The Sephardic immigrants who brought flowers to L.A.
On Valentine’s Day, as you exit a freeway off-ramp or drive down the streets of Los Angeles, the people you see hawking red-and-white holiday bouquets on street corners may have more in common with you than you might ever imagine.
In the early 20th century, Sephardic immigrants, many from the Mediterranean island of Rhodes, as well as from Turkey and Syria, got their first scent of success in America by selling flowers on L.A. street corners. From poor beginnings, often speaking only Ladino, they, and eventually their children and grandchildren, would go on to establish flower shops dotting the southland, as well buy real estate, and climb the economic ladder.
Two brothers, Joseph and Robert Cohen, whose parents were from Syria and Rhodes and who started out selling flowers on corners, are among those who branched out into real estate. Leon Moskatel, from Turkey, started with a flower shop downtown that would expand into florist supplies.
Flower shop owner Victor Levy, whose parents were from Rhodes, would become an organizational leader in the flower business, and Perry Hasson, son of flower-selling immigrants, also from Rhodes, would hit upon an innovative way of selling flowers that is still with us today.
But long before that, for many Sephardic families, including that of my wife, Brenda —Perry Hasson was her father — the flower business meant rising even before the flowers opened their petals to trek downtown to the L.A. wholesale flower markets to start to move those carnations and roses.
Joseph Cohen, born in Los Angeles in 1927 and one of seven children, has strong childhood memories of his trips to the flower market with his father. “Afterwards, we would go have breakfast in the Flower Market Cafe. We would all get one giant order of hotcakes,” he remembered.
“When I was 12, on Sundays, my father had me run his flower stand on Long Beach Boulevard and Vernon [Avenue],” said Cohen. “One day he came by and saw me playing with the guys. I never worked for him after that,” he said. Cohen spoke from his office above his son Morris’ flower shop, Moe’s Flowers, on Melrose Avenue. His daughter, Rita Azar, ran the now-shuttered Rita Flora on La Brea Boulevard.
In 1943, at age 16, Joseph Cohen’s desire for a car drove him back into the business. A buddy has been drafted into the army and was selling a 1932 Ford roadster for $135 that Cohen just had to have. “How you going to pay me back?” asked his brother Al, who eventually loaned him the money.
The answer: selling flowers.
After school, Cohen went to the intersection of Slauson Avenue and Crenshaw Boulevard and sold flowers in traffic. “It wasn’t long before I could pay him back,” Cohen said.
Lou Hasson, whose parents, Joseph and Grace, came to Los Angeles from Rhodes in 1921, remembers how “Sephardic Jews would stand on street corners in downtown L.A. and sell flowers or shine shoes,” he said.
Hasson’s mother and his brother Perry, who was born in 1925 and died in 1963, ran Flowers by Pierre on Whittier Boulevard, not far from Home of Peace cemetery. Perry Hasson’s wife, Shirley Berko, (my mother-in-law) recalls standing on a corner selling mixed bouquets for 52 cents a bunch even when pregnant. “They probably felt sorry for me,” she surmised.
Soon after the Santa Ana Freeway opened in mid-1950s, Lou Hasson claims his brother Perry was the first to sell flowers at an off -ramp. “He hired two teenage Sephardic boys and dropped them off in the morning and picked them up at the end of the day,” recalled Hasson, a founding partner of Green Hasson Janks, a Los Angeles accounting firm.
Continuing in the family tradition, Susie Hasson Levey, a granddaughter of Joseph and Grace, sells flowers on Sundays at the Encino Farmers Market.
For Joseph Cohen, selling flowers in traffic proved too hard. In 1946, he moved up in the business by selling sweet peas on the corner of Cahuenga Boulevard and Riverside Drive. “I made $35 a day,” he recalled.
In 1950, Cohen opened the La Cienega Flower Shop. Finding the going tough, he also started selling roses, carnations and violets on the corner of Barham Boulevard and Forest Lawn Drive. An old hand in the business advised that to increase sales, he should pour a little cologne into the buckets holding the violets.
At La Cienega, after trying his hand at arrangements, Cohen realized he could do better simply by selling cut flowers. “I was not a florist, but I did know how to buy and sell,” he said.
“I used to love the flower market, that was my baby,” said Cohen, who enjoyed the business challenge, especially when flowers were scarce or the market was flooded.
“The biggest days were Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day,” said Cohen, who found a niche by putting out large, colorful displays for passersby to see.
In 1964, Cohen purchased a property at La Cienega Boulevard and Melrose
Avenue, where he put up a new building. Eventually his purchase of a street corner in Beverly Hills for a flower stand led to an even larger development on the property. “My brother Bobby [also in the flower business] and I built the Four Seasons Hotel,” Cohen said.
“I didn’t know anything else. I was just a kid,” Cohen said of his career in flowers. Today, he raises amaryllis on his nine-acre ranch in Malibu and remembers the 25 years of having breakfast with his brothers at the Flower Market talking about flower prices, fishing and girls as “some of the best times of my life.”
Other Sephardic florists parlayed their experiences differently. In the 1930s, according to “Sending Flowers to America: Stories of the Los Angeles Flower Market” by Peggi Ridgeway and Jan Works (2008, American Florist’s Exchange), Leon Moskatel, an immigrant from Turkey born in 1902, set up a retail flower shop on Wall Street in downtown Los Angeles, where, to supplement selling cut flowers he also began selling floral supplies.
After Sam Applebaum, his first cousin, joined the business, the two men shifted their focus to merchandising floral supplies. Eventually purchased by Michael’s craft supply stores after Moskatel’s death in 1962, the store remains to this day under its original name, Moskatels.
“They were very generous to each other,” Ridgeway said of the Jewish immigrants who did business at the flower market. “Especially good to their own countrymen,” she added.
Victor Levy, born in 1927, recalls at least seven Sephardic-owned flower shops in Long Beach, some within just a few blocks of one another. “When one did well, others moved in; most were relatives,” said Levy, who opened Victor’s flower shop in Lakewood in 1954, and, over time, added locations in Cypress, Long Beach and Norwalk.
Levy, who was elected president of both the Florists’ Transworld Delivery (FTD) in 1980 and the Southern California Floral Association in 1973, said he “loved the flower business, working with nature and beauty. I didn’t have to wear a necktie,” he said.
“The flower business has been good to all us Sephardics,” said Levy, who retired in 1985 and whose daughter, Melinda Evans, carries on in the business in Long Beach. “It’s a way for immigrants, all immigrants, to get into mainstream America,” he said, noting that many stores have now been sold to Koreans. “The Koreans have taken over where the Sephardics left off,” he said.