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Madame Wu, famed Westside restaurateur who served the stars, dies at 106

Her long black hair piled atop her head and stunning in a floor-length silk gown, Madame Sylvia Wu would step from her Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud and — smiling broadly — push open the red double doors of her pagoda-style restaurant, already teeming with customers.

On a given night, Frank Sinatra and his young bride, Mia Farrow, would be enjoying a plate of Wu’s beef, stir-fried shards of flank steak with onions and oyster sauce. Mae West showed up on Sundays and faithfully ordered the cold melon soup, while Gregory Peck and Paul Newman fancied the shrimp toast and crab puffs. Princess Grace of Monaco gushed about the Peking roast duck.

For decades Madame Wu’s Garden in Santa Monica was where smartly dressed Hollywood A-listers huddled in the Imperial Room with its jade and rose quartz statues while birds chirped in antique cages and koi slowly glided in the elegant fountain.

In an era when chop suey and General Tso’s chicken passed for authentic Chinese cuisine, the restaurant’s menu was a step forward, though still light-years from the diversity and authenticity of today’s culinary scene in food-crazy Los Angeles. But it mattered little, for Wu was always the star attraction as she drifted from table to table, huddled with the chefs or grabbed the phone and took takeout orders.

“Everybody in this town knows Madame Wu,” the late television host Merv Griffin once told The Times, summing up the city’s shared affection for the restaurateur. “One of the dearest, sweetest, most elegant women I’ve ever known.”

A bundle of energy who slowed down only slightly in retirement, Wu died Sept. 29 at 106.

In its heyday, Madame Wu’s Garden was a welcoming beacon on Wilshire Boulevard, bubbling with activity and packed with the Hollywood elite. It seated 300, had stone waterfalls, bold red murals and Tang Dynasty horses painted on the walls, as if trotting toward the kitchen.

Elizabeth Taylor came in after the premier of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Robert Redford always asked for Booth 55, secluded in a dark nook. Mary and Jack Benny celebrated their 46th anniversary, just weeks before the actor’s death. Cary Grant taught the restaurateur how to make shredded chicken salad, which quickly became a house favorite.

When she closed the restaurant in 1998, as tastes in the city shifted and she spoke longingly of spending more time with her grandchildren, she immediately regretted the decision and opened Madame Wu’s Asian Bistro & Sushi in the then newly opened Grove. Though the new restaurant vanished quickly, affection for Madame Wu did not. When she turned 100 in 2014, her old customers filled up a hotel ballroom for her birthday party. By American calculations though, she was only 99.

Born Oct. 24, 1915, Sylvia Cheng grew up in Jiujiang, a city southwest of Shanghai on the banks of the Yangtze River. Her well-to-do parents separated when she was a child and died while she was still young. She was raised by her paternal grandfather, a generous and cultured man who owned a department store and a bank. Her love of cooking was born while secretly watching the maid prepare meals for the family.

Before World War II broke out, the family moved to Shanghai and then Hong Kong. When a friend offered her a one-way ticket on a New York-bound ocean liner, she took it, though cautiously.

“I don’t know how I had the courage,” she later recalled. “I had no family in America. The trip took 40 days, and because of the war there was a blackout all the way.”

While pursuing an education degree at Columbia University, she met King Yan Wu, a successful chemist who’d recently graduated from MIT. They married, had three children and moved to L.A., where an engineering job at Hughes Aircraft Co. awaited her husband.

She was immediately appalled by the heavy faux-Cantonese dishes she encountered in the city’s Chinese restaurants.

“Chop suey everywhere,” she complained to USA Today. “All you see are chop suey houses.”

With time on her hands after her children went off to boarding schools, Wu opened her restaurant in 1959, first in a small location and then to the far larger site, now occupied by a Whole Foods grocery store. To drum up business she wrote a letter to members of her church and asked a friend, who was a studio executive, to spread the word about Madame Wu’s Garden. It worked.

“We sold out the first night and people were lined up outside for six months,” she told KCET in 2015.

Business hummed along for the next 39 years until hipper and more casual Chinese restaurants opened their doors. Along the way, Wu wrote cookbooks, appeared regularly on television and threw herself into charity work, particularly at City of Hope cancer center after her daughter, Loretta, died of breast cancer at 34.

Wu is survived by sons George and Patrick and numerous grandchildren. Her husband died in 2011. The two had been married 67 years.

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