Barbara ‘Bobbi’ Gillen, 71, ran catering business
By Ed Gold
Barbara Eyre Gillen, who lived in the West Village for more than four decades, and who converted a beautiful four-story brownstone into a highly successful catering operation, died on Oct. 8 at St. Vincent’s Hospital after a courageous battle against cancer.
Gillen known by everyone as Bobbi is survived by her husband of 45 years, John Michael, who is known as Jack. She was 71 years old.
When she wasn’t running her party business or playing tennis, Gillen and her husband spent much of their free time traveling around the world. In fact, they had an around-the-world, 47-day adventure in the ’70s for $999 each, including a nervous stop in Tehran, where they never left the plane, just three days before the Islamic revolution in Iran.
She and her husband liked to explore out-of-the-way places. They were among the first Americans to visit China under Communist rule. She learned quickly how to barter in Burma now called Myanmar.
And in Saudi Arabia, she wore the black abaya, covering everything but her face hardly her usual fashion to satisfy local traditions.
Gillen was also active in community organizations, serving for many years on the Jane St. Block Association, where she had a term as president. Her business activities led to her membership in the Greenwich Village-Chelsea Chamber of Commerce.
Her catering business ran for more than 20 years beginning in the late ’70s, and was marked by a wide range of events, some unexpected. In 1977, the Gillens scheduled a fundraiser on a hot July evening for Ed Koch, who was running for mayor. The timing could not have been worse. A major blackout had virtually shut down the city the night before, conspicuously dampening the fundraiser attendance. But although the ice cream was melting, the Gillens and candidate Koch remained in good spirits throughout the darkened event.
On another occasion, a Jewish wedding held in the Gillen garden was temporarily disturbed when one of the house cats jumped onto the wedding canopy during the ceremony.
While most of the catering was focused on weddings, birthday parties and bar mitzvahs, Gillen added variations, including a garden tour for Village Community School, and a homey stopover for shopping groups flying with British Airways, the guests then going on to Chumley’s in the West Village for dinner.
Gillen was born in Buffalo, N.Y., graduated from Bowling Green State University in Ohio and then was one of the first women to get a degree at the American Institute of Foreign Trade in Arizona. She later did a stint at the last World’s Fair in New York, and did public relations work at the American Stock Exchange.
Her mother was a devout Catholic and her father conspicuously anticlerical; Gillen considered herself a humanist.
At the height of her house business she was “running 40 parties on a weekend,” her husband recalled. “The house looked like the Palm Court at the Plaza.” In addition to parties in progress, her husband remembers, there was also a stream a visitors checking out the house to see if it was appropriate for future events.
Bobbi Gillen had several distinctive qualities. She always had German shepherds and they were all named Peace in different languages. The surviving shepherd is named Pace, the Gillen’s first dog was Pax and one of the others, Salaam.
On one car drive, Gillen put sunglasses on Pax so road dust wouldn’t get in his eyes, causing a truck driver to ask whether the dog had a small part in “The Godfather.”
An always attractive woman, she had a high-fashion wardrobe to match, filling her closets with purchases from Bergdorf Goodman, Neiman Marcus and other retailers in that class.
Husband Jack had to work through the house crowds after a busy day on Wall St. where he was a commercial, savings and investment banker, mostly financing commercial real estate ventures “from Puerto Rico to Hawaii.” He remains very proud of his wife’s business acumen, noting that when she started, her fee per party was around $400, and grew to $1,400.
He asks that contributions in her memory be made to St. Vincent’s Compehensive Cancer Center, 315 W. 15th St., NY, NY 10011. He stated her life would be celebrated in the spring.