The Passing of a Dear Friend
Ruth Levy Raymond was a woman of many talents. She was an artist, a cowboy poet, a singer, and an author of children’s books. But beyond that, she was best known as a world class race car driver and competitor in a man’s sport. She was also a very dear friend. Sadly, Ruth passed away just two days before Christmas, last December 23, 2014.
This is not the usual context from which I blog, because this time I’m coming from the world of motor sports. Or more specifically the early days of sports car racing back in the 1950s and 60s. An exciting period for all of us who were involved. It was also a time of tremendous opportunity for the few women who were talented enough to compete with the men. And Ruth was one of them.
But there is a definite thread that connects her story to those of you who read my posts: Ruth and I were both Jews, making us kindred souls – a connection that also allowed us to commiserate on a whole other level.
In addition, we both made late life discoveries about our Jewishness. For me, as most of you know, I only learned that my family was Jewish at age 51. But for Ruth it was a bit different….
Born in 1930 in New York, she was adopted by a Minneapolis couple at a very early age. Her very strict mother made sure she attended Temple regularly. So, growing up as Ruth Cohen, she knew she was a Jew. But her true identity had always be been hidden from her and she’d given up on trying to find what she called her “real family”.
Then just last year, after reading a blog I posted about a woman with a similar story, she accidentally learned who her own biological family was. She called it “an OMG moment” in email she sent me after learning the astonishing truth, that she was born Audrey Schenker.
Enter a Jazz Musician
Later on, while attending the Minneapolis Institute of Art, she met Lou Levy, the famous jazz pianist. They married and she became Ruth Levy, the name that remained with her the rest of her life. During their marriage they had two daughters, Jacqueline and Pamela.
But the marriage was not destined to last, and they divorced in 1955. By then she had tried her luck at racing cars on the frozen lakes around Minneapolis and liked it. So, she gathered up her daughters and moved west to Los Angeles where she could try her talent on paved roads. And so began her legendary climb to prominence as a female race car driver.
However, I’ll leave the details of Ruth’s brilliant racing career up to others. I just want to talk about the Ruth I knew, because behind all the swagger and foul language was one of the kindest, funniest and most generous people I’ve ever known.
“The Texas Regatta”
While I often watched her race here on the West Coast and witnessed her successes, I only met her in person in 1957 in Fort Worth, Texas. It was June 2nd, after Sunday’s races at the Eagle Mountain Air National Guard base. The event became known sarcastically as the “Texas Regatta” because it had rained so torrentially that the local boat races had to be cancelled, while the sports car races continued undaunted.
I was in the Air Force at the time, stationed in Del Rio, Texas, about 400 miles away. Married less than two months, my wife Linda and I had driven up there a few days earlier, eager to see both the races and our West Coast friends.
We made it to the track on Saturday. But while attempting to return on Sunday, during the deluge, we were in a fast moving line of traffic, on a rain slick access road inside the National Guard base. Suddenly the cars ahead of us stopped, and we were smashed between the car in front and the one behind us – the one that couldn’t stop. It totaled our little VW convertible and injured Linda to the extent that she needed medical care and a number of stitches.
So we never did see the races. But that night, we went over to a post race party put on by some of our friends from Los Angeles, hoping to find enough booze to anesthetize the trauma of the accident and Linda’s painful stitches and bruises.
It was at that event that we were introduced to Ruth. She and Linda hit it off immediately. Then out of the blue, Ruth picked up the phone and called Linda’s mother back in Studio City, just to let her know that while her daughter had been in a car accident, she was Ok. That was her first act of kindness, yet she barely knew us.
But by the time I got out of the service my life was different and we lost track of Ruth. It wasn’t until the late 1990s after I’d become part of a group called the “Fabulous 50‘s”, whose members were now old farts like me and had all been involved to one degree or another in racing back in the day. That’s when we finally reconnected.
By then her racing days had long since passed as well as the long list of her multifaceted pursuits that followed. She’d finally settled down, was married and living in Solvang with her husband, Wayne Raymond, a Texan, aka “Hog”, who coincidentally was a very serious amateur bicycle racer. And by now her two daughters were all grown up, one with a daughter of her own.
I’m not sure how we reconnected after our 40 year hiatus, but it was probably at a tribute event for Carroll Shelby (of Cobra fame) at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles.
Dogs and Race Cars
We began by exchanging old racing photos and pictures from Fab50s events. But both of us being dog lovers, we also started sending each other pictures of our precious mutts and swapping anecdotal racing stories from back in the day. Our medium was Email and FaceBook with a phone call every couple of weeks to fill in the blanks and to pickup on other compelling issues, like Hog’s bicycle races or one of her daughter’s competitive dog events. Or, from my end to recommend some fantastic movie they should add to their Netflix list.
We both bought 27″ iMacs about the same time. I had just switched over from PC’s and convinced her to do the same. I was editing my documentary at the time on mine, while she began to write her autobio on hers. Out of necessity, she’d periodically call me to pick my brains for information about people, drivers, race cars and events from way back when. Then as her story began to evolve, she’d periodically ask me for advice with some of her early drafts. Mind you, she’d already written childrens books. But now she was trying to find her voice as the author of her own story.
Sadly, as her health began to deteriorate, she found it increasingly difficult to drive on her own. While she was able to get people to chauffeur her, by then even riding as a passenger became very tiring and uncomfortable. As a result, her trips to events in L.A. became more and more infrequent, and she just plain had to cancel out on a number of occasions.
