing books gave her intense pleasure, like the caviar and oysters and sturgeon she savored whenever possible. Delicacy or not, not a scrap was wasted with Sallie around, nicknamed “The Zamboni” by her family for cleaning others’ plates. Her high-volume enthusiasm always made the last restaurant she’d visited her favorite, for it had the BEST “fill-in-the-blank.”
As a child she would often go to a friend’s house on rainy days and just sit in a corner and read, as at home it was the rule to go outside no matter the weather. She continued to sprint through books right into her final days. Just a week before her death she stayed up all night reading Nella Larsen’s “Passing.” By the next morning she was texting her daughter about the book.
She engaged with literature as if the author were in the room. That was the fifth book she had devoured that week, including a few by Carl Hiaasen, laughter being her constant companion.
Mrs. Witting asserted her opinions but was never close-minded. She valued education as one of life’s great privileges, and hers included Rutherford High School, Wellesley College, the University of Oklahoma (B.A. and M.A.), and Rutgers Law School (J.D.). She never stopped asking questions; every tour guide she stood next to would concur.
After putting herself through law school while being a newly single mother, she practiced law for several years, retaining a lifelong dedication to the importance of the rule of law and equality under the law.
At her father’s request she took over Alex Gowns. She was proud to have dressed Olympia Dukakis for her Oscar acceptance.
Her passion for art and long career in retail flamed her love of cities, especially Paris, New York and Washington, D.C. In 1960, she studied at the Paris-Sorbonne University on the Sweet Briar Junior Year in France program. She loved to tell the story of being Sam Waterston’s leading lady for their student production.
New York City was also one of her homes, as she had become intimate with its avenues while accompanying her father on weekly buying trips to the Garment District, and decades later her daughter Sarah settled there, becoming a writer.
Mrs. Witting loved to share memories of hot chocolate at Rumpelmayer’s, and she never missed a trip to see the Christmas windows on Fifth Avenue, comparing and critiquing each one to those of years past. In D.C., her daughter Jen practices law, and some of Mrs. Witting’s favorite art resides in the Phillips Collection and the National Gallery, where she used to take her preschool daughters to memorize which artists did which paintings.
From the City of Lights, she returned pregnant and married to her first husband, Hugh Key, much to the surprise of her parents. He introduced her to his religion (Christian Science) and his home state (Oklahoma), where they settled for a few years. She became a lifelong student of Christian Science and communicated for the rest of her life with Hugh about the religion and many shared interests.
She met her second husband (Lawrence “Loss” Litchfield) through the church and shared with him a love of people and an ability to make new friends wherever they went until his sudden passing in 1996. She served the church in many capacities, including as First and Second Reader and president of numerous church boards.
She loved her work as a Christian Science chaplain in the Mercer County Correctional Center, where she used her legal knowledge to help some seek justice.
Her last husband, Paul Witting, was sweet on her since their shared childhood in Rutherford and greatly expanded her extended family. She was proud of his courageous contributions and sacrifices as a Marine and Vietnam veteran.
She taught her many children and grandchildren that class has nothing to do with how much money you have or how you were brought up, but about treating others with love. She did, however, delight in handing out “Tiffany’s Table Manners for Teenagers.” Two days before she died, she gathered family members (18 loved ones were in the house that day) to say good-bye.
After directing each attendee to kiss her cheek, her last words to the younger children were: “Remember what I told you,” pointing at them as they nodded and chorused, “Don’t let the rich and greedy take advantage of the poor and needy!”
Family and friends will miss her gracious gratitude. In elegant handwriting, she prolifically thanked everyone, even for the smallest things, on note cards from the most recent art museum she had visited.
Mrs. Witting is survived by her husband, Paul; her children, Jennifer Key, Sarah Key (and her life partner, Joshua Goldberg), Lucinda Litchfield Gambone, Victoria Lowell, Paul K. Witting (and his wife, Marcella), Chris Witting (and his wife, Julia), and Tim Witting; her grandchildren, Benjamin Key-Comis, Elizabeth Sockolov, Jackie Gambone, Adam Finkel, Chris Witting Jr., Isabella Witting, Angelina Witting, Dylan Witting, Tanner Witting, Lila Witting, Gabriel and Araceli Rodriguez; four great-grandchildren; her former husband, Hugh Key, and his sister, Anne Key Davis.
In her memory, donations may be made to her beloved Wellesley College, sent to the Development Office, Wellesley College, 106 Central St., Wellesley, MA 02481 or made online via wellesley.edu/giving.