Irene, the Lady Forte, was born on May 4 1921. Born Irene Chierico, she was the widow of the late Lord Forte, of Ripley, the hotelier and caterer. Even before this she had been a loving and resourceful daughter to her parents, Italian immigrants who ran a delicatessen in Wardour Street, Soho, for many years.
Her mother, who lived to be 103, worked very hard (aged 80 she would still rise at six every morning) and from an early age her daughter helped with the washing up and in the preparation of food for sale in the shop. She would watch her mother boiling, peeling and crystallising chestnuts to make marron glacé and pouring wine over whole Gruyère cheeses, then wrap them and keep them until they had matured. She also recalled watching her mother prepare the ravioli to sell and as a child she was allowed to make and sell her own smaller versions.
A discriminating cat, Jack, who had a fondness for coffee beans and olives, was also part of the establishment.
As well as her culinary skills, Lady Forte learned sewing and an appreciation of fine materials when, aged 16, she was apprenticed to a couturier in Conduit Street. The death of her father when she was 17 gave her greater responsibility in the business. Indeed, when war broke out she had to run it single-handed for three months as her mother was stranded in Italy. The shop was destroyed in 1940 during the Blitz by a direct hit, but not before she had dodged the fires with permission from the firefighters to retrieve the money from the safe and some family photographs.
In later life she recalled that night, sitting in a Lyons Corner House with her mother, homeless, her face blackened by smoke and drinking cups of tea. Her formidable mother later managed to restart the business in new premises.
All these formative experiences undoubtedly contributed to Lady Forte’s strength of character, to her resourcefulness and her warm and sympathetic personality. These qualities she brought to her marriage to Charles Forte in what proved to be an exceptionally happy union. Lord Forte relied on her totally and through her charm and hospitality she contributed in no small way to the success of his business empire. Olga, their oldest daughter, comments: “My father was magnificent, but no one would call him easy; my mother was the classic, really good Italian wife.” Their love for each other flourished for over 60 years; in her husband’s last years she nursed him devotedly until his death, aged 98, in 2007.
Nonetheless, their first meeting was unpromising: he had come into the shop to ask for prosciutto and received the quick retort: “If I had any prosciutto I’d eat it myself! Don’t you know there is a war on?” The future magnate was undeterred; at their next meeting he asked her what she was doing the following evening; when she replied that she had a date, he said: “Cancel it!” She hesitated but he still phoned her up the next morning to ask: “Are we going out this evening?” Irene capitulated. A week later her bold suitor proposed and was accepted. They married in June 1943; he was 34 and Irene was 21. In his autobiography Lord Forte wrote: “It was the happiest and most fortunate thing that has ever happened to me.”
With five daughters, Olga, Marie-Louise, Irene, Giancarla and Portia, and a son, Rocco, later to inherit his father’s business mantle, family life was close, exuberant and expressed in the Italian way, with cousins, in-laws and grandparents living in an adjacent house in Hampstead for many years. Irene was a true matriarch, raising her six children in her own inimitable style; no food was allowed to be left on their plates and they had to play outside in their large garden in all weathers. She instilled in them a sense of duty and discipline, as well as a strong family ethos. Despite the family’s wealth, she insisted they should know the value of money and not become spoilt; pocket money was in short supply and the virtues of punctuality, good manners and obedience were emphasised.
According to Olga, Lady Forte “remained a passionate family person all her life, embracing both sides of the family and taking an active interest in their well-being”. The Italian roots were not forgotten and many happy holidays were spent in Monforte, in the Abruzzi region, where Charles retained his family house and where Irene created a lovely home. Vivacious and gregarious, Lady Forte enjoyed a wide circle of friends both inside her husband’s company and outside it.
One former employee wrote after her death: “Lady Forte made me and many others feel secure in the ‘Forte family’. I treasure her many personal notes to me.” Remembering the financial stringency of her youth, she contributed towards many charities, particularly those concerning children in need. In her spare time – what little there was of it – she enjoyed needlework and tapestry. Results of her skilled handiwork still embellish her homes.
In her last years she suffered much from osteoporosis but never lost her zest for life, her determination to be as independent as possible and her enjoyment in the company of family and friends. They all remember her warmth and generosity, her interest in their lives and her sympathy for their problems.
She died peacefully at home on Sunday, September 12 and her funeral Mass took place at the Church of the Immaculate Conception, Farm Street, on September 20.