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photo by Rita R. Schimpff

A good streamside stiffener never fails to elevate a good story...but we must wait and travel back to the late 19th century. We travel to  a famous Catskill inn, sit by a hand-hewn, rock fireplace to remove our waders and boots. We hang our rods by the fire before we partake of the bar that was built to connect and serve both this raconteur’s retreat and the main lodge—home to our subject, The Pink Lady. There, not one, but two pink ladies await. One, just off the dawn and dusk stream - rode hard and put up wet. The other, a voluptuous concoction that awaits with a slim neck, and delicate, pink, gin-based cheeks, topped with a platinum head—fresh for after dark interludes. Sisters, no less, but from two different recipes—nowadays we would call them sistas from different mistas. 

photo by - Rita R. Schimpff

The author and her husband on a private stretch of the Willow after a brief shower reveals a beautiful rainbow. The bridge was built by the Luskers in the 1980s to connect hundreds of acres of hiking trails and fishing in the private preserve.

One thing I have learned from fly anglers...they are a happy and thought-provoking group. Whether catching big, small, or nothing at all—they are a positive, jovial, respectful, and uplifting group in general, on and off the stream. They are very pleasant to talk to, and most willing to share a tale, a tip, a nip, along with both the like-minded and the hopeful. So, we take you to New York State, fade to the famous Catskills, full of famous old inns and noted taverns, rich with American angling lore. Now zero in to the center of this charmed circle. De Bruce, New York—that sits beside the confluence of the Willowemoc and Mongaup Creeks—home to the De Bruce Club Inn and The Pink Lady, where a legendary lady is treated with great respect.             

Maybe these agreeable anglers simply enjoy the intricate details of a recipe, the skill it takes to concoct it, along with reaping the rewards of fruition. Recipes are the written ingredients and blueprints for creating both a tasty cocktail and a believable fly to attract its intended species. The first written cocktail recipe is attributed to early New Orleans in 1806.  Helen Shaw, who was anointed ‘The First Lady of Fly Tying’, is credited for the first published recipes for dressing a fly. Two related recipes made of feathers and gin seems unlikely, but read on. The two recipes, one for a dry fly and one for a dry cocktail, were invented over 100 years ago in the iconic fishing hamlet of De Bruce—and both named The Pink Lady. Recipes were followed faithfully. The Pink Lady has been carefully played, adored, and stroked at the hand of masters, and given great attention in the Catskills. Forever entwined in a sensuous streamside love lost to the generations, or was it?  

These two sistas were roommates of sorts, as they were born and ‘raised’ figuratively and literally side by side, one in a bar and the other a few steps away on the stream. Both beauties were ever popular, but different as night and day—in fact they rarely saw one another as one kept day hours and the other a lady of the night!

photo by - Rita R. Schimpff

The Pink Lady tied by Dave Brandt of Oneonta, NY. The original version of the fly was tied with double divided duck wings, but one set of wings became acceptable in the 1940s. In the background is the handsome inventor, George LaBranche (ca 1900), taken close to the time he would have created his Pink Lady. Background photo courtesy of The American Museum of Fly Fishing

The on-stream lady was given her due and first cast by her creator, George LaBranche, an extremely handsome man who was an ardent American dry fly angler. A frequent visitor to the area in the late 1800s, LaBranche was hardly ever without a favorite fly called “The Queen of The Waters.” One day there was a last-minute need for this fly to add to his kit before departing New York City for his fly fishing foray to De Bruce. When the clerk at the nearby tackle shop failed to have the orange colored fly on hand, the suggestion of the russet colored “King of the Waters” was swept up by the unsuspecting angler. He was on his way, by train, to the confluence of the Willowemoc and Mongaup Creeks, about to make history.

photo by - Rita R. Schimpff

Archive photo of a well-dressed bartender in the popular bar at the De Bruce Club Inn, possibly shaking up the famous Pink Lady cocktail born in the bar. Note the beautiful glasses on standby and pink ready. Photo courtesy of the Kocher Archives

Disappointingly, this fly did not produce the first day and was left overnight on the drying pad, unnoticed until the next morning. When the angler set off again, he noticed it had faded to a pink. This time the fly was more successful as he made groundbreaking observations while watching the fish behavior. So, he sat by the river and pushed this wet fly into an upright shape to ride on top of the water, and with each tweak and addition, it became more successful until he developed a fly that soon earned not only great respect, but a new name— The Pink Lady

The off-stream sister was given her coronation by the De Bruce Club Inn. Research suggests the slim necked lady was in her infancy in the early 1900’s, well before prohibition, but most assuredly in her heyday in the 30’s and 40’s. The lady’s home, The De Bruce Club Inn was built ca 1895-1899 and first known as Cooper’s boarding house. The Ward brothers were the next owners and made many upgrades, including a fish hatchery and farm. They moved in a large, nearby, old building on a rock foundation known as The Hearthstone Inn to attach to theirs. The old Hearthstone was placed next to the De Bruce Club Inn and connected to one another by means of an addition that served as a bar to both buildings. This recycled old boarding house added more guest rooms above and a grand hall with a large, river-stone fireplace, and beneath this room was a below grade sports room for golf enthusiasts.  Since both inns catered to anglers, they both had beautiful fishing rooms—the Hearthstone room was probably dismantled when the buildings converged, as the De Bruce Club Inn had its own handsome fisherman’s den, complete with a rock fireplace to relax and recount the day’s fishing. This iconic inn continued to treat their annual anglers with every courtesy—guests often waking to find their rod assembled and waiting in their own lockers and meals cheerfully offered on the angler’s timeline.

