Palo Alto Weekly

News - November 30, 2012

Palo Alto's 'fairy godmother' is remembered Dec. 2

Talk and book about Lucie Stern reveal a benefactor who dealt with personal tragedies

by Sue Dremann

Sixty-six years after her death, Palo Alto benefactor Lucie Stern will be honored and remembered during a talk Dec. 2 at 2 p.m. at the community center she built for Palo Alto residents during the Great Depression.

Elizabeth Leecing Greist, who grew up in Palo Alto and knew Lucie Stern, will speak about her remembrances of Stern. The event at 1305 Middlefield Road is being sponsored by the Palo Alto Historical Association. The talk follows the November reprinting of a 64-page monograph, "Lucie Stern: Palo Alto's Fairy Godmother," which was written by the late Palo Alto Children's Theatre Assistant Director Michael Litfin.

Few people know much about Stern, despite the Mission Revival-style community center and theater that bear her name.

Staring from a photograph in her tight-waisted Victorian dress with neck-to-chin collar and hair piled atop her head, Stern is a face from a bygone era. Although she died in 1946, she continues to make a lasting imprint on generations of Palo Altans through her many gifts to the city.

A prominent and wealthy member of San Francisco and Bay Area society, she was the wife of Louis Stern, one of the nephews of clothier Levi Strauss. "Aunt Lucie," as she came to be known, gifted Palo Alto some of its greatest cultural treasures: the Lucie Stern Community Center and Ruth Stern Wing with its recreation room and ballroom, the Palo Alto Children's Theatre, the Boy Scout Fire Circle, Children's Library, walls and gates of the Secret Garden, the bird sanctuary adjacent to and north of the duck pond in the Palo Alto Baylands and the Sea Scout building.

Posthumously, her estate and foundation contributed to the Palo Alto Municipal Golf Course and built the Lawn Bowling Club's clubhouse, according to Litfin.

But who was Lucie Stern?

Born in 1871 in France, she was the daughter of Jewish parents who came to San Francisco when she was 3. She once claimed her father, Louis Cahen, owned a cigar store, but a 1883 San Francisco business directory listed him as a manufacturer of syrups, bitters and cordials, according to Litfin.

She married Louis Stern, the nephew of now-famous clothier Levi Strauss, who brought denim to San Francisco and made a fortune selling the sturdy workman's pants to gold miners. Louis Stern and his three brothers took over the firm and became wealthy.

Lucie bore four daughters, but three died in childhood. The fourth, Ruth, became developmentally impaired due to severe epileptic seizures. Lucie dedicated her life to caring for her daughter, according to Litfin.

Living first on an Atherton estate, Lucie and Ruth moved to homes at 1950 and 1990 Cowper St. in Palo Alto after Louis Stern died. The homes were designed and built by architect Birge Clark.

Lucie, who loved good cooking and grew round from the enjoyment, became a benefactor to university students in the 1930s — her "Stanford boys." One student, Phil Kennedy, gave her the name Aunt Lucie, which stuck.

Greist recalled Aunt Lucie as a humorous person who loved to have teas and company for dinner. Greist, who now resides in Livermore, said her father, John Leecing, was the first scout executive of the Stanford Area Council of the Boy Scouts.

While a Palo Alto High School student, Greist was invited to Stern's home for dinner and sometimes for tea. Stern pointed out pictures on the walls of her den of all of the prominent people she knew, Greist said.

As a college student on summer vacation, Greist work for Stern in the Palo Alto guest house where her nephew and niece, Walter and Evelyn Haas, were spending the summer.

Greist was to do housekeeping and cooking. She didn't know how to cook, but Stern apprenticed her to her own chef, who guided her through the process with detailed instructions. He often gave her his own desserts left over from the previous dinner.

In the evenings when it became dark, Stern insisted that Greist stay overnight in the guest room. She didn't see much of Aunt Lucie that summer, but she recalled that she was summoned when Stern wanted her to meet Ruth.

"It was difficult," she recalled, of meeting Stern's daughter. Ruth was in bed, cared for by a nurse who fluffed 10 pillows behind her. She sat upright. Stern sat at the side of the bed. When she made their introduction, Ruth just stared at Greist and said nothing.

Stern asked for a copy of Greist's high school graduation picture, and she mounted it with the pictures of the famous people, along with a photo of her secretary's son, Henry D'Audney.

"Here I was alongside pictures of senators and heads of hospitals. I always felt special that my picture was there with all these important people," Greist said.

One of Aunt Lucie's favorite places was her garden. Perhaps it was to foreshadow her gift that became the Secret Garden adjacent to the Children's Library. Stern's garden was a magical, secret space where all of the flowers were perfumed and every plant was blooming, Greist recalled.

Stern was a generous person, Greist said. She gave male Stanford students loans for tuition, always with the understanding that they would pay her back when they went into business or obtained jobs. When the last payment was made, Stern hosted a celebration.

"She would have the young man with his wife over for dinner, and she would give them an envelope with the whole amount they had paid back. She said she thought she'd taught the young men the importance of saving," Greist said.

Stern told Greist she was very disappointed with most of the wives, however.

"She felt they didn't appreciate what the husband had to go through," she said.

Greist remembers Stern as full of good cheer.

"I can only see her smiling and teasing my father," she recalled.

Stern had a huge closet near the front door of her Palo Alto home that contained clothing from Levi Strauss. Stern would invite the young men and women, including Greist, to choose an item of their liking, she recalled.

Greist said if Stern were living today, she would not be disappointed in Palo Alto's progress. The town is a different place now than it was in the 1940s, Greist said, when she had arranged a hoedown. The event was in the Lucie Stern Community Center, complete with bales of hay. No local farmer had wanted to rent out a barn to a group of teenagers, she said.

"Aunt Lucie — she loved Palo Alto. I think even though Palo Alto has become so crowded, she would understand it; that it has to happen this way. I think even today she'd say, 'This is what happens with time.'"

Staff Writer Sue Dremann can be emailed at sdremann@paweekly.com.

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