Eleanor Widmer on KNSD 7/39 news
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!' "
Eleanor Widmer in La Jolla, 1958. "I would see Kingsley and Eleanor in swimsuits walking down to the ocean from time to time, and they looked like models."
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.
One recent afternoon at his home in Cardiff, I asked Kingsley, who's now 80, to describe Eleanor as she was when he first met her. "She was a strikingly attractive woman," he reflected. "Long dark hair. Rather dark skin. A fast and endless talker. A quick and somewhat anxious person. Very responsive."
He chuckled at the memory of a comment Eleanor had made years later about Jackie Kennedy's deportment during her husband's funeral. " 'They praise her for standing there like a dummy,' " Kingsley quoted his ex-wife. " 'But I and my Italian friends think she's stupid, cold, rigid, unfeeling, and unresponsive.' Eleanor was very responsive," Kingsley reiterated.
It took a while for romantic sparks to ignite between the two. But when they did, according to Kingsley, the affair that resulted was so "outré" (Kingsley's word) that they made plans to flee Minnesota for Southern California. Eleanor arrived in Los Angeles first, recalls Teddy Pincus, who was then a UCLA coed studying sociology. Pincus says the year was 1951 when Eleanor moved into an apartment with her and another roommate. Eleanor "was on crutches at the time. She'd been in a terrible auto accident and had just gotten out of the hospital," Pincus says. "She'd left her first husband, and I remember every day he would call and say, 'When you are coming home?' Of course, I was just hearing it from her side. She would say, 'Ben, I am not coming back. I am never coming back.' She would go through this conversation every day!"
Pincus remembers Eleanor as being "really a sexy broad. She had long dark hair. She had big boobs! As a matter of fact, she had told me that she modeled for a brassiere company at one time." Sensitive about her clothes and her looks, she couldn't tolerate the presence of a gray hair on her head, Pincus recalls. "She used to pull them out, one at a time."
The two women hit it off. "We became really good friends, and she was teaching me to cook," Pincus says. "She was a marvelous cook. I still use a lot of her recipes." Kingsley arrived on the scene a few weeks later, sans front teeth as a result of the same automobile accident that broke Eleanor's leg. As Kingsley tells the story, that misadventure had occurred back in Minneapolis when he had tried to teach Eleanor to drive his Austin Healy. "She hit the accelerator instead of the brake and drove it into a tree and broke her leg in two places, which I felt very guilty about. She was in the hospital for some time."
Kingsley says he and Eleanor moved to Malibu, and he got a job in Santa Monica making templates for Douglas Aircraft. Eleanor worked in a bookstore. Neither Pincus nor Kingsley could recall when Eleanor and Kingsley finally married. The Widmers spent a lot of time with Pincus and her fiancé, and Pincus laughs at the memory of their time together. "I was going to write a book called 'The Last of My Bohemian Friends.' Because that's what they were. They were really bohemian in those days. They were existentialists, into Sartre and all that. They were pretty far out. We used to have really interesting discussions." The Widmers also "had the wildest sex life of anybody I ever knew!" Pincus exclaims. "She used to tell me all the details! I was a pretty young kid at that time. My first husband and I were very straight, and I'd never heard of some of these things before."
Kingsley says after a few years Eleanor urged him to return to graduate school, offering to study alongside him. Both were accepted into a program of English and comparative literature at the University of Washington, and they moved to Seattle in 1952. Eleanor's Ph.D. dissertation examined the conflict of love and morality in the works of a number of 19th-century woman novelists, including Austen, Eliot, and one of the Brontë sisters. Her progress on this was interrupted in 1955, when she gave birth to a boy whom the couple named Matthew. She also won a cooking contest in Seattle for her apple pandowdy recipe.
Still working on their doctoral dissertations, the Widmers moved to Portland not long after the baby's birth, and Kingsley taught at Reed College for about a year while Eleanor worked at Portland State University. Then, tired of the Pacific Northwest, Kingsley joined the faculty of San Diego State College (as it was called in 1956). After living in Mission Beach for a few months, they moved into an apartment complex on Coast Boulevard in La Jolla. Their next-door neighbor was another young graduate student named Dan McLeod, who today recalls that the Widmers "were an absolutely stunning couple. I would see them in swimsuits walking down to the ocean from time to time, and they looked like models, only more authentic." Eleanor had "astonishing" language skills, McLeod says. (Kingsley confirms that besides English, she spoke Yiddish and Italian very well, along with some French, German, Spanish, and Russian.) "But more than anything else, she was kind -- and so much fun to be around," McLeod says.
As the '50s drew to a close, both Widmers completed their doctoral studies (Kingsley in 1957 and Eleanor in 1959), and for $26,000 they bought a little house on Arenas Street in La Jolla. They had already signed the contract and moved in, Kingsley says, when their realtor came around to confront Kingsley with a problem she was having. "The board of real estate agents in La Jolla is penalizing me for selling to a Jew! You're not Jewish, are you?" he says she asked him. Kingsley wasn't, though he asked if it mattered. She made it clear that the presence of Jews in La Jolla was something the real estate community had worked hard to forestall. Now she was outraged that she might be fined for allowing one to slip in. "She wanted me to prove that I wasn't Jewish. It was grotesquely absurd!"
Kingsley says he and Eleanor (who of course was Jewish) complained to acquaintances, and for a while talk of a lawsuit simmered. But Kingsley says the local realtors finally backed down, partly out of fear of the publicity that would have erupted and partly in resignation to the fact that the new University of California campus would bring other Jews to the community. "That was sort of the end of organized anti-Semitism in La Jolla," Kingsley says.
Eleanor had another baby, Jonah, in 1960, and Kingsley says she also worked hard at writing, producing several children's stories and half a dozen extended essays on literary figures, including Mary McCarthy, John Dos Passos, and Malcolm Lowry. A fictionalized portrait of her father was published as the novella Mr. Jack by Random House in 1964. But none of these efforts thrust her into the limelight the way the trial of Larry McGilvery did.
McGilvery today says he probably met the Widmers at the Nexus, the paperback bookstore he and his wife Geraldine owned. "That's how we met everybody." In November of 1961, the business occupied a storefront at 7405 La Jolla Boulevard. (It later moved to the Wisteria Cottage on Prospect Street.) "We handled a lot of what would now be called countercultural material -- a lot of modern poetry and art. But a full line of books. It was a very nice store, actually," the bookseller reminisces. "People loved coming in there."
The dilemma that confronted the McGilverys that November was what to do with their stock of Henry Miller's controversial masterpiece, Tropic of Cancer. Originally published in France in 1934, the Grove Press had dared early in 1961 to produce a hardcover edition in America. But it cost $7.50, a lot of money at the time, "so there was not a peep out of any of the censorship groups that I know of until a 95-cent paperback was published," recalls McGilvery.
