my idol and surrogate mother, Ruth Conte (google her as Ruth Storey)

That’s what most of her friends called her. Our relationship took a few years to really take off. The night we met, she had already been informed that I was her son’s new girlfriend, not sure if he mentioned that we were madly and newly in love. In the creative and interesting environment that was her living room, I felt inspired to perform the Israeli dances I had learned recently in a high school Middle Eastern dance class. Ruth and her friends seemed taken with me (enchanting was the word they used) and they got up to join me in the spirit of spontaneity. We were off to a great start. It would soon crash and burn and I will admit that it was all my fault.

Ruth’s son Mark and I slept in his mom’s apartment for days on end. We, or rather I, woke up late, very late, and sometimes cranky. I would walk into the kitchen, make myself some cereal, then walk away from the table, having not cleaned up. I also never really pitched in if there was a dinner party. I guess I came off as a bit of a princess. I guess maybe I was. My history is that I was enabled by my own mother, father too, and never asked to help around the house in any way. Never made to clean up, never told to pitch in with the dishes, nothing. In my home, dirty plates & silverware were miraculously cleaned and put away. It was a nearly perfect arrangement for me, except in the real world where I was to become less than an ideal houseguest. Of course, now, in my own home, I love and admire a good guest who enlists in helping out. But I never really was that person.

Mark Conte, on the lawn of Beverly High, very near Ruth\’s house

For a period of time we slept in Mark’s van in the driveway, using the bathroom and yes, not cleaning up. Finally, Ruth had had enough. She kicked us out. For good. The lesson may have taken me nearly a lifetime to learn, but Ruth did the right thing.

Forced to live together, Mark and I found a bungalow in what was then virtually an art colony on Santa Monica beach, close to the pier. In a row of bungalows stretching north, there lived artists, actors and musicians. Spawned from our group of friends here were Bob Englund (later to become Freddie Kruger), David Hasseloff and Ed Carter, who was then with the Beach Boys, and might have been the only one of us making an actual living. I came home from work one day to find Mark had redecorated our home with not just a “splash” of, but all red, including a red wall-to-wall Persian carpet and a small red picnic table. It was so charming and oh, so small. Ruth didn’t visit much and my relationship with her remained strained.

I was getting acting jobs and the more money I made, the more I thought we deserved a bigger, better ocean view. So, we moved up to Malibu, and now the waves splashed at our balcony. When Ruth came to visit I spent the time hiding in my bedroom. Silly me. But I was young and stubborn and didn’t realize what I was missing.
Ruth’s dinner parties were filled with the most interesting group of intellectuals and film makers: Walter and Carol Mathau, Jack and Felicia Lemmon, British directors Jack Clayton with his wife Haya, and Karel Reisz and his wife, the actress Betsy Blair (formerly married to Gene Kelly, himself a sometime guest). The actor Scott Wilson and his wife, Heavenly.  Roger Spottiswoode.  Ruth herself had been an extremely successful stage and screen actress under the name Ruth Storey. Her best friend, a psychiatrist from New York named Janet Kennedy, often came to stay for periods of time.

The conversations were alive with talk of the McCarthy period. Of course, brilliant me, I’m thinking, are they kidding with all this blather about the long-ago 1950’s? We were in the wild 70’s now. Get with it. They did not. It was non-stop banter about politics, often the politics of that dark, “ancient” chapter in American history. This was not the Hollywood of my life; my manager-producer father hung around with Milton Berle, Red Buttons and Henny Youngman — lots of laughs with rim shots punctuating the ends of their sentences. I was oblivious to the fact that my dad’s own client, Zero Mostel, was himself a victim of the blacklist.

Ruth had once been married to the handsome actor Richard Conte. His “ghost” — he wasn’t dead yet — loomed large in her house. Nick, as he was called by his friends and ex-wife, had traveled with the Hollywood Ten to Washington where they had refused to answer questions before the House Un-American Activities Committee. As a couple, Ruth and Nick were fighting the enemy they had in Joe McCarthy and the witch hunt he had spearheaded. But instead of soaking all this in, Mark and I would sometimes excuse ourselves to rejoin the sexual revolution, already in progress.

