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Ruth Fertel, founder of Ruth’s Chris Steak House

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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 of the George C. Marshall Library, Lexington, Virginia
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Retrobituaries
Elizebeth Friedman, America's Unsung Wartime Codebreaker
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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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Walter Jackson Freeman, Father of the Lobotomy
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A pair of Watts-Freeman lobotomy instruments circa 1950

For many, the word lobotomy conjures up images of an operation performed indiscriminately using crude instruments, leaving patients drooling vegetables. You may have even heard tales of a mad doctor traversing the country offering the procedure from his four-wheeled “Lobotomobile.” That story, of course, is a mix of fact and fiction—one that befits the eccentric creator of the procedure, Walter Jackson Freeman II.

Despite his grim legacy today, Freeman came from a family long respected for its work in the healing profession. His father was a noted otolaryngologist, and his maternal grandfather was a Civil War surgeon who went on to treat six U.S. presidents, including then-future president Franklin Roosevelt in the early years of his paralysis from polio.

Freeman’s academic career was promising, too. Graduating from Yale in 1916, he enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania to study medicine, earning his degree and completing an internship there before traveling to Europe to study neurology. Upon return, he took a position as laboratories director at Saint Elizabeths Hospital, a prominent Washington, D.C. psychiatric facility.

Freeman was deeply affected by the troubling conditions he witnessed at Saint Elizabeths. Before the appearance of Thorazine and other effective psychiatric drugs in the mid-1950s, mental hospitals were often massively overcrowded, and many patients were held for decades on end. In Freeman’s native Philadelphia, for instance, the state hospital was known to house roughly 75 percent more patients than its approved capacity. In 1948, writer Albert Deutsch described a visit to the hospital that reminded him “of the pictures of the Nazi concentration camps,” describing rooms “swarming with naked humans herded like cattle and treated with less concern.”

While at St. Elizabeths, Freeman came to dismiss the reigning psychoanalytic approach—in which mental illnesses were seen as arising from the unconscious—as particularly useless in institutional settings. He believed that mental disorders had a well-defined physical cause, and increasingly embraced the idea of psychosurgery (brain surgery as a means of psychological treatment). His research in the field led him to the work of Portuguese neurologist Egas Moniz, who in 1935 found some success relieving mental maladies with the leucotomy, a procedure in which neural connections were severed by coring out tissues of the prefrontal cortex. Freeman was so impressed by this procedure that in 1944 he nominated Moniz for the Nobel Prize, which was awarded to the Portuguese neurologist five years later.

Because Freeman’s background was that of a neurologist rather than a surgeon, he enlisted the help of a neurosurgeon named James Watts to modify Moniz’s technique, which he renamed “lobotomy.” (The extent to which Freeman modified Moniz's procedure—which the latter had continued to refine—versus adopting it wholesale is a matter of debate.)

Freeman and Watts would perform their first lobotomy in September 1936 on a Kansas housewife named Alice Hood Hammatt. The results were encouraging: Although she had previously been diagnosed with "agitated depression" and was prone to laughing and weeping hysterically, she awoke from the operation with a "placid expression," according to her doctors, and was soon unable to remember what had made her so upset. Hammatt's husband, who later wrote to Freeman to thank him, called his wife’s post-surgery years “the happiest of her life.”

By 1942, Freeman and Watts had performed the surgery on over 200 patients (reporting improvement in 63 percent of them), and the practice had been taken up by other surgeons. Freeman reportedly felt that the lobotomy was “only a little more dangerous than an operation to remove an infected tooth.” But he still hoped for a procedure that could be more readily available to the thousands of patients languishing in mental hospitals—one that would be faster, more effective, and require fewer resources and specialized tools.

After learning of an Italian doctor who used the eye socket to access the brain, Freeman developed his transorbital lobotomy. This "improved" technique involved an instrument that slid neatly between a patient’s eyeball and the bony orbit housing it in the skull. The pick was then hammered through the bone and wiggled about with the goal of severing neural fibers connecting the frontal lobes and thalamus. The process was then repeated through the opposite eye. Sometimes called the "ice pick" lobotomy, early surgeries actually used an ice pick from Freeman's kitchen.

While the prefrontal lobotomy required over an hour of the surgeon’s time, this new procedure could be completed in 10 minutes. No drilling into the skull or dressing of post-surgery wounds was required. Freeman hoped that institutional psychiatrists, untrained in surgery, would one day be able to perform the procedure.

Like the prefrontal lobotomy, early surgeries seemed to be a success. The operation was first performed in 1946, on a housewife named Sallie Ellen Ionesco. Angelene Forester, her daughter, remembers her mother as “absolutely violently suicidal” before the surgery. After Freeman’s hammering and probing, “It stopped immediately. It was just peace.”

Under the slogan "Lobotomy gets them home," Freeman began touring the country promoting his startling new ideas. His crusade was aided by his cocky, larger-than-life persona. Watts later recalled to the Washington Post that when lecturing, Freeman was “almost a ham actor,” so entertaining that "people would bring their dates to the clinic to hear him lecture." Freeman’s fanatic advocacy of the lobotomy, however, eventually became too much for Watts, leading to a parting of ways in 1950. "Any procedure involving the cutting of the brain tissue is a major operation and should remain in the hands of the neurological surgeon,” Watts later wrote. He explained to the Post: "I just didn't think somebody could [spend] a week with us and go home and do lobotomies."

Everything Freeman did was geared toward economy, speed, and publicity. In 1952 he performed 228 lobotomies in a two-week period for state hospitals of West Virginia; charging a mere $25 per operation, he worked without surgical mask or gloves. During marathon surgery sessions, he would often talk to journalists he’d invited in to promote his crusade, occasionally showboating with a “two-handed” technique, hammering picks into both eye sockets simultaneously. In 1951, one patient in an Iowa hospital died during the procedure when Freeman allowed himself to be distracted by a photo op for the press.

Freeman advocated the transorbital lobotomy for a broad spectrum of patients, including children as young as seven. But with the reduction of unwanted symptoms could come a tragic deadening of all emotion. A shocking number of those who received the procedure were left utterly debilitated and unable to care for themselves. This had been true of the prefrontal lobotomy, too: Notably debilitated patients included Rosemary Kennedy, sister of the late president, as well as Rose Williams, sister of playwright Tennessee Williams. Of the approximately 3500 lobotomies Freeman performed himself, 490 resulted in fatalities.

In 1967, after a patient succumbed to cerebral hemorrhage during surgery, Freeman decided to stop performing lobotomies. But he did not give up his advocacy, taking to the road in a camper van (which later writers dubbed the "Lobotomobile") to visit former patients and document his successes. (Although popular myth has Freeman performing the surgeries from his van, that was never the case.)

By then, the medical community had little use for Freeman’s triumphalism. In the mid-1950s, a new generation of more effective psychiatric medications had started sidelining Freeman’s efforts, and the very notion of psychosurgery increasingly carried a stigma. By 1950, the lobotomy had been outlawed in the Soviet Union, with Germany and Japan soon following suit. In the U.S. today, the procedure as performed by Freeman is extinct, if not technically illegal. However, some scholars note that Freeman's work paved the way for forms of neurosurgery still used in cases of severe psychiatric illness, as well as procedures such as deep brain stimulation, used to treat neurological conditions like Parkinson's.

Walter Freeman died of cancer in 1972 at the age of 76. Despite the dark associations that remain around the operation he pioneered, he believed himself a humanitarian pioneer until the very end.

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