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  • Writer's pictureGeorge Seminara

Katharine Hepburn's Sweet Tooth and Me

George rises from the sickbed to bring you this minor post because he passed Mondel's on the way home from the doctor's office.

Carl Mondel and his wife, Elsie, opened the candy store in 1943. On Broadway, across the entrance to Columbia University. (Not exactly. Shake Shack took that spot. Mondel's is across from the library. The library wasn't there when I was there.) You can't miss it if you look across the street at a southerly angle. Because Their daughter Florence worked there, starting as a young girl and retiring only a few years ago. According to Paula Blat, the manager and an employee for the past 22 years, the store hasn't changed much since it opened.

"The store is the same," Ms. Blat said. "The same people come in. They say it's exactly the same."

I can vouch for the lack of change. Way back in the day, when I was a courtin' back in the early 1980s, I would often pop in to pick up some chocolate delicacies. The chocolates were amazing. The store needed and still needs an update. And I have attempted to visit six or seven times since mid-February and have struck out every time. Yelp says they're open, but I have yet to find that window when they are open. Their limited hours are listed online, but I have tried them at all hours on the clock. As I look through the window, nothing has changed. A paint job would help. I was recently gifted a small box of their candy. So there's hope.

Such longevity creates longtime customers and some who discovered Mondel Chocolates while they were students at nearby Barnard and Columbia University. Many keep coming once they graduate and move away. For Barnard students, every reunion contains at least one visit to Mondel's. A story reported in Metropolitan Diary way back in 2003 and has since become a legend. A man became devoted to orange creams as a Columbia student in the 1960s. Thirty years later, he returned to Mondel with his daughter. The proprietor recognized him and mentioned that she hadn't see him "for a while." Ms. Blat recalls that an experience like that isn't unusual. "Some people return with their children and grandchildren,"

Perhaps Mondel Chocolates' most recognizable fan was Katharine Hepburn, who called the store's chocolates "the best in the world." A note on the "Katharine Houghton Hepburn stationery," sent by the actress's niece and now taped to the glass near the register, reads, "Thank you for the delicious chocolates — how very thoughtful — Ms. Hepburn was pleased." The store had sent chocolates for Ms. Hepburn's 90th birthday in 1997.

Katharine Hepburn split her post-Hollywood life between a brownstone in the Sutton Place area of Manhattan in Midtown East if you are familiar with the poster of Woody Allen's Manhattan. Or The Television series Beauty and the Beast. That's Sutton place. And a family home in Fenwick, Connecticut, neither in close proximity to the high-end candy shop.

For decades, Hepburn would pay good money (the rumor was she was thrifty) to hire a town car to take her to Mondel Chocolates to pick up her standing order: pecan turtles, molasses chips, butter crunch, dark orange peel, champagne truffles, and dark almond bark. Customers still come in and request the Hepburn mix.

Note: Manhattan is a tiny spot, roughly 13.4 miles long and 2.3 miles wide at its widest point. 1.56 million people choose to live there. Traveling from area to area on the same island is to be done with confidence and good luck.

I had several interactions with her, and she lived up to expectations. I was working in the Cinema Two movie theater. I cannot remember the film, but Ms. Hepburn and two friends appeared. It was ninety degrees out, and management set up a line around the corner of 60th Street. The handful of patrons were wilting, and we could have easily had them all wait in the waiting area. Our manager, Mr. Lévêque, was a French Canadian who was very into owning his own chain of theaters. One day. On this day, he was a brand new assistant manager.

Lévêque, felt that we follow his orders to the letter. No matter what. At this 3:00 pm Wednesday afternoon screening, virtually no one was on the line—five or six senior citizens at best. Back then, a movie opening on a Wednesday was not uncommon. There could have been an onslaught of patrons, but there was not. I was escorting the ladies down the steps to the graciously built-in couch that served as our waiting area. Lévêque appeared.

Mr. L: "These women must wait outside! "

G.S: "I think it's too hot for them to wait outside."

Mr. L: "If you do not remove them, I will place you on report!”

