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Wikimedia Commons

Ruth Fertel, founder of Ruth’s Chris Steak House

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

In our Retrobituaries series, we highlight interesting people who are no longer with us. Today let's explore the life of Ruth Fertel, who died at 75 in 2002. 

Ruth Fertel is founder of the Ruth’s Chris Steak House chain. She was born into a poor family in Happy Jack, Louisiana, which is fifty miles south of New Orleans. Though she had no restaurant experience before going into business, she would come to be known as the “empress of steak.” Retrobituaries looks at those whose lives are insufficiently celebrated. Here are a few things you might not know about the life of Ruth Fertel.

She was an early achiever.

In 1942, a 15 year old Ruth Udstad graduated from high school. Her brother, Sig, served in World War II, and used his G.I. benefits to send Ruth to college. She attended Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. By 19, she held Bachelor of Science degrees in physics and chemistry, graduating with honors.

Her husband was... eccentric.

Not long after graduating from LSU, Ruth married Rodney Fertel. The marriage produced two sons (Randy and Jerry), but ended in 1958. It’s pretty hard to overstate the eccentricity of Rodney. His mother was a notorious shoplifter. His father was a businessman nicknamed “Moneybags.” In 1969, Rodney became known in New Orleans as "the Gorilla Man" for his quixotic run for mayor. His platform consisted of a single item: he wanted gorillas for the Audubon Zoo. He handed out plastic toy gorillas while on the campaign trail, and wore safari costumes to debates. He went on to earn 310 votes—just 59,001 votes shy of earning the Democratic nomination. He went ahead and bought the gorillas himself, and worked diligently to force a remodel of the zoo, which was, at the time, described as a “ghetto for animals.” (His son later recalled in a memoir, “Throughout my childhood and adolescence I longed for a father who was normal and sane.”) 

She was the first woman in Louisiana to hold a thoroughbred trainer's license.

Horses and horseracing were a mutual passion, and Ruth and Rodney Fertel opened a horse stable in 1951. She became the first woman in Louisiana who was licensed to train thoroughbreds. 

The prospects of Harvard tuition led her to business.

When she told her son’s high school guidance counselor that Randy would like to go to Harvard, the guidance counselor laughed. (Randy Fertel would later earn a Ph.D. in English and American Literature from Harvard.) But the prospect of college tuition for two sons was daunting, and Ruth was a single mother making ends meet by sewing draperies from her house. She found a job as a lab technician, but again, the money just wasn’t enough. In 1965, she noticed a local restaurant for sale in the classified ads, and decided to take a chance. 

Nobody thought opening a restaurant was a good idea.

The name of the restaurant was Chris Steak House. It had been sold six times, and was a proven money pit. In any event, Ruth couldn’t afford it, and raised the necessary capital by mortgaging her house for $22,000. If she had been a renowned chef, this might have seemed like a good idea. If she had spent her life in the restaurant industry, it might have been vaguely defensible. But she didn’t even know how much money to ask for. Her banker pointed out that her initial loan request covered only the price of the restaurant—she hadn’t even considered the cost of food. Both her lawyer and banker advised her against the venture, but she purchased the restaurant anyway. "It was a case of blind ambition, but I thought I could run a steakhouse," she later said. "At least it sounded more interesting than running a bar." 

She didn’t forget about other single mothers.

She worked tirelessly to learn the restaurant business, from how to butcher meat (hand-cutting 30-pound short loins is no small feat for a 110-pound person) to how to keep the books. She was a cook, hostess, and waitress. Calling them the hardest workers, she hired local single mothers to make up her wait staff. She found success almost immediately. Six months after the restaurant opened, New Orleans lost power for a week following Hurricane Betsy. Ruth cooked the entirety of her stock for local victims and aid workers, and won a lifetime of customers. 

She hated the name of her restaurant.

When she bought the restaurant from Chris Matulich, she negotiated the right to keep the well-established name under the condition that the restaurant stays at its original location. When Chris Steak House burned down in 1974, however, she was forced to move. Accordingly, she needed to change the name. It became Ruth’s Chris Steak House. She always hated the name, she told Fortune in 1998, “but we've always managed to work around it.” 

Ruth’s Chris Steak House became the political hub of Louisiana.

There was a natural progression to Ruth Fertel’s clientele. First she attracted working-class diners, which attracted politicians, which attracted wealthy patrons looking to curry favor with politicians. The restaurant was soon a political hotspot for the state. As one former reporter recalled, "That was the political place to be if you wanted to get some scoops." Edwin Edwards, the colorful (later convicted) Louisiana ex-governor was a regular at the restaurant, and said of Fertel, “She was also someone that every politician in this state knew and respected.” 

One customer got so tired of driving to New Orleans that he bought a franchise.

In 1976, T.J. Moran finally had enough of driving all the way to New Orleans to enjoy a steak, and persuaded Ruth to let him open a franchise in Baton Rouge. This was the first franchise location of many. Today there are 135 locations around the world.

She died in 2002.

