Figuring Out Florette

Florette in the Mid-1990s
Florette in the Mid-1990s.  Thanks to Sue Stone and Dennis Anderson for sharing photos for this remembrance.
On Saturday our small community gathered to remember one of my hometown’s legendary personalities. Florette Zuelke, my neighbor in Hawley, Massachusetts, passed away in April at the age of 90. Florette will be remembered for her passion for Hawley’s history, for her sense of style, and for her strong opinions on a variety of subjects.
Florette was a mixed blessing in many ways to her neighbors. Like most human beings, she had strengths that could also be liabilities. She painstakingly created gourmet meals, but her culinary perfectionism could daunt plainer cooks. She valued creativity, but those whom she judged less than creative often felt snubbed. She charmed men but tended to ignore (and therefore antagonize) their spouses.
She was a caring friend but was frequently thwarted by her own forthrightness. She wanted the best for her neighbors and her town, but her idea of “the best” was often rigid and tended to frustrate those around her. She came up with countless brilliant ideas but usually wanted others to implement them.
Perhaps most tryingly to her neighbors, she always wanted to bring appetizers to dinner parties—and invariably arrived an hour and a half late.
Solitude and dementia claimed Florette long before death did, and she alienated many of her friends as she got older. Few of us visited her at the end of her life in the nursing home to which she had moved.
In her heyday, however, Florette was amazing. Born in the small Midwestern city of Appleton, Wisconsin, she was raised with a strong sense of self and a love of music and culture.
The Belle of Appleton, Wisconsin

The Belle of Appleton, Wisconsin

She moved to New York City to serve as executive secretary to conductor Robert Shaw at Juilliard and spent most of her professional career in music in one form or another.
She helped singers find their pitch at the Robert Shaw Chorale; worked with renowned composer/businessman Goddard Lieberson at Columbia Records; and served in a unique capacity at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, preparing lavish receptions to follow the performances of visiting artists.
Lieberson established the tradition of LPs at Columbia Records, nurtured the company’s classical department, and pioneered in recording original cast albums of Broadway musicals. I was always told that Lieberson was the love of Florette’s life, although their affair never supplanted his marriage to dancer Vera Zorina.
Florette became a close friend of composer Alice Parker at Juilliard and spent many summers renting an apartment at the Parkers’ Singing Brook Farm in Hawley. There she was a lively addition to what I remember as a golden summer community.
Back in New York, where I visited her once or twice when I was a child, she looked exactly like the chic urban career girls in movies. She was fashionable, nerveless (when she couldn’t understand one of James Beard’s recipes she simply telephoned the famous food writer), and glamorous beyond belief.
Florette in the Big Apple:  with Mitch Miller, a Mystery Man (ideas, anyone?), and Liberace

Florette in the Big Apple: with Mitch Miller, a Mystery Man (ideas, anyone?), and Liberace

