Once about every three or four weeks for the past 15 or 20 years, I'd pick up the phone and hear an unmistakable voice, somehow raspy but luminous at the same time, saying "Colman, it's Joan. Just checking in." That was Joan Luther (below right, with her Scottie, Darren), the legendary LA publicist and all-around restaurant-lover — a woman I'd known so long that I can't begin to remember the first time I met her, except that it must have been at one of the big Hollywood parties my parents used to give back in the 1950s.
A native of Los Angeles, with some family connection to one of the old Southern California Spanish land grant families, Joan worked in the publicity and public relations business almost from the day she graduated from USC, feeding tips to fabled Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, representing the iconic Brown Derby (where the Cobb salad was invented), handling press relations for the Hollywood Park and Santa Anita racetracks back in the days when they drew a steady clientele of movie stars and high society high-rollers.
Restaurants were her favorite clients, and most of the work she did in her long career was on their behalf. She represented scores and scores of the town's most famous chefs over her long career, and an equal number of the kinds of restaurants where you'd never know the chef's name. It was Luther who found Michel Richard a location for his first establishment, a modest pastry shop and café; she helped a young German chef named Joachim Splichal (now head of the Patina Restaurant Group) move from the private club where he'd been cooking into a restaurant of his own; she also publicized a couple of attorneys who had a crazy idea for something called California Pizza Kitchen. Her company, Joan Luther & Associates (which was a lot of Joan Luther and very few associates), which she formed in 1974, also beat the drums for the Bistro Garden, The Grill on the Alley, Kate Mantalini, Providence, Sona, Hatfield's, Mastro, Ago, Bastide, and on and on (it would probably take less space to name the LA restaurants that she didn't represent at one point or another) — with clients like the Beverly Hills Hotel and the Rodeo Drive merchants' association along the way.
She probably met my parents at the track, or maybe at the Derby, and I suspect they must have been nice to her when she was just starting out, because when she and I reconnected in the 1980s, after I'd started writing about restaurants in Southern California, she was always particularly nice to me — not p.r.-person, you're-a-writer-and-I-want-something-from-you nice, but genuinely kind and generous, always asking about my family, inviting me to important events, tipping me off to new places that might not even have been her clients.
I frankly never quite knew what restaurants she was or wasn't representing, in fact, because when she found a good one, one run by worthwhile people, with good food and some imagination, she'd rave about it whether she represented it or not. She loved the world of chefs and restaurateurs, thrived on their abilities and pecadillos. She was a consummate connector, ceaselessly networking even before that word had been invented.
Funnily enough, however much she loved the industry, I could never quite figure out whether she really enjoyed food or not. She didn't eat lunch, period, but would invite you to join her at noontime and then sit there perfectly happy ingesting nothing more than cup after cup of coffee. She did eat dinner, but for many years it was always steak; just steak, and never mind the sides. Her preferences evolved over time, but the last few times I dined with her, that steak was a big ribeye, and I mean a really big one, the kind some places give you for free if you can finish it. She'd polish off every scrap.
For all that, she was a tiny person, so thin in later years that she looked like she'd have to hold onto something if a strong wind came up. Her skin was leather-bronze, the result of decades spent on the tennis courts of Beverly Hills; she'd always been athletic, and in fact met her amiable husband, Bill Luther, playing beach volleyball. This was around the time she first started working in the publicity business, and, unfashionably for LA, they stayed happily and loyally together from that time forward — and his more catholic tastes in food helped her assess countless eating places.
Joan's hair, the writer Dave Gardetta once maintained when he profiled her for Los Angeles magazine, looked "like Kansas wheat pressed down by an impending cold front." But even in her late 70s and early 80s, she was a bundle of energy, always bright-eyed and enthusiastic, always bursting with some new piece of news or rumor. ("I've heard that Condé Nast is going to close down Gourmet," she told me one day, a couple of months before it happened; "Never in a million years," I perceptively replied.)
In 1994, LA's now-defunct Buzz magazine named her one of the 100 Coolest People in Los Angeles, noting that "Younger, hipper competitors come and go, but Joan remains Joan: raspy voiced, unfashionably tan, and full of local lore…" They got that right. She was one of a kind.
Joan died at home in Beverly Hills on June 6th, after a series of strokes, at the age of 83.