Lydia Ratcliff, 84, whose Quality Meats were renowned in New York, Boston restaurants

Not even a rat biting into her nose one night at her Vermont boarding school in the early 1950s frazzled the bonds that were to tie Lydia Ratcliff, who died on Feb. 14 at the Genesis Care Center in Springfield, to her adopted state. She was 84.

It was part and parcel of the country lifestyle that she would come to embrace some years later on her 90-acre Lovejoy Brook Farm in Chester. Early on, she brought concepts to her farm there not yet in the everyday vocabulary and for that was “ahead of her times” as one person described her.

“Diversification” and “organic” were still unfamiliar terms to many, but they were already entrenched ideas in her mind and on her farm. In time, that vocabulary expanded to include “direct farm to kitchen.”. Two words not in her own dictionary, however, were “hormones” and “antibiotics” and for that, an increasing number of restaurant chefs from New England to New York cherished her and reveled in the quality meat that she regularly supplied to their kitchens through her organization, Vermont Quality Meats.

A generous dollop of eccentric quirks often came with her meat deliveries: Alongside her ragtag blood-stained clothing, clothing that she prided herself in buying by weight, came her well-used Paris Louis Vuitton bag, invariably open and spilling order notes and telephone numbers jotted down on scraps of paper.

Thrice-warmed cups of burnt coffee were also no strangers to her gnarled hands; its acrid aroma announced her imminent arrival. To her favorite chefs, she often brought fresh ricotta made from the milk of her ewes, shaped in special straw moulds sent her from the British consul in Sardinia. And time after time, somehow, she and her rusted delivery van managed to fend off even those most hardened of vigilantes, New York City traffic cops. She was a walking kaleidoscope of striking sights, sounds and scents.

Born in Palisades, N.Y., along the banks of the Hudson River to the science writer John D. Ratcliff and his wife Marie-Françoise Tonetti, Ms. Ratcliff’s childhood was fairly conventional. But convention would be short-lived. She attended the local elementary school where her first venture into the world of business occurred before the age of 10. A neighbor, a top executive of King Features Syndicate, noticed her immersed in comic books and asked her to conduct a detailed survey of the most popular ones among her friends. Her pay was a year’s subscription to her own favorite.

After two years at the local high school, she enrolled at the Putney School in Vermont to complete her undergraduate studies. It was there that she had her first taste of Vermont and the counter-culture that appealed to her.  Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania followed, where she had two years before leaving for Paris and a year at the Sorbonne University. There, she learned French with ease and cuisine with enthusiasm, and garnered several adoring French boyfriends, before returning to the United States.

Asked many years later why she switched from Swarthmore to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, she replied that the latter was more rounded, less stuffy. The chemistry evidently suited: she graduated Phi Beta Kappa. As many young women did in the late 1950s, she headed for New York City and a job as an editorial researcher at Time magazine in the business department.

Her first apartment there was a rambling top-floor place on West 14th Street, shared with several friends. At the outset all went well until the midnight telephone calls began, requesting the favors of the young flatmates. In an earlier incarnation, it transpired, the place had been a thriving brothel. Ms. Ratcliff and her friends decamped for calmer quarters elsewhere.

Her research assignments at Time magazine, meanwhile, flourished as she took on an increasing range of topics. One week it was a profile of milliner Sally Victor, renowned hat maker to Mamie Eisenhower and Jacqueline Kennedy.  The next week it was a prison encounter with Joseph Miraglia in the early days of credit card fraud: in one month young Miraglia had managed to blow $10,000 that he did not possess. She traveled to the ailing W.C. Handy’s bedside where he recounted how he had come to compose The St. Louis Blues. In the summer of 1959, in the name of research, she ate her way through the menu of the about-to-be-opened Four Seasons, then touted as the most expensive restaurant in  Manhattan.

Her most legendary exploit, however, took place on July 24, 1960 with the arrival at the United Nations in New York of Patrice Lumumba, the leader of the newly independent Congo and much of his cabinet. Time magazine had no other French-speaking staff at the time except Ms. Ratcliff. For nearly a week, she was detailed to accompany him from New York to Washington and on to Canada. At the end, she persuaded her bosses to fund a large party for the Congolese entourage at the family gardens replete with waterfalls, fountains and pergolas on the banks of the Hudson.

