Great Read

When Madame Wu's was the place for supper and celebs

Kirk and Anne Douglas sent regrets. But Cary Grant's daughter, Jennifer, was there.

Nancy Kwan, who starred in 1961's "Flower Drum Song," came, as did two elderly granddaughters of Sun Yat-sen, the revolutionary who helped overthrow the Qing dynasty and create modern China.

Other guests traveled from Singapore and the south of France to fete a grande dame of the Los Angeles culinary scene: Madame Sylvia Wu, who for nearly 40 years dished up Chinese delicacies to presidents, stars and dignitaries from around the world.

In its heyday, Madame Wu's Garden in Santa Monica was where smartly dressed Hollywood A-listers vied for seats amid white-tablecloth splendor.

The proprietor's upswept hairdo, strands of pearls and oversize tinted glasses set the restaurant's elegant tone.

She typically wore a brightly colored long silk dress topped by a floor-length embroidered jacket — tailored in Hong Kong to her specifications — to greet the patrons who passed through the restaurant's crimson door.

Madame Wu treasures the photos she has of the many celebrities who became regulars; she pops up Zelig-like in each one.

Princess Grace of Monaco, the former Grace Kelly, raved about the Peking duck. Mae West ate bird's nest soup every Sunday. Carol Burnett's children ordered shrimp toast. Gregory Peck, Charlton Heston and Paul Newman also savored dishes modified for American palates.

The restaurant faded as more casual places lured away diners, prompting Wu, at age 82, to shut it down in early 1998.

Pronouncing herself at the time "an old lady" in need of rest, she retired to travel and spend more time with her children and grandchildren. The decision to shutter her eponymous business is one she deeply regrets.

"I shouldn't have closed," she said in the living room of her Pacific Palisades house, days before the party. "I want to open another restaurant. I really want to open one."

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The late-October occasion at the Peninsula Beverly Hills was billed as Wu's 100th birthday. By American calculations, she turned 99 on Oct. 24, but in her native China babies were considered to be 1 year old at birth. So her two sons turned the reception and dinner into a centennial celebration.

More than 110 relatives and friends honored "a traditional woman with untraditional ideas," said "No. 1 son" Patrick Wu, senior assistant with the Los Angeles County Counsel. His younger brother, George, is a U.S. District Court judge; their sister, Loretta, died of cancer in 1979.

On this night, the matriarch wore a dress of deep burgundy, with a gold-embroidered sleeveless jacket, jade-and-diamond earrings and Christian Dior spectacles.

"Since I met her, I've marveled at her elegance," said Barbara Grant Jaynes, Cary Grant's widow and Jennifer's stepmother. "Cary loved her spunk and the fact she was a woman who had her own restaurant in an age when that was not typical. He loved her charm, her fun. She took such great care of him, too."

Jean Hale Coleman, an actress who has been friends with Wu for 45 years, said she has "never had a more important soul mate." She told of how she and Wu were standing many years ago in Beijing's Forbidden City waiting for a driver. Suddenly, a man ran up and grabbed Coleman's shoulder bag.

"I was fighting to stay on my feet but was losing the battle when Madame Wu started kicking him and hitting him on the head with her purse," she told the delighted crowd. By the time the man fled without the bag, Wu's updo had come spilling down and her trademark glasses were vertical on her face.

"It's a good thing your bag was a Fendi," Coleman recalled Wu saying. "Otherwise, the strap would have broken."

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Sylvia Cheng was born in 1915 in Jiujiang, a city southwest of Shanghai on the southern banks of the Yangtze River. Her well-to-do parents separated when she was a baby and died when she was young. She was reared by her paternal grandfather, who owned a department store and a bank.

Her grandfather was a gourmand who enjoyed cooking. Although not allowed in the kitchen, Sylvia would hide nearby to slyly observe. Without realizing it, she recalled years ago, she was learning what makes good food.

After the Japanese invaded China in the late 1930s, she fled to Hong Kong. There she met King Yan Wu, who came from a long line of aristocrats and diplomats.

She secured a visa to travel to the United States and was admitted to Columbia Teachers College in New York. She became reacquainted with King, by then an MIT graduate. They married, and King took an engineering job at Hughes Aircraft Co. in Southern California.

The family bought a house in Brentwood, but only after the seller made sure the neighbors would approve of Chinese owners.

After a time, Sylvia grew restless. Thinking she could improve on the mediocre mom-and-pop cafes in Chinatown that had routinely disappointed her and visiting guests, she told her husband that she wanted to start her own restaurant. "He thought I was crazy," she said.

She opened the 40-seat Wu's Garden in 1959, in a storefront on Wilshire Boulevard in Santa Monica. It quickly became known for its attentive service and simple, beautifully presented and well-priced fare.

In 1969, she moved down the block into a much larger space and added the honorific that people had begun to use to address her.

Architect Guy Moore collaborated with her to design seating for 300 guests in four dining rooms at the new Madame Wu's Garden. Fluttering gold strips hung from the ceiling in the Imperial Room. Tang dynasty horses painted on tiles adorned the walls of the Dynasty Room. Robert Redford and his family often dined at Table 55 near the Garden Room fireplace. Other patrons favored the VIP Room.

Shadowboxes on the walls housed the Wu family's jade, rose quartz and ivory statues. In the atrium entrance just inside the towering lacquer door, a Canary pine rose through a skylight. Goldfish swam in a fountain, and birds chirped in antique cages.

Wu spent considerable time creating her version of Peking duck, spare ribs and other classics. Healthful-eating trends led her to feature tofu and low-calorie crab puffs.

Wu pampered her guests and became a friend and traveling companion of many of them, including the Grants. She tirelessly promoted her business, appearing on television talk shows, putting on countless charitable events and judging cooking contests around the world.

Her celebrity clientele kept the place buzzing with birthdays, movie wrap parties and Chinese New Year gatherings. Jack Benny and his wife, Mary Livingston, celebrated their 47th wedding anniversary there.

After showing up with no reservation one busy day, Julie Andrews sat with her children at a table facing the kitchen.

When Frank Sinatra ordered chow mein, the proprietor decided instead to surprise him with Wu's Beef, a more refined dish of flank steak with onions and oyster sauce. Sinatra and his young bride, Mia Farrow, ordered it from then on.

Grant helped give rise to what would become the restaurant's signature dish when he asked Wu to devise her own variation on a medley he had enjoyed elsewhere. She served him a spontaneous creation of shredded chicken, lettuce, crispy rice noodles and won ton strips — which would become the oft-imitated Madame Wu's Chinese Chicken Salad.

Wu herself became a celebrity and cruised about town in a Silver Cloud Rolls-Royce with the license plate MMEWU.

In announcing the closing of Madame Wu's Garden, she said that the restaurant's first 20 years had been great but that the next decade had been far more challenging because of economic dips and rising competition. Diners migrated to newer eateries with more sophisticated fare and a more casual ambience.

King Wu died in 2011 at age 93. The couple had been married for 67 years.

Madame Wu continues to maintain a busy schedule of traveling and dining with family and friends.

"Auntie Sylvia has such vitality that, once she closed the restaurant, she really struggled to find outlets for her energy and creativity," said Yee San Foo, a relative who traveled from southern France for the party. Even now, Foo said, "she's fit, she's dressed, she's bejeweled and ready to go to lunch every day at 1 p.m."

After a standing ovation at her birthday celebration, Madame Wu rose and signaled for everyone to sit. As she headed to the lectern to thank the guests, her son Patrick said affectionately, "Madame always gets the last word."

martha.groves@latimes.com

Twitter: @MarthaGroves

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