"Then the floodgates opened," he says. In San Diego the chief of police was quoted as saying he would arrest any bookseller who offered the work to the public. McGilvery and his wife had acquired a large number of the paperbacks but had put only a dozen or so copies on display. Those sold almost instantly ("mostly to lawyers," McGilvery recalls), and in light of the police threat, the couple decided not to restock their shelves. A few days later, McGilvery found "this nice-looking young guy on the porch waiting for us. He said he was a student at State College, and he had to have this book for a class he was taking.... We spent at least 15 or 20 minutes, maybe as much as a half hour, trying to show him other books that would be just as good for his purpose." But the fellow was adamant; only the Miller book would do. McGilvery says he finally noticed in a nearby box of books a used copy that a friend had asked him to sell, so he offered this to the young man for 50 cents. "I didn't charge him sales tax."
It was a sting; the young man was a police cadet working undercover. A day or so later, both McGilverys were arrested, and in the months that followed, the case produced big headlines in the San Diego newspapers. Kingsley Widmer had just written the first critical book about Miller's work, so McGilvery asked him to testify at the trial. Concerned that he might look like "the calculating pornographic expert," Kingsley urged McGilvery instead to consider using Eleanor. She also knew the material. She could be very funny, Kingsley pointed out. "And I thought a woman could be more effective than a man."
The trial lasted three weeks, says McGilvery. "It was a big deal." Three expert witnesses testified for the defense. "One was a lovely, matronly young woman who taught English at a religious college on Point Loma," McGilvery says. The second was Robert Kirsch, the well-known Los Angeles Times literary critic. The third, Eleanor, was the only one about whom he felt a bit nervous, McGilvery confides. "She was an archetypal New York Jewish intellectual, and she rubbed many people the wrong way.
"But she kept her cool," the bookseller says, "and she was incredibly articulate. Both she and Kingsley could talk about something impromptu for 15 to 20 minutes and keep it interesting and coherent. She handled it very well. And she produced the funniest moment in the trial," McGilvery says. The prosecutor, Martin Gutfleisch, was trying to embarrass her by having her read aloud portions of the novel, "and he was asking her things like, 'Would you let your sons read this?' " Eleanor had been on the stand for close to three hours, and she was reading a passage where Miller, the protagonist, describes meeting a woman in a dance hall, then dancing out into a passageway and trying to have sex with her. But Miller couldn't quite make the coupling work, though he tried it standing up, leaning against the wall, sitting in a phone booth. It was at this point that Eleanor deadpanned, "Just like Goldilocks and the Three Bears." The courtroom exploded in laughter. McGilvery says, "I do not know how Gutfleisch kept a straight face, because nobody else could. It was three minutes before he came back to Eleanor. She was like that. She was really fast on her feet."
The McGilverys were acquitted, the jury finding that Tropic of Cancer was not obscene under existing California law. "For several months after the trial, I received about equal shares of blame and praise for my role as defense witness," Eleanor wrote years afterward. "One woman accosted me at the beach to assure me that I would go down in history 'as the most unfeminine woman in the world.' And for as long as a year, my appearance at a concert or even at a supermarket would cause some people to whisper about me, referring to me as 'that obscenity woman.' "
Kingsley says he sometimes marveled at his wife's passion for La Jolla, given the anti-Semitism she'd encountered and the hate mail she received after her courtroom testimony. But love La Jolla Eleanor did, perhaps because she could walk to the places she needed to go to in the heart of "the Village." Kingsley had decided, "probably foolishly," he says, to give his wife more driving lessons after the couple settled in Southern California, but the second attempt also ended in disaster. "She ran into a signpost and injured her leg. She didn't break it, but she sprained her ankle and so on. Well, that finished her with driving... She never tried it again."
To get to places beyond the Village, she needed chauffeuring, and that caused friction between them, Kingsley told me. Further tension resulted from the family's 1963 move to Israel, where Kingsley had a senior Fulbright appointment as a professor of literature at the University of Tel Aviv. Local children threw rocks at Matthew and Jonah on their way to and from school, and a series of fiascos bedeviled the family. After three months, Eleanor had had enough, says her ex-husband, and she packed up and returned with the boys to La Jolla, leaving Kingsley to finish his academic commitment alone. He later took a series of visiting professorships at a number of other cities around the world, and in the early '70s he worked on setting up courses for sailors on aircraft carriers, a stint that took him throughout Asia. "But Eleanor wouldn't go on any of these trips, and it became a great source of conflict between us," Kingsley reflects.
Another was the subject of child rearing. They had "totally different expectations. Totally different value systems," according to their son Matthew. "I was the first kid, and my dad was a lot more actively involved with me. He was an old-school Lutheran from Minnesota. So I had all sorts of rules. He didn't want a second child, and by the time my brother came along, he'd given up. So she pretty much raised [Jonah] on her own.... She kind of came from the hippie perspective of no punishment. She always bragged that she had never in her life said no to him. It was all positive reinforcement. No negativity." One of the few rules, according to both sons, was that they address their parents as "Ellie" and "King." "My parents would not allow us to call them Mother and Father," Matthew says. "That was part of the '60s thing, you know. 'Oh, we're equals. We're buddies.' "
When I asked Jonah, who's as much a raconteur as his mother, what it was like to grow up as Eleanor's son, he called it "a unique experience." The Widmer household was a hotbed of radical politics, in his recollection. "[Herbert] Marcuse came to my house and brought me dinner when I got expelled from the fourth grade for punching a kid who had a Nixon sticker," Jonah boasted. "I didn't have a fucking grape till I was 14 years old because that's how long the grape boycott lasted! My father was the president of the SDS [Students for a Democratic Society], the biggest left-wing movement there was!"
Kingsley acknowledges that he has long been a political radical. Although a combat veteran of World War II, he later refused to register for the draft (because he wasn't allowed to designate himself as a conscientious objector) and as a consequence served a few months in a maximum-security prison. He says he was the faculty advisor (not "the president") for the San Diego State University chapter of SDS and was deeply involved in the antiwar movement. "But Eleanor was not as active in politics as I was," he contends. "As a matter of fact, she was really a very traditional liberal. She corresponded with Eleanor Roosevelt, for example. And later she did some work for the Democratic Party. That sort of business."
One thing both father and son agree upon is the quality of Eleanor's memory. Her ex-husband describes it as eidetic. Jonah says, "Last year, two months before she died, my coworker's son was struggling with his Shakespeare paper. I said, 'Oh, don't worry. I'll get this fixed in a second.' I called up my mother, and she said, 'Ohhh! I haven't read that in 50 years. But it goes like this,' and she started barking out quotes!" Jonah added that he was tested when he was around ten and was found to have an IQ of 195, "and that meant to my parents I was the third dumbest one in the family. This family was smart, smart people."
The intellectual firepower exploded at the dinner table. Jonah says when he had dinner at friends' homes and did not find their families fighting at the table, "I didn't think it was dinnertime. Because at my house, that's what dinner was -- fighting over literature. And it would last two to three hours. Gourmet food and fighting over the interpretation of literature. I remember my father once saying, 'You have Bartleby the Scrivener completely wrong, you ignorant whore!' My brother and I would look at each other and say, 'Oh, I guess he doesn't like his entrée.' "
I wondered how good Eleanor's cooking was, and I found that the answer to that question depended on whom I asked. She was "a gourmet chef all the way," according to Jonah. "My typical lunch," he told me, "was a thermos full of lobster bisque and a crab Louis sandwich on homemade pumpernickel. Then I would come home and have rack of lamb with homemade mint sauce for my after-school snack. And she made everything from scratch -- rolled out her own noodles; never used a can of tomato sauce. None of that stuff! She would make stuffed cabbage just like her grandmother made, the old-fashioned way. She would grind her own veal, from scratch."
