Happy Valentine’s Day! As I continue my ‘month of love’ reading, this work of non-fiction about the marriage of Rosalie and Issy Sharp, the Canadian founders of the billion dollar hotel chain The Four Seasons, is up next. I expected to read a book about a challenging marriage to a high-powered CEO, but instead A Four Seasons Romance by Rosalie Wise Sharp is an overview of a life well-lived, taking the good with the bad, and enjoying life to the fullest despite its challenges. Now being married for almost 70 years, there are many lessons to take away from this book and this couple, and luckily Rosalie wraps it up in an entertaining package.
Rosalie Wise is a spunky, independent woman who grew up in an immigrant household in Toronto that expected everyone to be frugal, hard-working, and tough. She made her own clothes and refused to help with household chores, but worked outside the home to make money and contribute. Rosalie met Isadore Sharp in 1952 when she was 16 and he was 21. They fell in love, and have been together ever since. Izzy started out as a construction worker and builder, but through business savvy, kindness and humility, he grew a billion-dollar business that is now the most luxurious hotel chain in the world. They had four sons, one who sadly passed away from cancer at the age of 18, yet despite this tragedy, Rosalie remains an optimistic and energetic person. While Izzy was building an empire, Rosalie started an interior design as her boys got older. She also paints, filling their homes with colourful canvases that also serve as title pages for each chapter in the book. Now enjoying her retired life in Palm Springs, she exercises, plays bridge, and going out on dinner dates every night with Izzy. This book is written during the beginning of the pandemic, so she’s frequently referring to this time as a forced period of reflection for them both, taking a break from their travel-intense lifestyle to visit their hotels all over the world. According to the Four Seasons website and Rosalie, Izzy is still working almost every day, despite his 90 years.
If you are looking for a book about the lifestyles of the rich and famous, this is not one of them. The fact that they are incredibly wealthy doesn’t really factor into her stories. It allowed them to buy bigger houses and travel the world, but it doesn’t seem to have drastically affected her view of life, or even her view of herself. Instead, their success acts as a catalyst for looking back on their lives to determine what contributed to their happiness so they can pass along this wisdom to others. Rosalie’s (in her words) ‘difficult’ upbringing is something she describes in detail (the story of her tapeworm will stay with me forever!) yet she also credits it with forming some of her most endearing qualities, including her work ethic.
Rosalie clearly has many talents, but sticking to a clear and logical timeline is not one of them. My only complaint about this book is the scattered way her thoughts are communicated – there are many unnecessary asides and stories that serve to confuse rather than move the book along. Despite this, I found myself enthralled with her writing, even if it appeared in a disjointed way.
I was expecting this book to have some secrets to a happy marriage, and although its clear this couple is still madly in love with each other, what was most obvious was the fact that Rosalie so clearly respects and admires Issy, and he feels the same. He wrote the introduction,where he lists her achievements, and genuinely communicates his deep sense of appreciation for her energy and drive. He also points to her loyalty as something that kept him going over the years, which is a nice reminder to all couples. She was supportive in his work, and “if things didn’t work, she was ready to face the problems together” (p. 8 of Me & Issy by Rosalie Wise Sharp).
In addition to their son’s death, the holocaust and its wiping away of Rosalie’s family history is something that clearly haunts her, and she speaks at length of its effect on her life and psyche. Many of her family were murdered in concentration camps. Further to that, I was shocked to learn that even in the mid 1980s, her and Issy were denied membership at private clubs because they were Jewish; less than 40 years ago! It’s a disgrace to think how recently this happened, and I must admit it made me feel a bit ashamed to read it as a fellow Canadian because I knew the clubs she mentioned. The fact that these discriminatory policies still existed in my lifetime is upsetting, but made me admire Rosalie even more because she wasn’t bitter about it, she simply pointed to the fact that it was common at the time.
A realistic but fortuitous match, this marriage isn’t one that many people can relate to, but it’s one that we can all aspire to. An unwavering belief and adoration of one’s partner seems to be the key to happiness, not just in a marriage, but in one’s life as a whole.