Arrividerci, Palmieri

“We had Italy right here in Westport,” Mary Palmieri Gai recalls of her youth in the 1950s and ’60s.

“We made our own sausage.  We had chickens.  My mother had 6 kids, and all the laundry was there on a clothesline.  I can’t imagine how my parents were perceived.”

It didn’t matter — and her parents didn’t care.  For decades, they had carved out their own lives in Westport.  For decades more, they continued.

Mary’s father, Filomeno, was born and raised in Fondola, Italy.  In 1928 — age 13 — he came to Westport.  His parents had paisans here.

On Filomeno’s 1st day of school, he was ridiculed for the dressy jacket his mother made him wear.  He never returned.  He enrolled in night school instead, where he learned English.

Mary’s mother, Josephine Pagliaro, was born in the hamlet next to Filomeno.  The families’ 2 sisters and 1 brother married 2 brothers and 1 sister, so Mary now has 3 sets of double cousins.

Filomeno Palmieri

Filomeno (“Phil”) had many jobs.  He dug graves, and worked at the Richmondville mill and the hat factory in East Norwalk.  “He was a maniac,” Mary says.  “He worked faster and smarter than anyone else.”

Filomeno and Josephine saved enough money — with a Christmas Club account — to buy an acre-plus property at the northeast end of Main Street (near Weston Road) in the mid-1940s.  They paid $800 for what was a gravel pit.

Filomeno loved real estate.  “He flipped houses when no one knew what that was,” Mary says.  “He was a very forward-thinking guy.  And even though he spoke very  broken English, he didn’t care.  He had no sense of inferiority.”

Mary’s father imparted those “guts” to his children.  “We got the sense we could do the impossible,” she says.  To this day, she is a very confident realtor.

Phil bought and sold many properties, but the Main Street lot was his anchor.  He built a house there, and opened a high-end landscaping business.  One of his customers was Milton Green, landlord to an actress named Marilyn Monroe.

Phil added nursery stock to his Main Street land.  Business boomed.  In the 1960s, the Planning and Zoning Commission told him he could not keep trucks — or even run a business there.

Daybreak Nursery next door was okay, they said — it was grandfathered in.  But Phil had established his business a year before Daybreak.  He fought the ruling in court.  A jury found for him, on the basis of discrimination.

Eventually Phil retired from landscaping, and built up his nursery business.  “It was a true mom-and-pop place,” Mary says.  “They really worked together.”

Josephine Palmieri

Josephine trusted customers to fill out their own invoices.  When she died, Mary heard stories of how many people her mother had helped.

“You went in there and got your heart mended, your soul tended, and your plants,” she says.  “Sometimes you even got fed.”

Phil died in 1992.  Mary’s brother Frank took over the nursery, and developed his own devout following.

But food stores like Stew Leonard’s and Stop & Shop started selling plants; so did retailers like Home Depot.  They priced smaller places like Palmieri’s out of the market.

The Palmieri family just sold the property.  The good news:  New owner Tony Palmer is Mary’s 1st cousin — and, with a degree in landscape design, he’s keeping it as a nursery.  Anthony’s Nursery, he’ll call it.

“He’ll do just fine,” Mary says.  “He’s got a huge base of loyal followers.”

The move from Palmieri to Palmer comes at a fitting time.  Josephine’s last surviving sibling — a sister — died recently.  She was 102.

“My parents and their relatives did amazing things,” Mary Palmieri Gai says.  “I grew up there, and I lived through it, but at the time I didn’t understand what they did, and how they did it.  Now I think I have a better appreciation for all that.”

Grazie, Filomena and Josephine!

9 responses to “Arrividerci, Palmieri

  1. Eric Buchroeder

    Another great story about great Westporters!

    I grew up with Mary and as friendly as we are until now I never knew her family history. The acorn does not fall far from the tree! Character and hard work always gets it due. That’s why if I ever come home to Westport Mary will sell me my house.

    Just a question: I always wondered where the Westport floral business named “Fillow Flowers” came from….was that a play on Filomeno?

