The Latest On Lee Papageorge

About a year ago, Joel Smilow went to Oscar’s for lunch.

A longtime Westporter, and the former chairman and CEO of Playtex, he’s also a noted philanthropist. He made a transformative gift to Yale-New Haven Hospital’s Smilow Cancer Hospital, and donated medical research buildings at NYU and the University of Pennsylvania (among many other endowments).

Lee Papageorge — the popular owner of Oscar’s Delicatessen — was struck by a sudden thought.

“After all you’ve done for people,” Lee asked Joel, “has anyone ever bought you lunch?”

Lee was happy to do so.

Two months ago, Lee received a tough diagnosis: lung cancer. It was particularly devastating because he never smoked — not once in his life.

Lee is now undergoing immunotherapy — at the Smilow Cancer Hospital.

“Those people are fantastic. They’re geniuses,” Lee says with awe. “They know how to talk to you. They treat you so well. They’re the whole package.”

Oscar's owner Lee Papageorge.

Oscar’s owner Lee Papageorge.

Lee — who is 65 — has been a part of Oscar’s since the actual Oscar hired him at  16. Working in the original store — a few doors down Main Street, now part of Vince Clothing — Lee earned $1 an hour. “I had $20 in my wallet. I felt fat!” he says.

(Lee was not the 1st Papageorge who fed Westporters downtown. His grandfather and father opened the Club Grill in 1927. It later was known as Muriel’s, on the Post Road at Taylor Place across from what is now Tiffany.)

In 1967, Joe Milici bought Oscar’s (from Oscar). Lee kept working there. Four years later, he became a 50% partner. They moved to their present location soon thereafter.

The ’70s and ’80s were exciting times on Main Street, Lee recalls. There was always something going on.

He and store owners like Bob Hertzel, Stan Klein, Drew Friedman and Dan Coughlin were prime movers behind the Westport Downtown Merchants Association. They loved the area, the town and their customers. They supported each other, too.

Now, Oscar’s is the oldest — and last — “mom-and-pop” store on Main Street.

Oscar's Delicatessen (Photo/Videler Photography)

Oscar’s Delicatessen (Photo/Videler Photography)

As he battles cancer, Lee has been buoyed by the support of “very strong women.” Susan Gold, of the Westport Historical Society, has been particularly helpful.

Since he was 16, Lee has been a part of Oscar’s. And Oscar’s has been a part of downtown.

Lee’s many customers — and friends — send all their best wishes to him.

22 responses to “The Latest On Lee Papageorge

  1. Charlie Taylor

    I never eat anywhere else when in town. Prayers up for you Lee.

    Sent from my iPhone


  2. Brian Pettee

    During the late 1970s, on Sunday mornings, my brothers and I, who resided across from the Longshore pillar entrance, would divert our parents station wagon enroute to St. Luke’s catholic church, and play hooky from church, or, at other times, stay at church for a few minutes and skip out moments before a sermon. Our first diversion from church was, consistently, Oscar’s Deli, usually to nosh on coffee or a natural soda (very unique at that time), plus a fresh-toasted bagel with cream cheese (consistently fresh) or an egg sandwich, often consumed while parked in the car on a quiet Sunday hours time span, right on Main Street, often because the seats inside might have been packed with patrons. The diversion from church to Oscar’s occurred enough times over the course of a few years that we began to refer to it as Saint Oscar’s. Whenever I return to Westport, a visit to break bread at Oscar’s is a must do on a Sunday or any other day of the week. Sorry about the cancer. I pray the vital traditions of the store can endure somehow.

  3. Linda (Pomerantz) Novis

    Reading this brought back so many memories growing up of our Weston family’s many visits to the
    original (tiny!) ‘Oscar’s’ ..(he was a nice man!). … Fast forward years later,(I’d long since moved away from Westport’s Main Street) .. One summer,five years ago, en route to visit my late mom in Stamford facility, I’d stopped at Oscar’s,as always, for
    a bagel & Lee was standing by the front door- he nodded at me & smiled
    ‘Hello’,I smiled back..he then said he remembered me from
    there,thirty years ago.

    Sending good thoughts to Lee,Dan.

  4. Susan Reilly

    Best wishes to you, Lee! You, and Oscars, are a special part of Westport for so many of us

  5. David A. Waldman

    I am not sure where to start. Lee is my friend. His diagnosis makes me sad to my core. He is someone who, when I found out I had diabetes 12 years ago, helped guide me thru the fears and questions that came from our illness and has always been the their for me and my family.

    But to be Lee’s friend is just to touch the surface of the world of Lee. Like a giant iceberg floating in the sea, Lee has a tremendous amount below the surface that is not for the publics eye. The biggest part of that “ice” foundation is his family. The love they have for him and the people HE loves is beyond impressive. They have and will always be their for Lee. I am blessed to call them my friends as well and while I know he would prefer they did not have to deal with what he is going thru, their is no place else they would ever be then by his side.

    But the ice goes even deeper then that. Over the 40+ years Lee has welcomed most Westporters (and all its visitors) into Ocsar’s he has become somewhat of an icon. A beacon of entrepreneurial success and hard work. Lee continues to be an advocate for those with special needs and over the years has employed many at Oscars. Lee is not a flashy man. He is humble and proud. He has a kind and generous heart. You can’t help but want to sit with him and hear his stories (and boy does he have stories). He can always be found in his antique barber chair (when I don’t kick him out) greeting customers, making jokes and making sure everything is running the way he needs to.

