Tag Archives: gossip columnists

Anatomy of a restaurateur: Ruby Foo

Is any proof needed that restaurants are show business to a high degree – given that they are enveloped in mystique made up of names, signs, logos, lighting, decor, artistically arranged food, and costumed and scripted personnel?

And sometimes restaurateurs themselves are not the people they appear to be but are creations as carefully crafted as the stars of the entertainment world.

After extensive research I’ve begun to wonder if the public persona of Ruby Foo was largely fictitious.

She is often seen as a rare example of a Chinese woman who defied convention by creating a chain of stylish, nightclub-style Chinese restaurants that appealed to non-Chinese customers. It seems to me that however wealthy she became from the Ruby Foo restaurants, she had a turbulent and difficult life with three marriages and legal troubles that belied her vaunted glamorous life of jewels and furs, shopping in Paris, and flying her own plane.

To begin, note that she was indeed of Chinese ancestry but was born in California as were both her parents, who gave Ruby and her three siblings American first names. This casts doubt upon lore cranked out by gossip columnists who made much of her exotic identity. Their Ruby Foo seemed to have been born in China and had a mother who could not speak a word of English.

Some accounts say she opened her first restaurant in 1923. But she was married to an herbalist and living in Boston’s Back Bay in a house valued at $11,000 [pictured 2018], which was quite a lot at that time. She had a one-year-old and gave birth to her second child that year. Hard to believe that under those circumstances a woman would open a small lunch room for manual workers, as it has been described. I have been unable to find any trace of it.

According to other tales, she opened her first restaurant in 1929, which is more believable, though I think it might have been a bit later. In publicity she is always represented as the sole proprietor, but when her brother George died in the 1960s, the Boston Globe reported that he had opened the “original” Den with Ruby. It could not have been called Ruby Foo’s Den then, because she had not yet divorced her first husband, Dr. Shong, and married Mr. Foo. A story in a New York City paper said that Ruby opened a restaurant in 1930 upon the death of Dr. Shong; actually, he died in 1933, by which time she had remarried. [Ruby Foo’s Den, Boston, ca. 1950]

Her second husband, Tam/Tom Foo, who she married sometime between 1930 and 1932, was a bookkeeper when they married and soon fell into big trouble when he embezzled $20,000 from his employer in 1932. Stories in the Boston Herald said the Chinese community regarded him as a scrupulously honest man who became money hungry when he married Ruby and adopted a more expensive lifestyle. Remarkably, by the time he died at age 47 in 1940 he had redeemed himself in the eyes of the community and was, indeed, an importer.

Around 1941 Ruby married William Wong. Wong sued for divorce in 1948, after being shot in the neck the previous year by Ruby’s son Earl/Earle Shong. Earl’s defense was that he was defending his mother from Wong’s attack on her with a hammer. Earl was acquitted, but later had several run-ins with the police. Wong claimed in his divorce proceedings that Ruby drank heavily and had assaulted him on three occasions, one resulting in a hospital stay. He was granted an uncontested divorce on the grounds of cruel and abusive treatment.

During the 1930s, with the end of Prohibition, Ruby Foo’s Den grew into a popular nightclub and expanded into New York and Miami, each with two locations, plus another at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. But it isn’t at all clear to what degree Ruby owned and operated the 11 Ruby Foo’s that existed at one time or another (not only in Boston, New York, and Miami, but also in Providence, Philadelphia, Montreal, and London). She was in poor health in the 1940s, when William Wong managed the Boston restaurant. It’s likely that by the time of her death in 1950 she held a financial stake in four of them and the others were licensed to use the copyrighted name “Ruby Foo’s Den.” A woman named Florence Pike partnered with Ruby to create and run the New York Ruby’s at 240 W. 52nd street near the theaters that was often featured in 1930s gossip columns. [pictured at top, ca. 1940] According to an obituary for Foo, Pike became owner of the restaurants after Ruby’s death.

One role that Ruby did honor as a restaurateur was to visit her restaurants regularly and to give interviews to columnists.

A Ruby-Foo’s Den was recreated in New York’s Times Square in 2000 and closed a few years ago.

