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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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Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla. Badge: Gift of Dr. Patricia Heaston; Tin: Gift from Dawn Simon Spears and Alvin Spears, Sr.; Sign, Photograph of Walker Agents: Gift of A’Lelia Bundles / Madam Walker Family Archives. All from the Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Background/photo border, iStock
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Retrobituaries
Madam C.J. Walker, the First Self-Made Female Millionaire in the U.S.
Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla. Badge: Gift of Dr. Patricia Heaston; Tin: Gift from Dawn Simon Spears and Alvin Spears, Sr.; Sign, Photograph of Walker Agents: Gift of A’Lelia Bundles / Madam Walker Family Archives. All from the Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Background/photo border, iStock
Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla. Badge: Gift of Dr. Patricia Heaston; Tin: Gift from Dawn Simon Spears and Alvin Spears, Sr.; Sign, Photograph of Walker Agents: Gift of A’Lelia Bundles / Madam Walker Family Archives. All from the Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Background/photo border, iStock

Like many fortunes, Madam C.J. Walker’s started with a dream. As she later explained to a newspaper reporter, Walker was earning barely a dollar a day as a washerwoman when she had a dream about a man who told her how to create a hair-growing tonic. When she awoke, Walker sent away for the ingredients, investing $1.25 in what she eventually dubbed “Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower.” The venture would propel her to become one of America’s first black female entrepreneurs—and reportedly the first self-made female millionaire in the nation.

Born Sarah Breedlove on December 23, 1867 to freed slaves on a plantation in Delta, Louisiana, the woman who would become known as Madam C.J. Walker was orphaned by age 7 and married by 14. The couple had one child, Lelia (later known as A’Lelia), but six years into the marriage, Walker’s husband died, by some accounts in a race riot. Walker then worked washing clothes while dreaming of building a better life for her daughter. “As I bent over the washboard and looked at my arms buried in soapsuds,” she later told The New York Times, “I said to myself: ‘What are you going to do when you grow old and your back gets stiff? Who is going to take care of your little girl?’”

By 1903, Walker had relocated to St. Louis and started to work for an African-American hair care company before then moving to Denver, where she had heard that the dry air exacerbated hair and scalp issues. At the time, such complaints were widespread among African-Americans, in part due to a lack of black-focused products and access to indoor plumbing. By the early 1900s, Walker herself had lost much of her hair.

Then came her dream. “[I] put it on my scalp,” she later said of the tonic, “and in a few weeks my hair was coming in faster than it had ever fallen out.”

In 1905, Walker began selling her solution door-to-door and at church events. She took the product on tour, traveling throughout the South and Northeast and recruiting other door-to-door saleswomen. A year later, she married Charles Joseph Walker and established the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company, and in 1908 founded Lelia College in Pittsburgh, a beauty parlor and school for training Madam Walker brand ambassadors. Two years later, she relocated her business headquarters to Indianapolis—then a commercial hub—where she and a mostly female cadre of top executives produced Wonderful Hair Grower on an industrial scale.

A’Lelia, however, was not content with the Midwestern milieu. In 1913 she convinced her mother to open an office in New York and decamped to Manhattan, acquiring a stately Harlem townhouse designed by Vertner Tandy, the first registered black architect in the state. The home, later nicknamed the Dark Tower after poet Countee Cullen’s “From the Dark Tower,” included a Lelia College outpost on the first floor and living and entertaining spaces on the top three. A’Lelia frequently threw lavish parties there, attended by Harlem Renaissance luminaries such as Zora Neale Hurston, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Langston Hughes.

Walker followed A’Lelia north, where she purchased the adjacent townhouse. Soon, she was a cultural mover and shaker in her own right, joining the NAACP’s New York chapter and helping to orchestrate the Silent Protest Parade in 1917, when roughly 10,000 African-Americans marched down Fifth Avenue as a demonstration against the East St. Louis race riots earlier that year, in which dozens of African-Americans had been killed.

“She became politically active and very much an advocate of women’s economic independence,” Walker’s great-great-granddaughter A’Lelia Bundles, a journalist and biographer, tells Mental Floss. “She used her national platform to advocate for civil rights.”

