The Gorilla Man and the Empress of Steak

The Gorilla Man and the Empress of Steak: A New Orleans Family Memoir

RANDY FERTEL
Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 288
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt2tv9bx
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    The Gorilla Man and the Empress of Steak
    Book Description:

    The Gorilla Man and the Empress of Steakis the story of two larger-than-life characters and the son whom their lives helped to shape. Ruth Fertel was a petite, smart, tough-as-nails blonde with a weakness for rogues, who founded the Ruth's Chris Steak House empire almost by accident. Rodney Fertel was a gold-plated, one-of-a-kind personality, a railbird-heir to wealth from a pawnshop of dubious repute just around the corner from where the teenage Louis Armstrong and his trumpet were discovered. When Fertel ran for mayor of New Orleans on a single campaign promise-buying a pair of gorillas for the zoo-he garnered a paltry 308 votes. Then he purchased the gorillas anyway!

    These colorful figures yoked together two worlds not often connected-lazy rice farms in the bayous and swinging urban streets where ethnicities jazzily collided. A trip downriver to the hamlet of Happy Jack focuses on its French-Alsatian roots, bountiful tables, and self-reliant lifestyle that inspired a restaurant legend. The story also offers a close-up of life in the Old Jewish Quarter on Rampart Street-and how it intersected with the denizens of "Back a' Town," just a few blocks away, who brought jazz from New Orleans to the world.

    The Gorilla Man and the Empress of Steakis a New Orleans story, featuring the distinctive characters, color, food, and history of that city-before Hurricane Katrina and after. But it also is the universal story of family and the full magnitude of outsize follies leavened with equal measures of humor, rage, and rue.

    eISBN: 978-1-61703-083-3
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-2)
  3. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  4. OVERTURE
    (pp. 3-9)

    THE OLYMPIA BRASS BAND PLAYED ʺDIDNʹT SHE RAMBLEʺ AFTER MY mother’s body had been “cut loose,” as the saying goes in New Orleans, placed in the mausoleum she and her best friend had built together. As is customary in New Orleans, the band played a dirge, “A Closer Walk with Thee,” on the way to the entombment. Then, turning from the grave, we celebrated the life:

    Didn’t she ramble … she rambled

    Rambled all around … in and out of town

    Didn’t she ramble … didn’t she ramble

    She rambled till the butcher cut her down.

    The mourners formed the...

  5. CHAPTER ONE HOT SPRINGS
    (pp. 10-14)

    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, Arkansas. 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...

  6. CHAPTER TWO HOME MOVIES AND SNAPSHOTS
    (pp. 15-20)

    DAD ALWAYS HAD THE LATEST GADGET—LIKE OUR KODAK BROWNIE Hawkeye box camera and Super-8 movie camera and projector. Family photos and filmstrips found their way into a cardboard box, and I liked to explore its jumbled contents. I mastered the family’s eight-millimeter projector and, darkening our front room on Seville Drive and putting a white sheet over the painting of the Arab and camels (bought in Paris on Mom and Dad’s honeymoon), I’d thread the sprockets and adjust the frame. I’d watch dozens of cartoon reels that Dad brought home—and home movies, lots of home movies that I...

  7. CHAPTER THREE THOROUGHBREDS
    (pp. 21-30)

    IN 1955, EXCITEMENT SEIZED OUR HOUSEHOLD AS MOM PREPARED to take the test for her Thoroughbred trainer’s license. Horse racing was a largely male world. Mom and Dad both loved horses, but only Mom had the confidence to master the book on which aspiring trainers were tested.

    In the oral exam, the racing stewards tried to challenge her knowledge of horses. Mom was exultant: the first woman Thoroughbred trainer in Louisiana. TheDaily Racing Formarticle—“Young Mom Outruns Stewards”—was made into a varnished plaque that hung between our baby pictures in the den on Seville Drive.

    Mom and...

  8. CHAPTER FOUR SOUTH RAMPART STREET
    (pp. 31-52)

    ʺTHE MISSISSIPPI RIVER RAN OVER ITS BANK AND DROWNED ALL OUR cattle which we had driven on the levee for protection,” my great-uncle Nick Jacomine wrote of the hurricane of September 1915 in his shakily handwritten memoir,The Story of My Life: Things I Can Remember.“The water was so rough that the cattle were swept so far that some of them were never found. Up to five feet of water … every thing was destroyed, rice ready to be threshed and all foods and small animals. The government sent a relief boat with food and all twice a week...

