When one of my marvelous and reliable informants emailed that Elizabeth “Ann” Wells had joined the ancestors in New Orleans, it followed the news last week of the tragedy at the Waffle House in Nashville. The connection for me was waffle because for many years Ann, as she was popularly called, was the owner of the famous restaurant, Wells, in Harlem. It was opened in 1938, almost to the date of the opening of Dickie Wells’ club, and there was a clear distinction between licking your chops at the restaurant and the musicians perfecting their musical chops at Dickie’s joint.
But, as is often the case, it was the man, Joseph Turner Wells, the founder, who got most of the notice derived from the eatery’s reputation. Perhaps, in this instance, rightfully so because it was named after him and Ann Wells became part of the enterprise after marrying him in 1966, three years after she began working at the restaurant.
Before their marriage, Ann Wells, born in New Orleans Feb. 25, 1939, had already expressed a driving determination to achieve. Even as a child, she exhibited an entrepreneurial impulse when she set up a snowball stand, which must have been a real novelty in this southern city, with the hope of raising enough money to travel to New York City. By 1959, she realized that dream, arriving in Harlem and getting a room at the YWCA.
Soon, her natural charm and beauty were enhanced after attending a school to polish her etiquette, and it didn’t hurt that she shared those moments with Ophelia De Vore, and both later established themselves in the world of modeling. Among the hundreds of admirers attending the shows where she showcased gowns and other apparel was Joseph Wells, and he was immediately smitten and wasted no time in proposing marriage.
She settled into matrimony and the restaurant with relative ease, and her presence not only gave the place another layer of luster and refinement but also brought some of the culinary skills and culture she acquired coming of age in New Orleans. At the restaurant, with its sign that declared “Wells’ Famous Home of Chicken & Waffles”—and never mind the misuse of the quotation mark—she was an added attraction, particularly for the musicians finishing their gigs around town who looked forward to her fine repartee on a sundry of things.
The couple deliberately kept the restaurant opened until early morning hours to accommodate the musicians who were ending their gigs and ready for a decent meal, and the combo of chicken and waffles was a perfect meal to bridge a late dinner and early breakfast.
When she wasn’t serving the delicious food and the latest gossip, Ann Wells set aside time to serve the community, and the children of Harlem were a special concern of hers.
As a member of the Edwin Gould Foundation she was absolutely tireless in facilitating foster care for the needy as well as being devoted to the progress and success of young women, mainly through her affiliation with the Gamma Phi Delta Society and the Beta Omega Chapter of Yonkers, N.Y.
After years of battling COPD, Ann Wells left Harlem four years ago and moved back to New Orleans. And there she continued to offer whatever insight and energy she had for the city’s youngest residents.
Meanwhile, her legacy at Wells and in Harlem continued, although the restaurant was closed in 1982. Two years later there were rumors that Wells would reopen, but that reality never occurred.
Although Wells did not return, the location on Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard, between 132nd and 133rd streets, experienced a resurrection in 2005 as the Harlem Grill, under the ownership of Allen West, who began working in restaurants when he was a teenager in Harlem. Sadly, the Grill, after such a promising beginning, had only a short existence before it shut down and now there are several businesses occupying the space, including a tax service.
“It was a favorite destination back in the day,” one resident recalled. “There was nothing like having a full plate of waffles and fried chicken. And Ann made sure you were completely satisfied before handing you the bill. She was such a gracious hostess, and even as she aged her beauty never vanished.”
As one city planner noted several years ago when there were rumors about the restaurant reopening under its legendary name, “It was a marvelous piece of New York history.”
And so was Ann Wells, who died April 16 after a long illness, according to an obituary in The New Orleans Advocate. The obituary also announced that a memorial service is being planned for her in the near future in New Orleans, and there should be one in Harlem for her.
Ann Wells leaves behind to cherish her memory her loving son Thomas Gant Jr. (Linda) of New Orleans, La., sister Barbara Johnson of Brooklyn Park, Minn., granddaughters Desiree Gant Jacobs (David) of Canton, Ga., Ariyana Gant Bragge (Conor) of Hong Kong, China, Kindall Nicole Gant of New York City, her great-grandsons David and Dawson Jacobs, including aunt Wilhelmina Edwards, uncle Gerald Johnson and a host of loving relatives and friends. Relatives and friends of the family are invited to attend a memorial service Saturday, May 5, 2018 from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. at Esplanade at the Park Clubhouse, 3443 Esplanade Ave., New Orleans. Interment was held at Mount Olivet Cemetery. Arrangements by D.W. Rhodes Funeral Home 3933 Washington Ave., New Orleans. Please visit www.rhodesfuneral.com to share online condolences. In lieu of flowers please make donations in memory of Elizabeth Ann Wells to Culture for One, 110 E. 42nd St. Suite 18, New York, NY 10017 or online at Cultureforone.org (Make sure to say in honor of Elizabeth Ann Wells).