The same year as the Silent Protest, Walker and a handful of Harlem leaders traveled to the White House to petition for anti-lynching legislation, and donated $5000 to the NAACP’s Anti-Lynching Fund—the largest single gift ever recorded by the fund. In 1916, she established the Madam C. J. Walker Benevolent Association, a program that encouraged Walker brand ambassadors to engage in charity work and hygiene education outreach.

As her empire grew, Walker continued to monumentalize her success. In 1916, she bought a four-acre parcel of land in Irvington, New York, and enlisted Tandy to design her a home to rival the nearby estates of Jay Gould and John D. Rockefeller. Her determination only swelled in the face of realtors who tried to charge her twice the price of the land to discourage her, and incredulous neighbors who reportedly mistook the hair care baroness for a maid when she arrived at the property in her Ford Model T.

Villa Lewaro
Villa Lewaro
Library of Congress, Flickr // No known copyright restrictions

Like her Manhattan residence, the mansion became a popular hang-out for the writers and artists of the Harlem Renaissance. Walker also used the home to give back. “She made a blanket invitation to the returning African American soldiers [from World War I] to please come visit the home,” Bundles says. It also served as a kind of early safe space for A’Lelia and her largely LGBTQ social network.

But almost as soon as the home was complete, Madam Walker’s health began to crumble. Though she was diagnosed with high blood pressure and kidney problems, Walker continued to work and roll out new products. “Like most entrepreneurs she couldn’t figure out how to slow down,” Bundles says. “She needed to rest, but she couldn’t really make herself.”

In the spring of 1919, while on a business trip to St. Louis to unveil five new formulas, Walker fell gravely ill and was shuttled back to Irvington in a private car. That May, she died of kidney failure at the age of 51.

Yet her influence would live on. At the time of her death, an estimated 40,000 black women had been trained as Walker saleswomen. In 1927 the Madame Walker Theatre Center opened in Indianapolis, housing offices, a manufacturing center, and a theatre. Her name on the building reflected her unprecedented imprint on black entrepreneurship.

Madam Walker items at the Women's Museum in Dallas, Texas
Madam Walker items at the Women's Museum in Dallas, Texas
FA2010, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The Madam C.J. Walker brand also survived. In fact, it’s recently been revitalized, after black-owned hair care company Sundial acquired it in 2016, debuting two dozen new formulas exclusively at Sephora last spring. “It’s very glam,” says Bundles, who serves as the line’s historical consultant. In a historic deal in November 2017, consumer goods conglomerate Unilever acquired Sundial’s $240 million portfolio, and as part of the agreement designated $50 million to empower businesses led by women of color.

Walker’s house, known as Villa Lewaro, has had a rockier afterlife, having been owned by the NAACP and then used as an assisted living center for decades. In 1993, stock broker and U.S. ambassador Harold Doley and his wife Helena purchased the property, committing to a years-long restoration process. They’ve recently secured a protective easement for the site, which prevents future buyers from altering the appearance of the home—a means of preserving the house’s history, and that of Madam Walker.

Walker’s legacy is also likely to gain a new round of admirers with the recently announced Octavia Spencer-fronted television show about her life, which is based on a biography by Bundles and is allegedly courting distribution by Netflix.

With her brand in full swing and her life story about to be immortalized on the small screen, it seems that even in death, Madam Walker’s dream lives on.

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Courtesy of the George C. Marshall Library, Lexington, Virginia
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Elizebeth Friedman, America's Unsung Wartime Codebreaker
Courtesy of the George C. Marshall Library, Lexington, Virginia
Courtesy of the George C. Marshall Library, Lexington, Virginia

An American pioneer in the field of cryptology—the study of writing and solving secret codes—William Friedman is known for his distinguished career as an expert codebreaker with the U.S. Army during World Wars I and II. But although Friedman is one of the biggest names in cryptanalysis—he coined the word itself—historians often skip over the fact that his wife, Elizebeth, was every bit as skilled a codebreaker. Her accomplishments have been (sometimes deliberately) kept from the spotlight.

