In the pantheon of great New Orleans characters, there should be a special place of honor for Ronnie Virgets, who not only personified what it means to be one of those characters but also immortalized many of them in a lifetime of brilliant storytelling. Ronnie left us too soon, on May 20, to take his honored place. He was 77.
Ronnie leaves behind an unrivaled body of work and countless grieving friends and admirers.
He has been compared to Damon Runyon, and rightfully so, but I also think of him as the Jimmy Breslin of New Orleans. He knew everybody and everything worth knowing in this quirky city. He shared his insights and observations on the pages of Gambit in his “Razoo” column for more than 20 years. Each was a classic, and many of them found their way into his three published books — “Say, Cap!”, “Lost Bread,” and “Saints and Lesser Souls.”
"Nice ride, but my stop's coming up. Time, as they used to chant in the airborne army, to stand up, hook up, shuffle to the door. To the door …
Ronnie’s journalism career took him many places, admittedly because, as he told WWL-TV, “I’ve been laid off by a lot of people. I’ve had many a job and in more than one of them I was kind of asked to leave early.” In addition to Gambit, Ronnie covered his favorite topic — thoroughbred racing — for the Racing Form and later wrote his “Railbird Ronnie” column for The Times-Picayune. He won many awards for his print columns as well as a regional Emmy for his work in television.
Ronnie’s broadcast career perfectly synthesized the exquisite contradictions of a quintessential New Orleanian: He often showed up for work unkempt, underdressed and unshaven, yet perfectly at ease in front of a camera or microphone. There was nothing phony about him, and audiences loved him for it. He appeared on WWL-TV, WDSU-TV, WYES-TV, WGNO-TV and WWNO-FM. In 2002, the Press Club of New Orleans honored him with its lifetime achievement award. In 1996, Ronnie and his longtime partner, Lynne Jensen, reigned over the satirical Krewe du Vieux parade.
A native of the city’s 3rd Ward, Ronnie had a voice as unmistakable as the aromas emanating from another 3rd Ward landmark, Mandina’s Restaurant, where he once worked as a bartender. An Army veteran who served in Vietnam, Ronnie also worked as a marketer for AT&T, a bouncer at the Famous Door and as the advertising voice of his beloved Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots, where he knew everyone from the owners to the hot walkers.
Ronnie also was partly responsible for my own dive into the world of horse racing. In 1999, I got a call from my friend James Gill, who knows quite a bit about thoroughbreds himself, asking if I’d like to help him put together a group to buy a racehorse. Of course I would, and the first person I suggested he call was Ronnie. Gill immediately agreed, but we both wondered if he could scrape together the requisite $5,000 investment. Turns out he could, and in honor of that we named our little group Razoo Stables.
Gill had one more requirement. “No assholes,” he said as we pondered additional members. “Of course, you and I are grandfathered in.”
I confessed that I’d first have to convince She Who Must Be Obeyed to let me pony up $5,000, but I knew just the trick. I asked Gill if my wife Margo, an inveterate fashionista, could design the jockey silks. I figured she’d insist on that, and I was right. She approved my initial outlay and promptly got to work on a bright-red silk uniform with a stylized “R” on front and back, with zebra stripes down the arms. When our group debuted in early 2000, we gathered inside the paddock to watch trainer Tom Amoss give his instructions to the jockey. Margo cozied up to the jock and asked, “How do you like those silks?” The poor jockey shrugged and said, “Nice,” to which SWMBO replied, “You’re going to be envy of all the other jockeys.”
Ronnie was standing on the other side of the jockey and immediately groused, “No offense, Margo, but I’d rather be the envy of all the other owners!”
Turns out they both got their wish, eventually. Our little filly, Here Comes JK, took first place in a $16,000 race in March 2000, though I don’t think the silks impressed the other jocks as much as Lonnie Meche’s superb ride.
Ronnie and I laughed often at that story, and many others over the years. Razoo Stables enjoyed a four-year run before our luck ran out, but we had one helluva ride. We particularly enjoyed our hallmark lunches at the Crescent City Steak House, where we gathered before and after each season (and in between) to plot our fortunes. One of our later members, the late Joe Berrigan, said he joined the group even though he didn’t care much for horse racing. “I just wanna go to the lunches and sit by Ronnie Virgets,” he said.
We all wanted that enviable perch.
I probably had the best seat of all as one of Ronnie’s editors at Gambit. His weekly "Razoo" columns always arrived on Monday but were never typewritten. Ronnie hand-wrote — in very good Catholic-nun-informed penmanship — all of his columns on looseleaf paper, often torn from spiral notebooks. He added what I assumed was a deliberately playful twist to some of them: writing in red ink, perhaps in defiance of former editors who mercilessly wielded red pens against reporters’ errant copy.
Editing Ronnie’s columns consisted of reading them, in awe, and then passing them along, unchanged. No need to tinker with perfection. I’d sooner try to rearrange a sunset over Lake Pontchartrain.
In his later years, after Hurricane Katrina, Ronnie moved to New Roads, in Pointe Coupee Parish. A friend once asked him how he, a city boy, managed that bi-coastal lifestyle. Ronnie’s answer was pure Virgets: “When I get bored of New Roads, I go back to Noo Awlins. When I get aggravated about Noo Awlins, I come back to New Roads.”
In one of his last interviews, he told WWL-TV’s Eric Paulsen, “I haven’t run out of stories. I’ve just run out of energy.”
That’s okay, Ronnie, because your stories will live forever. We were a richer city for having you walk, talk and write among (and about) us. So long, Cap!
On the back of the bar, all the bottles were in their usual places.