The Gorilla Man and the Empress of Steak

I’ve found a book for my December reading pleasure that fits my interests perfectly.

I love New Orleans.

I love Hot Springs.

I love food.

I love thoroughbred racing.

Skip Rutherford, dean of the Clinton School of Public Service, was hanging out at Square Books in Oxford, Miss., when he came across a copy of “The Gorilla Man and the Empress of Steak” by Randy Fertel. The book was released earlier this year by the University Press of Mississippi.

Skip invited Randy to be a part of the Clinton School’s lecture series, and the author showed up on the final night of November to speak. I’ve been engrossed in his book ever since.

My friend John T. Edge, who heads the Southern Foodways Alliance over at Ole Miss, described the book this way: “His mother was the ‘first lady of American restaurants.’ His father was ‘odd, self-centered and nuts.’ Randy Fertel leverages a raucous New Orleans upbringing, in which Salvador Dali and Edwin Edwards play bit parts, to tell the story of an uncommon American family, defined, in equal measure, by bold swagger and humbling vulnerabilities.”

Randy’s mother is the Ruth in the Ruth’s Chris chain of upscale steak houses.

His father launched a quixotic campaign for mayor of New Orleans in 1969 on the promise that he would get a gorilla for the Audubon Zoo. He received only about 300 votes.

The photo on the book’s dust jacket shows Randy’s parents during a visit to Hot Springs. The year was 1948. My father graduated from college in Arkadelphia that year. My parents were frequent visitors to Hot Springs. For all I know, they unknowingly crossed paths with the Fertels on Central Avenue.

On a visit to Hershey, Pa., this summer, I learned that Milton Hershey honeymooned in Hot Springs. It was once quite the destination for young couples.

Here’s how the first chapter of the book begins: “If we could return to the moment captured in a 1948 photo, this couple, Mom and Dad, Ruth and Rodney, might catch our eye as they stride down Central Avenue in Hot Springs, Ark. In full sunlight, Ruth holds the crook of Rodney’s right arm and gazes at the camera with self-assurance and an easy smile. While women behind her clutch their bags tight, she carries a handbag by its strap. She wears heels with bows.

“That sunny day in Hot Springs, an unseen ornate gold barrette tooled in her initials — RUF — holds her hair swept back from her high brow. The barrette is a gift from her husband, whose family is in the trade — pawnshops.

“His face in shadow and wearing sunglasses, not unaware of the camera himself, her husband gazes at her with fondness and regard. Rodney sports a tie with bold ovals and in his right hand he carries a folded paper, probably the Daily Racing Form. He wears his shirtsleeves rolled. His left arm swings forward with a watch on his wrist, the first of many gold Rolexes, and a cigarette in the tips of his fingers — he has yet to give them up.”

Ruth was 21 when that photo was taken.

Rodney was 27.

A decade later, Ruth was speeding down Gentilly Boulevard in New Orleans on her way to the Fair Grounds (she was the first licensed female thoroughbred trainer in Louisiana) when she was pulled over by police officer Salvador J. “Joe” DeMatteo.

Soon, Ruth and Joe were an item.

By May 1958, Ruth and Rodney were separated.

Ruth married Joe in 1964.

“Joe was dark and wiry, a man’s man, a grunt who had survived the Italian campaign in World War II, a motorcycle cop, small plane pilot and gas station owner,” Randy writes. ”Like him, Mom began to smoke filterless cigarettes, Pall Malls. In Joe’s presence, I heard curse words from my mother’s mouth for the first time. Surely not her first, they bothered me and I imagined Joe was their cause.”

Randy, who has a doctorate from Harvard, has taught English at Harvard, Tulane, LeMoyne College in Syracuse, N.Y., and the University of New Orleans. He’s a lover of food and fine wine who once was the marketing director for the Ruth’s Chris chain.

A March 2007 New York Times feature on his wedding to Bernadette Murray began this way: “The chatter among the 175 guests gathered under the live oaks of Audubon Park in New Orleans for the wedding of Bernadette Murray and Randy Fertel was upbeat but also circumspect. They gushed about the setting and marveled about the beauty of the bride. And barely a word about the tough times the couple had just been through.

“Less measured were the bride’s grade-school-age nephews: ‘Don’t tell,’ one said in a stage whisper. ‘Aunt Bernadette is wearing a wig!’

“Aunt Bernadette has been wearing a wig since shortly after she began treatment in May 2005 for acute myeloid leukemia, several months after Ms. Murray began dating Mr. Fertel.

“Early on, Ms. Murray tried to let Mr. Fertel off the hook, telling him that she didn’t expect him to endure what appeared to be a long illness. Mr. Fertel responded by returning to the hospital with a big diamond ring in a blue Tiffany box.”

Randy, who was 56 at the time of the wedding, met his wife in late 2004 when he was working at the New School in New York as an adjunct instructor who specialized in the literature of the Vietnam War. They met through a dating website. She’s eight years younger.

In an October story for The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, Judy Walker wrote: “The eccentric streak in Rodney Fertel ran deep. In the Rampart Street community of Orthodox Jews, where the Fertels owned a pawnshop and property, the Fertels were by any measure an unusual family. Rodney Fertel’s mother, Annie, shoplifted so regularly that store detectives in D.H. Holmes and Maison Blanche were detailed to follow her around; later, her accountant would quietly pay her debts. Family members also sued each other repeatedly.”

Randy told the newspaper writer: “My dad enjoyed a grudge. My family left a trail. They were litigious people; that was very helpful” in researching the book.

Randy ends the foreward of his own book this way: “The Empress of Steak reserved all the glory for herself. Her appetite for winning excluded everyone, even her offspring. Nearly all the key players in the global empire of Ruth’s Chris Steak House ended up suing her, to get what they felt they deserved. I must confess that I was among them.”

When Ruth saw a for-sale ad for a steak house at 1100 Broad St. in New Orleans, she took it as a good sign that the restaurant had been established on her birthday — Feb. 5, 1927.

She bought Chris’ Steak House in 1965 after borrowing $22,000. Almost a dozen years later, fire destroyed the original restaurant. She reopened a few blocks away at the intersection of Broad and Orleans and called the place Ruth’s Chris. It became the top political hangout in New Orleans.

Ruth sold the chain in 1999. In 2002, she died of cancer. By then, there were more than 80 restaurants in the chain.

In her will, Ruth made Randy the president of the Ruth U. Fertel Foundation. Among its projects, the foundation is working to establish the Fertel Culinary Arts Center at Nicholls State University. Randy put his own money into the Fertel Foundation, which focuses on education and the arts.

As someone who has long been fascinated with the history of Hot Springs, I’m drawn back to the first of the book and Randy’s description of the Spa City: “In this year, 1948, Hot Springs is a wide-open town, dominated by the Southern Club, a gambling house in operation since 1893. In Las Vegas, Bugsy Siegel’s Flamingo Hotel is only two years old and ‘the Strip’ still but a dream. The mineral baths and the gambling tables draw Rodney and Ruth here from their home in New Orleans for long stays. Rodney enjoys independent means inherited from his pawnbroker grandparents: no job pulls him home.

“The horses bring them, too. In 1948, the Fair Grounds in New Orleans celebrates its diamond jubilee, 75 years of continuous thoroughbred racing. Hot Springs’ Oaklawn Park is almost as old. This very summer, Louisiana Gov. Earl Long, Huey’s brother and inveterate gambler, comes to Hot Springs ‘for his arthritis.’ Gov. Long begins his day with the Daily Racing Form and the tout sheets. He helped the mob install slots throughout Louisiana; they let him know when the fix is in. Ruth and Rodney Fertel share Gov. Long’s taste for racehorses. In a few years, Ruth will earn her throughbred trainer’s license.”

In one photo from that 1948 visit, there’s a sign for a Hot Springs restaurant. Randy writes of the sign: “Hammons, no apostrophe. Sea Food, two words. Inside a sign promises One Day Out of the Ocean, meaning one day up from the Louisiana bayous where Ruth was born. Rodney prefers Hammons to the Arlington’s grand dining room with its organ and white-gloved black waiters and where, at age 13, I develop a taste for watercress salad and cornbread sticks slathered in butter and honey.”

Rodney would live for a time in Hot Springs at 359 Whittington Ave.

Randy said he once asked Ruth why she married Rodney.

She replied: “He had horses. I was a country girl and a tomboy. I was at LSU. Your dad owned a stable. When I first met him, I thought he was a stable boy. We ran off and got married, honeymooned in Hot Springs, then took a trip around the world.”

Randy writes: “Which means my first sibling rivals were racehorses. Later Dad would add two gorillas to the list and Mom a restaurant.”

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3 Responses to “The Gorilla Man and the Empress of Steak”

  1. Kane Webb says:

    Thanks for writing about this book, Rex. I now know what I want from Santa Claus.

  2. Rob Stephens says:

    On my to read list! Thanks Rex.

  3. Kent Berry says:

    I second the first two comments. I always enjoy your writing Rex. I don’t often comment; but I always read. Thanks for sharing your knowledge. kb

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