The youngest of nine kids in a Quaker family, Elizebeth Friedman (née Smith) was born in rural Indiana in 1892. (Her mother spelled her name unusually, swapping out the a for another e, reportedly because she disliked the nickname “Eliza.”) Young Elizebeth was bright and displayed a talent for languages, and was determined to go to college despite the discouragement of her father—so determined that she eventually ended up borrowing tuition from him at a 6 percent interest rate. After starting out at Ohio’s Wooster College in 1911, she finished her degree at Hillsdale College in Michigan, majoring in English lit. She also studied German, Greek, and Latin at Hillsdale, and it was there that she discovered her lifelong love for Shakespeare.

After graduation and a brief spell as a substitute principal at an Indiana high school, Elizebeth traveled to Chicago in 1916 and visited the Newberry Library, where Shakespeare’s First Folio was on display. There—having quit her principal job out of boredom—she asked the librarians if they knew of any research or literature jobs available. Within minutes, she was being introduced to the eccentric George Fabyan, who ran a 500-acre private research facility called Riverbank in nearby Geneva, Illinois. At the time, Fabyan also employed a scholar named Elizabeth Wells Gallup, who was trying to prove that Sir Francis Bacon had actually written Shakespeare’s plays. Gallup needed a research assistant. Elizebeth was taken to Riverbank for an interview, and a few days later, she was hired.

At Riverbank, Elizebeth worked on a cipher that Gallup claimed was hidden in Shakespeare’s sonnets and supposedly proved Bacon's authorship. Riverbank also employed the Russian-born William Friedman, a Cornell-educated geneticist, to work on wheat, although he became increasingly drawn to the Shakespeare project. William and Elizebeth fell in love and were married in May 1917, one month after the U.S. entered World War I.

Riverbank was one of the first institutes to focus on cryptology, and in the early days of the war, the War Department relied upon Riverbank almost exclusively. "So little was known in this country of codes and ciphers when the United States entered World War I, that we ourselves had to be the learners, the workers and the teachers all at one and the same time," Elizebeth wrote in her memoir.

But the Friedmans sometimes worked for other governments, too. After a recommendation from the U.S. Department of Justice, Scotland Yard brought them a trunk full of mysterious messages the British suspected were being used to facilitate insurrection in India, which was then a British colony. By cracking the codes, written in blocks of numbers, the Friedmans exposed the Hindu-German Conspiracy—in which Hindu activists in the U.S. were shipping weapons to India with German assistance. The resulting trial was one of the largest and most expensive in U.S. history at that time, and it ended sensationally when a gunman opened fire in the courtroom, killing one of the defendants before being killed by a U.S. Marshal. Unaware of the Friedmans' codebreaking work, he apparently believed the defendant had snitched.

The war ended in 1918, but Elizebeth and William continued their work for the military, and in 1921, they moved to Washington, D.C. to focus on military contract work full-time. Elizebeth loved the change of scenery, going from the rural countryside to the city—she recalled going to the theater several times a week when she first arrived in D.C.

After a period spent working for the Navy, she left the paid workforce for a few years to start raising her children, Barbara and John. But in 1925, the Coast Guard came calling, asking for her help on Prohibition-related cases. Soon she was cracking encrypted radio messages used by international liquor-smugglers who hid booze in shipments of jewelry, perfume, and even pinto beans.

Elizebeth proved to be a pivotal asset to the Coast Guard during Prohibition. She was the star witness in a 1933 trial following the bust of a million-dollar bootleg rum operation in the Gulf of Mexico and the West Coast. When asked in court to prove how “MJFAK ZYWKB QATYT JSL QATS QXYGX OGTB" could be decoded to "anchored in harbor where and when are you sending fuel?"—just one of perhaps thousands of coded messages that formed key evidence in the trial—Elizebeth asked the judge to find her a chalkboard. She proceeded to give the court a lecture on simple cipher charts, mono-alphabetic ciphers, and polysyllabic ciphers, then reviewed how, over the course of two years, she and her team painstakingly intercepted and deciphered the radio broadcasts of four illicit distilleries in New Orleans, explaining what each transmission meant. Special Assistant to the Attorney General Colonel Amos W. Woodcock later wrote that Elizebeth's obvious proficiency "made an unusual impression."

