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The Gorilla Man and the Empress of Steak

A New Orleans Family Memoir

Randy Fertel

Publication Year: 2011

The Gorilla Man and the Empress of Steak is 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 Steak is 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.

Published by: University Press of Mississippi


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pp. 3-9

THE OLYMPIA BRASS BAND PLAYED “DIDN’T SHE RAMBLE” 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 . . .

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Chapter One: Hot Springs

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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, . . .

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Chapter Two: Home Movies and Snapshots

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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 . . .

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Chapter Three: Thoroughbreds

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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 . . .

Chapter Four: South Rampart Street

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pp. 31-52

Chapter Five: Happy Jack

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pp. 53-68

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Chapter Six: Bienville School

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pp. 69-80

“RUTH, YOU KNOW THOSE FRIED POTATOES AREN’T GOOD FOR THE boys. I can see why they’re so fat.” The air—like the cooktop in the yellow Formica kitchen—was electric. . . .

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Chapter Seven: Congo Square

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pp. 81-95

BASEBALL SEASON DIDN’T 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 . . .

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Chapter Eight: Dad’s Day

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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 . . .

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Chapter Nine: Travels With Papa Dad

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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 . . .

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Chapter Ten: Chris Steak House

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pp. 129-154

I DIDN’T HAVE TO SEARCH FAR FOR ONE VERSION OF “NORMAL.” Mom married Joe in 1964, although according to the divorce records, they had been an item at least . . .

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Chapter Eleven: Eshu on The Bayou

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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 . . .

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Chapter Twelve: Searching for Odysseus

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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 . . .

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Chapter Thirteen: Ruth’s Chris Steak House

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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 . . .

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Chapter Fourteen: Corporate and Other Carnivores

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pp. 206-227

LEAVING MY ACADEMIC NICHE FOR RUTH’S 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 . . .

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Chapter Fifteen: Breaking the Napoleonic Code

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pp. 228-240

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 . . .

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Chapter Sixteen: The Empress of Steak

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pp. 241-249

FOLLOWING THE DEBACLE OF 1991, MOM AND I DIDN’T 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 . . .

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Chapter Seventeen: Embracing Pahrump

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pp. 250-260

Chapter Seventeen: Embracing Pahrump

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Chapter Eighteen: The Empress’s Last Levée

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pp. 261-269

DAD’S 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 . . .

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Coda: Katrina’s Aftermath

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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 . . .

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pp. 287-289

THIS PROJECT HAS BEEN BLESSED WITH THREE ANGELS THOUGH I PREFER to think of them as my Fates: Rebecca McClanahan, who helped me to spin, Diana Pinckley, who helped me to weave, and Didi Goldenhaar, . . .


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pp. 290-291

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pp. 292-293

One of the treasures I discovered in researching this book is what I learned about jazz and its birth and Louis Armstrong’s particular role in it. Thanks to Bruce Raeburn of the William R. Hogan Jazz Archive at Tulane University for his guidance, and to Jack . . .

E-ISBN-13: 9781617030833
E-ISBN-10: 161703083X
Print-ISBN-13: 9781617030826
Print-ISBN-10: 1617030821

Page Count: 288
Publication Year: 2011

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Businesspeople -- Louisiana -- New Orleans -- Biography.
  • Restaurateurs -- Louisiana -- New Orleans -- Biography.
  • Fertel, Randy -- Family.
  • New Orleans (La.) -- Biography.
  • Fertel, Randy -- Childhood and youth.
  • Fertel, Rodney.
  • Fertel, Ruth.
  • New Orleans (La.) -- Social life and customs.
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