The owner of the Red Key Tavern—the Meridian-Kessler institution that was a backdrop in Dan Wakefield’s famous novel "Going All the Way"—died Sunday morning. Russel Settle was 92.
Settle was famous for “Russel’s Rules.” He insisted patrons take off their hats and hang up their coats at the entrance. They weren’t supposed to swear, prop their feet up on chairs or move the tables around. And the bartender—especially when it was Settle himself—was always right.
“Russ will just as soon ban you from ever coming in as he will thank you for darkening his door,” wrote Tom Chiarella, fiction editor for Esquire magazine. But, he added, “You have to like a little discipline in the mealy heart of a dive like this, where the ancient murals are lacquered with cigarette smoke and grime, and the linoleum is so worn, there are pathways to the only three significant stops in any bar: the men's room, the jukebox, and the exit.”
Such rules countered the “customer’s-always-right” maxim of business, but they made the hole-in-the-wall at 52nd Street and College Avenue a good place for conversation, said Nora Spitznogle, a waitress at the Red Key.
“It made it a pleasant place to be,” she said. Spitznogle was a regular at Red Key for several years—going there to read or write—before Settle offered her a job.
“When Russel asked me to work there, it was almost like an appointment from the governor,” said Spitzbogle, who is also chief of operations at Second Helpings, a local food pantry. “Me?”
Settle co-piloted bombers during World War II. His plane was shot down and he was held as a prisoner of war in Germany.
He bought the Red Key in 1951. Both Settle and the bar were featured in Wakefield’s 1970 novel "Going All the Way." The story about two Korean War vets returning to their hometown of Indianapolis, had enough sex in it to make it and Wakefield controversial.
The book was turned into a movie in 1997 starring Jeremy Davies and Ben Affleck. Some scenes of the movie were filmed at the Red Key, with Settle in the background.
Settle retired seven years ago and passed management of the bar to his son Jim. But Russel Settle was still there regularly, including the night before he died. On Friday night, Settle celebrated his 59th anniversary of owning the bar.
“I think he just ran out of gas,” said Jim Settle, 50. He remembered his dad for his colorful saying, which Jim Settle now uses himself. If someone is talking too much, Settle would have said, “She was inoculated with a phonograph needle.”
Settle and his wife, Dollie, both have worked at the tavern since 1983.
Jim Settle said he’d miss his father as he heads into work at his usual 5 o’clock today. But he intends to keep serving drinks and keep telling customers to follow his father’s rules.
“A lot of those rules should be standard for all bars,” Jim Settle said. “I tell people, ‘Just act like you’re at your grandma’s.’”