Former Fallingwater cook Elsie Henderson, 106, dishes on serving Pittsburgh royalty
Elsie Henderson spent decades cooking for American royalty. She’s still dishing about her culinary journey.
Henderson, who is 106 years old, was hired by several prominent Pittsburgh families, including the Heinzes and Mellons. Her most notable position was as the Kaufmann family’s cook, baker and meal planner at Fallingwater from 1947 to 1963.
Fallingwater, designed by famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright, served as the family weekend retreat for Pittsburgh department store mogul Edgar J. Kaufmann and his wife, Liliane, and their son, Edgar Jr.
Henderson even spent a summer cooking at the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port, Mass. “We’ll put Ethel [Kennedy] at the top of the list. She was wonderful,” Henderson said of the wife of the late Robert F. Kennedy.
Henderson was the guest of honor at a private birthday luncheon celebration in September at Fallingwater.
Dressed smartly in slacks, a floaty blouse and vintage 2-inch heels, Henderson navigated Fallingwater with her walker — even dancing to Frank Sinatra in the living room with her great-nephew Arthur Carter as she celebrated turning 106.
Fallingwater staff treated her to lunch and a custom birthday cake, surrounded by about a dozen family and friends, while seated at the head of the same table the Kaufmanns gathered around for weekend meals at Fallingwater.
“It was a lovely time,” said Henderson during an interview from her room at Vincentian de Marillac, a senior care home in Stanton Heights that she calls home after living independently until age 105.
Her nephew Arthur Carter and his wife, Cheryl Carter, praised the Fallingwater staff for accommodating Henderson’s wish to spend quality time there.
“Elsie said that before she left this Earth, she wanted to see Fallingwater again. The visit brought back good memories for her,” Cheryl Carter said.
Fallingwater officials consider Henderson an integral part of the Fallingwater narrative.
“Over the course of almost two decades, Elsie Henderson impressed the Kaufmanns and their guests with her delicious food, creating a rich culinary history at Fallingwater that continues to inspire. Through her wonderful stories and recipes, the memory of the Kaufmanns’ life at Fallingwater lives on,” said Fallingwater director Justin Gunther.
Mt. Washington roots
Elsie Redmon, later Elsie Lee and then Elsie Henderson, was born at home in working-class Mt. Washington on Sept. 7, 1913.
She was youngest of 13 children born to Ada and Thornton Redmon. Elsie’s father died when she was 2, leaving single mom Ada to provide for her large family.
Always a fixture at her mother’s side in the kitchen, Henderson learned baking and cooking techniques from her Southern-born mom.
Henderson left high school after the 11th grade to help with the family finances, landing a job at Kaufmann’s department store in the bad accounts department.
She worked there for six years, later meeting and receiving accolades from owner Edgar J. Kaufmann.
“He put me on record as the top ‘sheet writer’ at Kaufmann’s because he said I had the best handwriting of anyone,” Henderson said.
When Liliane Kaufmann placed a newspaper ad seeking a cook, Henderson was intrigued and interviewed with Mrs. Kaufmann at the William Penn Hotel. She landed the job on the spot.
Henderson never had formal culinary training, but spent 18 years developing her “so-called art of cooking,” as she described it, running an efficient kitchen at Fallingwater.
She worked with another Elsie, a German woman who assisted her in the kitchen for six years.
“She was white and interviewed by Kaufmann Jr. and I was seated out of sight but I could hear every word they were saying. The first thing Jr. said was, ‘Do you have any objection to working with colored people?’ She said, ‘no’ and he said, ‘you’re hired,’ ” Henderson said.
Both women enjoyed a favorable working relationship. It was cut short, sadly. The German Elsie died after a drunken driver crashed into her car. “She was a wonderful person,” Henderson said.
Henderson never learned how to drive or felt the need, as Fallingwater job perks included having a chauffeur always at the ready.
“There were always four or five chauffeurs waiting to drive me back and forth from Pittsburgh to Fallingwater and I never had to wait,” Henderson said.
One chauffeur-driven trip from the airport provided Henderson with one-on-one time with Frank Lloyd Wright when he visited in 1956.
“He asked me what I did at Fallingwater and called me a ‘young lady.’ He was flirtatious and told me if the food at Fallingwater was as good as I looked, then he would be good,” Henderson said. “He was a bit fresh, but well-behaved.”
Henderson said thinking about her favorite room at Fallingwater is still emotional for her.
“When you walk in from the driveway to the living room,” she said, “the first thing you see is a portrait of Edgar Kaufmann,” who died in 1955. “It brought tears to my eyes in later years.”
Henderson resided in a private room in the servant’s quarters section at Fallingwater.
She said she was paid “very well” for someone who only worked weekends, but received wages for the entire week.
“I made $18 a weekend back then — a lot of money. Mr. Kaufmann liked to hand out bonuses,” Henderson said.
Fallingwater meals prepared by Henderson included specialty desserts such as clove and daffodil cakes, corn pudding, lamb and Cornish hen. Wright Crab Salad is named for the one meal she prepared for the architect on his 1956 visit. Edgar Kaufmann’s favorite was liver and onions.
“No one else in the family would eat liver and onions but Mr. Kaufmann loved it. We would sit at the table and eat together because we both loved liver and onions,” Henderson said.
Back then, the butler at Fallingwater cooked the meats and seafood, leaving breakfast, lunches, side dishes and desserts to Henderson.
Henderson recalled working as a female African-American in segregated America wasn’t always easy.
“It [racism] was a daily thing for me, back then, but not with the Kaufmanns. They always made me feel like family,” Henderson said.
Liliane Kaufmann gave Henderson free rein with menu planning and kitchen decisions.
“Mrs. Kaufmann would say, ‘Oh I don’t know, ask Elsie. She’ll tell you whatever you need to know,’ ” Henderson said.
After the death of Liliane Kaufmann in 1952 and Edgar Kaufmann three years later, Henderson remained as cook for Edgar Kaufmann Jr. She left in 1963, when he transitioned Fallingwater from a private residence to a public museum with the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy.
Henderson’s recipes and recollections inspired a collaborative 2008 cookbook, written by Suzanne Martinson, titled “The Fallingwater Cookbook: Elsie Henderson’s Recipes and Memories.”
After her retirement, Henderson frequented Fallingwater several times a year, signing copies of the book for visitors in the gift shop.
A frequent guest cook on the WQED program “QED Cooks,” Henderson attended the filming of the show’s 100th episode in 2012.
And at 106, she hasn’t tucked away her kitchen apron just yet, participating in a monthly cooking demonstration offered at Vincentian that was inspired by her cooking career.
“We are really grateful to know Ms. Elsie. She’s a real gem,” said Vincentian administrator Jennifer Pruett.
Vincentian CEO Nick Vizzoca said having Henderson as a resident is a blessing. “It’s an honor. She’s a living historian and it warms my heart that she’s telling her story. She’s humble, sharp as a tack and a true American icon,” Vizzoca said.
Henderson married twice, but never had children.
Carter revealed his aunt’s lifestyle tips for her apparent longevity: eating lots of fish, counting calories, getting sleep and avoiding most sweets. “She’s in good health,” he said.
Henderson said there isn’t a secret to her advanced years in age.
“I’m just happy the good Lord allows me to wake up every morning and that’s all that I ask. Many of my friends have been gone a long, long time and I’m still here so I thank him.”
Joyce Hanz is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.