Icon and Inspiration: Lydia Franco O’Neil, At the Store and Behind the Mousse Cake


[This is the third installment in a four-part series “Matriarchs of Main & Elm,” profiling the women behind New Canaan’s great business families.]

Thomas George Franco II—‘Tom,’ as he’s known today on Elm Street, site of the family’s eponymous wine and liquor shop, a fixture of downtown New Canaan for nearly a century—recalls the challenge he faced as a young man in 1975, trying to acclimate back to civilian life upon being discharged from the Army following a three-year tour during the Vietnam War.

Aunt Lee & Uncle Bill - date unknown. Photo courtesy of the Franco family

Aunt Lee & Uncle Bill – date unknown. Photo courtesy of the Franco family

Fortunately for the newly made U.S. Army veteran, Tom was one of 11 Franco siblings—all students of St. Aloysius School and graduates of New Canaan Public Schools—who knew a remarkable woman named Lydia Franco O’Neil as ‘Aunt Lee.’

At the time, Aunt Lee had a condominium in Florida with her husband, longtime local U.S. Postal Service worker Bill O’Neil, and the plan was for Tom to drive her down to the Sunshine State so that she could have a car there, and he would fly back.

“That was the perfect reintroduction back into civilian life,” Tom recalled on a recent evening.

“We talked all the way down—about Uncle Bill, the family, what I was going to do now, and just things in general. There was no ‘A-ha’ moment, just a slow, steady feed of Aunt Lee that really made me appreciate her as a real person. Aunt Lee stuff went in one ear, Army baloney went out the other ear. I flew back a better person.”

Family members - bottom ( L to R) Angie, Filomena, Vivian; top John Moker, Ann Franco Moker, Lydia, Bill. Photo courtesy of the Franco family

Family members – bottom ( L to R) Angie, Filomena, Vivian; top John Moker, Ann Franco Moker, Lydia, Bill. Photo courtesy of the Franco family

It was a profound experience for the young man and a characteristically unspoken act of compassion from a wise woman who, though she had no children of her own, had emerged as a figurehead and matriarch within the family, at home and at work.

Franco’s permittee, accountant, head of operations and unofficial “human resources department,” Lydia O’Neil was as feared for her commanding presence, savvy and dynamic personality at home, as she was revered for a special brand of tough love, wisdom, and tenacity—by unsuspecting salesmen and teenaged nephews alike.

As another nephew, New Canaan’s Mike Franco, put it: “They say for children to mature properly they need male and female role models who are not their parents. For our female influence, we had Auntie Lee. Compassionate, smart, generous to those deserving, and tough to the core.”

At Calf Pasture, Norwalk - The adults (L to R) Richard (the Franco siblings' dad), Lydia and Angie. "Not sure who the kids are," Tom Franco said. Photo courtesy of the Franco family

At Calf Pasture, Norwalk – The adults (L to R) Richard (the Franco siblings’ dad), Lydia and Angie. “Not sure who the kids are,” Tom Franco said. Photo courtesy of the Franco family

And tough even in her final days of a battle with cancer in 1991.

Anne Franco McAndrew, one of Lydia’s nieces, went to visit her toward the end and recalled how “she couldn’t get out of bed.”

“But we were talking, and she said, ‘Annie, please, take anything you want,’ ” Anne recalled. “And I said, ‘Auntie Lee, the only thing I want is your recipe for your chocolate mousse cake.’ She was quiet for a second and then said, ‘No, you can’t have that.’ ”

It was later learned that Anne’s brother Tim was the only lucky—and secret—recipient of the coveted, handwritten recipe during Aunt Lee’s lifetime, and this remains a bone of contention, and subject of amusement, among the siblings.

Filomena Franco, Lydia's mother. She was involved in the family business in the background, even more so when her husband, Gaetano, passed in 1935. Photo courtesy of the Franco family

Filomena Franco, Lydia’s mother. She was involved in the family business in the background, even more so when her husband, Gaetano, passed in 1935. Photo courtesy of the Franco family

Born in New Canaan on Sept. 2, 1913, Lydia was the seventh child of 10 who lived with their parents Gaetano (Thomas) and Filomena on the northeast corner of Locust Avenue and Forest Street (a lot known today for the brick Bank of America building). Her two eldest sisters, Evangeline and Anne, were born in Sarno, a district of Salerno, Italy, according to Duffy Franco, another nephew of Lydia.

