Joan Luther, a longtime restaurant publicist who began her career at the Brown Derby and Hollywood Park in the late 1940s and helped promote nearly every major chef in Los Angeles, died Monday at her Beverly Hills home after a series of strokes, according to her assistant. She was 83.
"She was a legend," said chef Alain Giraud, who worked with Luther when he was at Bastide, the erstwhile West Hollywood restaurant that was owned by commercial director Joe Pytka. "She knew everybody in town. She had something more than just connecting press with restaurants. She understood the business. She understood the vibe of L.A."
Luther was born Joan Batz on Feb. 9, 1928, in Los Angeles, the only child of Basque German parents. She grew up in the Miracle Mile district and attended USC. After abandoning the idea of becoming an actress, she began working in publicity in 1948 at the Derby, feeding names such as Errol Flynn and Lana Turner to gossip columnists Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons.
By that time she had been married a year to broker Charles William "Bill" Luther, whom she had met on the beach volleyball courts in Santa Monica. "She never missed a serve unless I was on the front line; then she hit me in the head," Bill Luther recalled.
His parents were investors at Hollywood Park racetrack, and there horse lover Luther befriended society fixtures such as Dorothy "Buff" Chandler, wife of then-Los Angeles Times publisher Norman Chandler, and the columnists who trailed them.
She eventually became the publicist for Hollywood Park and later Santa Anita Park, collecting more than 25 years of influential contacts for which she became known. "I met the world in the director's room, sweetie," she told a Times reporter in 2003. "Omar Bradley, Nixon, Reagan, Alfred Vanderbilt, Paul Mellon — you know."
She was probably the only publicist in town who could draw Nancy Reagan to a new restaurant — as recently as last year.
At Hollywood Park, Luther immersed herself in the food operations at the track, from the populist grandstands to the exclusive grand buffets. In the '50s she was recruiting Beverly Hills members for the private wine tasting club Cave des Roys that opened on La Cienega Boulevard and promoting the restaurant Scandia on Sunset Boulevard, known for a dish named the Oskar, after a Swedish king. It was veal with bearnaise sauce, asparagus and crab legs.
Despite working with some of the best chefs in America, Luther, who was always rail thin, was notorious for her diet of red meat and black coffee (and later Chinese chicken salad). And she never drank alcohol.
"Meat, meat, meat. I'm not a big sauce girl. I don't like fish. Soup? No," she said in a 2004 profile in Los Angeles magazine. "I like a good old-fashioned T-bone! Lamb chops — English, very expensive, and all that fat! I like fat. I used to eat porterhouse — a difficult steak, too chewy. Now I like a rib-eye, on the bone — I have to have that bone — and all the fat. Mmm."
"It's true," Giraud said. "She eats only steak."
Later Luther became PR director for the Beverly Hills Rodeo Drive Committee and then cultivated restaurant clients from the Westside to downtown, a one-woman-with-an-assistant operation that has been credited with launching an industry. The offices of Joan Luther & Associates were in her Beverly Hills condo.
Her sway and list of clients grew: the Grill on the Alley, Mastro's, Kate Mantilini, Rocca, Bastide. "The thing that makes Luther successful," former Gourmet editor and Times restaurant critic Ruth Reichl told Los Angeles magazine, "is that she's just an unstoppable steamroller in her job."
She did more than publicize. In the '80s Luther helped chef Michel Richard move from Santa Fe, N.M., to Los Angeles, where he opened Michel Richard Patisserie and then the famed Citrus. She helped Joachim Splichal, who now heads Patina Restaurant Group, land one of his first restaurants. She helped open the chain of California Pizza Kitchen restaurants.
"Joan was my publicist back in the late 1970s," said Robert Wemischner, who was owner of a gourmet food store in Beverly Hills. "She was a pistol then and was that to the end…. May the gods of foie gras and California cuisine bless her memory!"
Luther is survived by her husband.
A Mass will be held at 11 a.m. Friday at Good Shepherd Catholic Church, 501 N. Bedford Drive, Beverly Hills.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times