The sub title of this work of non fiction is “A New Orleans Family Memoir.” It is that and more. Where else could this true tale of two bigger-than-life eccentrics take place? Anyone who loves the Crescent City, its food, culture, rowdy history and characters will enjoy this book because its sweep includes a wide reach across this storied place.
Although I was aware of this book and its surrounding publicity, I hadn’t thought much about reading it until I received a copy for Christmas. The book was published last fall as part of the Willie Morris Books in Memoir and Biography series.
Most everyone who’s dined at a Ruth’s Chris Steak House knows the official corporate story of how single mother Ruth Fertel established the restaurant empire on a shoestring and lots of spunk. This inside story written by her son goes beyond the Fertel success story of this tough-as-nails woman from Plaquemines Parish who had a weakness for rouges.
Randy Fertel also tells the story of his father, Rodney Fertel, a one-of-a-kind personality, 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. Rodney Fertel ran for mayor of New Orleans on a single campaign promise to buy a pair of gorillas for the Audubon Zoo. He campaigned in a safari outfit, complete with pith helmet, and used as a slogan, ‘Don’t settle for a monkey. Elect Fertel and get a gorilla.’ He garnered a paltry 308 votes but purchased the gorillas for the zoo anyway and was thereafter known as the Gorilla Man. The author says his Dad never held a job but managed to travel around the world five times, own racing horses and had a penchant for gambling.
“Funny, smart, poignant, and richly redolent of New Orleans, Randy Fertel’s ‘The Gorilla Man and the Empress of Steak’ is a brilliant memoir by a very talented writer indeed,” said Robert Olen Butler, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain.”
Parts of the book are laugh-out-loud humorous while others are soulful as we experience the frustration and loneliness that complicated, over-the-top parents sometimes inflict on their children. Lots of photographs add to the vivid story.
>> The Gorilla Man and the Empress of Steak
By Randy Fertel
University Press of Mississippi
$28.00 hard cover
— Lynn Lofton, email@example.com