Suzanne Raffel Gruber, 87, the founder and owner of Raffles for Bridge and a celebrity in the region's bridge-playing community, died at home in Bala Cynwyd on Friday, May 3, from complications of leukemia.
Mrs. Gruber started her bridge club in 1964 at the Green Hill apartments as a recently divorced single mother of three girls. She moved the business numerous times as the club grew in popularity.
Raffles for Bridge now is housed in the Madison building at the Presidential City Apartments on City Avenue and can accommodate more than 100 players at a time, said daughter Joan Koven.
Games run there day and night, seven days a week, Koven said. Mrs. Gruber never retired and last was at the club two weeks ago, said daughter Ellen Miller.
In the last weeks of her life, Mrs. Gruber always took phone calls from the club to find out who was playing and how the games were going.
Koven described her mother as "an amazing, fierce competitor," at bridge as well as golf, where she was a club champion with a seven-handicap.
The daughters attributed Mrs. Gruber's focus and "savant memory" to bridge. "Her mind was as sharp as could be," Koven said.
Mrs. Gruber started teaching bridge in Western Pennsylvania while married to her first husband, the late Forrest B. Raffel, cofounder of the Arby's restaurant chain.
"She wanted to get a housekeeper and he said, 'We can't afford it,' " Koven said. "She said, 'No problem, I'll teach bridge in the living room.' "
After she and Raffel divorced, Mrs. Gruber moved back to her native Philadelphia to be near family.
Mrs. Gruber grew up on Carpenter Lane in Germantown and graduated from Cheltenham High School. She then attended Western College for Women in Oxford, Ohio.
Her daughters described her as combining a certain class and elegance, born of a bygone era of ballroom dancing and etiquette training, with a full embrace of the modern, independent woman who emerged from the women's liberation movement.
Mrs. Gruber was proud recently to have been voted into the Hamilton Bridge Club, which was formerly an all-male club.
She also managed to be both a "logical and linear" thinker who indulged in superstitions, particularly concerning numbers, and had a "very wild" side.
"She kind of had a reckless abandon to her," Miller said.
Mrs. Gruber could cook only two things, egg salad and chicken wings, and she always took them to the club. There, she played hostess, social worker, and even psychiatrist to her friends and patrons.
"She saw [the club] as a way for people to get out of the house and meet each other," Miller said. "She had a lot of matchmaking stories."
Mrs. Gruber's zest for life included a love of fine dining, travel, the city's parks and museums, and a wide circle of family and friends.
"She was original," Koven said.
In addition to Koven and Miller, Mrs. Gruber is survived by daughter Ginny Karabell, three sons-in-law, and seven grandchildren. She also is survived by a sister, Adele Goldberg Block.
She was preceded in death by her second husband, Maurice Gruber, and a sister, Wilma Miller.
A memorial service will be held Monday, May 6, at 11 a.m. at the Main Line Reform Temple in Wynnewood.
Contributions may be made in Mrs. Gruber's name to the Friends of the Wissahickon.