Grace Weiss, Joe's Stone Crab chairman, dies at 98

Without Grace Weiss, it’s a safe bet that Joe’s Stone Crab might never have become the South Beach culinary landmark and celebrity magnet that it is today, in its centennial year.

And Jesse Weiss, a high-rolling gambler who inherited the restaurant from his parents, Joe and Jennie Weiss, loved nothing more than a safe bet.

So after he married the former Grace Charlene Babbitt at the end of World War II, she became the unseen force behind Joe’s gregarious front man. While Jesse charmed the movie stars and crooners, gangsters and lawmen, presidents, royalty, journalists, athletes, tourists and the merely rich – if not famous - Grace rarely emerged from the office.

Behind closed doors, she paid bills, negotiated deals, and “banged away’’ at her piano, said current owner Jo Ann Weiss Sawitz Bass, Jesse’s daughter, who called Grace Weiss “Mother.’’

Grace Weiss was never a “people person,’’ said Bass, “but she was the cog that made the wheel go around. She was the glue.’’

Grace Weiss, who retired to North Carolina in the 1990s, died there of cancer on Tuesday. She was 98 and still Joe’s Chairman of the Board.

Her name still appears on employees’ paychecks, Jo Ann Bass said.

“I always told her, ‘They should see your name; 375 people have jobs because of you.’’’

Jesse’s fifth and seventh – thus last – wife, Grace lived above the restaurant with Jesse while they were married and after they divorced, and worked as hard as anyone on the staff, Bass said.

During the 1950s, when mismanagement and Jesse’s gambling debts nearly ruined the business, Grace would be “up at 6 am checking in the food, scrubbing the floors and helping with the bookkeeping,’’ Bass said.

“She’d be counting fish in the alley,’’ added Joe’s longtime CFO, Marc Fine.

A stunning brunette in her prime, Grace was so beautiful that when Jesse introduced her to his young teenage daughter at summer camp as his new wife, “I thought he’d married a movie star,’’ Bass said. “She looked like Susan Hayward.’’

To the moment of her death, Grace Weiss was perfectly coiffed and manicured.

Grace Weiss refused to fly but loved car trips, around town or across the country. For decades, she and close friend Rose McDaniel, Joe’s daytime manager hit the road for California, stopping in Las Vegas to play the slots then encamping at the Beverly Hills Hotel.

A “career girl’’ on the fringes of show business into her late 20s, Grace had never wanted children, said Bass, a toddler when her own mother died. “And here she got stuck with me.’’

Initially they competed for Jesse’s attention, but eventually formed an alliance to save the restaurant in perilous times.

“She was tough,’’ Bass said. “Rigid.’’

Born Grace Charlene Trimble on Dec. 20, 1914, in Hardin, Mo., the future Grace Weiss grew up in Denver with her parents, Verta and William Babbitt. She attended cosmetology school then went on the road with comic Red Skelton and singer Frankie Laine.

She met Jesse, a soldier, in Chicago, and married him on May 19, 1945. After countless loud and impassioned battles over his womanizing and wagering, they divorced on April 16, 1955.

But they missed each other and remarried on April 14, 1961.

“She adored him,’’ Bass said, and when Jesse died in 1994, she was devastated.

Last year, Grace told writer Deeny Kaplan Lorber that Jesse was “dangerously exciting,’’ and “knew every hoodlum and café owner in’’ Chicago. “We went everywhere free.’’

Among Grace’s close friends: the late FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, but she also welcomed gangster Al Capone to the dining room. She was particularly close to Jack Paar, the first Tonight Show host, and his wife, Bass said.

“Every night was a party,’’ Grace told Lorber, “and you never knew what celebrity would walk in.’’

She said that she loved living above the dining room.

“You could see everything from our window. I’d even catch some of the waiters smoking in the ally.’’

When Grace joined the Weiss – and by extension, Joe’s, family – it was being run, haphazardly, by Jesse’s fourth wife. Grace took over immediately with a no-nonsense approach.

“Everything was a mess,’’ she told journalist Howard Kleinberg, who co-authored Eat At Joe’s, the restaurant’s history, with Jo Ann Bass in 2007.

“The place,’’ called simply Joe’s Restaurant, “had been closed for the summer season and a hurricane had just been through. I remember the big pot, and the mashed potatoes had been left in there for three months; they were so hard that they just adhered to the pot. So we just threw the pots and everything else away,’’ Grace recalled.

She talked about “a bushel basket full of bills. Do you know what a $3,500 meat bill was in 1945? And that’s what he owed. Papa owed a couple of heavy-weight gamblers money.’’

So she and Jo Ann “went around to all the suppliers, and they looked at Jo Ann and me, these two kids who didn’t know from anything,’’ Grace says in Eat at Joe’s. “Today I’m amazed that anybody did it, but everyone was really good to us and they said, ‘We’ll give you a chance.’’’

Although advisors pushed Grace toward bankruptcy, she refused.

“And we paid everybody everything that was coming to them, 100 percent on the dollar. It took us a few years because we didn’t have anything…When we came back, we had to start from scratch.’’

Jesse changed the name to Joe’s Stone Crab rather than tangle with an ex-wife who had power of attorney over the restaurant under its old name.

Grace Weiss presided over Joe’s steady growth and expansion, insisting on such personal touches as phones always answered by a person, not a recording.

“When you call us, there is always a person willing to help on the other end of the phone,’’ she told Lorber, for the recent book Waiting at Joe’s. “That has always been our philosophy.’’

Although she was still involved with restaurant operations in the late 1980s when the federal Equal Opportunity Commission began investigating Joe’s for allegedly refusing to hire female servers, Grace Weiss wasn’t implicated.

But she wholeheartedly supported Jo Ann’s million-dollar battle against the lawsuit that followed.

The case ended in 2001 after Joe’s paid a $200,000 judgment, which Jo Ann vigorously protested, citing the restaurant’s female management and long history of hiring women and minorities.

To Grace Weiss, Joe’s was a family, steeped in loyalty and tradition. Last year she predicted that “Joe’s will be here in another hundred years. Our people always train the next generation.’’

Grace Weiss’s ashes will be interred in Hendersonville, N.C., next to Jesse’s. Arrangements are pending with Thos. Shepherd & Son Funeral Directors, Hendersonville.

She is survived by Jo Ann Bass, grandchildren Stephen Sawitz (Joe’s co-owner) and Jodi Hershey, four great-grandchildren and two great- great grandchildren.

Donations in her memory should be made to Habitat for Humanity.

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