My friend of many, many years, Sheila Lukins, died August 30 at the age of 66 and, while I wasn’t sure I would write about her, I realized today that I would.
Sheila and I had an intense, ebb and flow relationship (both being Scorpios and pretty tough cookies) and much to my deep regret and sadness, we were in an ebb stage when she was diagnosed and she passed away three months later. Ah, but when we flowed, we really, really flowed.
We became friends in the 1980′s when I returned from a “stage” or apprenticeship with several chefs in Bordeaux. My time there, under the auspices of the Chamber of Commerce of Bordeaux, was life-changing and I befriended anyone who would tolerate my pigeon French. Each and every chef, diplomat, or bureaucrat I encountered asked me, with a huge grin, if I knew Sheila Lukins, so when I came back to the states, I made it my business to.
She was a wildly talented illustrator, and an innovative and brilliant cook who would devise seemingly crazy combinations that were, of course, perfect (she served us homemade chocolate bread and persimmon for dessert one night and it remains one of the best things I’ve ever eaten). She was also, while teeny, incredibly, palpably sexy; copious hair piled on top of her head, lots of vintage jewelry and elegantly low cut tops that revealed exquisite lace and satin camisoles underneath. The chefs all loved her and she loved to flirt, but more than that she loved her husband and her daughters and her life. She was a friend and a mentor who taught me about business (never discuss money she would say, have someone else do it for you, that way you can still be the artist), about food (she maintained the secret to E.A.T.s habit-forming egg salad was extra yolks) and about personal style.
In those days, before the era of fabulously famous chefs, it was going out with a super star when you went out to eat with Sheila. You could get into any restaurant, you would get the best table, and huge amounts of food would come out from the kitchen gratis (although one not-very-bright chef sent out things to taste and then added them to our bill- she was not happy and yes, she let him know that) and it was always jolly, always a party.
Our summer homes in Connecticut were near each other, and many weekends she and Richard, Peter and I, and my mother would drive together to Tanglewood. For those who don’t know, Tanglewood is an extraordinary music venue in the Berkshires, where, on a beautiful evening, everyone brings a picnic. The picnics can be crazily elaborate; linens and candelabras, silver vases and good wines. Our settings were pretty yet not over the top- but once everyone clocked who had done the cooking, we were quite popular.
We had spent the weekend together in 1991 as I recall, before the day when Sheila had the aneurism that almost killed her and left her a different person. I remember bits and pieces of Richard’s phone call and the fact that he had to decide what the exact treatment would be and he had to decide immediately. Sheila got lucky in that she survived, but it was a long and beyond difficult road back- one that not many people would have had the capacity to take. When we would visit her at the rehabilitation center, she would make the most inappropriate jokes and we would laugh ourselves sick- that was all there was to do while she fought and clawed and basically willed herself to walk and then to cook again.
When the second version of Weddings For Dummies was published, she threw an incredibly stylish book party for my co-author Laura and me in her fabulous apartment with her newly amazing kitchen in the Beresford. Almost everyone invited came, and I am sure it was more because it was thrown by Sheila than it was about the book or the authors. We were both divorced by then, and she would entertain my Southern musician boyfriend, when he came to town, by inviting us up for Shun Lee- he adored her and particularly loved to tell everyone back in Tennessee that while he frequently ate at one of the world’s most famous chef’s homes, all he ever got was Chinese takeout.
Sheila and I had dinner at Charles in the West Village a few months before she became ill and we had a great time. Many years before, I had given her bakelite bangles for her birthday, and whenever we went out together she would wear them, it was a subtle reminder of our bond and that night, while she teased me for dragging her downtown and chided me for something not too clever that I had done in business, she was wearing those bracelets- that made me very happy and still does.