His older brother Matthew contends, "She was not a good cook at all." "You've got to define your standards. I'm in the restaurant business, and to a person in the restaurant business, no, she was not a good cook. I mean, she made spaghetti. She'd throw a box of hamburger, three jars of tomato sauce, and two jars of mushrooms in, and that was spaghetti sauce.... And she only had, like, seven meals she would rotate. Until I was 19 years old, I thought all meat was dark gray in color. She never liked spices, had chronic heartburn, so she liked bland Jewish cooking."
Kingsley says she cooked well "in a very freestyle way. She used to say, 'All I need is imagination and a bent fork.' " Emulating her grandmother, "She never used a mixer or a Cuisinart or any other fancy gadgets," her ex-husband says. Larry McGilvery, who along with his wife remained friends with the Widmers after the Miller trial, told me Eleanor "was a splendid cook. I don't eat hamburger anymore, but she made the best hamburgers I ever tasted. It wasn't just ground meat. There was other stuff in them."
"I thought she was an excellent cook," says Jonathan Saville, who dined at the Widmers' table on many occasions. "She had a limited repertoire, but she did it terrifically. Persimmon pudding was one of her great things. Another was a chocolate cake with cherries. They were simply fabulous. And then she did Thanksgiving dinners, Christmas dinners, and things like that. It was not fancy French cooking or anything like that. It was good, solid, delicious, and very generous American cooking."
Saville knew Eleanor from UCSD, where he had been hired in 1968 and she had started working in 1969 as a part-time faculty member, teaching English survey courses. When Saville became aware that the Reader's editor and publisher, Jim Holman, was looking for a restaurant reviewer, the professor suggested his lively colleague. Holman says his first memory of Widmer is of the day she showed up at the garage of the Nautilus Street house that served in 1974 as the Reader's office. She was entering a small-images art contest the paper was sponsoring, but she also mentioned that she had written for the Village Voice. She later sent him clips of her work, and he asked her to try writing a restaurant review. The result -- a visit to the Ballast Room in the Buffum's department store in Fashion Valley -- ran July 4, 1974, under the headline, "Is It Granada I See or Only a Parking Lot..."
Breezy and opinionated, it included hints of the writer's eccentricity. "I am a warm plate freak," she confided at one point in that article, "and never serve at home without heating my plates in the oven. Since there is no history of this nicety in my family, it must stem from the Bette Davis movie Dark Victory, where the doomed heroine retires to the country with her doctor husband. In one scene where she is being heroic as only Davis can be, she flashes her bravest smile to George Brent and remarks, 'The plates are very hot.' " Widmer also offered detailed advice for cooking the Ballast Room's "perennial favorite" lunch item (a triple-decker sandwich deep-fried in oil) at home.
Two weeks later, another piece by Widmer appeared, this one offering readers the first glimpse of the literary vein she would mine so heavily in the years to come. "As I learned at my grandmother's knee, the basic rule for the blintz is a thin crepe bursting with filling," she announced in assessing the brunch at the Hotel del Coronado's Crown Room (whose blintzes she dismissed as "a travesty"). Soon her critiques appeared weekly. Holman paid her only $10 or $15 per column, plus her dining expenses. At 50 she still couldn't drive, so she had to inveigle a friend or family member into picking her up at her house in La Jolla, conveying her to the restaurant, paying for his or her own meal (since the Reader paid only for Widmer's), then taking her home. Because she didn't drink, she couldn't evaluate wines. She disliked strong spices and despised Mexican food (according to her sons), but she concealed that and other prejudices and tackled the job with energy.
Her adventurousness impressed Holman. At his urging, she visited a jail, a school cafeteria, a skid-row chow line. She ventured south of the border, occasionally ranging far from Revolución. "I remember her trying a tiny restaurant above the cemetery in Tijuana that served goat and quail," Holman says.
From Widmer's perspective, the column gave her a forum to write -- not only about food but about herself, and as she settled into the job, she shamelessly mixed the two topics. She began a 1978 review of a restaurant called Monique's on Rosecrans by informing her readers that she had just prepared a nine-course Passover feast "using as my equipment a broken fork whose tines show the wear of pulverizing chicken livers, a 99-cent old-fashioned chopper, identical to the one my grandmother used, and a one-sided grater which I've had lo these 20 years." When she'd told this to a friend, she wrote, the friend had exclaimed that even Julia Child used a Cuisinart at times.
"True enough," Widmer continued. "I always mean to buy one of these labor-saving devices, but I can never bring myself to invest in costly equipment. Moreover, I would have to learn how to run the gadget and how to clean it. While I stand in awe of people who take lessons in applying Cuisinart technique, it seems much handier for me to reach for my broken fork than to become a student of this new technology." Only at that point in the article did Widmer turn her attention to the French food at hand.
Her family and friends, past and present, became fodder for the column, as Widmer conjured up the spirit of her nurturing Bubby, her charismatic father, and her twittering Aunt Bertha (whom she fictionalized as an outrageous present-day dining companion). Even her "lame and battered" adopted dog, Baryshnikov, turned up upon occasion, as did her "redwoods" (Widmer's sentimental term for her two lanky sons). The vivid personal anecdotes might have overshadowed her sometimes sketchy reviews of the restaurant, but those Widmer bolstered with jaunty certainty. Advice about what to eat and how to optimize one's dining experience she delivered with the classic Jewish mother's knowing confidence. Of Effendi, a Turkish restaurant in Mission Beach: "Do not be put off by the bar directly downstairs which reveals, among other sights, pubescent girls baring their midriffs over grimy jeans and spaced-out characters discussing metaphysics in the basic vocabulary of four-letter words. I've been there twice and one of my friends (a sociologist) remarked that he didn't fear that anyone would break into his car as much as that it would be spat upon." Of L'Escargot, one of Widmer's longtime La Jolla favorites: "Be sure to inquire about the cost of the nightly specials. They are seductive to the ear when they are recited by the waiter, but it is not bad manners to ask about the cost rather than suffer pangs of regret later."
Popular with readers, Widmer on a number of occasions turned to subjects that had nothing to do with dining. Perhaps her biggest journalistic coup was her discovery that the suntanned and athletic young man who picked her up one day when she was hitchhiking in La Jolla was none other than Michael Copley, the son adopted by publishing magnate James Copley and his first wife Jean. At the time, Michael and his sister Janice were embroiled in a lawsuit charging Helen Copley and her son David with fraud and fiduciary irresponsibility in their handling of James's estate. Widmer persuaded Michael to talk to her about his bleak childhood and icy exclusion at the hands of Helen, and the resulting article ("Slow Fall from Foxhill," July 6, 1978) offered some of the first published insight into the Copleys' tortured family affairs.