Just a year later, Elizebeth again proved invaluable to the Coast Guard in the "I’m Alone" case, in which a ship flying a Canadian flag was sunk by the Coast Guard after refusing to acknowledge a "heave to and be searched" signal. After Canada filed a lawsuit against the U.S. for $380,000, including damages for the ship, its cargo (which included liquor), and personnel losses, Elizebeth came to the rescue: She was able to solve 23 separate encoded messages from the ship that proved the I’m Alone was actually owned by American bootleggers, despite its Canadian decoy flag. The main charges against the U.S. were dismissed, and the Canadian government was so impressed with Elizebeth’s work that it asked the U.S. for her help in catching a ring of Chinese opium smugglers. Her testimony later led to five convictions.

A photograph of William F. Friedman and Elizebeth Smith Friedman, probably in the 1950s
William and Elizebeth Friedman
Wikimedia // Public Domain

Elizebeth and William weren’t just code-breakers by day. Their personal fascination with cryptology permeated their whole lives, in work and in play, and built a unique bond between them. The pair used ciphers in family gatherings with their children, and developed various codes to communicate with one another as well throughout their long relationship. They were even known to host dinner parties where the menus were encoded—in order to proceed to the next course, their guests would have to solve the puzzles.

With the start of WWII, Elizebeth began working for the Coordinator of Information, an intelligence service that served as the forerunner to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the predecessor of the CIA. While William won huge acclaim for leading the team that figured out Japan’s Purple Encryption Machine—a discovery that gave the U.S. government access to diplomatic communications prior to the bombing of Pearl Harbor—Elizebeth’s successes were less publicized. In fact, researchers have described hitting a "brick wall" when trying to find more details of her wartime activities. But according to Jason Fagone, author of the recent biography The Woman Who Smashed Codes, Elizebeth spent the war as a Nazi spy hunter for the FBI, breaking German codes and working closely with British intelligence to bust Axis spy rings. J. Edgar Hoover wrote her out of the story once the war had ended, classifying her files as top-secret and taking the credit for himself.

One piece of Elizebeth's work for the FBI is slightly better-known, however: Her code-cracking expertise was key in solving the "Doll Woman Case" of 1944, wherein Velvalee Dickinson, an antique doll dealer based in New York City, was convicted of spying on behalf of the Japanese government. Elizebeth's work helped prove that letters Dickinson had written, though seemingly about the condition of antique dolls, actually described the positions of U.S. ships and other war-related matters and were intended for the hands of Axis officials. As Fagone notes, although newspapers of the day wrote breathlessly about Dickinson as "the War's No. 1 woman spy" and how her codes were cracked by "FBI cryptographers," Elizebeth was never mentioned.

Elizebeth retired in 1946, a year after World War II ended, and William did the same the following year. In 1957, after many years of research, they finally published their masterwork on the bard, The Shakespearean Ciphers Examined, which won awards from several Shakespeare research facilities. In contradiction to Gallup's theories, the Friedmans denied that Francis Bacon had written any works known as Shakespeare’s, and they even buried a cheeky message to that effect on one of the pages—an italicized phrase that when deciphered reads: "I did not write the plays. F. Bacon."

After William’s death in 1969, Elizebeth dedicated large amounts of her time to compiling and documenting her husband’s work in cryptology, rather than celebrating her own extraordinary achievements in the field. The fruits of her effort would eventually become part of the George C. Marshall Research Library, named after the WWII-era Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army.

Elizebeth herself died on Halloween 1980 and was interred with her husband at Arlington National Cemetery. Inscribed on their double gravestone is a quote, not by William Shakespeare, but commonly attributed to Francis Bacon: "KNOWLEDGE IS POWER." It too is a cipher—when decrypted, it reads "WFF," William Friedman's initials.

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