From the moment Mark and I broke up, I twisted the lens, and opened myself to one of the deepest relationships of my life, with his mother, Ruthie. She saw me through my first awful “George and Martha” marriage. And when I started to date the new man in my life, who I would later marry, I called Ruth to say she must meet Michael. Ruth said to me, “Fredde, treat him as you want to be treated”. I’m rolling my eyes. But she knows me so well! So she repeated it loudly (if only I knew how to underline in this blog…so, please underline these words in your head…) in her well-trained stage voice, “Fredde, treat him as you want to be treated!” Then, for emphasis: “Did you hear what I just said?” Think lots of underlining and explanation points! Though I had heard those words –the Golden Rule!–my whole life, this was the first time I really heard them. And I thank Ruth for that because I did treat my husband as I wanted to be treated. It was genius! Hey, we’re still together and this conversation was nearly 20 years ago.

I’m often heard “channeling” my father, but I also tend to channel Ruth. Each year she would call me on Rosh Hashanah and say “Happy New Year!” Though half-Jewish, I was raised with zero religion, and the first time thought she must be on crack, spreading New Year’s cheer four months early. Now that she is no longer with us, I’ve made it an annual fall tradition to phone Mark and wish him the same.

I so admired Ruth’s exquisite taste that it was more than flattering when she extravagantly praised my own. I couldn’t see her without her raving about my sense of style, and it meant the world to me.

I will forever miss her voice, her warmth, her truth, her wisdom. She had reinvented herself in her fifties by getting an MSW (Master’s Degree in Social Work) and becoming a practicing therapist well into her 80’s. For years Ruth was so generous, giving me artwork and clothes. And when she died, I inherited pieces of furniture that were so uniquely “Ruth,” that I always feel her and her great taste in my home.

We were young, we didn’t cook and in those days, we rotated between divorced parents to get a “free” meal. Veal and Peppers were one of Ruth’s specialties.
Ruthie’s Veal and Peppers
Cook Time: 1 hour

Total Time: 1 hour


1 1/2 pounds boneless lean veal
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 green bell pepper, cut into 8 strips
1 red bell pepper, cut into 8 strips
1 cup sliced fresh mushrooms, about 8 ounces
pinch ground cayenne pepper
2 cans (8 ounces each) tomato sauce
salt and pepper

Cut veal into bit-size pieces. Heat oil in skillet over medium heat and brown veal on all sides. Add red and green bell pepper and mushrooms, cover, and reduce heat. Cook for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add cayenne pepper and tomato sauce. Simmer, covered, for 30 to 45 minutes longer, or until tender. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Serves 4. Ruth served it with white rice.

Mark took this of me in our beach bungalow, 1309 Pacific Coast Highway

me with Mark, taken exactly at the time I met his mother, the exquisite Ruth Conte

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27 Responses to “Ruthie”

  1. Mike Barrie says:

    …There was someone before me?

  2. Doreen says:

    Love this story! Love your self awareness. And above all….your writing has gotten amazing. So proud of you!! Not sure about the baby cow recipe but I get that Ruth loved it. xoxoxox Bravo.

  3. Julie Phalen says:

    Love it! Thanks. I look forward to your stories every month.

  4. David Miller-Engel says:

    Love Michaels comment almost as much as reading the entry…..Happy Holidays

  5. Kayla says:

    Wow Fredde! What a great entry and a story that literally took me back into Ruth’s living room on Spaulding. I can visualize it so beautifully through your writings! She was everything you described and I too have memories of my parents recounting any evening at Ruth’s and how intellectual they all were. Cheers to Ruth, she was a great women.

  6. Joyce Hyser Robinson says:

    Love this Fredde! Just adore your voice…xoxo

  7. Augie Duke says:

    Just want to say , this one i think is my favorite not only is the story amazing but it really captures you the essence of you mom…

  8. Janet Petkin says:

    That was a great story Fredde.

  9. Cathy says:


  10. My Darlin’ Fredde – Again you intrigue me with your words. I never had the pleasure of meeting her and yet your words bring her to life. I do know her lovely son and I beleive you were the most AMAZING couple of life. And what a life High School and beyond was. From you, I feel as if I know her!! I’ve had some wine tonight and I love your story, writing and you…. Never stop Ms. Duke. Love you forever and thanks for getting ME!!!!