© Jan Whitaker, 2019

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Filed under night clubs, proprietors & careers, women

Gossip feeds restaurants

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O. O. McIntyre, a popular columnist who authored “New York Day by Day,” advised his readers in 1925 that anyone wishing to open a “swank” New York restaurant and establish a smart reputation from the start should get prominent people and theater stars to patronize it. “The rest,” he wrote, “is up to the cafe’s press agent.” He might have added, “and gossip columnists.”

By revealing glimpses into the lives of the rich and famous, gossip columnists like McIntyre, working with restaurants’ press agents, played a crucial role in the publicity system that made New York’s restaurants and nightclubs household names across the nation. The same was true of Hollywood’s night spots, particularly in the 1930s and 1940s. Columnist Leonard Hall wrote in 1937, “As restaurants, Hollywood’s famed eating houses are little more than golden shambles, which exist that stars may see and be seen.”

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Columnists might sometimes focus on a restaurant’s food, decor, or proprietor, but their main subjects were clearly its celebrity customers. Who was s/he with? What was she wearing? Romances brewing? Was anyone getting the cold shoulder, a divorce? Were their stars rising or falling? [Above Dorothy Lamour and Betty Hutton smile wanly for the camera at the Brown Derby]

The main thing, though, was just to get the names before the readers’ eyes. Typically the columns delivered short bursts of mundane info, each bit separated from the next by an ellipsis (. . .). A sample from Lucius Beebe’s “Faces Around Town,” 1938: “Burgess Meredith having early dinner with Frank Shields at Jack and Charlie’s before going to the theater . . . Henry Luce and Claire Luce, ditto, but indicating marital individualism by commanding different entrees – she pompano meuniere, he chateaubriand and German fried potatoes . . .”

Mid-century spots such as the Stork Club, El Morocco, the Colony, and Jack and Charlie’s ‘21′ in NYC; Hollywood’s Brown Derby, Trocadero, and Ciro’s; and Chicago’s Pump Room were a few of the top restaurants and clubs that played the gossip game. Parlaying gossip was standard practice at the glamour palaces, so much so that the elegant and expensive Voisin on Park Avenue, which also refused to advertise, was noted for having NO gossip columnists holding court at its tables.

gossipStorkClubColumnists were influential. Sherman Billingsley, proprietor of the Stork Club, credited Walter Winchell with making his club successful. Winchell, who operated out of the Stork from his own table, enjoyed a privileged position in the gossip business and at the club whose upstairs barber shop was at his disposal. In the 1960s a short blurb by Dorothy Kilgallen put Elaine’s on the map, according to its proprietor, the late Elaine Kaufman.

Restaurants, celebrities, and columnists profited mutually from gossip. In New York the featured subjects were people with power, café society, theater actors, and literary figures; in Hollywood they were film stars needing to propel their careers. Restaurants living up to the boast, “A gossip columnist guaranteed under every table,” were appreciated by show biz figures. Newspapers and fan magazines regularly ran photographs of stars arriving at a posh restaurant or of couples smiling from their tables. When a new restaurant or nightclub opened the owner hired a press agent to round them up. They dropped by, posed with the owner, and circulated, in a constant routine that kept their faces and names before the public and added glitz to the restaurant. El Morocco found the publicity generated by an opening night so valuable that they held one every year.

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Sometimes restaurant owners would even subsidize patrons from film and stage. At Sardi’s, where as late as the 1960s “one well-timed exposure . . . [was] worth more to a burgeoning career than a whole picture series in a fan magazine,” actor Jose Ferrer dined for months on account before attaining success in his role as Cyrano de Bergerac. “Prince” Mike Romanoff, whose own restaurant would one day become a den of celebrity gossip, had enjoyed free meals at Chasen’s in his early days in Hollywood. [Above Ernest Hemingway and his wife Martha]

All the roles were fluid. Hedda Hopper acted before she took up the pen. But perhaps the best role optimization occurred when columnists became celebrities and used their own activities as subject matter. Journalist Christopher Morley wrote about the doings of his lunch clubs while putting the spotlight on NYC restaurants such as Christ Cella’s.

Gossip columnists still operate but their work became less valuable to restaurants and celebrities with the arrival decades ago of newspaper restaurant reviews and television talk shows and, more recently, social media.

© Jan Whitaker, 2015

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