In that article, Widmer kept her own eccentric persona to a minimum, but in other feature stories, it flickered, inextinguishable. In 1979 she persuaded the legendary psychologist Carl Rogers to grant her an interview, but when her taxi was late arriving at his hillside La Jolla home, the 77-year-old father of encounter groups "was crotchety," she reported, and reprimanded her for her tardy arrival. When she later became aware that another interviewer had arrived, she asked to meet with Rogers again, prompting him to complain, "Why did you tell me it would only take an hour?"
She replied, "Interviews are organic.... If you're with someone who has little to say, it takes less than an hour. In this case, I still have many questions to ask." (Rogers relented and seemed in a more "receptive mood" on her return visit, although Widmer, long the devotee of protracted Freudian psychotherapeutic excavations, could not suppress her disdain for the more streamlined Rogerian approach.)
As another journalistic project, she set her sights on bon vivant Jack Vietor, the 64-year-old heir to the Jell-O fortune and onetime publisher of San Diego Magazine. Widmer met with him at his La Jolla home on several occasions, the most memorable of which was a sunny day in November. Here's her description of what transpired:
"Our appointment is for two o'clock, and I am told to be prompt because at three, Jack is having a massage. Nevertheless, I wait ten minutes in the living room before Jack ambles in draped in a yellow terrycloth robe. 'Let's sit in the patio,' he suggests. 'I want to get some sun.'
"I acquiesce," Widmer continued, "though I am wearing a wool turtleneck sweater that I donned earlier in the morning when the weather was nippy. Although I keep my back to the sun, I am uncomfortably hot. Jack Vietor discards his robe, and with his swimming shorts tucked beneath his paunch, he suns his mellow belly. Licking his teeth and making a grimace that is half smile, half protest, he tells me that his autobiography, Instant Dessert, is in the process of revision, and hence he is reluctant to duplicate anything which may appear in his book." But she presses him, and Vietor discourses on his youth, oblivious to Widmer's increasing physical discomfort. Finally, she asks "whether I can remove my sweater." She then goes into his bathroom, strips off her turtleneck, wraps a bath towel around her considerable bosom, and returns to the interview. "Jack blinks into the sun and goes right on talking" about his blind date with Joan Crawford in 1955 during which Crawford got drunk on 100-proof vodka. Then, "It's three o'clock and time for Jack's massage. Slowly he walks out of the patio, into the braceful shade of his house and leaves me [to] unwind the towel, replace it with my sweater, send for a taxi."
Along with the journalistic triumphs, the second half of the 1970s dealt Widmer two personal setbacks. Her marriage to Kingsley had eroded to the point that "they were the Bickersons," says one friend from that era. "They squabbled about everything. They were at their best squabbling when they were at the dinner table. They would be arguing about F. Scott Fitzgerald or something like that, and it was exciting. There was vigor and vehemence in the discussion but not malice. But they also had fights about how to bring up the children and about money and about everything else, in which there was an underlying sense that these were two people who were at cross-grains."
In 1977 Kingsley informed his wife that he was having an affair with a state legislator in Oklahoma (where Kingsley had had a couple of academic sojourns). The Widmers separated, and Eleanor at first was furious at being discarded for another woman. But Kingsley agreed to give her the house they had bought on Soledad Avenue, an ungainly multileveled structure set into a steep hillside. By the time their divorce was final two years later, she was ready to move on, according to Jonah. "She used to kiss the wall when she walked into the house, [relieved] that he wasn't there," he says.
Her departure from the UCSD teaching staff the year before was another source of disappointment. Although Widmer had been hired on a year-to-year basis, with no expectation of tenure, she expressed indignation when the literature department in 1976 declined to make her a permanent member of the faculty. But "she had not published, and there was no evidence she was going to publish or be a scholar or anything like that," one former colleague told me. Another added that she also "was not liked" by her fellow faculty members. "She behaved like a hippie, though she was some decades older than the students who were such. She taught in a loose and much too permissive way." The source added that Widmer's case also was not helped by the fact that she was championed by Jonathan Saville, who by that point had become alienated from many of his colleagues in the literature department.
I heard a different evaluation of Widmer's teaching from Dan McLeod, the Widmers' former neighbor on Coast Boulevard. McLeod had gone on to get his Ph.D. in literature, and by the early 1960s he'd joined the faculty at San Diego State. He says after Widmer failed to get tenure at UCSD, she was hired to teach writing and English classes at SDSU. "I would have let her teach anything she wanted to teach," adds McLeod, who became the department chairman a year or two after Widmer began there. "Her overwhelming love for students and equally overwhelming enthusiasm for just about everything interesting in life characterizes her for me," McLeod said. While at SDSU, "She was among the most popular faculty members," he contends, "both with other faculty as well as students."
Several former students told me they had fond memories of her as a teacher. Russ Lewis took a magazine-article writing class from Widmer in the spring of 1981. He says Widmer's lively presentations often reminded him of a Saturday Night Live skit. "She loved to talk. Sometimes on topic, sometimes not." Widmer urged Lewis to submit one of his stories to the Reader, and when it was accepted, she took him out for ice cream to celebrate. "She told me, 'I couldn't be prouder unless it happened to one of my own progeny,' " Lewis recalls. Widmer also later recommended him for a proofreading job at the Reader, a job he still holds today.
Greg Llacer didn't know that Widmer would be his professor when he signed up in 1980 for an evening advanced composition class, one of his general-education requirements. "It was one of those situations where they don't tell you who the instructor is," he says. "So I went into the room, and when she said, 'My name is Eleanor Widmer,' I nearly fell out of my chair. Because I was a huge Reader fan, in all ways, from my junior year in high school. I thought, 'Eleanor Widmer! Oh my God!' "
I asked Llacer (who today is a fellowship-program director at Harvard) what he recalled about Widmer's teaching style, and he replied, "Eleanor taught through storytelling.... To be successful in her class, I think, you would have to allow osmosis to kick in so you could somehow absorb the elements that made her speaking style so captivating: the ability to spin a yarn in narrative form, to create a scene you could replay in your head, to keep the story moving through time -- all of those things."
Not long after Llacer's class with her began, Widmer announced one night, "Listen, I need someone to drive me." She explained to the students that she lived in La Jolla and was having a difficult time getting to SDSU. Llacer says since he was living in University City at the time, he volunteered. "That's how it all started. It was very much a Driving Miss Daisy kind of thing."
He also stepped forward when Widmer decided she needed help preparing her weekly restaurant column. "She had this battered old typewriter that was on its last legs," he recalls. His part-time job at UCSD made it easy to help her out. "I would get her copy on Sunday night, then go to my office [at UCSD] and type it up and fix things. It was very minor editing. I don't think she ever knew." He deposited the typed manuscript at her door, and the next morning someone from the Reader would pick it up. Llacer thinks Widmer at first paid him $15 per column, later $20. But it was costing him just $350 to live in the studio cottage he had moved to a block off the beach on the salt flats in Del Mar. Furthermore, "Just knowing her added a completely different dimension to my world."
