Lady From Happy Jack Ruth's Ready For A Game Of Gin

Posted: September 30, 1988

Ruth Udstad Fertel is a gin rummy player. She always has been, ever since she was a wee lass in Happy Jack, La., a bend in the mighty Mississippi about 40 miles south of New Orleans.

Happy Jack is named for a peddler who worked the river road selling pots and pans. Because he was always smiling, his customers called him Happy Jack and when the little settlement in the bend of the river was incorporated, the residents named the town Happy Jack.

Happy Jack is peopled by fisherman and trappers, most of them Czech, but Ruth Fertel is neither fisherman or trapper. And she's not Czech either. She's part French, part Norwegian and all gin rummy player.

There always was a deck of cards on the kitchen table at the Udstad house in Happy Jack. Ruth played cards before she could read and from the very beginning, gin rummy was her favorite card game.

By the time she moved to New Orleans and married Rodney Fertel, heir to a pawn shop fortune, she was considered one of the best high stakes gin rummy players in America.

Ruth, now divorced from Rodney Fertel (he had a thing about gorillas and politics, once running for mayor on the Gorilla Party slate), played gin so well that people came from all over to play her.

She ran a steak house in New Orleans and she was always at one of the tables playing gin rummy for serious money with a visiting fireman.

Maybe that's how the rumor started that she won the steak house in a gin rummy game with the previous owner - a fellow named Chris Matulich, who had a weakness for gin rummy himself.

But Ruth Fertel says there's no truth to the whispers. She says she bought the steak house from Chris Matuloich for $22,000. "And I can prove it," she says. "I had to mortgage my house to do it."

She bought Chris Steak House in 1964 and the first thing she did was give herself top billing. Now it's known as Ruth's Chris Steak House, U.S. Prime Only, with 22 franchises across the country.

There's one in Washington, where Tip O'Neill and young Joe Kennedy are regular customers, not to mention Gary Hart and Ollie North.

Ruth Fertel is in Philadelphia this week to open the latest Ruth's Chris franchise at Broad and Spruce in the old Atlantic Building.

The local franchise is operated by a pair of transplanted New Orleanans - Marsha Brown, a real looker, and her associate, Joe Bruno, whose family ran a bakery in the famous French Quarter.

Marsha Brown worked for Ruth Fertel. She was her office manager and Ruth Fertel promised her that one day she would put her up a franchise in one of the top Eastern markets, and Philadelphia turned out to be it.

And that's what brought Ruth Fertel to these parts this week.

I found Ruth Fertel in the kitchen. She was peeling boiled shrimp and mixing a remoulade sauce and wondering if I knew a Philadelphia sportswriter named Stan Hochman.

"He had a steak at my place in New Orleans and wrote that it was the best

steak he ever had," she said. "I want to meet the man."

I said I could arrange it, but I said I was more interested in her exploits at gin rummy.

I told her that I knew the late Ray Ryan, the founder of the famous Mount Kenya Safari Club in Africa. He was one of the greatest high stakes gin rummy players who ever lived.

He once won $500,000 from the late H. L. Hunt in a non-stop gin rummy game during a trans-Atlantic crossing from New York to London.

"I've heard the name, but I never played anybody in that class," Ruth Fertel said. "But, look here, I'm a much better restaurant operator than a gin player. Here, taste my remoulade sauce."

"Ruth," said Joe Bruno, one of the partners in the local franchise, "is the world's greatest restaurant operator, but don't let her tell you that she's not one of the greatest gin rummy players alive.

"There's a world class gin player from Caesar's Palace named Joe LaZar and Ruth creams him all the time. He walks in smiling and walks out shaking his head."

Ruth Fertel laughed.

"Don't believe the half of it," she said, "especially all the talk about my winning my first steak house in a gin rummy game.

"I worked hard to make a go of this business - and I've got a cancelled mortgage to prove it.

"But, if you're itching to play a little gin, well . . . ."

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