The ducks waddling behind her have given way to stuffed versions that Ruthie "the Duck Lady" Moulon clutches wherever she goes. Hailed as one of a vanishing breed -- a genuine New Orleans character -- the 68-year-old Ruthie no longer rambles through the French Quarter in roller skates and a wedding veil, cadging free beers and Kool cigarettes from bartenders and tourists.
Instead, Ruthie now lives the more traditional life of a senior citizen, in an Uptown nursing home that offers round-the-clock care and scheduled bingo games. Her friends -- and Ruthie has many -- are embroiled in an emotional debate over how to help the celebrated eccentric live out her remaining years. But defining "quality of life" for someone like Ruthie the Duck Lady isn't an easy task. The question: is the normal aging process appropriate for someone who has defined her life by being so not normal?
Some believe Ruthie should be back in a French Quarter apartment, depending on the kindness of strangers and friends. Others want Ruthie to have supervised care but say she needs more liberties than she has now. Still others think that given Ruthie's age and health problems, it's time to declare last call on Ruthie's party days.
The debate peaked in January, when about 30 of Ruthie's friends arrived at the St. Charles Health Care nursing home to pick her up for a planned birthday party. They were turned away at the door. St. Charles Health Care says Ruthie didn't want to go to the event. Party organizers insist she was held against her will.
"She's not treated properly at that home. It's a miserable place, she has no freedom to even walk around, and to me it's a hellhole," says Diane Ardon, a longtime friend whom Ruthie sometimes refers to as "Mama."
Many of the party organizers say another of Ruthie's lifelong friends, Carol Cunningham, is part of a plan to keep Ruthie out of the public eye. Cunningham, who once owned a French Quarter praline shop that Ruthie frequented, has power of attorney over Ruthie's medical decisions; she now lives in Mississippi, where she is recovering from recent surgery and could not be interviewed for this story. But her daughter Dawn Dedeaux insists her mother does not have final authority over Ruthie's comings and goings.
"She thinks Ruthie has less and less ability to speak for herself," Dedeaux says, "but she has no legal authority [over Ruthie] beyond making medical decisions."
Dedeaux says Cunningham's primary concern is that Ruthie might be exploited. She adds that she hopes Ruthie's friends will realize that everyone wants what's in Ruthie's best interest.
"No one wants to deny her a good quality of life," she says. "I think all this is about tough issues like aging, and rights, and what happens when you go in a nursing home."
Ruth Grace Moulon became "Ruthie the Duck Girl" in the 1950s, when she was a slim teenager with brown ringlets, a dazzling smile and roller skates on her feet.
At the time it was easy to find a cheap place to live in the French Quarter, then a haven for outcasts, artists, musicians and other bohemian types. Tourists would visit the French Quarter not only to savor the jazz clubs and restaurants, but to ogle the mix of people who called the Quarter home.
That environment generated "French Quarter characters" -- recognizable eccentrics who had become as well-established in the French Quarter as its balconies and bars; people celebrated simply for being their outrageous, over-the-top selves.
Over the years, cheap housing gave way to high-rent condos and T-shirt shops began to squeeze out neighborhood groceries. Fewer and fewer of the creative personalities who had long defined the Quarter were actually living there anymore. The "French Quarter characters" were dying out.
Of the more famous players from the Quarter's moveable sideshow -- the Chicken Man, the Lucky Bead Lady, Pops, Banjo Annie -- all who remain from that era is Ruthie the Duck Lady.
"She represents something that's uniquely New Orleans," says Rick Delaup, a filmmaker whose credits include the 1999 documentary Ruthie the Duck Girl. "She's really the last of the old French Quarter characters and these were characters that lived these really colorful lives. ...
"She spent her life drinking for free in the Quarter, bumming cigarettes off people. People took care of her, they fed her, they gave her money by taking pictures of her, and if she had lived in any other city they would probably have locked her away. But that kind of lifestyle is celebrated here, and I think it should be appreciated more, that's for sure."
Delaup features many French Quarter characters on his Web site, www.eccentricneworleans.com. He is behind an effort to memorialize Ruthie in some way -- either by arranging her final resting place alongside voodoo queen Marie Laveau and other New Orleans notables in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, or perhaps erecting a statue of Ruthie and her ducks.
"It's a lifestyle that's disappearing now that the French Quarter has changed so much, and I just want people to remember the way it used to be," Delaup says. "To me, Ruthie is New Orleans. She's definitely one of the local icons."
