In the Pleiocene epoch of restaurants in Los Angeles, before Yelp, before blogs, before even the Usenet groups, restaurant publicists were a rare and exotic breed, neither hip as music publicists nor sleekly professional as film flacks, but creatures of another era; direct descendants of the press agents who put notions into Walter Winchell's ear. And to a young journalist, Joan Luther was the most exotic of them all, a woman who had actually worked for Hedda Hopper back in the day, who was as passionate about horseflesh as she was restaurants, and who seemed to subsist on nothing but giant steaks.
Luther was the one publicist whose calls you always took - she was probably calling on behalf of one client or another, but you ended up talking about a dozen other things in the course of the ten-minute call: Wolfgang Puck, the Breeders' Cup, Mayor Riordan, the chiffon cake at the old Brown Derby, a new restaurant (not a client) on the Strip, Lois Dwan, Perino's, the fried chicken at a place named Hody's where the Pico Boulevard Roscoe's is now, and Edna Earle's Fog Cutter. Luther made you feel as if you were part of a larger continuum, a better, more romantic Los Angeles where green goddess dressing was on every menu and Cary Grant and Humphrey Bogart still roamed the sunbaked streets.
"There was no one like her,'' said former Gourmet editor Ruth Reichl. "She was really old school. When I was writing reviews in the San Francisco edition of New West she called to say that she liked my stuff, and could she take me to lunch? It meant that by the time I got to L.A., like six years later, she was the one PR person I knew. She never, ever, led me wrong. If she had a client she thought you should know about, she told you. And she also told you if the restaurant was not for you.''
Luther, 83, passed away Monday afternoon after a brief illness. A mass will be held for her this Friday June 10, 11:00 a.m. at Good Shepherd Catholic Church, 501 N. Bedford Drive, Beverly Hills.