A couple of weeks ago, my cousin Guy Ruth Smith Pappelis died. That’s her above, and me, out by the pool not long after we moved to Louisiana. She was in her late 80s, and suffering a great deal. She had had at least two hip replacement surgeries in recent years, and was in constant pain. Far as I could tell, she pretty much lived on painkillers, J&B Scotch, and whatever chicken scratch her caretaker could get her to eat. I was headed to New Orleans when my cousin Andy called with the news. It was a relief to know that she was no longer in agony.
Guy Ruth — named for her father and her mother — was a character. It’s a cliche to say that, but in her case, she really was larger than life. She called everybody “dahlin’,” and said it in a Golden Age of Hollywood way. Imagine 3 parts Elizabeth Ashley and one part Joan Crawford, and you’ve got Cousin Guy. I’m not quite sure how we’re related, except that it’s on my father’s side.
I had heard about Guy Ruth many years before I met her. She was the legendary swanky cousin who lived in New Orleans, and put on airs. She was an only child. Her folks, Uncle Smitty and Aunt Ruth, called her “Baby,” a nickname that stayed with her until the last member of the generation that knew her from childhood — that is to say, my dad — passed away. As a little boy, I heard the grown-ups talking about Guy Ruth from time to time. With that unusual name, and the mystery of New Orleans about her, I thought she surely must be some impossibly glamorous creature.
I don’t know when I met her for the first time, but I am pretty sure that she lived up to expectations. There was nobody else in my life like Guy Ruth. Never has been. She and her husband Ted lived out by Lake Pontchartrain, and we rarely saw them, or at least I rarely did. But I knew about her. The fact that Daddy viewed her with intense suspicion only made her seem more mysterious and alluring.
A couple of days after Hurricane Katrina hit, I was sitting at my desk in Dallas when the phone rang. It was my sister Ruthie. “You’re never going to guess what I just saw on CNN!” she said.
She had been watching a live shot from a landing where rescuers were dropping the people they were saving from their houses. Guy Ruth and Ted’s house had flooded, and we weren’t sure what had happened to them. I found out later than my cousin Andy had asked some men he knew who were doing rescues to float by their place and check on them. Guy Ruth and Ted, who were by then in their seventies, had been hiding out in their attic, the rest of the house having been swallowed by the floodwaters. The men pulled them out of their attic, and delivered the pair to civilization.
“Guy Ruth climbed out of that rescue boat dressed to the nines!” Ruthie said. “She was wearing gloves and pearls, and carrying her Persian cats!”
Of course she was. Guy Ruth dressed up for her rescue. That was Cousin Guy. Whenever I thought of her, it was always in Galatoire’s, circa 1964. In her youth, she was strikingly beautiful, and had been a Revlon model. She ended up running a modeling agency. Whatever else would she do? When “Mad Men” came on, I remember thinking, Guy Ruth is the New Orleans version of one of those characters.
Guy Ruth and Ted did not attempt to rebuild in New Orleans. They took refuge in a family cottage in Starhill, up in the country, and built a house on a lot in town. Two weeks after they moved in, around 2007 or so, Ted died. Guy Ruth lived there alone, except for the caretaker she eventually needed, until she died suddenly there two weeks ago.
On a visit home from Dallas, I took my wife by to meet Cousin Guy. She greeted us wearing a chic beige pantsuit, and invited us to sit down. She made a round of J&Bs on the rocks, and settled in to suss out political gossip from me. She was an arch-Republican, and lord, did she love to gossip. I remember thinking, “This is the kind of person you only see in the movies.” But she was the real deal. I remember my father muttering “she’s so false,” but that was only half true. Guy Ruth may have been false, but she was authentically false. She had no pretenses; that’s who she really was.
I loved her for it. Honestly, I did. It’s easy for me to say that, because I didn’t have to live with her or take care of her. Guy Ruth was a difficult woman in a thousand ways. My cousin Nancy was heroically devoted to her. Who else would have been? Guy and Ted had no children. All their friends they had left behind in New Orleans, or were scattered to the winds by the storm. I think Guy must have been utterly miserable in the country. Whenever I saw her, she wanted to hear stories about the latest places to which I had traveled. She received those stories with the same wide eyes you see above, as if she were an exile hearing a report from her lost homeland.
She died on a Saturday morning. That night, I was with my son at the Trombone Shorty concert in New Orleans, at the Saenger Theater at the corner of Rampart and Canal. The show was spectacular. I kept thinking throughout that if Guy Ruth could have been there, exuberant and fully in her element. I don’t think that waspish old Republican lady from Lakeview would have taken much pleasure in Trombone Shorty’s music per se, but she would have been so happy to have been back in the city, and witness to such a pure expression of its soul, that she would have just about levitated from joy. I kept praying for her soul throughout the show, oddly enough, and imagined her in heaven, second-lining, drinking J&B, and thinking that it’s not so bad there, but it’s not New Orleans.
I don’t want to give you the wrong idea about Guy Ruth. I don’t think she had a pious bone in her body. In her will, she directed that she be cremated, have no religious service, and be interred with Ted’s ashes in the Starhill Cemetery. We’ll gather as a family there for the burial, and that will be that. Her Persians — I don’t know if these are the ones she brought from the city, or replacement Persians — will go to Loretta, her caretaker. (My mother told me yesterday that Guy Ruth once told her that she fed her cats out of crystal bowls, and sometimes gave them “breakfast in bed” — her bed.) It turns out that Cousin Guy, knowing that I like to cook, left me in her will half of her Le Creuset enamelware cooking set (my cousin Daniel, a professional chef, got the other half). If you like to cook, you know what a treasure this is. I went up yesterday to pick the pots up.
There were eleven pieces! Really nice ones. Guy Ruth was not the home cooking type. They look like they had barely been used. I was so grateful to her. I also found in her things the photo above, of us. It’s now on my fridge.
I couldn’t stand to wait another day to cook in Guy Ruth’s Le Creuset. I bought a chuck roast at the store this afternoon, larded it with smoked bacon, salted and peppered it, and nestled it onto a bed of thinly sliced onions. Here it is just before it went into a slow oven. As I write this, my house is perfumed by the aroma of gently roasting beef, a gift of Cousin Guy. I will use these pots and pans for the rest of my life, and think of her and pray for her every single time. And when I pass, the Le Creuset will go down to my daughter, who already loves to cook. I will teach her to think kindly of Cousin Guy, and to pray for her, every time she takes the bright orange cookware out of the cabinet.
A whole world died with Cousin Guy. RIP.
UPDATE: Just out of the oven, and so tender you don’t need a knife: