A new book recounts the life of Tillie Lewis, a giant in the Modesto area’s canning industry and the keeper of some juicy secrets about herself.
“Tillie Lewis: The Tomato Queen,” by Kyle Elizabeth Wood, tells how she started with this product in Stockton in 1935 and moved into peaches, apricots and other products there and in Modesto.
The book has details that Lewis left out when talking publicly about her rise from a Brooklyn tenement to global leadership in the food business. Perhaps the juiciest: She performed as a teenager with the Ziegfeld Follies, a Broadway show featuring scantily dressed showgirls, starting in 1911. And it was there that she met the philandering Italian tomato magnate who would be her partner in business and romance for many years.
Lewis’s fudging of the truth does not diminish what she achieved before her death in 1977. She hired many Mexican, Japanese and other minority workers in an era of rampant bias. She encouraged women to excel in male-dominated workplaces. She enjoyed luxurious homes and travels but helped employees in times of need. She created the nation’s first line of diet foods.
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Lewis had no children from her two marriages, but she did launch a business that grew to be one of the largest in the industry. It employed about 5,500 people and grossed about $200 million a year as of the 1970s.
“She had one baby in this world, and that was the company,” Wood said in a phone interview last week. “Everyone who worked for her was caretaking her baby.”
The book, available on Amazon.com, grew out of Wood’s research for a history paper at San Joaquin Delta College in 2003. She had returned to school after her three children were grown and eventually got a degree in liberal studies from California State University, Stanislaus. She has worked as a real estate agent and elementary school teacher.
Wood said she was urged to write the book by her late husband, Richard Glass Williams, who worked in the canning industry. She now lives in Monterey with her second husband, artist Wayne Charles Wood. She is on a speaking tour for the book, including Thursday at the Delta College venue that just happens to be named the Tillie Lewis Theater.
Lewis was born Myrtle Ehrlich to Jewish immigrants from Austria in 1896. Or 1901 if you prefer, an adjustment later made by a woman who did not take kindly to aging. She grew up amid poverty but hoped to escape by way of show business or other means.
At 18, she joined her extended family in the business of importing canned tomatoes and other wholesale grocery products from Italy. But it was a separate venture with her lover, Florindo Del Gaizo, that led to her move to California. She was involved with him amid her failing marriage to Louis Weisberg, a partner in the earlier company.
Lewis and Del Gaizo called their venture Flotill, a combination of their first names. This moniker carried over to the Stockton cannery, opened two years before Del Gaizo’s death in 1937.
Flotill purchased a cannery at Ninth and D streets in Modesto in 1942, just as World War II created a need for soldier rations. A few years later, Tillie married Meyer Lewis, a union leader who had negotiated on behalf of her workers.
The book describes some oddball twists in Tillie’s life. The FBI investigated her in the late 1930s because of her company’s supposed ties to the Fascists who ruled Italy. Director J. Edgar Hoover closed the case for lack of evidence.
Lewis endured prejudice because of her Jewish faith. Her beauty salon in Stockton kept a separate set of brushes and other supplies for her at the request of other patrons.
“Tillie understood discrimination,” Wood writes. “No matter her accolades, riches or success, the cream of the crop in Stockton would always consider her the ‘Jew broad.’ ”
The 1950s brought the Tasti-Diet line — artificially sweetened fruit and other products for people watching their weight. Flotill became Tillie Lewis Foods in 1961 and expanded to Modesto’s Beard Industrial District in 1963.
The company was acquired two years later by Ogden Corp. of New York. The founder continued as president until she retired in 1971.
The canneries peaked at about $200 million in annual sales in the 1970s, but they faded away over the next few years because of overcapacity and changing tastes. The closing of the last Stockton plant in 1987 brought an end to the Tillie Lewis venture. The name lives on at the Tillie Lewis Business Park, a redevelopment of the Ninth Street site that retained the cannery’s old water tower.
Lewis had a wide audience for her insights on business – via newspapers, magazines, radio and television. She took part in global efforts against hunger and helped the young nation of Israel grow tomatoes.
Tomato canning remains strong in the Modesto area today, and the city is the heart of the much-reduced fruit production, but Lewis’ role in the industry’s past is not widely known. Wood set out to change that.
“Tillie was an original story,” she wrote, “an ethereally striking spitfire who steered her own fate and was determined to find fame and fortune, no matter how she had to do it and no matter what the cost.”
John Holland: 209-578-2385
How to buy it
“Tillie Lewis: The Tomato Queen” is priced at $15 at www.amazon.com.
Author Kyle Elizabeth Wood will speak about the book at two free events Thursday that include music, photos, video and other trappings:
- 12:30 p.m.: “Who Was Tillie Lewis?”
- 6:30 p.m.: “An Evening With Tillie Lewis”
They will be at the Tillie Lewis Theater at San Joaquin Delta College, 5151 Pacific Ave.