  9. CHAPTER FIVE HAPPY JACK
    (pp. 53-68)

    AS I GREW UP, WHEN SHE MENTIONED THEM AT ALL, MOM SPOKE always of perfect parents and a perfect family. Paw-Paw—Arthur Simpson Udstad—outsold every insurance salesman at National Life and Accident.He’d sit with potential customers in their cypress-framed houses up and down the river road drinking jelly jars of their thick coffee, roasted dark on the stove and syrupy with cane sugar. Always made the sale. The whole lower coast was his debit. He was so good the firm kept trimming his territory to even the playing field. Mom’s mother, Josephine, taught school, the best first-grade teacher...

  10. CHAPTER SIX BIENVILLE SCHOOL
    (pp. 69-80)

    ʺRUTH, YOU KNOW THOSE FRIED POTATOES ARENʹT GOOD FOR THE boys. I can see why they’re so fat.”

    The air—like the cooktop in the yellow Formica kitchen—was electric. Dad was in the house again for the first and last time since the separation.

    “Rodney, you used the boys to talk your way in here, but you can’t tell me what to do. I’ll cook what I want. If you care about the boys so much, why don’t you pay for their school?”

    The potatoes sputtered in the hot grease. Scrambled eggs with fresh French fries was one of...

  11. CHAPTER SEVEN CONGO SQUARE
    (pp. 81-95)

    BASEBALL SEASON DIDNʹT LAST LONG. THERE WAS THE PROBLEM OF what to do with the rest of the year. I started selling seeds door to door, sending off to a seed company from an ad on a comic book’s back cover. I sat on my bed with piles of pennies, nickels, silver dimes, and quarters, the next Moneybags Fertel. Paw-Paw had conveyed to me his love of growing things. I planted the unsold packets in the yard: nasturtiums and elysium, radishes and carrots. Never so adept as he, I chose a shady spot for the root vegetables. Beside the carport...

  12. CHAPTER EIGHT DAD'S DAY
    (pp. 96-107)

    THERE WAS SOMETHING OF HEMINGWAY IN MY DAD. IT STARTED WITH the good looks: the leonine head with its shock of thick hair, broad forehead, fine nose, strong jaw (if perhaps a bit jowly). I associated my father with all the granite-jawed American leading men I grew up admiring. He also shared Hemingway’s love for all the “manly” sports: horse racing, boxing, bullfights, cockfights, jai alai, and the gaming tables.

    Gambling was his life. If you dropped your hat, he was liable to bet whether it would land on its brim or its crown. Before going into the operating room...

  13. CHAPTER NINE TRAVELS WITH PAPA DAD
    (pp. 108-128)

    DAD WAS PROUD OF HAVING BEEN AROUND THE WORLD FIVE TIMES. He spent months at a stretch in Havana and Acapulco and traveled frequently back and forth between them and New Orleans. He lived in Cuba in the 1950s during the Batista regime, the time of Hemingway and the La Floridita Bar famous for its daiquiris and mojitos.

    From my dad’s traveling and sporting world, I learned a few things. How to find my way around a bathhouse. Where to sit at a baseball game (first base side where most of the plays are) or a bullring (on thesombra,...

  14. CHAPTER TEN CHRIS STEAK HOUSE
    (pp. 129-154)

    I DIDNʹT HAVE TO SEARCH FAR FOR ONE VERSION OF ʺNORMAL.ʺ Mom married Joe in 1964, although according to the divorce records, they had been an item at least since 1958.

    They met when Joe—Officer Salvador J. DeMatteo—stopped Ruth for speeding her pink convertible Cadillac DeVille down Gentilly Boulevard on her way to tend the horses at the Fair Grounds. Cops almost always let my mother off with a warning. For years it was her dazzling fresh good looks. Later it was her sizzling steaks:O.K., Miz Ruth, please watch the heavy foot. But tell me, before you...

  15. CHAPTER ELEVEN ESHU ON THE BAYOU
    (pp. 155-165)

    BACK IN 1960, LONG BEFORE ANY IMPERIAL THOUGHTS, WHEN MOM first started working as a lab technician at Tulane University School of Medicine, she put the word out for a housekeeper. A young woman called for an interview, and a time was set for Sunday morning. The appointed hour came and went. Tired of waiting, Mom went fishing. I was home reading.

    Hours later, there came a knock at the door. When I opened it, I learned that the young African American woman was Earner Sylvain, who had “come for the job.”

    “Okay.”

    That was the interview. I was ten...

  16. CHAPTER TWELVE SEARCHING FOR ODYSSEUS
    (pp. 166-188)

    IN 1967, THE SPRING OF MY JUNIOR YEAR IN HIGH SCHOOL, MY guidance counselor, Ms. Guichard, asked where I planned to apply to college. Franklin, a magnet school, was full of National Merit Finalists destined for top universities throughout the country.

    “I always wanted to go to Harvard,” I announced.

    Not bothering to dissemble, she laughed right in my face. “In that case, Randy, maybe you might have applied yourself a bit.”