Before becoming an icon, "Ruthie the Duck Girl" started out as a skinny, sickly child who, for reasons unknown, didn't go to school. Growing up, Ruthie and her brother Henry raised ducks in their family's Royal Street apartment. Like any baby ducks, the fowl would imprint on Ruthie as if she were their mother, and follow her everywhere. Tourists would gawk at the girl and her quacking coterie, and soon Ruthie's brother and mother were promoting the "Duck Girl." They sold picture postcards and other memorabilia, and charged people to take her photo. The Duck Girl had become a popular tourist attraction.
Over the years, Ruthie made herself a nightclub fixture, and her appearance and behavior grew increasingly off-the-wall -- to the delight of those who sought a glimpse of the Duck Lady, as she was now known. She would speak sweetly at you or cuss a blue streak, depending on her mood. On her feet were roller skates or cowboy boots, and Ruthie would wear a wedding dress, veil, fur coats and buttons that sported such phrases as "That's Just Ducky" or "F--k Off and Die."
Though the main elements of her diet were Budweiser and Kools, Ruthie had stopped paying for them long ago. She'd hit friends and strangers up for a beer or cigarette "for later," and people would always indulge her.
If Ruthie were born today, her cognitive weaknesses would likely be chalked up to a physical or mental disorder. But during Ruthie's heyday, nobody considered her inability to read, write and do simple math as anything but charming. Ruthie lived in a cluttered apartment with the gas shut off to keep her from accidentally setting the place on fire.
Ruthie's quirkiness eventually gave way to bouts with dementia. She'd go for weeks without bathing and her hair would become matted. Toward the end of her days in the Quarter, bartenders who had long treated Ruthie to free beers had to start kicking her out.
"Ruthie's hygiene had just gone out the window," Diane Ardon recalls. "Ruthie would urinate on herself, and she was filthy dirty. So all the places she would go during the day or night -- she was so dirty that they couldn't have her in the place."
By 1999, Ruthie had developed a persistent cough, and her mental and physical health had plummeted. "She coughed a lot, and she was throwing up," Delaup says. "When she was sitting in bars and clubs she would lean over and vomit. So there was definitely something not well with her, and the next thing I know, I heard they plucked her up off the street and brought her to the hospital."
St. Charles Health Care is located in a small, nondescript building on a side street off St. Charles Avenue, tucked between a gas station and a restaurant. One recent afternoon, Delaup -- a regular visitor -- arrives to pick Ruthie up for lunch. Ruthie appears in a hallway wearing Mardi Gras beads and a foil "Happy Birthday" tiara. She greets Delaup, but seems more excited about a nurse's Chihuahua that is trotting through the door. Ruthie runs up to the dog, calling "Hey, sugarplum!"
Ruthie has settled into this nursing home, though she sometimes complains. She hates the food but likes some of the other residents. She hates that they cut her hair, but loves the three miniature Chihuahuas that the nurse brings to the home every weekday. She hates sharing a room, and sleeps on a sofa in the TV room at night.
Ruthie is as gregarious as always, but she will ignore some people and cuss others out. She calls everyone "sugarplum" and says she wants a beer instead of lunch. She scoops up the nervous little Chihuahua and smooches it repeatedly on the face. Having a conversation with her is difficult; it usually has to be a question-and-answer session, with Ruthie providing the answers.
After they take a seat at their Magazine Street stop, Delaup takes out his portable camera, and he shows Ruthie the videotape of her friends arguing with the nursing home staff. "That's when they wouldn't let you come to your party, remember?" Delaup asks. Ruthie says she does remember, and she gets agitated as she watches the video. It's hard to tell how much of her recall is based on the actual incident and how much is based on the tape playing before her.
"You didn't like that, did you?" Delaup asks. "Didn't you want to go to your party?"
"Yeah ..." Ruthie replies, her voice trailing off.
Ruthie was not technically committed to St. Charles Health Care; she can leave if she wants, though she's clearly in no position to fill out the paperwork involved, or otherwise make major life-changing decisions on her own. That's where her friends come in. Carol Cunningham helped Ruthie get federal benefits and find a place where she would have supervision, medical treatment and regular meals.
But Diane Ardon believes Ruthie would be best off back in the Quarter. "She's delusional at times, but this is Ruthie. Ruthie can take care of herself," says Ardon, whose adult sons grew up with Ruthie and consider her part of the family. "I honestly believe that she has friends in the Quarter that would help. I definitely would make sure she had a hot meal every night. I'll check on the apartment and make sure it's clean. We are willing to do this. ...
"I think we'd even go to the extremes of going into some of the bars that she'd go to and say, 'Don't give Ruthie more than one beer.' They'd listen, because they love Ruthie. ... I think she's aged so she wouldn't be roaming the streets at four in the morning. She'd take her walks during the day, she'd have her hot food at night, she'd settle into a routine. Just give her a little freedom, and don't cage her like an animal."
