Saturday, August 8, 2015

Jane Bernadette Reilly

During the late 1960s, my aunt Jane Reilly, left a job where she had been a data processor at (Southern Pacific) Pacific Fruit Express for 17 years. (After graduating from Star of the Sea Academy, Jane studied accounting at Golden Gate College.) But she decided there was more to life than crunching data.

After a long overdue Hawaiian vacation, Jane joined C&H Sugar Company in San Francisco as a claims accountant and IBM tab operator, to work with their big IBM mainframe computers, but in 1969, it was a man's world. So, she saved her pennies. In her early 40s, Jane threw it all over. Emulating Julia Child, who inspired the American public with her television series, The French Chef, in 1973, Jane followed her dream and flew off to Paris to garner her Grand Diplôme at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, France.

Jane's Grand Diplôme signed by Madams Brassart, herself.

When Jane returned to San Francisco in 1975, flat broke, with diploma in hand, she moved in with my grandmother and me. She sent out carloads of resumes, but didn't get a nibble, not even as a sous chef—because she was a woman. It was pretty much next to impossible for a female chef to land a job during that era. Especially in provincial Marin. it was still the 1970s.

So Jane diversified and made friends with the men chefs. Those connections landed her an itinerant position making pastries for Marin restaurants including San Rafael's La Petit Auberge. To make ends meet, she also cooked for the Marin Civic Center cafeteria. All the lawyers would line up when she placed her prized lemon meringue pies in the glass showcase.

In order to attend the French cooking school, Le Cordon BleuJane had to learn French from scratch, she attended night school at City College. Learning French from audio tapes was difficult enough, but once she got to France, she found it wasn't easy being a woman chef at the male-centric Cordon Bleu. There is still tremendous prejudice against women chefs. Julia Child crashed that male-dominated enclave, and my aunt was right on her heels. But the kitchen door swung shut.

The irony is that Le Cordon Bleu was founded by a woman, Marthe Distel, in honor of
 courtesan Jeanne Bécu, comtesse du Barry. King Louis XV stated to Jeanne, his last Maîtresse-en-titre, that only male chefs were capable of producing haute cuisine. 

Madame du Barry (whose father was a cook called Gourmand), specialized in light flavorful dishes, said the French equivalent of Game on! and invited the king to Petit Trianon for a savory supper of pheasant consume, roast chicken with watercress salad, iced peaches and strawberries in maraschino, washed down with a vat of green walnut liqueur.

Louis was so enamored, he wanted to hire the chef on the spot for the court kitchens. Madam du Barry demanded that "he" first be awarded the coveted highest knight's award, Le Cordon Bleu, the blue ribbon. Then she introduced the chef. A woman. Alors! Said the king. Court food was forever changed. But when the king died, common-born Jeanne ran afoul with Marie Antoinette, and lost her head. So much for letting them eat cake.

Jane holding aloft some Cook's Champagne.

I learned to make Jeanne du Barry's fam
ous crème brûlée, and pâte à choux for profiteroles from Jane who was a top notch chef, and her pastries were divine. Jane used to make a killer chocolate gateau for my birthdays.... (devil's food cake kicked up several notches).

I learned many recipes from her, including how to properly make ratatouille, and who hasn't tried chicken Cordon Bleu or crème du Barry (chou-fleur soup)? But mon petit chou-fleur, my personal favorite was real French mousse au chocolat made with egg whites (not whipped cream). Jane brought me my first Sabatier vegetable knives, and a huge copper bowl for making mousse and meringues. Her lemon meringue pie was to die for. 

Jane had a secret fudge recipe she had purloined from See's Candies, a main customer of C&H Sugar, and those old IBM reels made perfect candyboxes at Christmas time. I still make a mocha variation of that infamous See's fudge during the holidays.

Jane cooked for a French family for room and board, and they treated her quite poorly. Despite their bad manners, they were her guinea pigs. and had no complaints about eating 3-star Michelin meals. When she left, they all resembled the rotund Michelin Man.

All was not a cultural desert in the realm of women chefs, in 1971, Alice Waters opened Chez Panisse in Berkeley. But few women chefs have shattered that glass wall. Even today, only 19% of professional chefs are women, and they earn $20k less than men.

If Jane had been able to obtain the backing to open her own restaurant, or if she had been born a few decades later, her story may have been very different. She would've been celebrated on Master Chef, I'm sure. TV would've suited her.

Jane dancing the can-can at Old St. Mary's Church in San Francisco.

When Jane was young, she danced in a few amateur musical theater shows in SF, including The Mikado, and a Barbary Coast review, The Golden Nugget, an original musical performed by the Young Adult Players, where she was the lead can-can girl. 

At nearly 6 feet tall, Jane was statuesque, and looked like Maureen O'Hara, so photographers including Peter van Nghiem sought her out as a model for their portfolios. That exposure landed her the job as a model for the Gallo ad. (She even dragged me to the Eileen Ford Agency when I was 16.) She was an avid golfer and skier, but swimming was her main sport.