    We settled on a few colleges where, with my mediocre grades, SATs, and recommendations, I might have a chance. I had decided to study political science or international...

  17. CHAPTER THIRTEEN RUTH'S CHRIS STEAK HOUSE
    (pp. 189-205)

    AFTER THE FIRE AT THE ORIGINAL RESTAURANT, RUTH HAD RE-CREATED her world in seven days and was back in business. But the original sales agreement said that if she moved, she couldn’t call the new location Chris Steak House. Ever direct, Mom added her own name, and the flagship Ruth’s Chris was born. Besides, she had grown to hate being called Chris or, worse, being taken for Chris’s wife. Customers angling for a table on a packed night sometimes claimed that theyknew Ruth before she married Chris.

    Ruth’s Chris Steak House.A mouthful and hard to say, but also...

  18. CHAPTER FOURTEEN CORPORATE AND OTHER CARNIVORES
    (pp. 206-227)

    LEAVING MY ACADEMIC NICHE FOR RUTHʹS CHRIS IN THE SUMMER OF 1986, I was put to work as assistant manager. At Lana Duke’s suggestion I was given an inflated title, vice president of operations. Lana placed a piece in theTimes-Picayunebusiness section trumpeting my entrance into the family business. It was impolitic. For training I was put in the hands of Dan Earles, who had been hired just a few months before, also as vice president of operations. As a family member, I had listened to and supported Lana, Mom’s advertising and PR guru, as she made the case...

  19. CHAPTER FIFTEEN BREAKING THE NAPOLEONIC CODE
    (pp. 228-240)

    THE FIRST TIME MY MOTHER FIRED ME WAS IN 1989.

    After too many years in too near proximity to the corporate headquarters on Broad Street, I moved to Florida to get away. We had just bought back the Florida franchise group and they needed a general manager in North Palm Beach. More than eight hundred miles would separate me from my family until the end of the school year, but, for the sake of my own sanity, I had no choice. Ralph gave his blessing: “Randy needs to show what he can do on his own without us hovering over...

  20. CHAPTER SIXTEEN THE EMPRESS OF STEAK
    (pp. 241-249)

    FOLLOWING THE DEBACLE OF 1991, MOM AND I DIDNʹT SPEAK FOR A year or two. She made few inquiries after my health struggles. We lived in different parts of the city, me uptown, she behind the restaurant in Mid-City.

    Slowly I made my way back to teaching, as an adjunct at Tulane University. I taught a course on the literature of the Vietnam War, a literature filled with disappointing authority figures and the abuse of power; although I had managed to avoid the draft, these were subjects not far from my experience. I learned that Ron Ridenhour, the soldier and...

  21. CHAPTER SEVENTEEN EMBRACING PAHRUMP
    (pp. 250-260)

    MY FATHERʹS STREET-PERSON REGALIA HAD PROTECTED HIM FOR DECADES. But one time in the late 1980s, the costume failed to work. Dad was accosted outside a Reno casino, robbed of his gold Rolex and his thick roll of greenbacks. The thief struck Dad and put out his left eye.

    The emergency room doctor presented Dad with a decision. The eye would never again serve him; the doctor could leave it in or take it out. It was Dad’s call.

    Dad sat upright in the hospital bed, his left eye heavily bandaged, and, misquoting the Bible again, replied with a bitter...

  22. CHAPTER EIGHTEEN THE EMPRESS'S LAST LEVÉE
    (pp. 261-269)

    DADʹS EVERY MOMENT HAD BEEN GIVEN TO PROLONGING HIS LIFE AND Mom’s every moment was lived as if she were immortal. Fetal lamb cells on his side and slabs of richly marbled meat on hers; a few years of cigars versus a lifetime of cigarettes; daily exercise versus a largely sedentary life (except when the helicopter flew her to the duck blind): the scales leaned his way and Mom died a year and a half before Dad. In Dad’s passing I found myself reconciled to him in ways I had not anticipated. Mom proved a bigger challenge.

    There was much...

  23. CODA KATRINA'S AFTERMATH
    (pp. 270-286)

    I AM GRATEFUL THAT BOTH MY PARENTS, WHO EVEN IN DEATH REMAIN iconic figures locally, missed the destruction of the city that they loved. Most of all I am glad that Mom missed the departure of the Ruth’s Chris corporate offices from New Orleans. Craig Miller, CEO, announced within a week of Hurricane Katrina that he was moving the corporate offices to Orlando. He explained that only weeks before they had taken the company public—the NASDAQ symbol was RUTH—and they needed to show their shareholders and customers that Ruth’s Chris was viable.It’s what Ruth would have done,...

  24. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. 287-289)
  25. NOTES
    (pp. 290-291)
  26. SOURCES
    (pp. 292-293)