If you’ve ever tasted the cheesecakes that Pagliacci’s and the long-gone Southside restaurant became famous for, you’ve probably had a cosmic encounter with Lenore DiFiore at the Broad Street eateries without realizing it.
Creating those legendary cheesecakes with her late mother, Mary DiFiore, was one of many talents the Akron, Ohio-born actor, artist and musician was known for.
Lenore, who died Aug. 8 at age 69 following a battle with pancreatic cancer, was able to fulfil two wishes before her death.
She wanted to have a modest launch for Time Weaver, her fantasy novel inspired by her granddaughter, and to see Money Monster, the George Clooney movie that her brother Alan DiFiore co-wrote.
“She’s not a writer. It was never a thing. She’s dyslexic, but one day she just said: ‘I’ve started writing a book,’ ” her daughter Elise Forslund, 37, said.
“She had these crazy dreams and she’d wake up and start writing for hours. She would write, no paragraphs, just solid typing on her computer, hunting and pecking, and she had pages and pages. She had notes scribbled everywhere.”
It took Lenore a year to write the book, which melded pieces of her life experiences with her love of fantasy. She finished it last spring in her rented Oak Bay home.
In failing health, she later moved in with Elise, her husband, Tyler, and their daughter, Sophia, 11.
“She felt [the book] was almost divinely inspired,” said Dianne Bump, who, after learning her friend had cancer and between six and nine months to live, attempted to edit the book herself and work with a designer.
Since time was running out, she instructed Printorium Bookworks to publish it as is. They printed 40 copies as gifts for close friends and family in time for an intimate gathering at Victoria Hospice’s rooftop garden.
“She looked tired and weak, but when she looked up and saw the people there, she lit right up,” said Elise, whose husband read aloud a chapter while guests had sandwiches, cupcakes, iced tea and lemonade.
“It was perfect and she was very happy. It was the last thing she was waiting for, definitely a blessing,” she said. She described her mother, who was raised Catholic, as a spiritual person who believed in a higher power and was into crystals and stones. She also embraced Buddhist philosophy and healing powers.
Elise also took her late mother to see her last movie — Money Monster — at SilverCity.
“Alan and Lenore were always quite close. She was so proud of him with his writing and TV shows and movies,” said Elise, whose uncle’s credits include writing for the new National Geographic Television series The Long Road Home, Grimm, DaVinci’s Inquest, The Handler, Ghost Whisperer and The Bridge. Alan and Lenore have another sibling, Seattle-based Marlene, who was born with cerebral palsy.
“Lenore was always a big supporter, especially when you were struggling,” Alan said. “I spent a lot of years looking for change in the couch, doing all kinds of jobs before I was able to make a living at this.”
When the Hollywood screenwriter was taking film courses in Portland and she was living in Boston without much money herself, she loaned him $100 to finish a documentary short about Mexican-American farm workers.
“She was a bit of a renaissance woman, a diamond in the rough,” he said, describing his late sister’s book as “a delightful little piece” inspired by her love of gems, magic and fantasy.
It wasn’t the first book Lenore wrote, he added. She also wrote “an incredible little book” about their mother’s baking and recipes that he hopes to publish.
Alan was with his sister during a visit to Harlem, where at age 16, on the day Martin Luther King marched on Washington, she displayed early evidence of her robust voice while singing with a gospel group.
She went on to showcase her soulful voice in Victoria in the 1980s, first singing at Pagliacci’s, which Alan co-founded with their mother, Howie Siegel and Howie’s brother David. Then, when the DiFiores left a few years later to open their popular Chicago-style restaurant on the other end of Broad street, she fronted the Southside All Stars R&B band.
“She baked those cheesecakes at home in her oven from dawn until late at night,” said Alan, recalling how Lenore began working with their mother in the bakery after he opened Pagliacci’s.
“All that stuff was based on the idea Howie and I had about bringing that New York style to Victoria,” said Alan. “It was just because we wanted to have a good place to eat.”
Lenore and her ex-husband Paul Turmel, whom she met in Vermont, moved to Victoria in 1978 after living in Errington and on Lasqueti Island. Years before she got into cheesecakes, however, she had another creative outlet: sewing costumes.
Elise said her mother had gone to do summer stock in upstate New York, and they put her in costumes. “She said she made the mistake of letting somebody know she could sew.”
She became a seamstress, eventually designing costumes for the Theatre Company of Boston and San Francisco Opera Company.
After Southside closed, Lenore focused on visual arts at a studio in Chinatown she had opened. She made jewelry and painted silk shirts and “wearable art:” scarves, blouses, jackets and shirts, including one with a western theme, complete with coyotes.
One of Lenore’s biggest disappointments, Alan said, was auditioning for the New York production of Hair and being passed over, despite several callbacks.
“Her voice, oh my God, was amazing but she virtually gave up wanting to push that [theatrical] envelope after that,” he said.
Even when Elise was a child, she was aware that her mother “had a voice like no one I have ever heard,” she said. “It was very big — too big for the choir.”
Lenore enrolled her daughter in singing lessons, inspiring her to follow in her footsteps.
Elise and her husband belong to the Victoria “yuletide punk” band Angry Snowmans and started the punk label Stiff Hombre Records.
Her mother even funded Influence: A Tribute to Big Boys, their label’s musical tribute to the legendary Texas skate punks, featuring 20 Canadian bands.
Although her mother felt her big, throaty voice had become “rusty” and hadn’t sung in awhile, she belted out a stirring rendition of Summertime at a family barbecue.
“She was such a big, vibrant presence,” Elise said. “She was very lively, incredibly loving and giving, and she would do anything for anyone.”