They call Jeanne Smith “Queen Mum.”
Not just her eight sons, but the 35 members of the Redondo Rubies, a chapter of the Red Hat Society (RHS), the social phenomenon that has swept around the globe like something out of Ripley’s Believe It or Not.
Would you believe the sole objective of the group is to have fun?
No boring meetings are allowed, Smith, 67, explained during an interview at her Prospect Avenue home last week. Just brunches, happy hours, spas, lunches, teas, movies, dinners, museums, cruises and trips to far-off places like Panama, New Orleans and Las Vegas.
Directed primarily at women 50 and older, the concept began many years ago, when Fullerton resident Sue Ellen Cooper (now Queen Mother) bought a red fedora at a thrift shop.
A year or so later, moved by a poem ("Warning" by Jenny Joseph) that depicts an older woman thumbing her nose at age by wearing purple clothing and a red hat, Cooper decided to gift a friend with a vintage red hat and a copy of the poem.
Several repetitions later, the seed for the Red Hat Society was planted. Officially sanctioned 14 years ago, Red Hat now has chapters in 50 states and 30 countries.
Ten years ago, looking for new activities after retiring from Verizon (formerly GTE), Smith discovered the Red Hat Society on the Internet, but no local chapter. Since it cost only $39 to form one, she did so. (Yearly RHS dues are $20.)
“When you start a chapter you are the queen,” said Smith, also known as Queen Jeanne. “All I did was call up all my friends and say, ‘Do you want to get together? Do you want to have some fun?’”
Among her privileges the Queen Jeanne enjoys is her royal court, with titles bestowed by the members themselves. There is Vice Queen Lauretta Loveland (“The Queen of Vice,” Smith said, laughing); Countess of Correspondence Marlene Ennis, who sends out birthday cards; and Empress of Adventure Joann Rossi, who arranges trips. All three hail from Redondo Beach.
Like others in the group, Smith found enormous solace in the Redondo Rubies after her husband, Robert, passed away in 2007.
Smith and Rossi, for example, were “just acquaintances in the Red Hat Society,” Smith said, “but for some reason, at my husband’s funeral, she and I just clicked.”
While it is standard practice for an entire chapter to attend the funeral of a member, all the Rubies showed up at Robert Smith’s memorial service, a sign of their deep affection for their Queen Mum.
The society, the bonding, the camaraderie—it all “changes lives,” Smith said. “My friend’s sons thank me every day that she found us.”
Rossi agrees. “My life is forever changed for the better because of the Red Hat Society,” she said. “Without it, I would probably be on some antidepressant drug and waiting admission for the old age home. I now have more friends—good friends—than I ever dreamed possible.”
Rossi also has a calendar crammed with events, including wine festivals, Bunco nights, Pageant of the Masters and Oscar parties, where the Rubies dress as their favorite actor and walk a red carpet at the house of the hostess.
“We are stopped on the street, at restaurants, concerts, (and) people are always wanting their picture taken with us,” the Empress of Adventures said.
The group isn’t entirely self-centered, Rossi added. “At Christmas, our chapter adopts a family in need and Jeanne, our Queen Mum, finds out all about each member in the family and we go out and fill their Christmas wishes.” The Rubies have also supported the Rainbow House in San Pedro and seniors.
Smith is the glue, Rossi said, “our very important Queen who keeps us all together as friends and confidants. If anyone has a (problem), Jeanne finds a way to help. She is a wonderful and caring Queen Mum.”
Other than thoroughly enjoying themselves, the Redondo Rubies adhere to very few rules. Wearing red hats, purple garments and plenty of bling, however, is practically a by-law. (Women aged 49 and younger are welcome to join, but are restricted to pink hats and lavender clothing.)
“Sometimes, when we feel like getting crazy, we do Black and Bling,” said Smith, whose sweet smile often escalates into a belly laugh.
Accessories are a must. “You have to have purses,” she cautioned, dangling a red satin evening bag. Plumed fans are encouraged, as are kazoos, “the official instrument of the Red Hat Society.” Smith proceeded to demonstrate the whistle-like instrument that sounds like a honking duck on steroids.
Red Hat fashion, Smith joyfully explained as she modeled an astonishing array of chapeaus, has nothing whatsoever to do with couture. Whether made out of a lampshade or purchased at the Burlington Coat Factory (they stock a lot of hats), the regalia worn by Redondo Rubies is meant to inspire smiles, not envy.
