Rosalie Sharp’s ‘Improbable Life’

Rosalie Wise Sharp, a daughter of Polish immigrants, always felt that heaven had mismatched her with her parents, Joseph and Ydessa Wise, who ran a dry goods store on north Yonge Street at a time when few Jews lived in north Toronto. Later, fate matched her up with husband Isadore Sharp, founder of the international Four Seasons chain of luxurious hotels and resorts, adding a fairy-tale lustre to her life.

In this charmingly honest, open and well-written memoir, Rifke: An Improbable Life (ECW Press, 2007) describes her life as “improbable.” Some may find it even more improbable that a spouse of an extraordinary Canadian should also have rare talents of her own. Yet she does, and not only as an interior decorator and art designer who helped the Four Seasons attain its trademark style combining opulence, fine taste and comfort.

Rosalie (Rifke, by her Jewish name) was born in Toronto in 1936 to parents who had come from Ozarow via Montreal; for years the family lived above a store on Yonge Street north of Lawrence, then in a house nearby. “It was a shtetl household,” Rosalie writes, recounting that, because her parents retained their old-world values, her life and world were very different from those of her Gentile friends. Many of her mother’s colourful Yiddish aphorisms decorate the prose and provide a rich sense of the shtetl mentality that permeated Rosalie’s childhood. (Example: “A farshporer iz beser vi a fardiner” — “A saver is better than an earner.”)

The feeling of separateness was enhanced by Rosalie’s knowledge of the tragic fate that befell most of her parents’ relatives who stayed in Europe and perished in the Holocaust. “All this while my friends were taking tap-dancing lessons and playing the flute and swimming in sunny country lakes. There was an unreality about going to school with kids who belonged in the neighbourhood — whose grandmothers were not gassed but took them to see the Nutcracker ballet at Christmas. Where was the real world? I led a double life.”

The book also offers a revealing portrait of Issy, whose legendary skill as a bargainer and negotiator were tested early on by Rosalie’s father, who had forbidden her from seeing him and locked her out of the house when she disobeyed. Issy, who “always faces a problem head on,” went immediately to his future father-in-law for a decisive discussion. Rosalie walked meekly behind.

“We found my dad reading The Telegram, sitting woodenly on the couch, where he could always be found. Issy began making his case politely and quietly in his positive, winning way, and my father was obviously impressed. As Issy spoke, I saw my father’s expression transform from haughty self-righteousness to the subdued demeanour of a humbled child. From that time, my father fell in my eyes. At that Freudian moment when Issy took charge, I transferred my allegiance from my father to my lover.”

A humble and seemingly ordinary Jarvis Street motel was the genesis for Sharp’s vast billion-dollar hotel empire: the next step was a planned edifice in suburban Don Mills that no one could have predicted would succeed.

“I would like to claim I had a hand in my husband’s great success, but if I did, it was only because I kept quiet and didn’t tell the truth about my fears for some of his schemes,” Rosalie writes. “Like the summer’s day in 1961 when we drove up to the corner of Eglinton Avenue and Leslie Street in Toronto, to a hilly meadow of tall grass. ‘Here,’ said Issy, ‘is the site for the second hotel, the Inn on the Park. What do you think?’

“There was not another building in sight, trucks were turning into a municipal garbage dump across the road, and just then a CPR freight train roared by the property. I thought, ‘What can he be thinking? Real hotels are always downtown, usually handy to the railroad station, and have regal names like Royal York, King Edward, and Prince George.’”

Wisely, however, she kept her doubts to herself, and did so again when he told her his aim was to make the name Four Seasons synonymous with luxury, like Rolls-Royce. “My most valuable contribution to his success,” she writes, “has been my silence.”

Like a princess without airs, she also lets us into her family life: we get to meet the couple’s four sons, and share in the devastating tragedy when the third son, Chris, dies of cancer at age 18 in 1978. Pages are also devoted to Rosalie’s love of ceramics, the family’s various homes, descriptions of a few of the many luxurious trips that she and Issy have taken; and her mother’s Birnbaum relatives in Ozarow, who wrote letters to Toronto until a black curtain of silence fell in 1939. “The Birnbaums for me are forever shrouded in mystery because they are frozen in time — vanished in the smoke of the Holocaust.”

For many, Rifke: An Improbable Life will evoke memories of the city from a former time and the generation of wartime immigrant Jews whose numbers are thinning. Enhanced with many photos and several drawings and genealogical charts, it is an engaging memoir with a logical theme that rings true. ♦

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