In the 1970s Florette decided to retire and build a home in Hawley, which she called “Hawleywood.” It featured an eclectic Yankee-barn floor plan and a fantastic circular garden.
During a brief marriage she gave up her apartment in New York, a move that proved to be a mistake; her life’s artistry needed a grander palette than Hawley. Nevertheless, Florette threw herself into town affairs. She served as town clerk and was active in the historical commission.
She participated in the resurrection of the Sons & Daughters of Hawley in the 1980s, helping to transform the organization from a venue for annual reunions into a full-fledged historical society. She organized projects for the Sons & Daughters, helped start their newsletter, and badgered a colleague into audiotaping the memories of older Hawleyites. She hosted meetings in which she cooked ambrosial food as ideas were thrown around by artists, historians, and humanists in town.
Above all, Florette opened doors and resources to her friends and neighbors with the wave of a dramatically clad arm. She also offered amusement galore. Almost everyone I know has a Florette story.
Peter Beck, who bought Florette’s house and was a good friend to her longer than most, shared one with me recently. In the mid-1980s, according to Peter, Route 2 in Charlemont was being paved. Driving to Avery’s General Store one day (probably much too fast), Florette was stopped by a policeman on the work detail.
Unable to interpret his hand signals, she got out of her car and proceeded to instruct the man in the proper way to gesture. She dramatically swept her arms through the air to demonstrate how to signal a driver to stop or proceed.
When she had finished with the poor fellow, says Peter, she went off to do her shopping—only to return on the way home with several pairs of white cotton gardening gloves purchased at Avery’s. She distributed them to the road crew, explaining that the men should wear the gloves in order to make their now graceful hand signals more visible to motorists.
So persuasive, so daunting, was Florette that the men meekly donned the gloves. “Oblivious to the fact that road construction is dirty work,” concluded Peter, “Florette introduced style, making the project a white-glove affair.”
On Saturday we found time for lots of stories like this one, as well as a few songs. We enjoyed remembering Florette as she once was—elegant and caring; fun and funny; passionate about music, food, Hawley, gardens, and people.
When we were first planning the memorial Peter suggested “something Venetian, something Balinese, something Auntie Mame.”
The last of those ideas was perhaps the most appropriate, given Auntie Mame’s signature line, “Life is a banquet.” It’s an apt epitaph for the loveable, maddening, delicious Florette.
I can’t write about Florette without a recipe. This is the first of several Florette foods I’ll be featuring here. When we started asking friends and relatives what should be served at the party Saturday, “chili” was the invariable reply.
Florette fell in love with this recipe sometime in the 1980s and gave chili spice packets to friends and relatives for holiday presents for years after that. She also sold the packets to raise funds for her favorite charities. I am indebted to Elizabeth Pyle, who watched Florette put together the spices years ago and took notes, for the recipe.
Mixing the spices will make your house smell divine for days to come……….
For the spice mix:
1/3 cup salt
1/2 cup cocoa (packed a little)
2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons allspice
1 cup plus 3 tablespoons cumin (packed)
5 level tablespoons crushed chili (red pepper)
3 tablespoons oregano
Mix thoroughly and whirl in a food processor to break down the red pepper flakes and combine. Makes 16 batches of chili.
For the chili:
4 cups chopped onion
2 cups chopped celery
6 large garlic cloves, minced
3 ounces vegetable oil
2 pounds lean ground chuck
2-1/2 tablespoons CHILI SPICES
1 28-ounce can peeled tomatoes
1 16-ounce can tomato sauce
2 or 3 cups beef or vegetable bouillon
2 cans (15 ounces each) red kidney beans
In a large stainless steel or enamelware kettle cook the onion, celery and garlic in oil over moderate heat, stirring, until the vegetables are wilted and soft.
In a separate skillet cook the ground chuck, breaking it up with a fork, until it is no longer pink. Remove any excess fat and add the meat to the vegetables.
Sprinkle the CHILI SPICES over the mixture. Add the tomatoes including the liquid, the tomato sauce, and the bouillon. Stir to blend the ingredients.
Simmer the mixture partially covered for one hour, stirring occasionally to keep from sticking to bottom of kettle. After 1/2 hour add rinsed and drained kidney beans.
Add salt and pepper if desired. Serves 10.

“Blasphemous” does not mean “extra hot.”For a “hotter” chili add a little crushed red chili pepper. For a milder chili add 2 or 3 cups of cooked spaghetti twists. The flavor improves with age and is best when chili is made ahead of serving time and reheated.
Liza Pyle, who loved Florette all her life, made packets of chili spices for the Florette party.
Liza Pyle, who loved Florette all her life, made packets of chili spices for the Florette party.
Follow-Up Note from Tinky in SEPTEMBER 2009:
Peter Beck, mentioned above, has put two posts about Florette on his own blog, Flaneur du Pays. One features a not-to-be-missed photograph of my neighbor and friend, Alice Parker Pyle, in a fixture of Florette’s home (as eccentric as she was herself), the soaking tub.

They are “Thinking About Florette” and “Florette Continued.” Do take a look!

And I also offer links to two other recipes that relate to Florette: Toni’s Salmon Mousse and Checkerboard Cherry Tomatoes.

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9 Responses to “Figuring Out Florette”

  1. Eric Johnson says:

    What a lovely piece on another one of “that generation” of women. Reminds me of somebody.

  2. Jane Abel says:

    Thanks Tinky for a wonderful remembrance of Florette. Your Dad’s many stories around our breakfast table in Delhi peeked our curiousity about this fascinating person. Luckily, we finally met and weren’t disappointed. Her garden was a wonderful creation that we can still recall.

  3. Jack Estes says:

    I was hoping someone would say some of this at Saturday’s ‘do.’ This is the Florette I kept hearing about (never having met her – unless perhaps in the early 60s). You really presented a rounded person, human. So glad to read it so well put. Thanks, Tinky.

  4. commonweeder says:

    Now I’m wondering what signature dish will be served at my memorial service – and what recipe handed round. Gives me pause. And who will write a charming remembrance? Florette got lucky.

  5. Liza says:

    This chili recipe is easy to adapt for vegetarians. I blaspheme these days by skipping the meat, but adding 1/2 cup bulghar wheat I’ve let soak up 1/2 cup extremely hot tomato juice for 5 minutes. Add this about fifteen minutes after the chili beans. It makes the chili lovely and thick — just make sure not to let the chili cook too long after or it will scorch. Florette, who perfected her recipes through countless repetitions, might have raised an eyebrow at my adapting her recipe…but I think she still would have tasted it and pronounced it good.

    She was an inspiring woman, hostess, cook, and gardener. Martha Stewart is everyone else’s Florette…I count myself blessed to have known the original!