Delaup believes Ruthie needs supervision, but thinks her current home is too restrictive. "Ideally, the best thing for Ruthie would be for her to live out in the world again, if someone was willing to take Ruthie in," says Delaup, acknowledging that nobody has made that kind of offer. "The second best thing would be to put her in another nursing home ... but I just don't know. Basically I'm just trying to deal with the nursing home she's in now. I just want them to be able to let her out."
St. Charles Health Care attorney Steve Sullivan says Ruthie has never been held against her will, nor denied visits. "She has full rights to visit and be visited," he says. "I think it's in a lot of people's fears, nursing homes. It strikes a chord. There's that image -- oh God, they're locking people up, they're tying them to bedposts.
"We're not locking anybody up," Sullivan says. "No one is being held hostage here."
The debate about Ruthie flared up in January 2001, when nursing home administrators said it was tough to calm Ruthie down after she returned from a night on the town. They said she could make only a brief appearance at the birthday party held for her that year at Mid-City Lanes Rock 'n' Bowl, but Ruthie ended up staying for much of the night.
Things exploded on Jan. 19 of this year, when friends who organized another birthday party for Ruthie at Rock 'n' Bowl ended up holding the bash without her.
Delaup and Ardon organized the party, which included Ruthie's friends from the past and present -- including Gary Moody, a former sailor who met Ruthie in the 1960s and has corresponded with her ever since. Ruthie has long described Moody as either her fiancé or her husband. He flew in from Minnesota for the event.
But Delaup and Ardon say that St. Charles Health Care denied Ruthie the chance to attend her party. Nursing home attorney Steve Sullivan says Ruthie didn't go because she told staffers she didn't want to.
Delaup captured the incident on video, and has posted stills of it on his Web site. His tape shows about 30 partygoers entering the facility, confronting nursing home staffers and demanding to see Ruthie. On the tape, the receptionist says Ruthie's family had picked her up and would not bring her back until the next day. Ruthie's friends argue with staffers, saying they had told the nursing home about the planned bash. They ask to visit her room, and are told they can't. They accuse the nurses of hiding Ruthie.
Minutes later, Ruthie is shown emerging from a side door wearing a blue-and-white polka-dot party dress and pearls. On the tape, Ruthie approaches her guests and waves -- until nurses steer her out of sight and lock the doors leading to the residential area. Staff members then call the police, who ask Ruthie's guests to leave.
After the incident, Delaup filed complaints with the Advocacy Center of New Orleans, a nonprofit organization focusing on rights of the disabled and elderly, and the state Department of Health and Hospitals. The agencies would not release their conclusions to Gambit Weekly, citing confidentiality. Advocacy Center attorney Terenia Guill says she can't discuss specifics of the case, but says "we looked into the complaint and communicated to them her rights," she says.
Guill cites Louisiana law, which says nursing homes must permit immediate access to visitors with the consent of the resident, and cannot unreasonably restrict residents' social interactions.
"A lot of times in nursing homes there are problems stemming from the nursing home, in good faith, wanting to protect people and going overboard and being overly paternal -- and sometimes stemming from the nursing home wanting to make things easier on themselves," Guill says.
Nursing home attorney Steve Sullivan says he hasn't seen Delaup's videotape and had not heard about the staff telling guests that Ruthie wasn't there. "Last year after the party it was really stressful on Ruthie," Sullivan says, describing her as combative for hours afterward. "She had a great deal of difficulty finding peace when she came back ... and the administrator was told by the folks that threw the party last year that they would not do it again."
Counters Delaup: "I believe she was probably a little difficult that first year because she didn't want to go back to the home. Maybe she was a little difficult, but it's a nursing home. Isn't that something they should have to deal with?"
Sullivan says that nursing home staffers learned of the party not by organizers, but by an announcement in The Times-Picayune. He says he was told by the nurse on duty that staff members had relayed to partygoers that Ruthie had decided not to go. "[The nurse] doesn't understand this business about them saying she wasn't there."
Ruthie's friends tell a different story. "When we went to get Ruthie, they said she wasn't there, and she was there," Delaup says. "Since when does Ruthie not want to go to a party? She jumps at any chance she can to leave the home. It's the time of her life."
Ardon believes Ruthie was "coerced" by nursing home staffers into saying she didn't want to attend. "It's all in the way you ask Ruthie a question," Ardon says. "If you say it like, 'You don't want to go to your birthday party, do you?' she'll say no. They brainwash Ruthie; they really do."
