One of the ironies of Eleanor Widmer's life is what she ate in her last months. Widmer had become a restaurant critic in 1974, back when brunch at La Valencia featured molded Jell-O "Seafoam," made with pulped fruit, cream cheese, and whipped cream. In the following years, Widmer had dined on Japanese donburi and barbecue ribs, Peruvian anticuchos and French quenelles, Turkish baklava and Indian raitas, fresh pastas and moles and dumplings. But toward the end, confined to her bed in La Jolla, she wanted only chocolate. Here's what Jonah, her "magical son," the one who loved her, told me. "She'd go to write, and she'd say, 'Honey, bring me a little breakfast.' And I'd say, 'What do you want me to make?' thinking eggs, potatoes, something like that. And she'd say, 'Six Godivas and a little tea.' That was breakfast! And I was, like, 'Hey, you're bedridden. Whatever you want!' "
Jonah claims his mother would have him go to Jonathan's, La Jolla's gourmet grocery store, to buy a coconut cake and a pint of Smucker's hot fudge sauce, and when he returned, she'd tell him to warm the fudge sauce in the microwave. "So I would do this, and I'd bring it to her. She would drink the Smucker's hot fudge straight from the jar."
"Is this true?" I asked him, astonished.
"This is true," he insisted. "She'd say, 'I'll have some of the cake later.' But she wouldn't touch it. She would take a pint of Ben and Jerry's Phish Food. Ever had that? It's the rich stuff. She would say, 'Put it in the microwave for two minutes.' I'd say, 'Two minutes! It's gonna be liquid!' She'd wink at me! She'd drink it. 'Oh, delicious! Hand me my board. I'm ready to write.'"
What I had to understand, Jonah added, was that his mother didn't drink coffee. "So all the pick-me-up was from the chocolate. She used it like people used cocaine in the '80s. She'd have ten Godivas in a minute and a half, and she was ready to write: 'Hand me that pen!'" Toward the end, when she needed oxygen, blood thinners, and other medications, she spent most of her time in bed. But bed was where her career as a writer had started. As a child she'd been struck with scarlet fever, and the rheumatic fever that followed in its wake caused her joints to swell and her heart to develop a murmur. The family physician prescribed bed rest.
It was then, according to Jonah, that the young Eleanor began committing stories to paper. She wrote on a composition board, "like a clipboard without the clip," Jonah says. The Rackow family couldn't afford to keep her supplied in proper notebooks; Eleanor wrote on the paper that had wrapped the family's groceries.
Poor as the family was, food was never in short supply in their tenement apartment on New York's Lower East Side. Eleanor's grandmother, Manya, had been widowed shortly after she and her young husband had emigrated from Odessa to New York. To support herself and a baby son, she'd opened a restaurant serving five-course meals during "dinnertime" -- 11:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Manya's thick head of hair had turned snow white by the time she was 20, and she gave little thought to her appearance, according to Widmer's later recollection in a roman à clef that prominently featured her grandmother. "More often than not, she washed her face and body with the brown kosher soap that contained no fat from forbidden animals, and wrapped her hair in a haphazard bun held together with several large imitation-turquoise hairpins," the granddaughter wrote. "Her cooking shoes were splattered with chicken and goose fat, bits and oddments of duck, salmon roe, even calves' brains. Because she had been raised on the Black Sea, she loved caviar, so every now and then a glistening bead would fall upon her well-fed shoes." But Manya "exuded a sympathetic femininity" and "[t]he smell of food on her body made her no less alluring. More than one male customer winked and said he would like to feed upon her."
Manya had no time for tomfoolery. Her son, Jack, an autodidact with a sense of style, married and moved his bride into his mother's Orchard Street apartment. A delicate 16-year-old with a passion for singing show tunes, Augusta produced three children in the years that followed: first a sensitive boy named Willy, then Eleanor, then another daughter, Barbara. But Augusta and Jack were rarely home. Jack worked long hours in a woman's coat store, and his wife also toiled in the garment business, eventually becoming a buyer for Saks Fifth Avenue. This left Eleanor and her siblings in the doting care of their Bubby (the Yiddish word for grandmother).
Bubby's kitchen was a cornucopia, overflowing with so much food that the children thought nothing of wasting it. "I often added four teaspoons of raspberry jam and four lumps of sugar to my tea and then did not drink it; or asked for chicken and beef and sampled only a bit of each," Widmer later recalled. The family sneered at paper napkins. "In our restaurant, we carelessly threw cloth napkins into the laundry bag after a perfunctory wipe."
Privation counterbalanced alimentary abundance. Winters coated the unheated apartment's windows with frost and ice and ushered a penetrating cold into the rooms. Rats lurked in the hallway, where a smelly communal toilet served everyone on the floor. Although a thousand protective eyes oversaw the children in the teeming Jewish enclave, the Italian gangs that roamed the streets nearby might beat a youngster to death. Most dreadful was illness. "A diphtheria or measles epidemic would spread catastrophe," Widmer later recalled. "When polio raged, children seemed to be carried away overnight." Eleanor's own mother had cardiac problems that were caused by a childhood illness, and in her early 40s she died of a heart attack.
Eleanor graduated with honors from Brooklyn College and won admission to Columbia University's law school. (Although she later told people she was the first woman to be admitted, a law school spokesman says that is not correct.) Eleanor didn't like studying law, she discovered, and she withdrew, according to Kingsley Widmer. By the time Kingsley met her in 1949, the 25-year-old Eleanor had acquired a master's degree in social science from Columbia and was working as the assistant dean of students at the University of Minnesota. She was married to a history professor, whom Kingsley served as an assistant.