Harrison County

Irene Stevens: An ‘incredible woman’ who ruled Coast’s glamour scene in the 1950s

Gus and Irene Stevens attend an event in this undated photo. Irene Stevens, the wife of legendary restaurateur and nightclub owner Gus Stevens, died July 10.
Gus and Irene Stevens attend an event in this undated photo. Irene Stevens, the wife of legendary restaurateur and nightclub owner Gus Stevens, died July 10. Sun Herald file

If things ever got rowdy at Gus Stevens’ supper club, Irene Stevens never had to worry. Her husband, Gus, had her covered.

Stevens died July 10 at age 95 in D’Iberville.

“She was an incredible woman,” daughter Elaine Stevens said. “She was devoted to her children, the church and the restaurant. She was the glue that held the family together.”

She also was “glamorous with a real sense of style,” Elaine said, noting that her mother acquired her first fur coat at age 18.

“She dressed Daddy, too,” she said.

Gus Stevens moved to the Mississippi Gulf Coast in 1946, after opening two restaurants in Prichard, Alabama, and it wasn’t long after that that his world changed forever.

“My mom came to his restaurant here,” Elaine said. “She was collecting for the Greek war relief effort, and he said, ‘Uh, huh!’ He asked her if she would like to go out on his boat.”

A whirlwind romance and marriage resulted, and the next year, the young couple found themselves in high water, thanks to the hurricane of 1947.

“They had to practically swim out of the building,” Elaine said. “They were at the restaurant. Mom put the money bags on top of her head and waded out.”

Gus Stevens’ Seafood Restaurant & Buccaneer Lounge set the pace for smart entertainment and fine dining along the Gulf Coast during the 1950s and ‘60s, attracting stars such as Andy Griffith, Mel Torme, Dave Gardner, Jerry Lee Lewis and, perhaps most famously, Jayne Mansfield. Irene was quite involved in the business, too, serving as hostess, running the restaurant’s gift shop and taking cover charges for floor shows.

“Dad built her a cage for taking the money,” Elaine recalled. “We called it the bird cage. Some of those men coming to see the floor shows could get rowdy, but she was fine in the bird cage. It was a whopping $3 charge.”

Her mother was a good businesswoman, Elaine said, noting that Gus himself sometimes borrowed money from his wife.

“She would buy all the employees at our restaurants Christmas gifts, and we would individually wrap them for each employee,” she said.

Irene enjoyed entertaining as well as shopping at stores such as Nordstrom and Godchaux’s, and movies.

“She loved black and white films, and she adored Clark Gable,” Elaine said. She never got to meet her matinee idol, but she and her family did enjoy having entertainers such as Griffith, Gardner, Jerry Van Dyke and Broadway actress Gretchen Wyler come to visit on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and musical acts such as The Four Mints were a welcome addition. In fact, Gulfport businessman Gene Warr, a member of the Four Mints, will sing at her funeral Saturday.

She also kept up with celebrities through movie magazines that were popular at the time.

“She loved to eat. We all did, and do,” Elaine said. “At breakfast, we were thinking about lunch, and at lunch, we were asking, ‘What’s for dinner?’”

“She made great spaghetti,” daughter Kathy Roberts said. Elaine noted their father had trouble saying spaghetti when he praised his wife’s cooking, instead saying something similar to “by-yetti.”

In her 80s, Irene bottled her own salad dressing, Yaya’s Greek Salad Dressing, and sold it at shops along the Mississippi Coast.

Fashion was an important part of Irene Stevens’ life, too.

“If she liked a pair of shoes, she bought a pair in each color they had,” Elaine said.

Irene continued to live a fulfilling life even after her husband’s death in 1998.

“People were always telling her how good she looked,” Elaine recalled, adding that her mother attributed it to eating olive oil and very little sugar, and fidelity to the only man who had been her mate.

“She said, ‘I’ve had a great life. I’ve had a lot of excitement. There was never a dull moment with my little Gus,’” Elaine said.

Tammy Smith: 228-896-2130, @Simmiefran1