How's Bayou?: She built it, and they came
It was the dynamic duo of New Orleanians -- Ruth Ann Udstad Fertel (1929-2002), founder of Ruth's Chris Steak House, and her long-time friend and franchisee, Lana Duke -- who commissioned the first monumental tomb to be built on Lake Lawn Metairie Cemetery's "Millionaire's Row." Rumored to have cost more than $600,000 when it debuted in the summer of 1999, the tomb rose spectacularly above a plot more costly than comparable square-footage in New Orleans' Garden District.
Fertel's son, Randy, quipped at the time to the assembly of family and friends, "This has got to be the most expensive shotgun double in New Orleans."
Invitations to the June 1999 dedication and christening -- held on an overcast day that quickly transitioned into a christening of pelting rain, thunder and lightning -- were a prized item.
One guest had purloined the invitation sent to her elderly, ill mother, whom she told she was just running out for groceries that sultry summer day 16 years ago.
"You print any of what I just told you in the paper, and I'll order a full body-cavity search of you every time you re-enter the country," barked the otherwise-demure U. S. Customs and Immigration officer as I cowered, suitably chastened, before the newly-christened Duke-Fertel mausoleum.
"Mama," she explained, "is a friend of Ruth. But she's sick, really sick, and got even sicker 'cause she couldn't go to this party. So when I was leaving the house, she called to me, 'You're not going to that party in the cemetery, are you?' I said 'No. She'd kill me if she found out I was here'."
Her remarks never made it into The Times-Picayune, but I'd like to think that my lengthy feature tempted other luminaries to lay down their burdens, down by the tranquil cemetery bayou.
Lestat author Anne Rice decreed a Neo-Classical monument, next door, as a fitting final resting place for deceased husband Stan, a poet and painter of note. The Jurisich-Coleman-Winingder families, of seafood and tank-terminal fame, erected an airy pavilion nearby. Developer and banker Joe Canizaro chose a filet-mignon-hued stone, similar to that of the Duke-Fertel monument, for the exterior of his family crypt; and real-estate developer and manager Henry Shane, who built a replica of Nottoway Plantation as his residence, designed a more intimate gathering spot for his eternal legacy.
Always sui generis, fried-chicken king Al Copeland built his earthly resting place a bit closer to the nearby Interstate highway, from which it's clearly visible. And the pre-existing tomb of the legendary Schwegmann's grocery-store family, still salutes Ruth Fertel from across the way.
It was old-home day this Memorial Day, as Lana Duke -- who is preparing to open a third Ruth's Chris Steak House in San Antonio in October -- emceed, in front of the mausoleum, a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the founding of the business.
"This is not just a celebration of Ruth's business legacy," she told several hundred guests. "It's a celebration of how she treated everyone, from those who worked for her to those she served in her restaurants. From day one, she made everyone feel special."
Elaine Love, one of the "Original Broad Street Broads" and a 27-year veteran from the heyday of the landmark Ruth's at Broad and Orleans, spoke of when there were only waitresses -- no waiters -- at the restaurant.
"We were all young, slim and had ponytails. There are a few more of us here today, with a combined total of about 250 years of service," she said.
Nearby, China Veasie -- "It's French, you know" -- served up restaurants specialties under a tent.
"I sure miss it," the 10-year-veteran server said of that location, which has been shuttered since Hurricane Katrina. "There was nothing else like Broad Street."
For Veasie, the location was also convenient.
"I'm a duchess in Zulu," she said. "and on my break I could run across Broad Street to a meeting at the [Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure] Club and be back in no time."
It's not so easy getting there from the Fulton Street Ruth's, where she now works.
In a reprise of highlights from the 1999 dedication, Father Bob Masset, who'd christened the tomb with a sprinkling of beer instead of holy water that year, spoke fondly of the empire's founder, who "was always busy taking care of people."
Duke and others grabbed fancy umbrellas and second lined as they'd done in 1999. Obligingly, a light rain doused the tomb once again.
And the crowd joined in a spirited rendition of Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World."
"It was Ruth's favorite song," Duke said. "She knew it was a wonderful world, and through her service to others, she made it better."
How’s Bayou? the secrets of remaining sane while running an upscale B&B on Bayou Lafourche, is written weekly for NolaVie by Keith Marshall, a former Rhodes Scholar and graduate of Yale and Oxford universities who now runs Madewood Plantation House in Napoleonville.