“All of the other children—Frank, Albert, Charles, Louis, Lydia, Emil, Vivian and our dad, Richard—were born in New Canaan,” Duffy said.

When Prohibition was repealed in 1933, the business immediately obtained its liquor license while the grocery business ended up sold to partners outside the family.

Lydia, brother Albert, sister Vivian, and Filomena - 1957. Photo courtesy of the Franco family

Lydia, brother Albert, sister Vivian, and Filomena – 1957. Photo courtesy of the Franco family

After Lydia’s father Thomas passed away around the holidays in 1935, a mourning period ensued (given a retailer’s schedule) and everyone went right back to work. When their brother Louis passed away in 1949, and her brother Albert started running things, Lydia became involved more than ever in the store and family real estate businesses.

Her own mother Filomena had passed away in 1961, and for the next three decades, Lydia would be in charge. According to Tom, “Albert is credited—rightly so—with the creation of the Franco businesses, but Lydia ran the operations … She was definitely the brains of the outfit.”

Widely known as a hard-working, no-nonsense woman with a keen business sense, a spectacular phone voice, gourmet skills in the kitchen, and well-placed sense of humor, Aunt Lee’s legendary lessons serve as daily inspiration—and significant recollections—for certain family members.

Gaetano (Thomas) Franco's market on Forest Street with daughter Ann in front. Market was open in the very early teens, possibly earlier. Photo courtesy of the Franco family

Gaetano (Thomas) Franco’s market on Forest Street with daughter Ann in front. Market was open in the very early teens, possibly earlier. Photo courtesy of the Franco family

Despite being the younger sister, Lydia was the only one who could set Albert—or anyone, for that matter—straight, her nieces and nephews recall. Tim remembered “the feeling that when you were with her, you knew two things: One, you were in good company. Two, she was in charge.”

He shared one of the family’s favorite stories depicting Aunt Lee’s gusto despite her short stature when an undisclosed bank “would not cash a check for cousin Richard.”

“Apparently Lydia, with her sister Vivian, marched into the bank and [criticized] one of the officers in front of everyone. I can only imagine what was going through the guy’s mind when he looked up and saw those two coming at him.”

While it is not officially known if the bank ended up cashing the check, Tom said, “There were never any issues at that bank again.” Lydia did not hold back, and she treated everyone the same regardless of position, gender, or age. According to nephew Tim Franco, “Lydia was ahead of her time. She’d be running a company today.”

As in any family with children numbering in the double digits, it takes a certain personality to stand out and get things done, and Lydia definitely earned her position, relatives say.

Rick Franco, son of Richard and Gloria Franco and nephew of Lydia, as well as current owner of the wine store with brother Carl, explained how business works in large families: “It is actually two generations within one. Things pass from the older half to the younger. The store went from Albert and Lydia to our dad and Emil.”

Nearly every of the 11 Franco siblings has worked at one point or another in the store and was subject to the high standards of Aunt Lee.

Nephew Michael Franco described the relationship between the older and younger generations (he and his siblings) in the store.

“We were all in our late teens when we worked there, and my Aunt Lydia and my Uncles Albert and Emil were in their 60s and 70s. These were all great people with big hearts, and family always came first. You would sit with them on the holidays or on Sundays, and it was all laughs and good times. The minute you stepped in the store, however, everything changed. Every day was game day.”

Her standards of appearance, behavior, and timeliness were second to none, and if one of those standards was not met, the offender would hear about it from Aunt Lee, Mike recalled.

He described one of the many lessons he learned during his work at the store under her watchful eye: “When you showed up for work in the morning…God forbid if you were unshaven, not properly dressed, or had the appearance that you were out late the night before. Being on time for work meant being there 5 minutes early and already having had your coffee. Being late (even 30 seconds) would result in a dressing down that would bring a grown man to his knees.”

As the one who took care of the store’s accounts payable and receivable, Aunt Lee was usually the one to make deposits at the bank each day. She rewarded her young employees with trust when they earned it, and, as Mike recalls, “If you were deemed worthy you might be called upon to bring the day’s receipts to the bank.”

It was an honor to be recognized in this way by Aunt Lee since she did not hand out compliments readily, the nieces and nephews recalled.

When Lydia answered the store’s phone, callers were greeted in “a sing-song voice ‘Franco’s Liquor Store, good morning!’ and it would sound like you called the Ritz Carlton,” according to Mike.

“She was also in charge of delinquent accounts and that voice could get stern pretty quick. I never knew for sure, but I always imagined that collections had to be near 100 percent. She only had to call once.”

Responsibility and the value of a dollar were two of Aunt Lee’s top priorities when training her young employees. She was in charge of supplies as well as accounting, and the young Francos learned quickly that it was best to get one’s ducks in a row to stay in her good graces. Mike described with the utmost respect one of many examples of Aunt Lee’s expectations.

“When you showed up at work, Aunt Lydia would give you a box cutter and a pen. If you went back to college after Christmas and showed up in the summer to work again, you were expected to have these items with you. God forbid if you lost one … I can still feel those eyes boring in to me as I re-use an old envelope at my office.”

Aunt Lee always clarified the connections between a small detail and the big picture. One of her many adages remains with Mike today as he works in his law office across the street from where he learned these valuable lessons. “ ‘Watch the nickels and dimes; the dollars take care of themselves.’ I have the quote still ringing in my head,” he said.

Mike said he tries to convey these lessons to his own children, and while he isn’t sure if everything is sinking in, something is bound to stick, and the intentions and delivery of these lessons are key.

“Little did we know or understand at the time that Aunt Lydia’s reprimands were delivered out of love and are the foundation of the work ethic that we hold dear today. We get up and go to work every day and we do our jobs. Somewhere up there, Auntie Lee is looking down as I rush to my office to get the light turned on by 9 a.m., even if I have no appointments.”

Whether at work, play or even in church, Lydia adhered to a strict schedule, according to nephew Rick.

“Nothing was off by even a minute,” he recalled. “She and Uncle Bill went to Mass at St. A’s, were never late, stayed until the last word of the final hymn, snapped the hymnal book shut, and went right out the door.”

In addition to their full work schedules, Lydia and Bill would entertain and cook for friends and enjoy annual trips to Cape Cod for two weeks every summer as well as occasional trips to Italy.

After Tim’s freshman year of college, he remembered a tough summer working at Aunt Lee’s house on Mondays—his day off from the store—after Uncle Bill had succumbed to cancer.

“He had a very rough last seven, eight years, but you never heard a complaint from him. I remember seeing him a few nights before we left for Newt’s (brother Chris’s) wedding. Here he was, in his bed at Waveny, suffering, and he was saying what a great time we’d have at the wedding. Two days later, he was dead. Lydia was never the same.”

Although she didn’t have the amount of face time with Aunt Lee that her elder siblings were lucky enough to have, Kelley Franco Throop—youngest child of Richard and Gloria Franco and law partners with brother Mike—said she’s always been in awe of her impressive aunt.

“Aunt Lee embodied just how intimidating a smart woman can be,” Kelley said. “Despite how shrewd she was, she was also someone who had that magnetic quality about her that made you want to be the one sitting next to her, having a conversation with her. It was almost a privilege to be in her company. I genuinely liked her and was a little scared of her all at once. One day, a few years ago, I came back to the office after a tough day of battling it out with another lawyer. I was recounting the story of the battle to my brother Tommy and he looked at me and said, ‘You’re just like Aunt Lee.’ I have held this compliment close to my heart as one of the best I’ve ever received.”

Meanwhile, the exact location of Aunt Lee’s chocolate mousse cake recipe is held in the strictest of confidence.

When asked for her reaction to learning that her own brother was the sole proprietor of it after Auntie Lee’s death, Anne said: “Let’s just say that my jaw dropped when I found out Tim had the recipe. I wasn’t surprised, though; he truly was a fan favorite of Auntie Lee’s.”

Asked if the Franco siblings share recipes now, Anne said: “Well, I do, but some of us take it all to the vault.”

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