Known for her charitable giving and larger-than-life personality, Harriett Lake is remembered throughout the art community as a woman whose legacy will live on forever.
Few people could dominate a room quite like Harriett Lake.
When she walked in, people took notice, and her stylish fashions and personality often were the subject of conversations. She was the kind of person who seemed larger than life, which has made her passing at age 96 on Tuesday, July 10, seem all the more surreal.
Following the death of such a local icon many in the community are taking this time to celebrate Mrs. Lake’s life by remembering all the good she has done for both the arts and the people of Florida.
“She’s spread her love around everyone, and we are all incredibly grateful for her life,” said Betsy Schreyer, who serves as the grant writer at the Crealdé School of Art in Winter Park. “I hope other people are inspired by her — that kind of philanthropy that’s really what I hope, because she truly is an inspiration.”
Her work in the Winter Park area didn’t just stop at Crealde — she was also a supporter of the arts programs at Rollins College, as well as the Cornell Fine Arts Museum on campus.
Along with her philanthropic endeavors for Rollins, Mrs. Lake’s connection to the school ran even deeper as she and former President Rita Bornstein were best friends.
“I’ve known Harriett for almost as long as I’ve been in Orlando… I’ve never met anyone like her,” said Bornstein, who served as president from 1990 to 2004. “She really loved being a philanthropist and sort of an original — she was just Harriett, no one was like her.”
Mrs. Lake was a woman who lived many lives — which included passions for the arts, philanthropy, social activism and fashion.
Although she was a Longwood resident, Mrs. Lake was born April 7, 1922, in Lebanon, Pennsylvania. There, she spent most of her childhood reading books and studying — she was the perfect student.
When she was just 7 years old, in 1929, hardship hit her and her family — as well as all Americans — as the Great Depression reared its head. But there was one positive that came out of the situation.
“That’s when I got into my obsession with clothes,” Mrs. Lake said in a 2014 oral history interview that was a part of the Orange County Library System’s Orlando Memory project. “We could never afford to buy the stuff that I wanted to buy, like a little red coat. And I would go up to the department stores and check out the whole inventory — I think I might have been 5 or 6 years old. That’s why I can’t get enough red coats. I don’t know how many I own.”
As many will note, fashion would go on to play a huge role in Mrs. Lake’s life, and her wardrobe was physical proof itself. She amassed an incredibly large collection of clothing through the years, to the point where one day — with a warehouse full of items — Mrs. Lake decided she would start up Harriet’s Closet in Winter Park to sell clothing and donate the money to charities throughout the community.
Although fashion would prove to be her earliest love, over time, Mrs. Lake discovered other interests in the arts and in philanthropy.
After graduating from Westchester State Teachers College in her home state, Mrs. Lake went on to join the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve during World War II.
Following the war, Mrs. Lake made a move to Miami, where she met Hymen Lake, whom she would marry in 1950. Twelve years later, she, Hymen and their two children, Michael and Shelley, made the fateful trip to Orlando to live out the rest of her life.
Throughout the years, while Hymen Lake bought and developed land throughout the area, Mrs. Lake built her collection of clothing — especially hats — which she would wear to the theater and to art shows around Orlando. It was part of what made her, “her,” said Robert Hill, art director of the Orlando Ballet.
From Mrs. Lake’s fashion sense to her signature catch phrase, “Hello, gorgeous,” there was a lot that made her a captivating individual.
“I’ve had the opportunity to meet really, really important and special people along the way, and she tops the list for me, because she was so clearly, uniquely and authentically herself,” Hill said. “I just loved having conversations with her. … She was very, very consistently who she was, and I really respect that.”
“I’ve had the opportunity to meet really, really important and special people along the way, and she tops the list for me, because she was so clearly, uniquely and authentically herself.”
- Robert Hill
Although she helped 189 nonprofit art organizations — including some hospitals — throughout Central Florida via donations and physical appearance, the Orlando Ballet was always a favorite of hers.
“I refuse to die until I have a place for the ballet to rehearse and practice ... and that will be the last thing I probably do — I’m dedicated to the ballet,” Mrs. Lake said in her Orlando Memory interview. “It’s my job — that’s what it comes down to. Somebody has to do it.
“A lot of people are with me on this, too,” she said. “Thank God for them. Bless them. It’s wonderful.”
It’s safe to say Mrs. Lake’s legacy — in all of its grandiose nature — will be remembered and preserved.
“For me, she is never going to be gone,” Hill said. “I’ll just think of her, and I’ll always smile.”