Meet “Gorilla Man” and the “Empress of Steak”

The Gorilla Man and the Empress of Steak

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, mbj@msbusiness.com

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