Remembering Rodney Fertel’s ‘gorilla’ campaign for New Orleans mayor
Rodney Fertel, a millionaire who had been married to Ruth Fertel, the founder of the Ruth’s Chris Steak House empire, announced his candidacy for mayor of New Orleans in 1969 because, he said, the Audubon Zoo needed a gorilla. If elected, he promised to buy one. Fertel, who often campaigned in a pith helmet and accompanied by a man in a gorilla suit, finished 10th, getting only 310 votes — Moon Landrieu won what would be the first of two consecutive terms — but he kept his promise, traveling to Singapore to buy and bring back two orphaned baby lowland gorillas, which he gifted to the zoo.
The Audubon Zoo is a local treasure, and Rodney Fertel is one of the reasons. Fertel, who died in 2003, was a zealot for zoos, so much so that he was one of the early enthusiastic backers of the drive to convert New Orleans’ zoo from a grim habitat where animals were kept behind bars — “an animal ghetto,” as it was once called — to an expansive environment with room to roam.
- The Fertel gorillas were originally named Grandeza and Boneca. He called them Red Beans and Rice. The zoo eventually renamed them Scotty and Molly.
- Rodney Fertel first became fascinated with gorillas during a 1965 visit to the Antwerp, Belgium, zoo. His son Randy, who accompanied him, said his father spent hours in front of the gorilla habitat.
- “Gorillas have their own language,” Rodney Fertel said in a 1976 interview. “If we could understand what they’re saying, we might solve all the problems of the Earth.”
- To keep Scotty and Molly from being bored, Fertel bought them a television set. Because he sensed they seemed to enjoy Johnny Carson, he bought a VCR so they could watch tapes of “The Tonight Show” at all hours, Randy Fertel wrote in the magazine Creative Nonfiction.
- Because they seemed indifferent to each other, Fertel also provided pornographic tapes to try to get Scotty and Molly interested in mating.
- Scotty and Molly never mated with each other, prompting the zoo to ship them off to other zoos. Scotty went to the Fresno zoo in 1982. Molly was sent to the Atlanta zoo in 1991.
- In that Creative Nonfiction article, Randy Fertel provided another motivation for his father’s candidacy: revenge against David Gertler, who, as the judge settling Ruth and Rodney Fertel’s rancorous divorce, ordered Rodney in 1968 to pay his son’s college tuition. That prompted Fertel, in open court, to promise revenge, Randy Fertel wrote, and he saw the opportunity when Gertler entered the 1969 mayoral race. Gertler placed fifth.
- During his campaign, Fertel had thousands of plastic gorillas made in Hong Kong. He handed them out at Canal and Rampart streets, giving black ones to African Americans and white gorillas to white people, Randy Fertel wrote.
- Rodney Fertel was born Rodney Fertel Weinberg in 1921. When he turned 21, he inherited millions from his grandmother Julia Fertel, who had invested heavily in local real estate. To honor her, he dropped his last name.
- Because of his inheritance, Rodney Fertel never had to work, so he was able to spend time gambling and racing thoroughbreds, one of which he named Fertel’s Gorilla.
- Fertel traveled widely, often using oat bags from the Fair Grounds as luggage. On a trip to Barcelona, he was captivated by the surreal artist Salvador Dali and spent time with him.
New Orleans has always cherished its eccentrics, and Rodney Fertel certainly falls into that category as a millionaire who circled the globe using oat bags as luggage and toting a golf club because, he told his son, he wanted to maintain his swing. Like all New Orleans eccentrics, he lived by his own rules. While that may have been tough on those around him, Fertel always seemed to have a good time. In the 1969-’70 mayoral campaign, his candidacy provided comic relief from serious talk about such topics as crime and the civil rights struggle. Although New Orleanians didn’t give him enough votes to make him mayor, there’s no doubt that Fertel kept them entertained.