KH: "The young man is just trying to do the decent thing. He

"doesn't need to be penalized for it.

Mr.L: "Then he will be fired. Now leave!"

With those words, Ms. Hepburn smacked Leveque across the face. What little action there was in the entrance to the theater had stopped completely. It was a stalemate situation. Finally, Leveque spoke

Mr. L: "Revoke their tickets!"

I leaped into action. I stood between the beet-red assistant manager and Renee, the cashier, facing Ms. Hepburn and her friends.

G.S.: "Not so fast, obviously this woman (I gave her a wink that

would make the little rascals proud) is having some disturbance due to the weather." (Wink) "Why don't we let Ms.Hepburn wait down here and I will bring her friends back

out on the line." (Giant Wink!)

Ms. Hepburn agreed to the terms of the agreement. Her friends, not wanting a scene, followed me out onto the line around the corner. To my back, Lévêque promised to place me on report for disobeying orders and insubordination. It's a movie theater, not the Army.

I waited at the corner until I saw Lévêque exit the front doors of Cinema Two and then enter Cinema One. (That was the big one) As soon as he entered, I brought Ms. Hepburn's friends and the handful of customers suffering online into the theater.

Ms. Hepburn extended her hand and took mine. "That was an incredibly decent thing you have done. Thank you."

"All in a day's work here at the Cinemas."

"I hope you don't lose your job because of us?"

"I think I'm pretty good." Ms. Hepburn's friends and all the other folks I let in shook my hand.

Renee, the cashier, instructed all patrons to wait inside in the air conditioning thereafter.

"To Ms. Hepburn, I mused, "About Mr. Lévêque, I can't tell if he's a jerk because he's French or just a jerk?" She laughed and said, "That man was just a jerk! And that's too good a word for him."

And so this concludes my pneumonia post: my Katharine Hepburn story plus top secret info on her sweet tooth.

But is that the end of the story? As the late great Paul Harvey would say, "And now for the rest of the story!"

Mr. Lévêque demanded senior management fire me for breaking arbitrary rules he set in place and for insubordination in front of the rest of the staff. (A cashier and a 90-year-old Candy Girl) My get-out-of-jail card was two words, Katharine Hepburn. He was transferred to another theater when they found out he tried to force Ms. Hepburn out onto the Street in ninety-degree weather.

Note: Traditionally, the staff of a movie theater has a manager, depending on size, two or three assistant managers, a cashier, a candy girl (age or gender means nothing to this appellation), a couple of ushers, or more. A porter - if it's a classy joint. A doorman tears the tickets and acts as the de facto head of the usher team. Finally, we are all there because the projectionists are showing the film and you can't do it without them.

The movie theater chains value life more than money. Lévêque was closing up with one doorman at the new theater when a man brandishing a shotgun demanded the box office money. Lévêque ran away with the money tray and locked himself in the office. The robber threatened to kill the doorman he was holding at gunpoint. The office door wasn't opened. He refused.

No one died. The police arrived. The gunman escaped. But Lévêque risked an employee's life for less than $200.00 in cash. He was fired and banned from the chain. I often fantasize about him working on a goat farm in Côte-Nord, Quebec, bragging to the goats about his exciting cinema career in America.

Follow the movies that George likes in the pages of It Came From Hollywood- The Journal of Cinema. Out now- It Came From Hollywood Book 4- George discusses Night Shift, Cooley High and Curse of the Demon. It Came From Hollywood Book 4- available everywhere books are sold!

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George Seminara says:

A.Scott Berg is a writer of three great biographies.

Max Perkins: Editor of Genius (1978), Goldwyn: A Biography (1989), Lindbergh (1998) winner of the Pulitzer Prize and it's as definitive as I can imagine. These three are very Very highly reccomended.

Not really recommended? Kate Remembered (2003) He and Ms. Hepburn were friends. His respect for that relationship held him back from really going deep and the book suffers for it. It doesn't stink. It's just no where near as great as Lindbergh.

This note hangs in Mondel's window

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