    Can’t wait to try the recipe. xxoo


  11. pauli moss says:

    The essence of a person is hard to put into words. But you did. So I guess there is hope for all of us who can aspire to treating everyone “the way we want to be treated”. Thank you for sharing your heart so generously.

  12. Susan H says:

    Bravo Freddie..and nice to bump into you in late night Gelsons.

  13. toni miller says:

    Oh Fredde Oh… you’ve done it again and this time it has all come together! What a wonderful poignant story with so much pathos and detail. Reminds me of the first time I hung out with my boyfriend’s parents in the 60’s… Tony Singletary was the cutest boy at Hamilton in 1969 and a track star. His parents lived on Country Club Drive in a huge old Craftsman right off of Crenshaw. Celia and Ornell always had the “B” sides of Marvin or Smokey playing and we would drink 7 & 7’s with them and dance the night away… sort of different from your story but sort of the same with the exception that I would always put the empty glasses in the sink!
    More, more, more!!!!! xot

  14. Grant says:

    Nice Fred…very nostalgic, very roots, and very Veal and Peppered.
    Can’t wait til Jan 2011 post
    keep my on the list

  15. Eileen Mumy says:

    Lucky you to have connected so deeply with MC’s mom. All I rmember is the detergent bottle in his apartment window.

  16. Bronic says:

    You write Beautifully Fredde, was wonderful reading your story.


  17. jennifer dudley arbaugh says:

    this was a “blog” in your life I never knew. Mark? Never met nor heard but the Ruthie connection is one worth reading. Also, how could you possibly miss a dinner where Mattheu was attending? Too brilliantly humerous.

    keep em coming. I keep reading.


  18. Richie says:

    Thank you Adorable Fredde. As you know, Ruth and I became friends later in life and she said many things to me in that emphatic voice… all of which came back the moment you pointed it out. I, too, have pieces of her home in mine and so appreciate this tribute you’ve so wonderfully written to her. We were lucky to know and love her – and now I am lucky to hear the details of your Conte years. Hugs to you… always…oh, and happy belated Hannuka.

  19. Susan Ragsdale says:

    Fredde, I’m so glad to have read this! After school, everyone went to Tees Beach. Mark would be at the beach too. I thought he was very attractive. You are very lucky to have had a brother two years older, with all those groovy friends around! Your blog inspires me. I enjoyed learning about Mark’s mother, Ruth. She sounds like a mensch. Starting in 1973, I had a boyfriend for five years, named Robert Jaffe. was I’m really glad to have known you all these years. Internet social networking has provided us with a way to get to know each other well. I’m happy about that.

  20. eileen tomson says:

    You are always able to visually draw us into your life. I can see Ruth Conte, her beautiful clothes and taste, smell the food at her dinner parties.
    How wonderful that you turned the relationship around, and became so close to her. It is a beautiful story, and I could not stop “turning the pages”. Thank you for your insights and great writing wit! Love you-et

  21. Barbara Dudley says:

    I wrote a whole comment the other day and it vanished! Never knew that Ruth meant so much to you… Funny the strain in your relationship when you and Mark were together and what blossomed after… Think you should be doing something with these writings… Too good and with so much to say… Great job… xo

  22. It’s so funny to come across your blog while looking for photos of Kimme Winter’s jewelery. I went to grammar school with Mark Conte…though I’m certain he wouldn’t remember who I am. I recognize you as well in that last photo on this post. I was very shy in grammar school. It’s fun to read about your life in the seventies.

  23. Toni Benshimon says:

    I pointed to a date of your entries, and this was the first I came upon. You write beautifully Fredde. I love the way you have designed your site. Mark’s face seems so familiar. Maybe he was in my brother’s grade.

    I’m going to definitely find more time to read all your entries; love the recipes and stories.

  24. Hoov says:

    Two thumps up wakko. One day you will see some of the past of the McNaghten brothers and moms …

  25. Linda says:

    Another gem!

  26. Debbie Schellenberg says:

    Hi Fredde,
    Another lovely story. As fate would have it, and in your words “small world” Jim coached the Conti’s son who played sports with my son CJ for many years and we have known them (and they are both lovely) for about 25 years now. I recall seeing them at your 59th birthday party which was such fun. Are you planning another at 69 btw?


  27. Linda says:

    I know that I commented before … but this is such a great story, I had to write again. So beautiful … so loving … so YOU. One of my favorites …

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