  2. Wasn’t it because it was on (or started out on) Fillow Street?

  3. The Dude Abides

    Thanks for the detailed history of the American Dream, homebread Westport style. It seems much like a history of the 20th century. My only hope is the 21st century has as many humble and unique success stories. The entire Palmieri-Palmer extended family have given much to this town and knowing Tony Palmer, he will continue to carry on the family tradition at the nursery.

  4. Love this report about the Palmieri/Palmer family.

  5. Wendy Crowther

    Loved this story. Thanks, Dan.

    Tony Palmer has been a great help on several projects with which I’ve been involved during my days on the Parks & Rec. Commission. He’s donated his landscaping time and expertise, plus operated his heavy equipment to help excavate and/or install plantings in several Westport parks. He’s full of info about plants – can identify them immediately by just looking at them, and he always seems to know how to fix landscaping situations “gone-wrong.” He was a huge help at Pasacreta Park last year when it was refurbished via a grant from the CT Nursery and Landscape Association (Tony is a member).

    I’m glad to hear that Tony is the new owner of the Palmieri property. It’s great to hear that the property/business is remaining in the family. Good luck, Tony, and thanks for all you do for Westport!

  6. Chou Chou Merrill

    Mary Palmeiri Gai. Nobody is a better ambassador for the Town of Westport. Name an address and she’ll tell you what the house looks like, it’s history and anecdotes. She represents the best of us. My Mother gave me a white dogwood for my 6th birthday. It is resplendant, in my childhood front yard, to this day. ( MANY decades later.) I tip my hat to the Palmieris for giving us such irreplaceable memories…and perfect specimens, which live on today. Our Mary is surely one.

  7. Dan, a really great story that brings back many great memories. Phil Palmieri was one of my most memorable mentors and Josephine was a person that everyone would have been privileged to have met. If you had a conversation with her she would be an influence on your life forever and that certainly could have happened after just a brief conversation with Josephine. You mentioned the digging graves at Willowbrook cemetery. Phil shared it was his second maybe third job of the day and paid 50 cents a grave. The first time the boss sent him back to shed to get a tool they needed, the communication was definitively a problem. Phil thought his job may have been in jeopardy so as creative as he was he brought back every tool in the shed in a wheelbarrow. I don’t think the language barrier was much of problem for Phil in the mid sixties when we became associated. I watched him with customers from all walks of life, back rounds and education. His presentation while not the Kings English came from the heart. He used to raise that unusually large calloused right hand and slowly move it from left to right across the landscape and tell people his vision. When he was done he would close with a wink. That meant the deal was sealed and his promise was his word. If you were fortunate enough to be at their home and get invited to go to the cellar you were now part of the inner sanctum and a welcomed guest anytime. Phil’s acumen was really a testament to hard work, great foundation, priorities and brilliant instinct. His later years included a stock market interest and an exceptional prowess. I asked him at that time about his greatest pleasures aside from his wonderful family and all his obvious accomplishments. I thought perhaps he would share a great real estate deal or stock purchase. He simply said “The year we could afford indoor plumbing, the winters were cold and the outhouse was on the other side of the garage, it was a long walk at night”. Simple pleasures, a great friend, and a wonderful Westport family.
    Arrividerci Filomeno and Josephine

  8. Thanks, Dan.
    Milton Green was the famous photographer of Marilyn Monroe. She lived in Westport at his house with Milton’s wife and two boys for 14 months while he took black and white photos of her. My father was ridiculously excited meet Marilyn. He saw her in bare feet! She came to the nursery but didn’t get out of the car.

    Once Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward came there and my parents didn’t recognize them. I made the mistake of telling my dad who they were..while they were still there and he was his (overly) friendly self and made a real fuss. They never stopped by again.. their loss. I think they would have collaborated on a line of natural wines. Other luminaries who came by were Rodney Dangerfield, Myrna Loy, and Martha Stewart. But the true luminaries were my parents who were imbued by a light within them and a determination to live the American Dream. He told me that the only thing that he couldn’t be was President of the United States because he wasn’t born here.
    Eric, Fillow was named after Mr. Fillow. The Eisler’s had it when we were kids. They ran a florist out of there.

  9. Linda Gramatky Smith

    Ah, this story made me proud to be a longtime Westporter! I’ve spoken to Mary Palmieri Gai many times on the phone, and she is definitely her parents’ daughter, a really special woman. Great story, and thanks, Dan.