CHEESE FOR ELEANOR ROOSEVELT
There was a black and white, 8 by 10 picture, with a red frame, hanging in the basement of my childhood home in Glen Rock, New Jersey. This picture depicts an event that happened in the autumn of 1952. I was only six years old, but I do remember this occasion. It’s a story in the lives of my Mother and Father and Eleanor Roosevelt.
My parents were both Italian immigrants that came to the United States when they were babies. My father, Lt. Colonel Joseph J Novellino (Ret.), looked like Prince Reiner of Monaco, and was a Civil Engineer. He was head engineer for a man named Anthony Cucolo in Rockland County, New York. My mother, Mary Novellino, who looked like a combination of Loretta Young and Ava Gardner, was a housewife of the 1950’s, raising three children, in a pretty little suburban town, Glen Rock, New Jersey. They were a stunning couple, but it would have been improbable that they would ever entertain a First Lady.
Mr. Cuccolo looked like an Italian Maurice Chavale’. He was very wealthy and even more flamboyant. He always wore double breasted suits and drove a black Cadillac. He too was an Italian immigrant. His thick Italian accent made it hard for us, kids, to understand him sometimes, but we all liked him and much to our surprise, he liked us, too. He was a widower who didn’t like to go anywhere alone. My parents were young, beautiful, charming and fun to be with, so they were his constant companion.
The memories I have of my parents, 53 years ago, are vividly seeing them all dressed up and going off to places like the Waldorf Astoria in New York City with my Mr. Cucolo. My older brother, Nino, was given the job of baby sitter for my younger sister, Tina and me. Around six in the evening, after we were fed, I remember my mother coming down the stairs in our living room, looking like a movie star in a cocktail dress. My father would whistle and say, “Pet (which was his pet name for her) you look like a million bucks”. She’d give him a kiss and off they would go with the rustle of her petty coats and the smell of perfume and cologne lingering in the air. Because my brother was the baby sitter, after they left, we got to stay up and watch TV which we thought was very cool.
One September evening, we were all relaxing after dinner, when Mr. Cucolo called and asked my parents to come up to his home in Sufferen, New York. He had something that he needed to discuss with them.
As my mother tells the story.......when they got to his house, he was standing in the living room, looking rather pompous, and there was an envelope in the center of the floor. They brought the envelope to his attention. Mr. Cuccolo said, with a mischievous expression on his face, “pick it up and open it”. They both found this strange but they picked up the envelope and read the contents. Much to their surprise, it was an acceptance note from Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt to a luncheon at Mr. Cucolo’s home in October. He was impressed with the wealthy, powerful and political people of the world, and wanted, very much, to be accepted in their circles.
Back to the envelope.............my mother and father looked at him and asked the obvious question about this strange envelope “on the floor”. He had decided to donate some money to the Democratic Party and had invited Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt to his, beautiful, sprawling mansion on 150 acres of land, with a private lake, swimming pool and tennis court, for lunch. He looked at my mother and said, “you organized the whole thing. I’ll give you the guest list” Very much like Ana and the King of Siam.
Still standing in the middle of his living room, she heard him mandate her orders. She was to do everything. This included the menu, the seating, the table arrangements. He wanted her to give the servants her receipts for the meal. My mother was and still is an amazing cook. Mr. Cucolo thought it would be only right to have a true Italian meal served and he was crazy about my mother’s cooking. My mother’s homemade manicotti was to be the main course.
Remember, my mother, had three kids to raise which involves, piano lesson, ballet lessons, art lesson, PTA meetings, Women’s Club, Alter Guild and a husband. In her mind that would leave very little time to organize such an event, in less than a month, but it was my father’s boss and she was, from time to time, a wonder woman.
A few weeks into this whole affair, Mr. Cucolo called my mother with a brainstorm of an idea. In her mind, she didn’t need any more responsibilities added to her already growing list for this luncheon. He had come up with a “Brilliant idea”, he informed her. He wanted my mother to find small individual, Sterling Silver Cheese Graters, have them engraved and use them as Place Cards. He was convinced that Eleanor Roosevelt had never grated her own cheese and this would be a different experience for her. Now, even though this was completely annoying, she did think that it was rather cleaver.
To the telephone my mother went. To the city my mother went. She contacted Macy’s, Gimbel’s, B Altman’s, Lord & Taylor. She asked about tiny cheese graters at every Department Store that she could think of and got nowhere. Finally, she called Tiffany’s. Alas, they and they alone had just what she was looking for.
The next day, my mother and Mr. Cucolo headed into Manhattan to Tiffany. Yes, indeed, they had them, but they were $150.00 a piece and this was 1952. Mr. Cucolo was wealthy but not stupid when it came to money.