Two years before her death, Ruth Fertel was diagnosed with lung cancer. Her last day at the company was the day she was checked into the hospital, where she died a week later. Today Ruth Fertel is remembered as the “the first lady of American restaurants.” 

Previously on Retrobituaries: Edsger Dijkstra, Computer Scientist. See all retrobituaries here

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Courtesy Daniel Guggisberg ©, used with permission.
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Caroline Weldon, 19th Century Indigenous Rights Advocate and Sitting Bull's Secretary
The only known photograph of Caroline Weldon (seated), taken in 1915 with her friend Aline Estoppey
The only known photograph of Caroline Weldon (seated), taken in 1915 with her friend Aline Estoppey
Courtesy Daniel Guggisberg ©, used with permission.

It was December 15, 1890 and Sitting Bull was dead. The Indian police who had shot and killed him earlier that day were tearing through his cabins when they found two of the chief's wives and several other women hiding his son under a mattress, a portrait of the dead Hunkpapa Lakota leader hanging on the wall. Though they had been ordered not to touch anything, one of the policemen tore the painting down, using his rifle to smash the frame and his fist to punch a hole in the canvas. Lieutenant Matthew F. Steele, a cavalry member among those sent to assist the policemen, wrestled the painting—done, he later recalled, by a "Mrs. Weldon, a woman from the East"—away before it could be destroyed completely. Steele bought the painting from Sitting Bull's wives for $2 and kept it for six decades, donating it to the State Historical Society of North Dakota in 1953.

But who was the “Mrs. Weldon” who had journeyed all the way from the East to the Standing Rock Reservation to paint it? As in Steele's recollection, she is often a footnote to history—treated like a passing phantom when mentioned at all. Yet Caroline Weldon is worth remembering as an activist who set out alone to try and help Sitting Bull and his people. While her story as a white woman attempting to guide indigenous affairs is not uncomplicated, what she did was rare both in terms of 19th century activism and for a single woman in the Victorian era. Her courage is reflected in the nickname the Sioux gave her: “Woman Walking Ahead."

Sitting Bull, 1881
Sitting Bull, 1881
O.S. Goff/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The woman who would become Caroline Weldon was born Susanna Karolina Faesch in a suburb of Basel, Switzerland, in 1844. Her parents divorced when she was almost 5 years old, and she arrived in the United States with her mother in the 1850s. She grew up in Brooklyn, where she eventually married a fellow Swiss named Claudius Bernhard Schlatter. It was an unhappy marriage—at one point she left him for another man—and they divorced in 1883.

As she "struggled to endure her loveless marriage," Eileen Pollack writes in her book Woman Walking Ahead, the budding activist immersed herself in reading about the news of the West, particularly Sitting Bull’s leadership of the Sioux in Standing Rock. After her divorce, she joined the National Indian Defense Association (NIDA), formed by activist Dr. Thomas Bland with his wife Cora in response to the controversial Dawes Act. The act, passed in 1887, broke up indigenous land into individual allotments—often seen as a key step in the federal government's forced assimilation of Native Americans. It was sometime in the 1880s, according to researcher Daniel Guggisberg, that she also invented a new name for herself: Caroline Weldon. By then, she'd also had a son, named Christie, out of wedlock.

In 1889, accompanied only by Christie, Weldon left Brooklyn and went west to offer her support of Sitting Bull’s opposition to the Dawes Act in person. Although Sitting Bull had been well-known as a commander at the 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn, by the 1880s, aside from a stint with Buffalo Bill's Wild West show, his life was confined to the Standing Rock reservation. When Weldon arrived in June of 1889, he was suffering from a near-fatal bout of pneumonia.

For several months after arriving at Standing Rock, Weldon acted as Sitting Bull’s secretary. She also painted four portraits of him, and offered financial support to him and his family, drawing on a small inheritance from her mother. Weldon would later describe her impression of Sitting Bull: "As a friend […] sincere and true, as a patriot devoted and incorruptible. As a husband and father, affectionate and considerate. As a host, courteous and hospitable to the last degree.”

And while Sitting Bull seems to have appreciated her actions, not everyone did. Indian Agent James McLaughlin—one of the individuals authorized to interact with Native American tribes on behalf of the U.S. government, and who would order Sitting Bull’s fatal arrest—openly detested Weldon for her meddling. The press was also unkind, calling her “Sitting Bull’s white squaw.” One 1889 headline in the Bismarck Weekly Tribune crowed: "A New Jersey Widow Falls Victim to Sitting Bull's Charms.”

But any cooperation between Weldon and Sitting Bull would be interrupted by the dawn of the Ghost Dance in the Dakotas. The movement was sparked by a Paiute man named Wovoka, who prophesied in 1889 that the circular dance would help return the dead to the land of the living, where they would fight and force the white people off the land they'd stolen before uniting the indigenous people in peace. At a time when the Dawes Act was dividing ancestral land, and after decades of federal genocide, the Ghost Dance quickly became a phenomenon.

