We got the first inkling while sitting shiva for my aunt Joan in January 1999.
At her Long Island apartment, the table piled high with delicatessen, I examined a knick-knack on a shelf. It was a news clipping preserved under glass—an account of my grandfather's death in 1939.
It reported the facts as we had always heard them: Walter Ruby, businessman, died of an apparent heart attack in his New York City office at Rockefeller Center.
I showed the item to my brother, also named Walter Ruby, as he spoke with our cousin Wendy, the eldest child of Joan. "Oh, that was just a cover story," Wendy blurted out. "Don't you know he was a suicide."
A what? No, we had no idea, but even as she spoke it sort of made sense. Walter and I registered the shocking information, then simultaneously looked across the room at our father, Joan's younger brother Stanley, wondering what did he know?
We didn't ask—not then and not before our father passed away five years later. But Walter, a reporter, went to the municipal archive on Varick Street, where he was able to access the death certificate and attached medical examiner's report.
It confirmed what Wendy said: Walter Ruby was found dead in his office in Rockefeller Center. The cause of death was cyanide poisoning.
Next Walter did a record search with the New York Police Department and eventually received an official letter that no homicide investigation had been conducted.
That left just one possible explanation for what had happened.
Our father Stanley Ruby was 15 years old at the time of his father's death. What he knew or suspected about the circumstances of the tragedy we don't know. We know that he perpetuated the heart attack cover story throughout his life.
Now in his late 70s, there was no justifiable reason for us to possibly disturb his state of mind by probing his deepest memories. We let it rest.
But the questions resurfaced—and with it my interest in genealogy—after first Stan and then our mother Helga passed away in 2004 and 2005.
In the years since, I have been able to learn a great deal about our family history, including coming to understand one reason why Walter Ruby may have made the tragic decision to take his life.
The trigger was the proverbial box of treasures that we found in the attic when my sister Joanne and I cleaned out the townhouse after Helga's death.
Inside were photos, documents and artifacts that we never knew existed—home movies from Stan's youth, the travel papers my grandmother and mother used to escape Europe, birth and death certificates, and several personal items belonging to Walter Ruby.
One heartbreaking item in the box of artifacts was this desk calendar—with a hinged leatherette cover stamped with Walter's name and a hole cut out for a clock, and calendar pages inside with the hours sectored off from the clock face. It is designed so each page is torn away to display the current date.
This must have been on his desk on the day he died, since the pad is torn off to July 22, 1939.
A few years later, I started looking deeper into Walter Ruby's life, including his career as an advertising and marketing executive for the American Spirits liquor company, importers of Carioca rum among other brands.
I wanted to check out the bit of family lore that claimed he was the originator of the rum and coke cocktail. That was an exaggeration as libations such as the Cuba Libre were well known previously. But it turned out that he did devise a variant of the drink under the name Carioca Cooler.
Searching online, I found numerous images of Carioca artifacts—souvenir bottles, recipe book, advertisements, bar coasters—and various intriguing document citations.
Here is a page of Carioca marketing slogans that American Spirits took the trouble to copyright in 1936. They read like modern-day tweets.
My favorite: "Wanted. Name of bon vivant who discovered new rum drink." Walter Ruby, natch.
But there was trouble brewing. Pasting together snippets of a Google books excerpt of a 1941 compendium of U.S. trademark appeals court decisions, I learned that American Spirits had been sued for trademark infringement by the Coca-Cola Company.
It seems that both American Spirits and its competitor Puerto Rico Rum Co., maker of Ronrico Rum, courted Coca Cola's endorsement for a rum and coke product, but that the soft-drink company rebuffed both companies.
For a time, American Spirits actively marketed its association with Coke, as is plainly seen in this promotional bar coaster.
Possibly Carioca had a relationship with Coke's New York bottling company but not with the beverage maker itself. We know that in late 1937, Walter left American Spirits abruptly.
It appears that he was made the fall guy for the trouble with Coca Cola and was suddenly dismissed from the company.
For the next 18 months, Walter pursued new projects related to the beverage industry. One of them was manufacturing a barman's tool, a combination opener-corkscrew-pen, which may be why the death certificate shows his occupation as manufacturer.
He maintained a private office at Rockefeller Center, where American Spirits was also quartered.
Later that Saturday afternoon, police arrived at the Ruby home in Long Beach. Selma Ruby received the devastating news at the door while Stan listened from the bathroom off the entry hall. "We regret to inform you...."
Then followed all the rituals: the service and burial at Mount Hebron Cemetery in Queens, and then the endless saying of kaddish for all the next year.
We can only speculate what professional and financial pressures he may have been under. If he left American Spirits under a cloud, perhaps he found it difficult to recover his reputation and business prospects.
All we know is that he left for the office on Saturday morning, July 22, 1939, and he didn't come back.
He left his widow Selma and two children well provided for. They stayed on in the Long Beach home until Selma remarried and Stan left for college.
Stanley Ruby, physicist and dreamer, died at age 80 in Los Gatos, Calif on October 18, 2004. Helga Ruby, survivor and reformer, died at age 80 in Los Gatos, Calif. on April 25, 2005.
Their three children visited the Walter and Selma Ruby grave site in 2006, an early stop in a journey that has since led us to many unexpected discoveries.
The secret behind our grandfather's desk calendar is not a source of shame but a ray of enlightenment upon our own past, present and future.