It was an era when women magazine researchers could not rise higher on the masthead. Having learned the skills she would need, she resigned to become a freelancer, producing articles for Reader’s Digest, Suburbia Today and other periodicals under the name Lydia Lawrence.

Before long she was hired to be the sole U.S. correspondent for one of Europe’s very first newsweeklies. There were to be two simultaneous editions, one in French and one in German. Continent launched its very first issue in the early 1960s with a cover story on the legendary New York public relations supremo, Benjamin Sonnenberg. Ms. Ratcliff wrote it singlehandedly. The magazine was successful but folded after a year or so when its financial backers pulled out their support.

She had caught the eye of Sylvia Porter, by then probably one of the most noteworthy financial writers of the day. Porter offered her a steady job with a regular pay check. Ms. Ratcliff signed on for a long and lucrative stint and it provided the wherewithal for the next chapter in her life: Vermont.

In the summer of 1965, she caught sight of a small farmhouse that had been abandoned 50 years earlier. Its 90 acres looked out over rolling hills, thickets of woods and mountains in the distance.

Its bare-boned interiors would have daunted most: In the living room was a rusted hand-pump that creaked out a trickle of water. The walls were papered over with yellowed circus posters. Heating was a defunct potbelly stove. And hygiene was something one did in the bushes, out the back door. Ms. Ratcliff loved it and placed a down payment of $5,000. For awhile she commuted back and forth between New York and Chester, until she had made Lovejoy fully habitable.

She was equally cautious over the acquisition of animals; they entered her life piecemeal, one experiment at a time. A homely cow named Lady was among the first. She liked the idea of pigs (“they have character,” she explained). But when one of them gored her legs badly, she rerouted in favor of sheep and chickens. It was to goats, however, that she lost her heart. They were intelligent, they had personality and they made her laugh. The menagerie grew and at its most populous counted 200. People came to write about her, even earning her a chapter of a book.  As her own farm grew over the decades, others around her were retrenching. But with the expansion came trade-offs. She did without fineries in her kitchen and scorned television.

Travel was a rarity, although she did manage two trips to India and one to Europe.  Whatever the drawbacks, she built up a solid clientele among the most prized restaurants in New York and Boston. She also provided quality meat to some of the top diplomats attached to the United Nations. The Secretary General at the time was Kofi Annan and she held on to his sizeable check for his first order, long enough to proudly show her friends. She was also given a fine entry in the book Vermont Farm Women.

Her pleasures were mostly close to home where she became an accomplished mushroom hunter, gardener and occasional bird watcher. And somehow, there always seemed to be just enough time to turn out a memorable meal, because she was a stellar cook. And if indeed there was “just enough time” she drew to her long refectory table a wide range of stimulating friends from all walks of life but particularly the loyal and loving neighbors who surrounded her.

Those who knew her could not fail to notice what the ravages of smoking did to her quality of life, beginning in the early 1960s. Although she finally quit cigarettes, the damage by then was irreversible. She became bedridden in recent years and the past and present often melded together in her mind. Although it at last became difficult to even speak, her eyes would sparkle when something engaged her. Days before her death, she was read an old ode that she treasured, St. Francis’s Canticle of the Creatures. It brought a rare smile to her face. And then in a labored whisper came a few lines of her own, harking back to her classical studies in college: “ In mezzo del cammin di nostra vita.” It was, of course, a famous line from Dante’s Divine Comedy, “ In the middle of the road of our life.” She did not have the stamina for the next line: I found myself in a dark forest.

She is survived by her brother John Ratcliff of Nyack, N.Y., and sister Alexandra Ratcliff Richardson of London, England. She was predeceased by one brother Tony.

Services will be held at the convenience of the family at a later date. Davis Memorial Chapel in Springfield is assisting with arrangements.

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  1. Chris Mueller says:

    Nice tribute to a remarkable woman who influenced my life and allowed me to live and work on her farm, creating some special memories which remain some of my favorite part of living rurally in Vermont

  2. Susan Spaulding says:

    Awesome picture of her

  3. Cynthia Prairie says:

    We believe it was written by her sister, Alexandra.

  4. Nancie and Steve Lorenz says:

    Wow. What a beautiful and comprehensive tribute!
    Tops the New York Times Obit by leaps and bounds.
    Thanks for giving Lydia a fine send off!

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