Weldon correctly assessed that Sitting Bull’s participation in the Ghost Dance would be used to arrest or kill him; she incorrectly perceived the spread of the dance as a Mormon plot. (The Mormons had been active in attempting to convert indigenous people as they moved into western land in the 1800s.) The growing tension around Weldon’s advocacy against the dance eventually led to her expulsion from the reservation.

She pled in a letter addressed to "My Dakotas": "Your dead friends will not come back to you. Save your money and take care of the living.” According to Ian Frazier in his 1989 book Great Plains, Sitting Bull tried proposing marriage to her—an attempt she rebuffed. She "finally left Sitting Bull's camp in disgust," and Sitting Bull drove her to the nearby town of Cannonball in his wagon.

The final years of Weldon's life were bleak. Only a month before Sitting Bull was killed on December 15, 1890, her son died of an infection. After spending some time in Kansas City, she came home to Brooklyn, falling into obscurity as the years went on. One night in 1921, a candle caught her apartment on fire, and she died on March 15 from her burns. Today, she’s buried in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, near an obelisk marked Valentiny, her stepfather’s name.

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Christine Granville, World War II Special Agent
Christine Granville circa 1950
Christine Granville circa 1950
Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The Allies’ success in World War II owes a great debt to the women who outfoxed, out-shot, and outran their male counterparts across the globe. Perhaps most intriguing of these women, although little-known today, is Christine Granville, the Polish-born daughter of a ne’er-do-well count and a Jewish mother, whose real-life romantic entanglements, fearless sorties, and close escapes are enough for reams of dramatic stories.

Born Krystyna Skarbek in Warsaw in 1908 to an aristocratic, but broke, family of Polish nobility on her father’s side and a successful, but socially limited, Jewish banking family on her mother’s side, Christine, as she later came to be known, seemed destined to be able to handle whatever situation life threw at her. Likeable, beautiful, and driven by a strong sense of fun, she used her resources before the war to become an expert equestrian, a top-notch skier, and even a national beauty queen.

But her ancestry meant she would never quite fit in. According to Clare Mulley, the author of a biography about Granville called The Spy Who Loved, it would be this outsider foundation that later drove Granville to accomplish great things. As Mulley explained to Mental Floss, “although beautiful and well-connected, her mother had been born Jewish, and Christine was never fully accepted in the higher echelons of Polish society.”

The Nazi invasion of Poland in the fall of 1939 was, of course, a game-changer. Trapped in London with her diplomat husband, Jerzy Giżycki, and desperate to help the war effort in any way she could, Granville found a contact in the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) and pressed herself into service. She became Britain's first—and longest-serving—female special agent during World War II. Her facility for languages, her intelligence, and her calm under pressure all proved to be great assets in her espionage work, as she made her way in and out of Nazi-held territories. Even her long-time interest in skiing proved useful, allowing her to sneak into war-torn Poland by traversing the mountains just ahead of enemy soldiers.

Along the way there would be close calls, romantic intrigues, and triumphs that would become the stuff of spy novels. These included her escape from a Gestapo interrogation by faking a case of tuberculosis: Spies had been informed that Germans were terrified of catching the contagious disease, so Granville simply manufactured some symptoms during her detention by biting her tongue until it bled and then “coughing up” blood in the presence of her captors. Afraid to have someone in her condition in their custody, she was promptly let go and returned to her spying duties.

According to Mulley, Christine had one particularly impressive feat among her many accomplishments. “Christine became legendary within SOE [Britain's Special Operations Executive] for her single-handed rescue of three fellow agents from Gestapo prison, just hours before they were due to be shot in July 1944. One of the men was her lover, Francis Cammaerts, the leader of SOE in the south west of France, who went on to help coordinate French resistance support for the Allied troops arriving to liberate occupied France from the south.”

Active in no less than three theaters of war, Granville survived six years of dangerous fieldwork in an occupation where the average life span was six weeks. As a reward, she was decorated by both Britain and France. Sadly, however, her story ends with a twist that would put even writers like John le Carré to shame. She was killed by a man whose romantic overtures she spurned. As Mulley explains, “Christine met her untimely end in a south London hotel in 1952. Her murderer claimed that ‘to kill is the final possession.’ He was wrong. Nobody possessed Christine, not her father, not either of her husbands, and none of her many lovers. If anything, she was possessed by her drive for freedom.”

Her legacy, even if little-known and under-sung, endures. Thought to have inspired at least two of James Bond author Ian Fleming’s characters (the author never met her, but he may have heard of her exploits through his own MI5 contacts), Granville remains a figure who deserves further exploration. Mulley argues that she deserves more than the sensationalist treatment of paperbacks and action movies, adding that “her legacy lies in her inspirational example of a Pole fighting for Britain and her countries’ allies, and as a woman serving so effectively behind enemy lines. All too often women in the resistance are presented in romantic terms, as brave and beautiful. Christine had both these qualities, but she also made a hugely significant contribution to the Allied war effort."

A version of this article originally ran in 2016.

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