In the middle of Tiffany’s, he had another idea. He’s said to my mother, “Maria, from Tiffany we go to Mulberry Street”. As if God was saying, “I don’t think so,” the sky opened up and torrential rain started to fall from the heavens. One of those storms when it gets really dark and the rain comes straight down, so hard that even if you have an umbrella, which they did not have, it does no good.
To add to the adventure......a bit of history........even in 1952 it was hard to find a cab, in New York City, in the rain. After an absolute soaking, they finally got a cab and headed to Mulberry Street, in Little Italy, downtown Manhattan. When they got there, still wet, his orders were that he would take one side of the street, and she would take the other side, towards their quest. It was still raining. Now, remember.......another little piece of history........ in those days, ladies wore high heel shoes and white gloves when they went into the city...........and this my mother did.
Still, not one small cheese grater was to be found in all of Little Italy. Their spirits were turning as grim as the weather. How can such a clever idea turn into such a hassle?
Despite the cheese grater problem, the menu was going to be flawless. Mr. Cucolo wanted this luncheon to be perfect, so my mother cooked that meal seven times and seven times my mother, father and Mr. Cucolo rehearsed how that luncheon was to go. They actually ate antipasto, manicotti, wine, fruit and dessert seven time, in Suffern, with their host.
Then, a week or so later, my father, was in Paterson, New Jersey, and went into Quackenbush’s Department Store to pick something up, unrelated to this luncheon. As he was walking through the store, much to his surprise, he saw Tin Nutmeg Graters, which looked just like a small cheese grater. He couldn’t believe his eyes and to top it off, they were only ten cent apiece. He quickly ran to a phone to call my mother with the Grater news. My mother, always a fast thinker told my father to buy all of them and she called a jeweler in Ridgewood, New Jersey (the next town over from us) to ask if they could Gold Plate and Engrave these Tin Graters. With a resounding yes from the jeweler, my mother and father were the true heroes of that day.
The day of the luncheon arrives and my mother, dress in her 1950’s afternoon luncheon attire, went directly into the bustling Cucolo kitchen to instruct the servants on how to prepare these dishes. Mr. Cucolo, in his black Cadillac, went into New York City to pick up Eleanor Roosevelt. He rented a Mink Blanket for Mrs. Roosevelt to put over her legs, just in case she got cold and presented her with a double Orchard Corsage.
There were 11 people total for lunch that afternoon of October 4, 1952 . When those 11 people, including Mrs. Roosevelt, walked into that grand dinning room with it’s long formal table, and high backed leather studded chairs, the table was set perfectly. There was a huge arrangement of flowers and fruit cascading through the center of the table. The long stemmed crystal wine goblets sparkled in the afternoon sunlight, and on everyone's place was a Gold Cheese Grater. They were engraved with their name, the date and also “Guest of Honor Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, First Lady of the World.”
My mother was seated directly opposite from Mrs. Roosevelt and found her to be, needless to say, very intelligent with a wonderful sense of humor. She seemed to be having a great deal of fun with her Cheese grater, which made the three grater hunters very happy. At one point, she had such a hugh pile of cheese on her pasta that my mother leaned over and asked, “Mrs. Roosevelt, are you having some cheese with your pasta or some pasta with your cheese”? Mrs. Roosevelt found that very funny and continued to grate. I guess it was true that she never had grated her own cheese before, especially with a Gold Grater.
After the dinner the servants washed all the Cheese Graters and put them in boxes with a beautiful ribbon wrapped around them. They were then presented to each guest as a gift.
There was also a professional photographer there to take a picture of this major event in Suffern, New York. No press, just one photographer was present.
About a week later, every guest received a copy of that photograph. That picture has been hanging in my mother’s basement for fifty four years. My mother, who passed away at age 98, was always willing to tell the story of this event, if asked about it, but never seems to have any particular pride or excitement about that day, which probably explains why the picture is in the basement. She was always coming to Mr. Cucolo social rescue and considered this event another in the long line of adventures with this man.
I was home to visit my mother and went down to the basement for something and there was that picture. It was hanging on the same wall that it hung when I was a kid, a teenager and now an adult. We didn’t give much thought to it, either. It was just always hanging there.
All of a sudden I found myself starring at this picture. I also found myself thinking, how many people do I know who can say that their mother or father arranged a luncheon for Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, one of the most important women of our time. I found myself, alone in the basement, puffing up with pride at what my mother had accomplished.
I brought the picture back up stairs and hung it in the living room where it should be. My mother, still just shrugs the whole ordeal off as an event that she did because she was asked to do it. Her children think it was very impressive, and she should be proud of the story. So, I decided to put it on paper as a tiny piece of history. It may be no bigger then a crumb of cheese but my mother and father were part of it.
That Gold Cheese Grater, though, was always been kept behind glass in a special place in our dinning room in Glen Rock, New Jersey.