Ralph Gabriel Martell, 93, of Bouckville, New York, died on July 9, 2020, in Ithaca, New York. He was born on February 9, 1927, to Lawrence Martell and Elizabeth LaForest in Mount Clemens, Michigan, the youngest of 17 children.
He was married twice. His first union, as a young man, lasted briefly. He married Alison Murray in 1971 and the couple had two children, Nevin and Josephine. The couple divorced in 1997. Ralph had another daughter, Mary Elizabeth Mullen.
Ralph’s mother died when he was 10 years old. At age 13, he ran away from home to join two brothers, Lorne and Willy, living in Key West, Florida. He attended Saint Leo College Preparatory School in St. Leo, Florida, through the 8th grade. When he turned 18, he enlisted in the Army. From 1945 to 1947, he served; first as a paratrooper and then as a medic. The night before he was to ship out to Europe, he was struck by a drunk driver, who crushed his left leg, leaving him convalescing for two years, two months, and two days. In all probability, this terrible accident saved his life.
After leaving the service, he and his brothers, Lorne and Willy, opened a restaurant and jazz club, the Down Beat Bar, in Key West, Florida; the first of many ventures for the budding entrepreneur. Their second effort, an after-hours club, the Gallery Lounge, gained a passionate following, counting legendary playwright Tennessee Williams, iconic writer Gore Vidal, and Pulitzer Prize-winning author and playwright Thornton Wilder as frequent guests.
There were sojourns on Cape Cod and St. Thomas before Ralph moved north to open Café Briki in New York City, Martell’s in Amagansett on Long Island, and, later, Martell’s on Manhattan’s Upper East Side (he would ultimately split his time between the city and residences in Greene, New York and, later, Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania). The latter, billed as a “a saloon in the old tradition” with “fine foods and spiritous liquors,” flourished under his steady and creative guidance for more than two decades. The restaurant attracted devoted regulars, including notable celebrities, such as actor-director Robert Redford, first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and her daughter, Caroline, and Brooke Shields, then a budding starlet. After an impressive run of more than two decades, a rarity in an industry with high rates of failure and turnover, he sold the restaurant in 1985.
After leaving the restaurant business, Ralph retired and moved his family to New Zealand for several years. They moved back to the States in 1988 to live in Clinton, New York. He resettled to a woodsy cabin on Leland Pond in nearby Bouckville after his divorce.
An avid traveler, Ralph never went anywhere without his camera and fishing gear. In later years, he chronicled his adventures in a series of self-published books, including Memories of the Mato Grosso and When Does the Fun Start? A candid black and white photo he snapped of Tennessee Williams, then a close friend, standing on the porch of a fishing shop in Key West, Florida, in 1953, was reproduced as a popular postcard.
Ralph is survived by his children Nevin Martell, Josephine Martell, and Mary Elizabeth Mullen, his daughter-in-law Indira Martell, his son-in-law William Glennon, and his four grandchildren