However there were four events in 2013 and 2014 that she was determined to attend. First was the “Legends of Riverside”, an annual three day event honoring the drivers who participated back in the heyday of the Riverside International Raceway, which was held at the new Riverside Auto Museum, about 50 miles south of Los Angeles.
She was walking with a cane by then, but she still had a wonderful time seeing friends signing autographs with all the other legends, and having her pictures taken with her many admirers. Although a three day event, she only came down for the day. By the time she got back home she was not a happy camper. The long ride had been too much for her.
But later that year, she was wined and dined by the Porsche Club of America at their annual national get together in Ontario, CA, which is near Riverside. She sent me an hilarious video of her Q&A. An instant hit on camera, she consistently brought down the house with her funny and often self deprecating comments about her racing career. Here’s a link to it:
https://vimeo.com/79572367 Password is: Mamaroo13
Then last May she was the guest of honor at the California Festival of Speed at the Fontana Raceway, near Ontario, put on by the Porsche Club of America. But for this one she coaxed some of us old gummers to join her in a panel discussion of what cars and racing were like back in the day. It was great fun for all of us participants as well as the audience.
After it was over, they had a kind of a funky buffet dinner for us in a nearby tent. But because it was so crowded, Ruth and daughter Jackie had to sit at one end of a 20 ft. table, while my son Tim and I could only find seats at the other. There were far too many people between us to hold any kind of a conversation. So what did Ruth do? Exactly what any contemporary teenager would do.
She picked up her cell phone and started texting me about the food. As a result, we ended up having a delightful dinner conversation…texting on our iPhones.
And finally, she was SO determined to make it down here for my 80th birthday that she booked a cushy limousine and driver for the day to solve her comfort problems. When she proudly called to tell me what she’d done, I told her that not only was she the first to RSVP, but I hadn’t even sent out the invitations yet.
But sadly it was not to be. She had to back out at the last minute due to a new physical problem that required her to remain close to her doctor. So, instead, as a surprise, she sent down 300 incredibly delicious birthday cookies; each one with a picture of me and my dogs baked into it – a picture that I had sent her years earlier. Those delightful cookies came from her favorite sweet shop, the Solvang Bakery, owned by the family of her next door neighbor and very dear friend, Melissa (Halme) Redell. Nice to have a neighbor like that.
Ruth had a passion for animals especially her two little Boston Terriers. As a result we used to email our doggie pictures back and forth, which then expanded into those big collections of cute little animal pictures that keep getting generated on the internet.
The Wrong Side of Mamaroo
That’s when I found Ruth’s dark side…when I learned the hard way that there’s one type of animal picture that she absolutely hated. She couldn’t stand pictures of monkeys . . . monkeys of any type, size or stripe.
Big gorillas or ugly male orangs I could understand. But I made the mistake of including a picture of a couple of cute little chimps. That’s when she let me know in no uncertain terms that I was never EVER to do that again.
Well . . . since I’m old, a couple of years later I forgot, and a baby chimp picture happened to slip thru with 40 or so other cute pix of baby wild animals like squirrels, tiger cubs, baby elephants and so on.
Needless to say, I almost got my head handed to me. From then on I kept a little Sticky Note stuck to my computer that said, “No Chimps for Ruth. Or else!”
She and my wife, Linda, always had a great time trying to out foul mouth one another whenever the three of us were able meet. You never knew what they would do together. At one Christmas banquet, the guest of honor droned on for so long that Ruth and Linda actually crawled under our table to get out of the banquet room without being seen.
She was a fighter, and continued to battle through her health problems the same way she used to race. But she knew her condition was terminal late last summer, when she called to tell me that she’d made up her mind to stop all the trips to the hospital in Solvang and all the chemo.
“Fuck it! It’s not worth all the bullshit for a few months more”, she said, in only the way that Ruth could say it. “It was a great ride while it lasted! . . . and shit, I got 84 years out of it!”
Realizing that the quality of her life was far more important during the time she had remaining, she had made peace with it. And her family was in full support.
The last time Linda and I saw her was on October 18, at the Fab50’s Paramount Ranch Reunion and Picnic. She was confined to a wheel chair by then, in pain and unable to stay very long. She knew it would be the last time she’d see many of her friends, and wanted to make sure that we’d be there because she was going to bring deli food for us all, and we were not to bring anything.
But then she really surprised us because on her way down from Solvang, and no longer comfortable riding long distances, she made sure that Kenny, her son in law and designated driver, made a detour, all the way out to Brendt’s in Northridge, the best deli in L.A., just to pick up their famous pastrami sandwiches for the four of us.
Her final act of kindness.
But then, bless her heart, she somehow found the time and energy to get all her Christmas cards out during her last week, with personal hand written notes. Ours was inscribed, “Pastrami sandwiches forever! Hugs and love, Mamaroo and the Crew!”
Meanwhile she continued refining her book right up to the end, while assuring me, just weeks before her passing, that she had put it all in order. Her manuscript and her notes were all organized in a loose leaf notebook, tabbed and ready to be published.
At Ruth’s memorial, her daughter, Jackie, confirmed that it will be. Knowing Ruth’s ZESTY stream of consciousness writing style, it’ll be one helluva read – that I can promise you.
This is the working title, including a bit of her poetry:
“DON’T RACE WITH MOTHER”
You’re Old Enough to Know
Behind me the demons I meant to survive
At the age of fourteen I had a license to drive
With speed as my drug I took it, no other
And all of the kids knew don’t race with mother.
She was truly one of a kind!