Llacer typed more than the columns. He says Widmer was always working on other writing projects, such as a novel called "The Woman's State," which he typed in the cottage one summer on an IBM Selectric. As he recalls, "It was about how Las Vegas was going to be reconfigured as a state just for women." Llacer says he found the story "very interesting.... It was weird, but it had all the elements she was interested in. It had feminism. It had politics. It had romance. It had everything. It was a little bit irreverent. That's very much a part of her private self. She was very irreverent."
Llacer says the first time he accompanied Widmer to a restaurant was in the fall of 1980. Their destination was the Kaiserhof, which had opened near the Waring exit off Interstate 8. Llacer's sister went along for the adventure, and "We got all dressed up for it," Greg recalls. "I didn't know what to expect." What they got was "a truly awful experience." After being kept waiting for a table and turning up their noses at an insipid French onion soup, they found the sauerbraten served to Greg's sister appalling. "You really couldn't swallow it without gagging," Widmer later reported to her readers. "All three of us tried it and all three of us agreed -- something was terribly wrong with this dish." When they reported to their waiter that it was inedible, he summoned the hostess, who snapped, "We reserve the right not to seat people. We don't ever want you to come back to this restaurant again."
If they never returned there, Llacer accompanied Widmer in the years that followed to countless meals at countless other restaurants. Restaurants were "where the oxymoronic side of Dr. Widmer resided," he told me. (Throughout their more than 20-year-long relationship, he always called her Dr. Widmer.) On one hand, she wanted her identity to be secret "because she wanted to maintain that level of confidence in her readers that she was doing a good job." But on the other hand, she was a public figure whom people often recognized. Llacer says it made for many awkward moments. "For instance, she would tell me to ask people about how things were prepared. I felt ridiculous doing that, because here I was, this college-age guy, asking about how a sauce was prepared. College-age guys don't care about things like that." He remembers a Russian food festival in Bird Rock to which he accompanied Widmer and Saville. On that occasion, "Another reviewer came in and said, 'Oh, hello, Eleanor!' And she just shriveled up like a snail and went, 'Shhhh!' It was really hilarious. There was always this weird tension about being on a mission but also being recognizable."
Llacer didn't find her aversion to spicy food peculiar. "She knew what she was resistant to," he says, but at the same time, "She really was trying to be conscientious." Her solution was to have him order spicy dishes and report his opinion to her. "I loved spicy food, so I was more than willing to be her guinea pig," he says. "And she would always try to taste it too, but then her constitution would just fall away, and she couldn't tolerate it."
As a result of their culinary adventures, "I received about as complete an education in food as one could ask for without going to cooking school," he says. "As a college-age guy whose idea of a great meal was extra Secret Sauce and pickles on my Jack in the Box cheeseburger, I was introduced to ethnic foods completely unknown to me...some in the most modest of settings, others very sophisticated, some really terrific, others unbelievably bad." Moreover, since he polished and typed her column, Llacer learned how the meals had been prepared, what the ingredients were, the history of the cuisine, and other insights. "So I learned about food in a way I am certain I otherwise would not have."
When Widmer in the mid-1980s began hosting a weekly two-hour radio program on KSDO, that became another learning experience for Llacer, who not only drove her to the station but also served as the show's producer. "Basically, I would answer the phones and get an idea of what the question was or try to help the caller focus the question." Along with others who listened to Widmer's radio appearances (which in the '90s shifted to KPBS), Llacer was awestruck by her prodigious memory. "She had this amazing capacity to recover knowledge," he says. Although she brought a little card file to the station, she rarely used it, and then only to check phone numbers and street addresses, "as opposed to what she thought about the place or what they served. She provided really valuable information. People loved the show."
Those radio sessions sometimes thrust Widmer and Llacer into the sort of burlesque adventures they got entangled in while dining out. Llacer recalls a time when the owners of a local restaurant, enraged by a critical review, were trying to obtain a photograph of Widmer. One Sunday, Llacer and she had parked in front of the KSDO station in Normal Heights and were walking up to the building. "This was during a time where she was really trying to protect her identity," Llacer says. "She had this babushka kerchief that she would wear over her head, and she would take off her glasses, so I had to guide her along the sidewalk very slowly." It also was during a period when Widmer was talking about local pizzerias, so "we were bringing a pizza every week to the radio station." Llacer was holding a pizza in one hand and leading Widmer with the other, when a man approached with a camera. "I had to put the pizza down and kind of push my hands in front of his face." Someone at the radio station's door called out encouragement to Widmer, who stumbled in that direction, while Llacer continued to fend off the paparazzo.
Llacer says he also accompanied Widmer to Channel 10 on a couple of occasions in the 1990s, when she began offering restaurant commentary on the television station. "That was kind of hilarious because she was wearing this ridiculous wig." The TV version of Widmer seemed "a little too weird" to Llacer, he says. "In my mind, she was great for radio because she had this character you could picture in your mind even over the airwaves."
Widmer's radio persona also captivated Laura Buxton. The longtime local newscaster says listening to Widmer on KSDO made her think of "someone's marvelously intelligent, eccentric aunt who had this encyclopedic knowledge of local restaurants and cuisine," and when Widmer later became a regular on Channel 10's Inside San Diego (which Buxton hosted with Bill Griffith), "I adored her." Buxton bursts into laughter remembering Widmer's reaction to silent signals to wrap up her presentation. " 'I see our time is up!' she would trill. And her voice would get high," Buxton recalls. " 'Thank you, darling.' 'My darlings' -- that was her catchphrase.... She was so nontelevision -- which made her perfect for television. McCluhan would have loved her, I think."
Buxton says she and Widmer became friends. One of her "all-time favorite Eleanor memories" is of attending with Widmer a performance of Chekhov's Cherry Orchard at the La Jolla Playhouse. During the intermission, Buxton says Widmer held the occupants of the surrounding rows spellbound, "regaling them, enchanting them, with fundamental insights into Russian literature and the development of Chekovian character and what a cool guy he was and how we all would have loved him." The two also attended ballets together, and "we always talked about breast cancer."
In 1987, Widmer had discovered a pea-sized lump in her right breast. When a biopsy found it to be cancerous, she had both her breasts removed (the left one to prevent future tumors from developing in it). Subsequent testing found no spread of the cancer to her lymph nodes, so she needed neither radiation nor chemotherapy. What she did need was to tell others about what had happened to her. She wrote about it in the Reader in March 1990. ("Although I was married, had two sons, acquired advanced degrees, and enjoyed an exciting career, I often defined myself in terms of my breasts," she confessed in the first sentence. "Whenever I saw Marilyn Monroe on the screen, I thought, 'Well, she's got nothing on me.' ") Later that year, she was still talking about it, I can attest. I remember dropping something off at her home one day and having her whip off her blouse and prosthetic bra to show me her scars. Then she insisted on digging out an old photo, taken when she was topless, to illustrate the magnitude of her loss.
She was still talking about her missing breasts when Charles Kaufman met her early in 1995. Kaufman had opened his Hillcrest bakery, Bread and Cie, a few months earlier, and he says he was baking there one morning when he heard that Eleanor Widmer was on the premises. "At that time," Kaufman says, "Eleanor Widmer was not [just] part of the critical food community. She was the food critic in San Diego. She had her column in the Reader and her KPBS weekend-afternoon radio show. She had a TV segment." She'd written several guidebooks to local dining. Kaufman says when he approached her table, she grabbed his hand and placed it on her left breast. "Feel this!" he says she demanded. Kaufman tries to mimic Widmer's unmistakable voice, but all that comes through is the strong New York accent. " 'I had cancer. This is a fake boob. I should be dead now. Don't I look great? I'm so hot, and by the way, your bread's great.' "
The uninhibited wackiness enchanted Kaufman, and he wound up on her list of chauffeur-dining companions. "She would tell these fantastic stories about her past. And you would never really know if they were true or not. But just when you thought, 'Oh, she's stretching things,' or 'she's full of it,' something would come up and you'd learn, for example, yes, she was the first Jew to move into La Jolla." Widmer "was certainly intrigued with herself, to say the least," Kaufman acknowledges. "Her three favorite topics were food, film, and herself, and not necessarily in that order." Sometimes instead of talking, she would launch into song. "She thought she had the most fantastic voice. She would sing old classic standards, which I love, at full voice, singing very romantically and staring into my eyes."
Kaufman says sometimes Widmer would telephone him and announce, " 'I've got terrific news for you! I'm gonna bring a poem [that she had written] to read.' And I'd think, 'Ah shit. I've got to listen to this.' " Over dinner, when Widmer read the poem, "It would inevitably end up with her crying, 'cause she was so emotionally affected by it. But --" here Kaufman leans forward for emphasis -- "the poems were great! Inevitably, they would get me too!"
Over time, Kaufman came to believe that Widmer had "an amazing brain." Upon occasion, "when I could get her not to talk about herself," he confided in her about business decisions he was facing, and he found "she was remarkable. She could grasp a situation remarkably fast. Looking back, the advice that she gave me was always good. Which was amazing. To speak to her on a normal basis, you wouldn't expect that." Widmer also was very smart about "basic things," Kaufman asserts, citing how, as her health worsened, she came to the bakery to buy bread more often. (He says she was "always meticulous" about not accepting any without payment.) He found out she was buying the bread for her doctors. "And she said, 'In order to get good doctor treatment, you have to make sure they know you are a human being and you have a life and kids and you're giving something.' "
Widmer could be "a delight one moment and a nightmare the next," according to Larry Rinehart, who knew her for almost 20 years. Back in the mid-1980s, Rinehart owned a little Encinitas restaurant called Rinehart and Co. Jonah had discovered it, and when he brought his mother in, "Eleanor and I clicked," Rinehart says. "She was like the ultimate New York bubby." The effect of a rave review from her could be "amazing," Rinehart recalls. "She could put lines out your door. She could ring your phone off the hook. And some people loved her for it, and some people resented her."
Rinehart thought her "divine...a creature who, if you got her on your team, ceaselessly promoted you." Right from the start, she loved his cooking. Widmer might be on the radio, he says, and she'd say, " 'At the Blah-Blah-Blah Grill Stop, they serve a profiterole -- but it's nothing compared to Larry's at Rinehart and Co.' That kind of thing. She would just slip it in all over."
When Rinehart closed his restaurant and became a caterer, Widmer wrote "a huge story" on a sit-down dinner he prepared for 800-plus attendees of the Jewel Ball. "I believe that's when her editor said, 'Okay, enough of this guy.' At least that's what she told me." Rinehart says he didn't mind; he says he'd considered all the good publicity she'd given him "a lovely little gift."
Rinehart became yet another of Widmer's dinner mates. "She saw everything in 15 different layers, all the time," he found. "It was like the world was a novel, and if she didn't particularly care for where the world was going, she would rewrite the chapter. She was hysterical. There were times when we would laugh to the point of near-peeing because she would be carrying on."
I asked him what he thought of her critical skills, and he replied, "I thought she needed coaching. She was very fastidious about flavors and blends and appropriateness, but it all came from a very classical background. She was not an expansive thinker about the evolution of food styling and food prep. So, like when Kemo Sabe opened, Eleanor just never really gave poor little Deborah Scott much of a thumbs-up, because she didn't understand that food at all. We had gone out to Deborah's very first place, and it was more traditional.... And [Widmer] liked that. But once Deborah began to evolve into her true culinary personality," Widmer was baffled, Rinehart says.
Rinehart says his dining experiences with Widmer thus "were very much about 'No, no, no. Don't look at that. Pay attention to this, and understand that in order to do this, they had to blanch and chill and then peel and julienne and then sauté. It may look casual on your plate, but there's work here.' And she got it. She always got it," he says. At that same time, she never lost her preference for classic preparations.
Rinehart was not the only one aware of Widmer's critical limitations. By the 1990s, Reader publisher Jim Holman had become uncomfortable with the formulaic quality of Widmer's columns, and a succession of editors began to question the accuracy of her reporting and the floridity of her descriptions. Widmer often lashed back in anger at attempts to prod her into change. In 1998 Holman informed the 74-year-old columnist that he was cutting her column back to biweekly, while not reducing her pay. (By then Widmer was earning $650 a week to write reviews and maintain the Reader's list of restaurant capsules.)
The shrinking of her once-exclusive domain was hard for her to swallow, and it came at a time when other aspects of her life were growing bleak. Her health, never good, was deteriorating, and her relationship with her son Matthew had turned poisonous. Kingsley Widmer says the tastes and preferences of his ex-wife and his firstborn son set them at odds. Matthew collected guns, loved sports, and had a tolerance for Republican politics, all of which Eleanor found appalling.
"But that was not the central core of our friction," Matthew told me by phone from his home in Camarillo. The central core was his two daughters, whom Eleanor tried to indoctrinate with her religion, according to Matthew. He says whereas Eleanor had been a "sloppy Reformed" Jew in her youth, "in her older age, she became a hard-core proponent of Judaism, incredibly hard-core. And that was a huge source of friction because I didn't want my kids to be raised in that faith."
His mother's "narcissism" and extreme vanity furthermore limited her ability to relate to the girls, Matthew says. "Her whole life's goal was seeking publicity, having her voice on the radio, her face on TV," he asserted. "She wanted to be bigger than life, so she would try to insert herself into as many situations as possible. She was Auntie Mame-ish. She loved that role of Auntie Mame." This made her "a horrible mother and a godawful grandmother -- the worst grandmother possible," Matthew contends. When she did visit with his daughters, "All she would do is lecture them about herself. They would have a two-hour visit, and she wouldn't ask them a single question. I've had people come in [to his restaurant in Ventura] and say, 'Oh, your mother says she lives and dies for the grandchildren,' and I go, 'You know, she hasn't seen them once in two years. She doesn't even know what grade they're in.' " If anyone had asked her about the girls' interests she would have fabricated something, he says, "because she had no idea who they were."
"She was not a morally centered person, so she would make stuff up to make herself look good," Matthew believes. He says she and his brother, Jonah, "were cut from the same cloth, as far as their moral centers. So they both thought I was ultra-right-wing. Reactionary. Too much of a disciplinarian. Not a free spirit." Matthew protests he's not any "Christian ultra-right-wing dude. When I say 'family values,' I don't mean George Bush's family values. But I don't believe in divorce. I believe in a strong nuclear family. I really think kids take top priority. And I don't have any interest in fame whatsoever.... I'm really the opposite side of the coin from my mother.
"I'm the only one in my family with a successful marriage, kids, money," Matthew declared. "In the Widmer family, that makes you a total outcast." He told me he didn't enjoy maligning his mother. "But since I've always been the outcast, being the embittered son is no big deal. Just the truth is what I care about."
Still dissatisfied with Widmer's column, Holman decided in September 2000 that he no longer wanted Widmer to write for the Reader. Since she had always worked as an independent contractor, rather than as an employee, she had no pension, but Holman informed her he would pay half her salary for the rest of her life. "It seemed like the just thing to do," he says.
Widmer was devastated by losing her longtime forum, a loss that coincided with the end of her radio and television stints. "She felt really betrayed," says Rich Wise, the local publicist-turned-travel-planner who was Widmer's friend for many years. Restaurateurs who had lavished attention upon her stopped calling, according to Wise and others. "She lost a lot of her friends when she stopped reviewing, because she was a high-maintenance friend," Kaufman says.
"All of the contacts started slipping away because the power wasn't there anymore," Rinehart says, who adds that Widmer seemed to grow more fragile and needier. "There was a big part of me that felt truly sad for her," the caterer says. "It was like, 'Oh, you poor thing. How could everybody just leave you?' " At the same time, Rinehart says he could understand the temptation to avoid her. "Asking Eleanor a question could get you into two hours.... It was just too much information that would come out of her." Spending an evening with her could leave him depressed for a day and a half, he says. Loyalty kept him from abandoning Widmer altogether, but Rinehart says he did scale back his contact with her.
At a time when she was more isolated than she had ever been in her life, Widmer developed a blood disease, called Factor V Leiden, that made her vulnerable to life-threatening clots. But "whereas everybody else's parents get a horrible disease and they're bedridden and they're just waiting to die, my mother wrote two novels," Jonah bragged. He says he found one manuscript scattered around her bedroom after she died. "She called it 'Insomniac Nights.' It's all about being a transplanted New Yorker in California and not being able to sleep." He says the parts he's read recall the tone of Woody Allen's writing.
The other novel, Up from Orchard Street, was a semiautobiographical story set in the Lower East Side of Eleanor's childhood. A project that she took up in earnest once she was relieved of her weekly deadlines, every word of it was written in longhand, according to Jonah, with Eleanor sitting in bed and supporting her paper on the brown board she first began using as a girl. Jonah would come down from Santa Barbara on weekends and take what she'd written to a typist. He says the final manuscript exceeded 600 pages.
Eleanor got a local literary agent to submit the ponderous tome to Bantam (a part of Random House), and toward the end of 2003, she received the news that the publisher was interested. In the holiday card she sent out to friends that December, Eleanor exulted, "My novel, 'Up from Orchard Street' will be published by Random House within the year." She added that her new editor ("highly intelligent and enthusiastic") wanted to see her trim the book's length by 150 pages, "so I have my work cut out for me."
Eleanor's frustrations with the ensuing cuts drove her to chug a quart of Maalox a day, Jonah claims. But in the end, unwilling to jeopardize the achievement of her lifelong goal, she yielded to editorial demands. The book that resulted, published this past August, is 385 pages long. On the dust jacket is a reproduction of George Wesley Bellows's Cliff Dwellers, a 1913 portrayal of New York tenement life. Immigrants, mostly women, jam the scene, hanging out windows, pinning up laundry, clutching infants to their breasts. Amid the poverty, there's a vitality that Widmer also captures in her text. Here's her description of a hat store owned by the father of one character: "The store itself was a marvel: gleaming wooden shelves, dozens and dozens of hats stacked one on top of another: derbies, fedoras, snap-brims, hats made from real fur, beaver hats fit for a Czar, curly gray Persian lamb hats with side flaps that generals sported in movies, top hats for the opera. During the summer Mr. Mathias displayed stiff straw skimmers with tricolored hatbands, soft Panamas with perforations for air at the crown, caps for boating, caps for golf, white visors for tennis. Everything we knew about sports -- and it was painfully little because on the Lower East Side handball reigned: slapping a hard ball against an equally hard wall -- we learned from the Mathias Hat Company. My father, considered a paragon of sartorial splendor, always bought his fedoras -- worn with the brim turned down on all sides -- at Mathias."
It's a lusty world that Elka (as the book's narrator is called) inhabits. Her father indulges in sexual dalliances at the store where he works, and the children think nothing of this. "If his female customer was pretty and vulnerable, if she blushed when he asked her how it felt to be beautiful, if he told her she looked stunning and began to remove her junk jewelry, or remarked that the color of her new garment did not make her skin look sallow -- if she seemed receptive, then he maneuvered her into the broom closet, or onto the table in the alteration room and slipped it in and out as quickly as possible." Then Jack would run home to report to his mother that he had had a "nosh." Bubby in turn assured the children "that the incident meant nothing, like passing a little water." She might caution them not to tell their mother, but her mother "accepted the double standard without question," Widmer writes. "Few who lived on the Lower East Side understood the meaning of repression or Puritanism; the most ardent Catholic women in Little Italy accepted sex and violence as twin aspects of human existence."
Although the characters in Widmer's novel might be familiar to readers of her restaurant reviews, in some ways the novel differs from the facts of her family's history. The fictional family consists of only two children, not the three in Eleanor's real family. Although Eleanor's true Bubby lived in the Orchard Street apartment all her life (according to Jonah), Eleanor has the fictional Bubby and her offspring leave their cramped and reeking apartment behind them to occupy an elegant new flat on Grand Street. Still, Jonah claims the book is "96 percent autobiographical."
He says it seemed to take an eternity for Bantam's editors to sign off on Eleanor's revisions. By the fall of 2004, still waiting for their approval, his mother had reached a point where she couldn't get out of bed without assistance. Fueled by chocolate, her appetite for books seemed boundless. "I would bring her seven novels, and she'd call me three days later and give me her critique of them," Jonah claims. "And I would think, 'Jesus Christ! I can't keep up!' She would read them faster than I could buy them. She would read 1500 to 2000 pages a day. She didn't sleep."
Classic movies still enthralled her, and she would watch favorites such as Double Indemnity, Notorious, and Some Like It Hot over and over, Jonah says. (Her longtime housekeeper had by then moved into the house on Soledad Avenue to care for Widmer full-time.) Eleanor also gobbled up every episode of Sex in the City. "I used to tape [them] for her and mail her the tapes," says publicist Jan Percival, another longtime friend.
Percival told me she liked to call Eleanor when embarking on a long hike or freeway drive, considering how time-consuming Eleanor's monologues could be. But she also visited the ailing 80-year-old on occasion, as did other friends. Teddy Pincus, Eleanor's roommate from her earliest days in California, stayed in touch. "We'd have these long phone conversations," Pincus says. "It was all one-sided. My husband would walk in, and I'd be saying, 'Oh, really?' 'Uh-huh,' 'No!' and after a while, he'd say, 'You're talking to Eleanor.' " Despite her friend's self-absorption, "She was like extended family," Pincus says. "We were close." Pincus says the last time she saw Eleanor, a few weeks before her death, "She looked just awful. She was terribly bloated, and she couldn't even get up to go to the bathroom by herself. Someone would have to lift her and carry her in. She really looked horrendous. But when I'd come, she'd want to talk for an hour or two. Oh, yeah. She talked about the book and how furious she was with the editor and this and that."
Her old friend Rich Wise brought her chocolate that he picked up in the course of his travels. "Her favorite was from Biarritz, France," he says. "There was a store called Henriette. She said, 'That's the best.' " Wise says the last time he saw Widmer, they talked about the book party he planned to organize to celebrate her book's release. "Larry [Rinehart] was going to do the catering." Wise also marveled that Eleanor still was having weekly sessions with her longtime psychoanalyst. "That just blew me away! I said, 'Eleanor, tell me your problems! Why are you going to a shrink?' "
Not all her contacts from the food world abandoned her. Vita Sorrentino continued to visit her, as did Kaufman and Rinehart. Jeffrey Strauss, the owner of Pamplemousse, sent her Passover foods.
Larry McGilvery, who had published one of Widmer's four guidebooks, never ceased being impressed by her generosity. He says one example occurred around 2002, when he was recovering from a knee operation. When Widmer learned that he had no VCR, "lo and behold, my daughter came by a day or two later with one that Eleanor had had her go buy for us -- and some movies. I still have it. It's Eleanor's Memorial VCR."
"I have good friends whom I treasure as much as I do Eleanor who disliked her intensely. Because she was so strong a personality," McGilvery says. "Women, in particular, found her overbearing, or maybe overwhelming would be a better word." But he continued to enjoy his interactions with her. A week or two before Widmer died, "She had a friend from Denmark who'd come to visit her, and I went over there and spent the evening with them," McGilvery says. "She was on oxygen, not all the time, but she had to be taking it in between times. And we had a wonderful time! They had wonderful stories in common that I had never heard." Even so incapacitated that she could not roll over without assistance, Eleanor nonetheless "remained in full possession of her faculties," McGilvery marvels.
The last time McGilvery saw Widmer was on November 6, 2004, a Saturday evening. He called to say hello, and her housekeeper's boyfriend answered. "He didn't speak much English, but I asked him about Eleanor, and he said she had gone to Scripps Hospital. This was nine-thirty or ten o'clock at night."
McGilvery drove to the hospital and found that Jonah was there. Jonah informed him that Eleanor was being prepared for a surgical procedure, an attempt to keep more blood clots from moving to her heart. McGilvery had a brief word with Eleanor and says she whispered to him, asking how he knew she was in the hospital. After he told her, he wished her well. "I never saw her again."
Eleanor survived the procedure, but her doctor told Jonah her prognosis looked grim. Jonah says he telephoned Matthew on Sunday, advising him to come as soon as possible. Although Matthew didn't make the trip that day, Jonah says Eleanor remained hopeful that her elder son would drive down the next day; she sent Jonah home Sunday night with instructions to bring back her lipstick and hairbrush.
But the next morning, when Jonah arrived at the hospital, he found Eleanor unconscious and on a respirator. Her doctors offered no hope for her recovery. Jonah says he learned that Matthew had shown up but had left. Matthew says that he was there when Jonah arrived and that he and his brother sat out front and smoked a few cigarettes together, then went in to see their mother one last time. Both agree that it was Jonah who ordered the doctors to disconnect the respirator. "We believe in death with dignity in our family," Jonah says. "We don't do that life-by-machine thing."
Widmer's cardiologist, Dr. George Dennish, says the cause of Widmer's death was multiple blood clots in her lungs. She'd been taking blood thinners for a long time, but "she had gotten to a point over a period of weeks or even some months where we could not get her to come into the office as often as she should have," the doctor says. Dennish says he went to Widmer's house on a few occasions, but she needed lab tests she wasn't getting. "For her to call somebody to take her into the office, for example, was going to cost her, like, $500 to $800, so she wouldn't come in. She was living in her bed.... It was sad, but she was a very unique individual, and she marched to her own drum."
After his mother died, Jonah says he made no move to organize a memorial service because he worried that Bantam might cancel the publication of Up from Orchard Street if it learned that the book's author had died. Eleanor had received a third of her advance just weeks before her death, and a second installment was expected shortly. (Although Jonah told me the advance totaled $36,000, Eleanor's editor at Bantam, Ann Harris, says that figure is "inaccurate." She declined to disclose the correct figure. "We don't give out information about advances.")
Jonah said, "Just from an economic point of view, I figured if [Bantam was] two-thirds invested in [the book], they would have a greater likelihood of continuing." So when he received the second check, he cashed it, then waited a while longer before telling the publisher what had happened. "The most important thing, in the end, was that my mother's book be published. There wasn't even a close second," Jonah says. "I knew that's what she wanted, so I...had to keep silent for 45 days."
In addition to naming Jonah as her literary executor, Eleanor also made her second son her sole heir. "She didn't give a penny to her granddaughters," according to Matthew. "She didn't even leave them any personal objects. Nothing." Jonah, who says he spends about 6 hours a week working as a mortgage company loan officer and "maybe 60 hours a week" betting on racehorses, is currently renting out his mother's principal asset, the house on Soledad Avenue. He has no plans to sell it. "I grew up in that house, and I played on that street as a little boy. It's a lovely property, even though the house is kind of a piece of shit. So it's a good investment. And it's my last connection to Old La Jolla."
Jonah says his mother had a horror of being buried in the ground. "She was an old New Yorker," he says, so ill at ease in the natural world that she used to refer to soil in a pot as "the earth." Because "she did not want to be in the earth," he had her body interred in a crypt. When I asked him where, Jonah replied, "In Sorrento Valley. It's Camino Something or Other." He'd never been there himself, he explained, finding the thought "too depressing."
I figured that meant probably no one had visited Eleanor's final resting place, which I imagined she would hate. A receptionist at El Camino Memorial Park gave me directions to the park's Serenity Mausoleum, and on a warm summer day I followed the roadway leading to the contemporary two-story structure.
Eleanor's tomb, set within an alcove, faces the driveway. On the day of my visit, hers was the only compartment in the alcove's back wall that appeared to be occupied, the only one bearing a plaque. Her plaque provides the dates of neither her birth nor her death, nor does it mention her motherhood. In accordance with her instructions, it says: Eleanor Rackow Widmer -- Writer.