DeSoto Exploring the South January 2012 : Page 36

EXPLORING books An Author Finds His Therapy Inside a Family Memoir Review by Deborah Burst The book begins where most end; but then this is New Orleans. A prominent Jazz funeral for Ruth Fertel, creator of the legendary Ruth’s Chris Steak House franchise, is followed by a second line parade of mourners waving handkerchiefs and twirling umbrellas in the warm mid-April sun. Randy Fertel, a writer with a PhD from Harvard and son of Ruth and Rodney Fertel, shares his family memoir in a witty conversational tone, as if he’s there in the restaurant telling the tale while sipping a glass of scotch. The great playwright Tennessee Williams comes to mind while reading about Fertel’s entourage of troubled characters. Fertel does an excellent job setting the stage of a mid-twentieth century New Orleans, full of drama and intrigue as well as stories of Congo Square, Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton. Known as “the first lady of American restaurants,” Ruth Fertel was laid to rest in one of the most prestigious tombs of the land, a deal struck by Fertel and her marketing guru, Lana Duke to share a gravesite: more evidence Ruth was closer to business associates than her own family. As Randy notes in his book, “I was stunned. A Fertel-Duke tomb? There goes Lana again. She would be family for eternity, setting a new benchmark for BFFs everywhere.” After his mother’s death, Randy struggled with revealing his true feelings. “For me the challenge was to honor both feelings — both are real — my feelings about my mother’s public persona publicly and my private feelings privately.” And so began the book, an effort to do both, to honor both sides and reconcile the conflict. Unlike her husband, Rodney, Ruth did not come from money. She grew up in Happy Jack, a community in Plaquemines Parish roughly fifty miles south of New 36 DeSoto

Exploring Books

Deborah Burst

An Author Finds His Therapy Inside a Family Memoir<br /> <br /> The book begins where most end; but then this is New Orleans. A prominent Jazz funeral for Ruth Fertel, creator of the legendary Ruth’s Chris Steak House franchise, is followed by a second line parade of mourners waving handkerchiefs and twirling umbrellas in the warm mid-April sun.<br /> <br /> Randy Fertel, a writer with a PhD from Harvard and son of Ruth and Rodney Fertel, shares his family memoir in a witty conversational tone, as if he’s there in the restaurant telling the tale while sipping a glass of scotch. The great playwright Tennessee Williams comes to mind while reading about Fertel’s entourage of troubled characters. Fertel does an excellent job setting the stage of a mid-twentieth century New Orleans, full of drama and intrigue as well as stories of Congo Square, Louis Armstrong And Jelly Roll Morton.<br /> <br /> Known as “the first lady of American restaurants,” Ruth Fertel was laid to rest in one of the most prestigious tombs of the land, a deal struck by Fertel and her marketing guru, Lana Duke to share a gravesite: more evidence Ruth was closer to business associates than her own family. As Randy notes in his book, “I was stunned. A Fertel-Duke tomb? There goes Lana again. She would be family for eternity, setting a new benchmark for BFFs everywhere.” <br /> <br /> After his mother’s death, Randy struggled with revealing his true feelings. “For me the challenge was to honor both feelings — both are real — my feelings about my mother’s public persona publicly and my private feelings privately.” <br /> <br /> And so began the book, an effort to do both, to honor both sides and reconcile the conflict.<br /> <br /> Unlike her husband, Rodney, Ruth did not come from money. She grew up in Happy Jack, a community in Plaquemines Parish roughly fifty miles south of New Orleans. Ruth had an engaging charm and presence, which she used often to get what she wanted.A headstrong adventurous tomboy, she loved gambling, duck hunting and fishing, went to college at 15, and was the first licensed female Thoroughbred horse trainer in Louisiana.<br /> <br /> After her divorce, Ruth saw a classified ad for Chris Steak House and mortgaged her house to buy the place. Her commanding presence and sheer guts turned to the restaurant into the place to “see and be seen” in New Orleans.<br /> <br /> News about Ruth’s signature sizzling steaks spread across the south, bringing with it the food chain of money. First it was the Texas oil patch workers, then the politicians, and the Uptown blue bloods looking to line the pockets of the politicians. Chris Steak House quickly became the go-to place for celebrations by high-brow personalities from Governor Edwin Edwards to Fats Domino.<br /> <br /> But Randy admits the Empress of Steak would sit on her throne largely alone. Ruth was widely beloved by customers, franchisees, and the community — she counseled young women starting businesses, paid tuition for countless children, and saved a Catholic grammar school from going belly up. At the same time however, she was fiercely competitive and emotionally distant,And often became enemies with those who worked closely with her.<br /> <br /> Randy’s father, Rodney, gained his fortune as heir to a slew of New Orleans pawnshops and ramshackle real estate investments. A generous sum of inherited money and a zany family lineage fueled Rodney Fertel’s eccentricities. He traveled the globe five times, raced horses, and led a nomadic existence, leaving behind a wife and two sons without so much as a phone number or return address.<br /> <br /> Old photos bring to life the karma of a very complicated family, “My father was odd, self-centered and nuts. In New Orleans he will forever be known as the Gorilla Man, the local character who campaigned for mayor in a gorilla suit,” Randy admits. “But the Empress of Steak reserved all the Glory for herself. Her appetite for winning excluded everyone, even her offspring.”<br /> <br /> With each page you learn a little more about Randy and all the skeletons dancing in the closet.“Throughout my childhood and adolescence I longed for a father who was normal and sane,” he says with fear that the Fertel craziness may be simmering inside his blood.“Was there something beneath destined to work its way out?” <br /> <br /> The Gorilla Man and the Empress of Steak reveals one man’s journey to reconcile his tumultuous life with his troubled family, but also an attempt to recognize his relatives’ gifts and shortcomings, the affection they withheld and the rare, but genuine, moments of tenderness.

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