Who was Bess Hoffman?
Happy Anniversary Cookies by Bess! This week marks 1 year since we updated the Cookies by Bess brand, website, and blog! Thank you EVERYONE that visited our website, read our blogs and followed us over this past year! I’ve had a blast so far and I am looking forward to continuing to work my way through Cookies by Bess, baking all the wonderful cookie recipes and blogging about all the wonderful cookies we’ve made and eaten…WOW what a year! And what better way to celebrate than to share with you a little more about my Grandma Bess in this Who was Bess Hoffman? blog.
I wrote this blog about a year ago. I’m not exactly sure sure why I waited until now to post this blog, but maybe because I wanted to wait for a special occasion. Our First Anniversary of Cookies by Bess seems to be the right time. I had a lot of fun searching through all the pictures my Aunt Susie sent me and trying to figure out how I was going present all this information. I hope you enjoy reading Bess’ story as much as I enjoyed writing it! Also, thank you Aunt Susie for reviewing and fact checking my writing…you did this over a year ago, hopefully nothing has changed 🙂
Who was Bess Hoffman? For me this is a daunting question. My initial response to that question is to ask another question, “Am I the right person to answer this question?” After pondering and soul searching, my answer is “Yes”! I am the right person because I’m going to answer the question from my perspective, as Bess Hoffman’s granddaughter…more specifically her 3rd granddaughter (out of 4), or 9th overall grandchild (out of 12)!
I am sure I didn’t know Grandma Bess as well as some of my cousins, as some are older or lived closer, but I did know her and do have lots of memories as I was growing up. And I have learned so much more about Bess and her life since I took on and committed to reviving Cookies by Bess. So, at the risk of sharing too much or not enough, or the risk of getting some details wrong or leaving some out completely, here is my answer to the question, “Who was Bess Hoffman?”
Bess Hoffman was born Bessie Lazar in Pittsburg, PA on October 03, 1907.
Her parents, Isaac and Anna Lazar had seven children (six girls and one boy). Isaac passed away in the mid-1920’s in Los Angeles, but Anna lived a long life passing away in the early 1970’s in Chicago.
What a wonderful picture this is from the 1950’s of all my Grandma’s siblings and mother! (top row from left to right: Fanny, Sam, Pearl, Harriet/bottom row from left to right: Lee, Molly, Mother Anna, Lillian and Bess).
When I was a little girl, I remember hearing stories of how much in love Bess and Abe were…so in love they wanted to be married before Bess was 18. They tried to get a marriage license, but couldn’t do it without help from Bess’ older sister Fanny, someone over 18 years of age needed to vouch for Bess!
Even so, the marriage had to wait a little longer. The marriage license in hand Bess married Abraham Methuselah Hoffman on June 27, 1926 at the age of 18.
Once married, Bess and Abe moved north from Chicago to Menominee, MI. Their family was just getting started and when all was said and done, Bess and Abe ended up in Wausau, WI with four children (June the oldest, twin boys, Richard and Ronald, and baby Susan). Abe was the credit manager and unofficial operations manager at the local Winkleman’s Department Store and Bess, in her own words, was the “household executive” taking care of the Hoffman home. Bess kept a “tight ship” at home keeping the house organized, the bills paid, the family fed, and the cookie jars full!
Bess and Abe entertained often in Wausau. My Aunt Susie remembers that Bess “always set a pretty table”, whether for guests or just the family. I believe it was during this time that Bess really became the Cookie Lady and the idea of putting together her cookie book started.
Fast forward to 1960 and Bess’ idea became a reality! June and the twins were all grown and married. Susie was in high school and Bess was putting the finishing touches on her new cookie book – Cookies by Bess. Bess was encouraged by her friends and family to put all her cookies recipes together in a book. Probably sounded like a crazy idea way back then, but Bess made it happen! She enlisted help from her friends to design the cover and the cute drawings inside.
Bess and Abe worked with a local publisher to print the book and asked Winkleman’s Department Store to help her kick off the launch with a book display and signing right in the basement housewares department. She initially printed only 1000 books in December 1960 because she was unsure how well it would sell. Much to everyone’s delight, the first 1000 sold out so fast she needed to print more books in January 1961 and even more books later that year in October.
At this point, Bess was something of a local baking and cooking celebrity in Wausau. She was known all around the city and state as an expert in the kitchen. She taught cooking and baking classes for young women at the local vocational school.
One of her proudest achievements, was being unanimously selected by Marathon County Business and Professional Women’s Club to receive the first Woman of Achievement Award. Mayor John L. Kannenberg presented Bess with the Nike Award to symbolize strength and courage and represented the federation’s forward movement.
Through all of her civic and religious involvements, Bess always put her family first. One example she is famous for is making over 10,000 cookies to help celebrate the grand opening of her twin boy’s drug store. Rich and Ron were now Pharmacists and opened Hoffman Family Drug Store in Appleton, WI in 1963. Bess baked and drove all 10,000 cookies from Wausau to Appleton just in time for the weekend grand opening sale.
She also set up a display of her cookie book, selling for $2.00.
Winkleman’s, her local celebrity, word of mouth, and orders mailed to Bess by handwritten letters from all across the mid-West eventually led to Bess printing and selling 40,000 Cookies by Bess books by 1966. WOW!
By this time, the children were all married and were having families of their own. Between the birthdays, bar/bat mitzvah’s, graduations, and weddings, there were many opportunities for family gatherings, special times and baking cookies to help celebrate. This picture is of Aunt Susie’s wedding in 1970!
By the early 1970’s, the long, cold winters in Wausau were taking a toll. Abe was ready to retire, so Bess and Abe decided to move to sunny Los Angeles where the weather was warm and Abe could spend his retirement time golfing and soaking up the rays. This was a big change for Bess and Abe and they had very mixed feeling about leaving their family behind.
By 1972, I was 8 years old and just starting to know who Grandma Bess and Grandpa Abe were and remembering times we spent together. Over the years as I was growing up, I remember them coming to visit us in Appleton for a couple weeks at a time. One week, staying at our house and one week staying at my Uncle Ronnie’s house. Grandpa Abe was always smoking his pipe (in the house!) and pretending he had a cigar in his mouth, except it was his tongue instead! I remember Grandma Bess crocheting afghans and creating needle point masterpieces. I can still hear Grandma’s voice yelling “Aaabbbeee” from another room looking for my Grandpa’s help with something.
When visiting, Grandma was always in the kitchen helping my mom with our meals. We had family dinners together, played cards, and baked cookies! When Grandma Bess and Grandpa Abe were around, it was always about family and being together. This picture is from 1980, when Grandma and Grandpa were visiting us in Appleton, WI. In this picture, you see Bess and Abe of course and also my brothers Jeff, Brad, and Steve, my Mom, and me. My Dad, of course, was taking the picture.
In 1980, I was 16 and fully involved in my high school, teen age life. I remember the summer of 1980 very well because I helped my parents manage the new Cookies by Bess business. I remember the office we set up in our basement. Every day we went to the post office to pick up all the letters for Cookies by Bess (P.O. Box 1911, Appleton, WI 54913). I remember reading the letters, logging them in our daily ledger, endorsing the checks for deposit, packaging the books, addressing the mailing labels, getting the deposits ready, and getting the mailing ready for pick up the next day.
We were a full-blown business before I knew what had happened. My parents had republished my Grandma’s cookie book! The book was beautiful with a mosaic of cookies for the cover and a bright red Cookies by Bess logo. I was so excited to help with the business; the office work became my summer job.
While I was helping to manage the books and mailing orders, my parents and Bess and Abe were traveling around the state and country promoting the new Cookies by Bess book. Bess was on TV, radio, in the newspaper, and magazines. She was interviewed by Regis Philbin, Gary Collins, Paul Harvey, James Darren just to name a few of the more well-known talk show stars at that time. A Cookies by Bess ad was in The New Yorker, The Byerly’s Bag magazine, and The Napa Valley Magazine. There were newspaper articles in the Appleton Post Crescent, the St. Louis Dispatch, the Milwaukee Sentinel, the Waukesha Post, The Northwestern, the Harrisburg Patriot-News, the Green Bay Post-Gazette, and even the Orlando Sentinel Star….just to name a few!
I didn’t see my Grandma and Grandpa much during this time, but I was sure a part of the business and I loved it! The personally handwritten letters wanting to purchase the book (for $5.00 + $1 postage/handling) we received were amazing. We received recipes, suggestions, and baking tips. Everyone loved Cookies by Bess and everyone wanted the new book for themselves, their daughter’s, daughter-in-law’s, neighbors, and friends. My Grandma was famous and Cookies by Bess was a success!
After about a year of travels, promotions, and interviews, my parents decided to partner with a large publishing company in New York City to help take Cookies by Bess national. The agreements quickly moved forward and by 1982, St. Martin’s Press was managing the books sales across the country. In the end, Cookies by Bess sold another 40,000 books from Puerto Rico to California, to Hawaii, to Canada and Mexico and everywhere in between. Cookies by Bess was in over 45 US states and international!
Things started to settle down towards the mid-1980 as Grandma Bess’ health began to turn. We still received letters from people looking for a Cookies by Bess book and we mailed out the books as the requests came in. The last letter my dad saved was dated 1987, less than a year after Grandma Bess passed away at the age of 79.
The family and Grandpa Abe were a bit lost after Grandma passed. My Aunt Susie has a little picture book my Grandpa put together to help remember his favorite times and places he and Bess had gone together. One of the pictures just simply says “Always together”. What a life they had. Not a fairy tale, but just a never-ending life of love and being together, raising a family, and loving every minute of it!
So, Who was Bess Hoffman? She was a daughter, sister, wife, mother, grandmother and great grandmother. She was a house executive, a business woman, a teacher, a cook and a baker. She was an author…and she was the Cookie Lady.
To me, she was SIMPLY my Grandma Bess. I am so proud and honored carry on her legacy, share her story, and Cookies by Bess with all of you.
As we continue this journey, I’ll be asking you all to share your stories and traditions around family and cookie baking. I would love to share as many stories and traditions as I can with our cookie baking community!
If you have a story you’d like to share, please go to our Join The Community Page. You can upload documents and pictures or just type in your story.
Thank you again so much for being a part of Cookies by Bess! I so look forward to reading your stories and learning about your traditions.