    But again, the ice below the surface continues. Lee, as DAN pointed out, has been a strong advocate for the beauty and health of downtown. He continues to care about the town he has worked in for so long and like so many, cautiously embraces the changes coming, all the while putting his personal imprint on it.

    So, while Lee’s diagnosis is scary and as far as I am concerned undeserving, the support he is getting is not surprising. We do live in a world where medical advances provide hope. I for one will continue to HOPE for the best because I want to see that iceberg floating above rue surface for many more years.

    Lee is my friend and I love him. I pray for him and I pray for his family.

  6. Jack Whittle

    It goes without saying that Oscar’s is a Westport institution on Main St., and Westport owes much to Lee Papageorge for his long-standing passion for a vibrant downtown and for maintaining Oscar’s as, well, Oscar’s over the years and through Main Street’s evolution(s). Heartfelt prayers and supportive thoughts for Lee as he battles this disease.

  7. Fred Cantor

    Just one example of how community-minded Lee is: every year on the Sunday afternoon of the Academy Awards, he lets the Westport Cinema Initiative stage an Oscars party in his deli. And last year or the year before, the event fell on his birthday and he was still there helping run things.

    Our thoughts are with you.

  8. Michael Calise

    Best of luck and a speedy recovery to you Lee

  9. Steve Stein

    We moved to town in 1973 and one of the first places we started going to for a breakfast or family lunch was Oscar’s! Lee hasn’t changed in the forty two plus years we’ve been going there- friendly, funny, whimsical (barber chair, wall mural, napkin holder sayings, statuary out front), good hearted ( jobs for- special – special needs people) and loyal(same crew for years and years)!

    With the help of The Smilow Hospital at Yale- Linda and I are looking forward to many more years of bumping into Lee at our favorite deli! (Salad dressing on the side, only the sour pickles please!)

  10. Galen Blumenthal

    Wishing you the best, Lee. Thanks for paying it forward and giving me my first job at 15, at my favorite eatery in town – Oscar’s.

  11. I have known Lee P (oscars) since early
    60’s. Phillip and I worked at Charles of the Ritz
    And Lee worked at the deli at Oscars. He wasn’t more than 16 yrs old when he began working there and we became immediate friends. My boss at Charles of the Ritz
    Was Joe M who retired from Charles of the Ritz
    And purchased Oscars. He was approaching
    50 yrs old and said no one wanted an old
    Hairstylist so he purchased oscars. ( that’s a real joke since Phillip and l are still hairdress 50 years later. lee was still working at oscars and Joe kept him on since he was an excellent asset to Oscars thus history began. Lee and Joe became partners and Lee continues
    To operate Oscars. He is more than an
    Acquaintance to the Addario household
    in fact my daughter Lauren worked there
    And my daughter Lynsey’s early photos
    Were displayed there
    I am so very sorry to hear of Lee’s
    Recent dionose. very sad and my thoughts
    And prayers go out to Lee and his family
    he has always been such a support to our community and let us all give the support and
    Prayers to him.
    Camille Addario.

  12. Robin Dake Hathaway

    So sorry to hear the news. Lee is a great man and has always been very generous. All my best to him and his family.

  13. Tom Feeley Sr

    All the best, Lee 😎

  14. Bernadette Sanchioni

    Lee you are in my prayers. You are a wonderful man and a great boss. I am so glad I had the chance to know You. Wish I knew you 20 Yrs ago. Prayers going your way to you and your family.

  15. James Ezzes

    Lee you have been part of the fabric of our town for 50 years. You have always been generous with your time and resources. Plus, there is nothing better than sitting outside Oscar’s on a beautiful, leisurely sunny morning with a cup of coffee watching the world go by. Lee you are one of the good guys and I wish you well.

  16. Julia and Scott Broder

    Lee, you and Oscar’s are cherished institutions here in Westport❗️
    We wish and pray for your successful, full recovery‼️

    Warmest thoughts,
    Julia & Scott Broder

  17. Lee,
    I am so sorry to hear of your diagnosis.
    Since my start at Christ & Holy Trinity, you were always a tremendous supporter of, and generous contributor to, community events we welcomed there. It was such a delight to see your smile and warm outreach to all. I miss seeing you so often since leaving Westport, but know I wish you the best from my deepest heart.
    You are in my prayers,

  18. MaryLou Bell

    Lee my thoughts and prayers are with you!

  19. Estelle T. Margolis

    Dear Lee,
    This must not beat you. You are too important to this whole town! Manny Margolis beat lung cancer with good doctors, a positive attitude and great sense of humor. He never smoked either.
    Now it is time for all of us to “wait on you.” Please let us know what you need and when you need it.

    Love and big hugs, Estelle

  20. Diane Lavietes

    As the granddaughter of Oscar and Sally, I speak for my entire family and send you our wishes for a speedy recovery! Oscars has had a long history because you have kept it alive. Our thoughts are with you! Diane

  21. Oscars is and always has been our go to. From the 70’s when my mom took me in after a movie to now when I bring my own in, Lee is always there. He is a great friend and human who is always willing to help out others and the town. He is know to all and all love him.

    Wishing you a speedy recovery Mr. Lee and many more great years on Main Street.