National News

Kathy Kriger, ‘Madame Rick’ at Her Casablanca Cafe, Is Dead at 72

Posted July 30, 2018 2:44 p.m. EDT

When Kathy Kriger left the U.S. diplomatic service after 9/11, the liberal in her was alarmed at the global war on terrorism and wanted to make a symbolic stand for tolerance by investing in a Muslim country.

And when she arrived in Morocco, the entrepreneur in her saw a great business opportunity: She found that Rick’s Café, the cinematic gin joint from the 1942 movie “Casablanca,” did not actually exist.

So she opened her own Rick’s Cafe, in 2004, in a converted old house in Casablanca’s Ancienne Medina, or old city, and ran the establishment for 14 years.

Kriger died at 72 on Thursday in Casablanca, the U.S. embassy in Morocco confirmed on Twitter, calling her a “larger-than-life figure in the community.” Issam Chabaa, the manager of Rick’s, said Kriger had been hospitalized after having a stroke Tuesday.

Her Rick’s Cafe became a destination for tourists and locals alike, an oasis of period authenticity, with columned white arches framing the main dining room under a three-story cupola, hanging brass chandeliers, beaded table lamps, palms swaying in the corners and a baby grand piano tucked under an archway, as if waiting for Dooley Wilson’s Sam to return and play it once more for old time’s sake.

On most nights, Kriger — “Madame Rick” to the regulars — could be found at the corner of the bar, sipping water from a wineglass until 11 p.m., when she’d allow the bartender to pour a Moroccan Val d’Argan Blanc.

Kriger had a good-natured habit of relating her actions to scenes and famous lines from “Casablanca.” Returning to Casablanca from her last foreign trip, to France in June, she said, “We’ll always have Paris."

And finding investors for Rick’s Café was a matter of “rounding up the usual suspects.”

The investors were surprised when the restaurant and nightclub became so successful that it paid them generous dividends.

“She really believed in it, and she’s really a force of nature,” said one of them, Leah Caplan, a chef from Seattle who consulted with Kriger on her eclectic menu. “There were so many things that happened in creating Rick’s that any normal mortal would have given up.”

Kriger said running Rick’s was “assisted living, of the best kind,” and when asked if she planned to retire, she liked to quote Humphrey Bogart’s character, Rick Blaine, who said to Ingrid Bergman’s Ilsa Lund: “I’m going to die in Casablanca. It’s a good spot for it.”

Kathleen Anne Kriger was born in Portland, Oregon, in June 1946. After founding a travel agency in 1974, she joined the State Department, which posted her as a commercial attaché to Casablanca, an Atlantic coastal port that is Morocco’s business center and biggest city.

Her marriage to Robert Ewing, from 1982 to 1988, ended in divorce. She is survived by a son, Kyle Ewing, and two grandchildren. She was buried in Casablanca after a small funeral.

In an interview with The New York Times only weeks ago, Kriger said that Rick’s had been good for her. Friends had commented on how much younger she looked than she had years earlier, she said.

“If I were involved in the rat race, living in the U.S. today, I’d probably look a lot older than I do,” she said.

Caplan said, “That was really true; she looked so much younger lately.”

Kriger’s Rick’s Café hosted jazz nights and a program of arabesque music that was so popular, the club’s website streamed performances. (One visitor, in 2014, was Secretary of State John Kerry.) Mostly, though, she loved seeing people from many nationalities mingling in what she thought of as “a sanctuary of tolerance,” which she felt the cinematic Rick’s Café Américain represented.

But it was not only about that, she said.

“If I’m honest, I always thought I would find a man while following my dream,” Kriger, who was divorced, wrote in 2012 in a memoir about Rick’s. That didn’t happen, she said cheerfully. “Instead, with Rick looking over my shoulder, I found myself.”