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Welcome to Her Matriarchy

Always a dynamo, Shirley Ritts helped run the family business and gave her kids a strong work ethic. The result: success for all.

September 26, 1999|MIMI AVINS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The essential Shirley Ritts story isn't the one about how she introduced Cindy Crawford and Richard Gere at a barbecue in Malibu. Or the one about the time she cornered Jack Nicholson and lectured him about his love life, specifically the unseemly age gap between him and his female companions. Or even the morning when she took the breakfast she'd cooked for Steve McQueen on the Rittses' 40-foot boat and, as he watched, dumped it into the waters off Catalina because he'd complained it was cold.

It is the story of her 75th birthday party, held in 1996. The luncheon at Barneys New York in Beverly Hills was hosted by her son Herb, the world-renown celebrity photographer. Just before dessert, a large hatbox tied with ribbon was carried in and set in front of her. Inside was a smaller box. A smaller one nested within that, then a smaller one and finally, an envelope containing a gift certificate good for merchandise at the store.

"Herb told me to read it out loud," Shirley remembers. "I looked at it, and it said $75,000, and I thought I wasn't seeing it properly. It had to be $7,500. But then I read it, and everyone screamed. It was unreal."

Not many 75-year-olds could find much more than a scarf at Barneys, a temple of high style that pays its rent by satisfying the ever-changing yearnings of the young and/or thin. Three years later, Shirley has $14,000 left, having worked the amount down with the acquisition of a $5,000 Jil Sander cashmere coat here, a $5,500 Voyage velvet number there.

The birthday gift was testament to her son's love and respect. (Presents from Herb's three younger siblings weren't as extravagant yet were equally heartfelt and appreciated.) Such a windfall wasn't over the top for its flamboyant recipient, a dynamic, uncommonly energetic matriarch whose children have all benefited in different ways from her contributions to the gene pool.

What sort of family does such a character create? (Everyone calls Shirley that. "She's a total character," Crawford says, affectionately.) When Mom didn't spend the '50s in the kitchen baking cookies, and Dad was the hardworking, emotionally remote male typical of that era, is the inevitable result a gothic, dysfunctional clan? Not necessarily.

Shirley and Herb Ritts Sr., whom she married in 1950 and divorced 27 years later, made an effort not to spoil their children. Ritts Co., the casual furniture business he founded, brought California style to the rest of the country and material rewards to the family.

"My kids had everything," Shirley says, "but they didn't know it."

Learning From Hard Work

The Ritts offspring--Herb, now 47, Rory, 46, Gary, 43, and Christy, 42--were taught to respect hard work, and all became strongly motivated, productive adults. By most benchmarks, Herb's accomplishments have even surpassed those of his parents. In some families that would be a source of conflict, but the Rittses remain close.

One experience of growing up in L.A. is to be surrounded by privilege. It could be that the guy who lives next door is one of the biggest movie stars in the world, and Mom and Dad are so talented and charismatic that they shine with enough wattage to rival that of any supernova. Yet, sometimes the blessings of creativity and the riches it can bring last only a generation, to be followed by sad sagas of downward mobility, or worse.

Rory, vice president of marketing for a specialty food company for which he invents snacks sold in ingenious packaging of his design, says, "I know a lot of people we grew up with who just turned out terrible. All but a few of my so-called friends from high school are in 12-step programs, or should be."

Although Rory and his siblings could have carried on the business that bore their name, and all worked in it briefly, each ultimately went in a different professional direction.

Gary (who was unavailable for this story) is an inventor, the married father of four. Rory, in his second marriage, has two boys--3 and 5. Christy is amicably divorced from the father of her 5-year-old son. Because her 87-year-old father has Alzheimer's, she manages his affairs and, with her mother, the family's real estate, which is what remains of the company.

"Shirley gave me the confidence to do jobs that could be overwhelming to other people," Christy says.

While in college, Herb told his parents he was gay. His sister remembers, "When I found out, it was, 'Is he happy, is he OK?' Other than that, who cares?" He lives with his companion, a lawyer.

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