In addition to being celebrated locally, each sister was perhaps unaware that their legendary success had far reaching fame through the years. Nearby were the bright lights of Broadway and a 1911 popular musical that enjoyed the name The Pink Lady, but the origin of the name and how it might “tie” in to either sister is lost.  A flirtation with Hollywood came when the pink lady gained the attention of a famous movie star who possessed the same voluptuous and platinum characteristics.

The research of Eric Felten shows that this star loved everything pink, including her ‘Pink Palace’ on Sunset Blvd, dubbed so because it was painted pink inside and out. A before dinner ritual of the beautiful pin up star, Jayne Mansfield, was to enjoy a single pink lady cocktail! Still attracting attention at the tender age of 70, a bit of naughty was attached to The Pink Lady’s reputation when angling author Dana Lamb wrote of the scandalous misunderstanding surrounding the feathered sister and a local Scotsman nicknamed The Green Highlander, after a classic Salmon Fly. But these flirtations with stardom never went to their light weight heads; both pinksters stayed true to their homes and history in spite of what might have been whispered.

In the 1940s, the sister’s home passed from the Ward estate to a family of Swiss ancestry, Rose and Walter Kocher, who were summer guests to the area while their children (daughter Marilyn) routinely attended to summer camp nearby. By now, the large resort with its farm and fish hatchery also offered guests tennis courts and a golf course in addition to famous fishing and the cocktail lounge! Walter and his family continued to run the inn with the same attentiveness toward guests along with the special following of the faithful old fishing crowd.

photo by - Rita R. Schimpff

Postcard showing the inn—and home to the Pink Lady cocktail and fly—before the bar and Hearthstone additions. The old inn was known for famous service to guests by the Ward and Kocher families. Marilyn Kocher Lusker continues those traditions as an area innkeeper since the 1980s. Today there are restored properties on the site of the original inn in De Bruce.

The birthplace of the two pink ladies would go on to be enjoyed up until the 1960s when business for all the old inns fell off and one by one, they fell into disrepair, caught fire, or were torn down.  The Kocher’s daughter, Marilyn, and her siblings loved the inn, the beauty, and history of the area, and all it offered, so much so that she and her husband, Ron Lusker, spent much time and resources re-roofing and repairing to preserve the historic buildings.

In 1970, the large old inn became a target for mischievous youth, and neighbors began to complain about safety. To fence off the inn was too costly, so they had to sell off all the fixtures and lumber in return for the dismantling of the four-story Grand Dame. Even though much of the original inn is gone, save for some landmark trees and sidewalk pavers, several of the historic buildings have been awaiting their turn in the sun.

photo by - Rita R. Schimpff

The fisherman’s room in the iconic old De Bruce Club Inn. All of the old area inns catered to the angling crowd. Photo courtesy of the Kocher Archives

In the 1980s, the sisters moved down the road a bit when the Luskers decided to work on area history for themselves, buying and restoring an old, nearby, 1918 boarding house for tannery workers on the famous Willowemoc and called it the De Bruce Country Inn. In 2016, after a full day of fishing, the author and her husband met Marilyn each night in The Dry Fly Lounge, where our hostess had a roaring fire waiting and generously shared a rare, towering, gold bottle of clear spirits produced by a presidential candidate!  Today this inn is under new ownership and known as The DeBruce. Marilyn, who has never tired of keeping the written and architectural history of the valley alive, has returned to the site of the original De Bruce Club Inn, where fortunately the old Hearthstone addition, the old barn, and two beautiful old buildings remain, and, under her creative touch, have been restored and reopened for guests as the Rose & Swiss Cottages at the De Bruce Farmstead.

Just in case you are thinking the Pink Ladies had only gentlemen admirers, I think it important to note a group of historic anglers who more than likely enjoyed the gals’ company as well. The Pink Ladies were in their glory days in the 1930s, and so it was in 1932 that eight women formed the Woman Fly Fishers Club with their home waters on the Willowemoc. Historian Ed Van Put describes their first clubhouse in 1937 along one mile of leased water, and soon three more miles were added with the help of the Willowemoc Fishing Club—who counted among its members George LaBranche! With a rapidly growing membership, these lady anglers were known to enjoy ‘fabulous’ streamside lunches on a long lace covered table, appointed with nine silver champagne coolers—makes you wonder how this club, now in their 86th year, celebrates the stream today.

Oh, and if you are also wondering about the fishing...worth the trip!  Go relive American fly fishing history, fish the historic waters, see Roscoe and Livingston Manor, and visit the Catskill Fly Fishing Center. But, by all means, partake of the famous sistas—the girls are still available for your sporting pleasure by day and by night—kind of like the old advertisement “double your pleasure, double your fun” … oh wait, I am showing my age.

Bottoms up!