The presence of a video camera made the nursing home staff especially uncomfortable, says Sullivan. On tape, the nurses ask Delaup to turn it off, but he continues filming. "There is a policy against outside photography without consent," says Sullivan. "You can't walk into someone's home with a video camera and begin taping without their permission. [The nurse] asked them not to use the camera until they went through the proper channels, and the proper channels are to get a release from the residents."
Sullivan calls the incident a case of poor planning by party organizers and friction over the camera.
"If anyone wants to do anything for her in the future, just plan it like you would plan anything for another person -- with respect. Make sure the guest of honor RSVPs and says they want to go, and all this can be avoided," Sullivan says.
The birthday party incident has also heightened tensions between party organizers and Carol Cunningham. Dawn Dedeaux asserts that her mother only makes Ruthie's medical decisions; Ardon and Delaup believe Cunningham's influence extends further. "The nursing home is definitely telling me that Carol calls the shots," Delaup says. "They were telling me that I cannot take Ruthie out without them calling Carol."
Dedeaux believes her mother is being unfairly maligned. "Ruthie went to the party last year," she says. "My mother didn't like it, but she couldn't stop Ruthie from going. This year my mother had nothing to do with it, and if there was a bad guy, it was me."
Dedeaux recalls the nursing home called her before the party. "They said for some reason she doesn't want to go to this party, she doesn't want to be in a crowd, and I said, 'Listen, I think we should honor her wishes.' If she wanted to go I would have gone too, to keep an eye on her. But I believe, damn it, Ruthie can make some decisions for herself, and this year she just didn't want to go."
Dedeaux says her mother's concern is based on health conditions she says Ruthie suffers -- the initial stages of Parkinson's disease, bouts of alcoholic delusion and episodes of paranoid schizophrenia.
"Those are medical conditions, not my mother's personal opinion, meaning on a given day Ruthie can be really lucid and of sound mind," Dedeaux says. "And when she is of sound mind, let her make those decisions. But there are times when Ruthie has a bad day, and do you let her go out on a bad day?"
Delaup says that Ruthie's friends have tried to work with the nursing home. At the 2001 birthday party, he cites, they didn't let Ruthie drink alcohol in compliance with the nursing home's wishes. He believes Cunningham is well-intentioned -- he interviewed her for his film -- but adds that she "is treating Ruthie like she'd want her mother to be treated. But Ruthie is not like your mother or your average old lady. She's this wonderful free spirit, and to lock her away just crushes that spirit."
Dedeaux admits that her mother's problems with some of Ruthie's friends go beyond the birthday bashes. "My mom was a little concerned when Rick took her out and filmed her," she says. "She doesn't want Ruthie exploited, and at times she thinks he crosses the line -- is he interested in Ruthie or interested in himself? My mother's position is a little too harsh sometimes, and as an artist I like what Rick does, but there is the line that you draw."
Delaup scoffs at the notion that he is exploiting Ruthie, saying he is preserving the oddball reputation that Ruthie herself cultivated all her life. "Ruthie has been 'Ruthie the Duck Girl' since she was a young girl. She's always sold postcards [of herself]; she's always made a living being a 'sidewalk sideshow,' if you will. When we take her out to parties, she's dancing, having fun and that's what's important. It's the furthest thing from exploitation.
"She seems a little delusional, I have to say, but she doesn't seem that much different than she has since I've known her," Delaup says. "She's always been out there, but that's Ruthie."
On this day on Magazine street, Ruthie's presence of mind seems to come and go. As they make the rounds, Delaup asks Ruthie if she's happy at the nursing home. He tells her that if she's not, she can talk to Terenia Guill, the Advocacy Center attorney.
"If you don't like it there, you tell Terenia, and she can help you find someplace else to live," Delaup tells her.
Ruthie says vaguely that she doesn't like it, but her attention keeps drifting to the French Quarter of long ago, back to an apartment on Toulouse Street that she hasn't seen in years. "I want to go live on Toulouse Street again," she says.
Then she seems to correct herself. "I live on Toulouse Street," she says. "My ducks live there with me."
When it's time to go back to the nursing home, Ruthie doesn't make a fuss. It's late afternoon and it's quiet here, and she sits placidly in a chair in the entrance as Rick signs her back in. Her white stuffed duck rests on her lap. Its beak is tattered; Ruthie uses it to play with the Chihuahuas. Delaup says good-bye to Ruthie. "See you later, sugarplum," she replies.
CORRECTION: In the Feb. 19 Restaurant Guide index, Kelsey's Restaurant was mistakenly listed as a Japanese restaurant; Kelsey's actually serves Louisiana Contemporary cuisine. Gambit Weekly regrets the error.