  6. Betsy Kovacs says:

    This is FABULOUS! You are a terrific writer! You’ve captured the essence of Florette and given us a vivid picture of a remarkable woman.

    My memories of Florette go back to the early 1950s (true!) when she would drive with my mother Toni Leitner, my sister Ena, and me to the Farm every single weekend from Memorial Day through Columbus Day! Actually during the summer, from the day school ended to the night before it resumed, we stayed at the Farm. Florette, as I recall, reminded us often to “be nice to you mother”! Bit hard for two little girls stuck in the back of the car with two cats….

    We were also called on to help entertain her nephew Joe Eich on his first visit to NYC. Florette, my mother who was trained as a chef in Vienna, Alice, Gam and others introduced us to the world of foodies way before Union Square Café introduced fresh ingredients or Julia published The Art.

    Didn’t all kids hang out in a playhouse filled with Balinese and Javanese and Indian batiks and furniture which she brought back by the container load from a trip with Gam? Florette was our Auntie Mame – full of beans and fun and interested in us kids as real people.

  7. David Pyle says:

    I also want to thank you Tinky for such a well written evocative portrait of Florette. Some of my oldest memories are of decorating gingerbread Christmas cookes with her and my Grandmother around the dining room table at the Plywood House. Even at the tender age of 4 or 5, she was still trying to instill a sense of design in us exhorting us to not be messy with the sprinkles and showing us how to improve our designs.

    Like Betsy, I too remember many rides back and forth from NYC to Hawley with Florette, rides where the conversation was always more interesting and the picnic lunch was always superior. I’ll never forget one winter ride where my mother couldnt quite get our old Ford Econoline Van to make it up an icy hill on 8-A. Without a moments hesitation, Florette got out and pushed us the last 50 feet up the incline. I was worried about her when she got out of the car but I shouldn’t have been. Her spirit was indomitable.

    She did a wonderful job of improving the social scene at the farm. Her guests were always interesting. The Farr’s and Schaeler’s certainly were a welcome addition to the social scene for our generation and her door was always open to any of us who were feeling oppressed by the other powers that be at the Farm. I’ll never forget Florette taking Linda Farr and I to a wonderful midnight Neil Young concert at Carnegie Hall in the early ’70s. The music was great but I was even more impressed that she was totally unphased by the dense and pungent ‘smoke’ that permeated the entire hall. Those were the days when the ushers didn’t even try to enforce the fire code at certain events.

    I think about her every time I drive by her house. She will always have a special place in my heart.

  8. john simon says:

    Wow! Florette passed on.

    She will always be sooooo vivid in my memory. I’ve told my wife many times how much I admired Florette for being the no-nonsense, independent woman that she was. Florette always told me she was that way because she was from Appleton — so I thought that was a local trait.
    The white glove story is absolutely typical.

    Let me back up. I joined Columbia Records (799 Seventh Ave. NYC) out of Princeton in 1963 and went to work for Charlie Burr who was also Florette’s boss. Charlie’s boss was Goddard. We worked on Goddard’s Legacy projects — big concept albums that included coffee-table books. Florette was the researcher.

    I loved her open, snaggle-toothed smile.

    She was sooooo warm and friendly to me. Coming from a boys’ school, I’d never had a woman colleague and I couldn’t have had a better one. She was very open-minded, straight-forward, loved everybody.

    She once looked at a distinguished Columbia exec (not Lieberson— but name withheld anyway). The guy smoked a pipe. “Now THAT’S the kind of man I’d like to marry”, she told me. I reminded her that he was already married. “So?”, she said.

    But, most significantly — now HERE’S something — one day Florette asked me to come along with her to lunch at the House of Chan on the corner because she had been invited to dine with Harold Arlen, world-famous composer (“Over The Rainbow”) and womanizer. She wanted me there as a foil.
    Arlen was disappointed that she had invited me along, for obviously reasons. But there he was, looking sharp, probably around 70, in his blazer with a flower in the lapel and glasses with blue lenses.
    We had our meal and, when we stepped outside, everyone we saw was in some sort of shock. Kennedy had just been shot!

    Leave it to the Chinese waiters not to let on and spoil our meal.

    Anyway I loved here a lot. She made my transition into the “real world” smooth and I often thought of her in later years and wanted to look her up.
    Now knowing that she passed on, I really regret not having done so.

    Someone who made the world happier.

  9. tinkyweisblat says:

    John–Thanks so much for the great memories. I can’t tell you how sad I am that FZ never mentioned to me that she knew Harold Arlen, for goodness’ sake! But I forgive her as one always did……

    And thanks to all the rest of you for sharing your Florette thoughts as well. I really thought I had thanked you long ago. I guess I’ll pretend being this late was my way of paying tribute to Florette!

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