With one entire closet devoted to purple and red outfits (red clothes and purple hats are worn during a Red Hatter’s birthday month), Smith paraded out a dozen hat boxes stuffed with everything from spangled berets to tulle-and-feathered headdresses. Royal jewels included rhinestone broaches and humongous rings.
Although her obsession with Red Hat garb seems over-the-top, to say the least, Smith swears she isn’t alone. “Anyone who is really into it” is the same, she said, the often gaudy attire part of the spectacle as Red Hatters invade restaurants, theatres, museums, parades (they are often in them) and jazz festivals.
While waiting for transportation outside the Magic Castle in Hollywood, for example, the Redondo Rubies caused an uproar. “You would have thought we were movie stars. Cars stopped, people honked, stopped for pictures,” she said. “What’s so funny is the young men, maybe in their 20s or 30s, they always say, ‘Can we take your picture? I want to show my mother this.’ Or they say, ‘My grandmother is a Red Hatter.’”
Speaking of young men, how about raising eight sons?
In Smith’s case, it was more akin to the Partridge Family. After an early first marriage deteriorated in the late '60s, the Pennsylvania-born Jeanne Myers, mother of three sons, met Robert Smith, a co-worker at GTE and father of five boys. They married in 1976.
“We never used the word ‘step’ in our family,” Smith said. Even though the Myers boys (Tom, 48; Bill, 47; and Ken, 49) and Smiths (Bob, 52; John, 50; Donald, 48; Mike, 47; Dave, 43) had different last names, they were equally “our sons.”
Being the sole woman in the big, testosterone-filled house on Avenue C had its privileges. The boys not only got along, she said, “They treated me like a queen.”
Along with working full time at GTE, the Smiths spent every weekend driving their sons to games, band practices and social events. “We were soccer mums and dads, assistant coaches; we put on dances and parties; held fund-raisers," she said. "Those were the best years of our lives.”
While Robert Smith worked as a lineman, Jeanne started as a cord-board operator 1969, a year after she moved to Redondo Beach. One of the highpoints of her job came during the Vietnam War, when a man in Palos Verdes wanted to connect Vietnam soldiers with folks at home by patching them to his ham radio through the phone company.
“He would call and say, ‘Okay here are six numbers. You’re going to call Mr. and Mrs. Smith and tell them I have their son Johnnie on the line.’ ... That whole night I would patch parents, spouses, whatever, through to Vietnam soldiers," she said. "I loved that; that was just fantastic.”
Before she retired in 1998, Smith had progressed from operator to community involvement trainer to supervisor of five warehouses.
It was her husband who came up with the “Redondo Rubies” as a name for the Red Hat chapter. Retired, her nest emptying, the people-loving Smith gloried in the laughter and fun involved in her role as Queen Mum.
“Hey, let’s make hats out of bras!” one member suggested. They did.
Long active as a volunteer at Beach Cities Health District, where she answers phones and helps seniors with grocery shopping, Smith still has family duties. Her son Bill Myers lives with her, as does her granddaughter, Marissa Myers, 21. Then there are the grandchildren, who seem to multiply like so many dandelions (17, if you count “extended family” kids).
In the midst of preparing for the Rubies 10th Anniversary Tea on the 12th of this month, Smith plans to serve tea, scones, champagne and quiche in her outdoor garden.
Pictures of the anniversary tea will no doubt populate one of many albums that trace the group’s activities over the years—events Rubies are encouraged to come up with, whether a restaurant for lunch or a tiptop Margarita.
“I try to get the person who came up with the idea to run with it,” Queen Jeanne said.
For trips to places such as the Getty Museum, Huntington Botanical Gardens and the Hollywood, Smith can arrange for a bus (free to seniors) via the office of L.A. County Supervisor Don Knabe.
About the only thing the Red Hatters don’t seem to do is look for dates. “None of us are interested in that,” Smith said. The attitude seems to be been there, done that.
The best part of the Red Hat Society is forming “wonderful, close friendships,” she said.
Rossi added a postscript. “If anyone out there is over 50 and lonely, stop complaining and look up the Red Hat Society on (the) Internet. You can get a list of local chapters in your area and start living once again with fun and a purpose for life.”