Jane remained interested in musical theater (my mom was also an actress at the Gate Playhouse in Sausalito). When Jack Aranson staged his one-man monologues of Moby Dick and Dylan Thomas at College of Marin, we catered the events. Ratatouille and lamb burgers. Jack was an old friend of Jane's from way back. Irish connections run deep.

A 1950s rendering of Jane on the back pages of of funny papers & magazines. 

Jane was the first model for Gallo's Paisano wine (they had to make her look Italian), and various permutations of this ad appeared in magazines and on billboards across the nation—including in Times Square. An image I saw throughout my childhood. I thought everybody's aunt appeared on the back page of the funnies. 

This half-page front section ad appeared in the Food section of the San Francisco Chronicle, July 1, 1954. Check out the price of wine. 

I found a version of the color ad in extremely poor condition in my grandmother's damp basement. With the help of Photoshop, I was able to mend the ad and the crumpled and torn photos. But time and dampness had reduced most of her memorabilia to pulp.

Jane holding the color ad that was a billboard in Times Square.

The Paisano trademark of E. & J. GALLO WINERY patent was filed on June 8 (1953), they opened for business in 1954, so this is really the first ever Gallo ad. There were supposedly also television ads as well, but I never saw them as we didn't have a TV. Later, Piasano was given its own label Carlo Rossi. Top salesman Charlie Rossi was a Gallo relation and starred in commercials during the 1970s. I wonder if Gallo even has Jane's ad in their archives. I never found one online.

This photo inspired the Gallo ad. No one—Jane, the photographer, nor the artist—were paid much for their time.

After Paris, Jane was bitten by the travel bug, and ran Valley Travel in Lagunitas for several decades. (Maybe it was all those years working for Southern Pacific that whetted her appetite for travel.) Many West Marin folks bought their airline tickets and planned their journeys with her, including myself. She returned to France several times, and traveled to Ireland* and Tahiti as well.

(*In 1964, Jane bought a one-quarter ticket on the Irish Sweepstakes, and took my grandmother to Ireland on her winnings. The Irish government literally rolled out a red carpet when they landed at Shannon Airport via Aer Lingus, as my grandmother had left Ireland before it was a republic, and had no passport. She was so embarrassed she sneezed and broke her false teeth, on the tarmac, so her first appointment in Ireland was with a dentist for a new set of choppers.)

Jane, a staunch Republican, was active in politics, and worked on Nixon and Barry Goldwater's campaigns. We never saw eye-to-eye on politics. I found Goldwater and Nixon buttons and autographed photographs of Dr. Rand Paul  (who, like Goldwater was against socialized medicine) in her abandoned belongings. 

Jane co-chaired The Coffee Bar, a Catholic social club, with Eileen Nugent. Jane also served as an officer for the San Francisco Toastmasters (it was then called the Toastmistress Club) whose focus was to enrich lives through communication, leadership & community.

I remember Jane preparing speeches when I used to visit her in San Francisco, when I was a teenager. With regret, I dumped boxes of her Toastmistress binders, when I was cleaning out the basement. Jane was also a member of the Mechanics' Institute Library and Chess Club, and I loved visiting the library when I was writing term papers. 

Jane also donated her time to Catholic and Irish charities. One project stands out—I think it was for Project Children, bringing together Catholic and Protestant Irish kids to America from war-ravaged segregated Belfast ghettos to facilitate mutual respect and understanding. The Troubles—the sectarian violence that began in 1969, had created a vicious self-perpetuating cycle of endless violence. 

The central focus of Project Children was to break the pattern of terrorism and despair, child by child, by lifting them out of Northern lreland and placing them with American host families for the summer to offer them some respite from the ravages of ongoing war trauma. I don't know how Jane got involved with this project, probably through the church or the travel agency, but her role as a host coordinator changed a lot of children's lives for the better.

My cousin with Jane Reilly on her 86th birthday, June 26, 2015.

I last saw Jane on her birthday, June 26th, a month before she died. We brought her a pot of pink lilies, some chocolate and a Trader Joe's cloth bag. She was very good at covering up her dementia but she didn't even know it was her birthday. When we showed her all the old photos I'd scanned, including the Gallo ad, which tickled her to see it again, her memory came trickling back, and she told us stories and names to go with the photos.

She said she had a scratch on her leg. It was melanoma. The doctor removed it, found bone cancer, then, he found uterine cancer. She'd had breast cancer a decade earlier but refused to take her estrogen blockers. She also refused implants or any medical aid, she paid for it all herself. Didn't want to be beholding to anyone. But hospice came in to transition the end and took care of her, along with my cousins.

Jane's memorial service will be held in Santa Cruz on August 15th, at 2 PM. RIP Gallo Girl, you were a real blue-ribbon champion to the very end.

6/26/1929 - 7/26/2015

No comments: