New Orleans

Deep Snow Plantation
Ivanhoe, Mississippi

Dear Elisaveta Andrievna:—

When I wrote you last I was just leaving Natchez in my moss-grown car—accurately dubbed 'struggle-buggy' by my colored friends—for New Orleans, whose chamber of commerce calls it 'The City That Care Forgot.' At the moment there is an overproduction of care in the town. Local statisticians estimate that if no more is manufactured for five years there will still be enough home consumption and for export. In any event, when you tear yourself away from New York and begin to see the United States, you must visit New Orleans.

This city was founded by the French, embellished by the Spanish, fought for by the English, purchased by the Americans, and sold down the river by its own citizens. It is distinguished by superb cooking, a bad climate, excellent manners, some of the best and also some of the worst architecture in the land, good duck shooting within forty-five minutes ride of its main street, and a political corruption tropical in its rotten lushness.1

It is a city of pimps, prostitutes, and gamblers; French-speaking grandes dames who wear the eighteenth century in their black lace shawls; hoodooworking Negroes; oyster-fishing Jugoslavians; industrious Germans; fiesta-loving Italians; Spaniards, Greeks, Jews, Filipinos, Chinese; and, on the extreme periphery, a large group of Anglo-Saxons who sometimes look strangely out of place in this least typically American of American cities. New Orleans is an easygoing, pleasure-loving, colorful, odoriferous, church-attending city whose dead are buried aboveground and whose politics is carried on underground. Bells quiver on its air, cassocked priests and crisply starched nuns are familiar figures in its streets; the doors of little shops are always open, as in the hot countries, so the life of the streets and that of the shops are one, and what is business elsewhere seems comic opera here. Sacks of oysters stand on the sidewalk in front of the numerous oyster bars, where customers eat shellfish around the clock; fruit sellers, vegetable venders, chimney sweeps, and prostitutes cry their wares and services unabashed; nostril-quickening odors of coffee, sugar, molasses, and tropical fruits linger in the heavy, hot, damp atmosphere. Patios bloom with the ponderous flowers of the banana plant, glow with the cream-white of camellias, sound with the silken softness of fountain waters; while Andrew Jackson, liberator of the city from the English, charges perpetually forward bronze-mounted on a horse in the old Spanish parade ground, and the near-by Mississippi sweeps on to the Gulf of Mexico.

In New Orleans you walk streets whose names testify to the French origins of the city, to the domination of the Catholic faith, to the old Southern love of the classics and mythology, and to the American custom of commemorating with place names the aborigines whom the settlers were careful to exterminate. French culture is tenacious. Its fierceness is equaled only by that of a Congressman clinging to his prerogative of putting his relatives on the federal payroll. Here we find France celebrated in streets called Dauphine, Toulouse, Bourbon, Burgundy, Ibervile, and Bienyule. The Catholic religion is enshrined in street signs reading Ascension, Nuns, Piety, Religious, Assumption, and Annunciation. And if gods do not stroll the streets of New Orleans, mortals walk the streets of the gods: Urania, Melpomene, Terpischore, Clio, and Thalia. A shabby tribute is paid the memory of long departed first families by naming shabby streets in their honor: Choctaw, Teche, Natchez, Opelousas, and Tchoupitoulas.

Other American cities have taller buildings than New Orleans, more people, greater bank deposits, a larger trade, and many more superior items of that miscellany known as 'progress.' It may even be granted—although this is a violent assumption and statistically insupportable—that other cities rival New Orleans in the beauty and beguiling charm of their women. But only one other city—San Francisco—is its equal in cuisine. None other is its master in the art of political corruption, whose forms and patterns in New Orleans rival those of its tropical foliage; none other has an electorate whose political apathy so closely verges upon complete paralysis.

At the same time New Orleans, however much it is willing to turn its whited body over to politicians to do with it as hey will, and however eager it is to gulp canned ideas, insists upon making its soup at home. Canned soup—as I gather from the advertisements—has its virtues, but New Orleans will have none of it. New Orleans prefers to gather lowly crayfish in near-by swamps, separate heads from tails, make a paste of the meat, and, adding flour, thyme, parsley, garlic, butter, onions, and bay leaves to the Promethean elements of fire and water, emerge from the kitchen after so many hours with a steaming tureen of golden magic.

Every day in the year New Orleans makes gumbo. One can no more evoke, by naming its materials, the flowering that this superb soup works upon the taste buds of the throat than one can conjure up the magic of Heifetz's fiddling by saying that he is a medium-sized man who draws a horsehair bow across catgut strings tightly suspended above a wooden box. Gumbo is a child of the marriage of love of food and crabs, shrimp, oysters, green pepper, celery, onions, garlic, thyme, bay leaf, black or cayenne pepper, and filé— powdered sassafras leaves. When you go to New Orleans, sit yourself down before a bowl of gumbo in Galatoire's restaurant, and be grateful that at least one city in America does not take its food as it finds it.

For other dishes I suggest that you consult with the waiter. The New Orleans waiter likes to be consulted, and although he will take your tip just as avidly if you order him around, he will mark you down unerringly as a gulp-and-gallop barbarian. Out of your consultation may emerge oysters Rockefeller— oysters baked and served on rock salt, their bowed heads green beneath a fine foliage of chopped parsley, lettuce, and bread crumbs, their bodies flavored with a sauce composed of Worcestershire, anchovy, tabasco, and absinthe. Or pompano en papillotes—one of the finest of all fishes, baked with a sauce of crabmeat, egg yolk, and white wine, in a paper bag. Let these thy pleasures prove, my dear, and then tell me if you still prefer New York.

When you leave Galatoire's for a stroll in the French Quarter, you will pass one antique shop after the other. They exist largely by and for the patronage of tourists who come down from the North and return to the North with the same mysterious instinct that moves and informs the migratory duck. Their local habitat is the French Quarter; they linger so long in the antique shops that certain local ornithologists believe they nest and breed there. The astonishing thing about many of these shops is that they shelter a relatively large percentage of genuine antiques; the creation of homemade antiques is a small but, I am glad to say, growing cottage craft.

The antiquarians, who are to be found with some difficulty amid their forests of furniture, jungles of girandoles, and disordered masses of bric-a-brac, are unique among their tribe in that they don't tell the purchaser of an antique a story of its origin unless he asks for it. But, believe me, they are equal to the occasion when asked. Once I heard a Kansas lady ask the history of a French poudreuse that she had just bought. She got it. This delicate piece of furniture had been originally made, it seems, for Marie Antoinette, who dabbed her reddened eyes with powder before it just when the Paris mob was marching on Versailles. Thereafter it had been the property of a long and varied line of Parisiennes— countesses every one until one of them, dying impoverished, left it to her faithful maid, who sold it to the proprietor of a little furniture store on the Left Bank, who in turn sold it to the New Orleans dealer. 'Now you remember everything he said,' the Kansas lady told her daughter as the two delighted women left the shop.

Generally speaking, ladies hunt antiques in pairs or groups, just as they track culture to its lair in crowds. Sometimes they drag along unhappy husbands who yearn for the fleshpots of the St. Charles bar, but are made to stand and wait while their wives finger paste jewelry or play with old silver. On one occasion, however, the presence of a husband sharply disturbed the usually invulnerable aplomb of a New Orleans antique dealer. A woman selected a lot of furniture and then actually asked her husband if he liked it. This had never before happened in the antiquarian's experience, and for days thereafter he was a shaken man.

I do not suggest that you go to New Orleans at this time. The city is overcrowded. Its hotel rooms are filled with earnest gentlemen who are lawyers, accountants, income-tax experts, and detectives. They are in the employ of Washington. Their job is to restore the government of Louisiana to citizens who have only the faintest enthusiasm for managing their own affairs, and, incidentally, to put some of the city's leading men behind bars. With the exception of a few intervals when an honest governor or mayor caught the state or city off guard and slipped into office before the electorate knew what was happening, Louisiana and New Orleans have had no control over their own affairs since—strangely enough—the days of Reconstruction. At that time the white folks got out their manhood and their rifles and mowed down a few coveys of alien carpetbaggers and home-grown plunderers. The effort seems, however, to have exhausted their strength. Ever afterward New Orleans was happy so long as it could avoid yellow fever and the river, celebrate Mardi Gras, eat pompano uptown and jambalaya2 'back of town,' play poker, dance, shoot dice, bet on the races, work for almost the lowest wages paid in America, and contribute unendingly to the rapacities of politicians whose activities make those of the city's own pirate—Jean Lafitte—seem like Florence Nightingale handing a drink of water to a dying soldier on the field of Balaklava.

It is to these people that the Federal Government is now attempting to hand back their own government. And while it is proceeding by the prosaic method of indicting and jailing sundry citizens for use of the mails to defraud and evasion of income taxes, it might as well have proceeded under the Constitutional principle guaranteeing a republican form of government to each of the states. For this is something that New Orleans and Louisiana have not had since Huey Long entered the town in a purple limousine over fifteen years ago. Dangers are certainly involved in the government's effort, laudable as may be its purpose. Even Yankee historians now grant that, while the slaves should have been liberated, their liberation should have been conducted slowly, so that they might not enter into a heady liberty for which they were not prepared. What now if a people who have long been ruled by pimps, thugs, brothel keepers, and gangsters, under a system which required them to pay their taxes and keep their mouths shut, are suddenly given their liberty? Will they be able to govern themselves? Or— more pertinently—will they soon yearn again for the good old days when they had nothing to do but do as they were told?

The case of New Orleans and Louisiana is a highly important one for study by the people of the United States, because these communities had the most nearly perfect dictatorship that has ever existed on this continent. The man who writes the true story of the Louisiana despotism will produce a volume as illuminating for those who would continue to be democrats as Malaparte's Coup d'Etat: The Technique of Revolution, Mussolini's recipe book for revolution. He will demonstrate that democracy is imperiled when it is sick and weak; when corruption has long existed; when the people are apathetic; when their needs are neglected by the state. New Orleans had been politically rotten since 1870. For years its police had collected tribute from prostitutes and gamblers; elections were bought at a dime a dozen (the prices of all locally produced commodities are dirt-cheap in the lower South), and the municipal services of the South's largest city were those of a tank town that had just been struck by a tornado.

Louisiana, potentially one of the richest states in the Union, had shamefully neglected education, health, roads, and other public services. The mass of the people wallowed in poverty. New Orleans, for instance, had only a small economic middle class. Its principal residential streets were merely palm-studded façades concealing dozens of mean little streets filled with the houses of the poor. And, the ground having been prepared, Huey Long arose. He himself was one of the people. He promised free schoolbooks, schools, universities, roads, hospitals, insane asylums, and a better life in general. What did the people stand to lose by supporting Huey? Nothing, they said. Nothing save liberty. But liberty means far less to thousands of Americans than many of us would like to believe. Freedom of speech to the bitterly poor of Louisiana was merely the freedom to grumble over their lot; the right of free movement was the right to shift from one foot to another as they looked for a job; the right of free assembly was to assemble in church and pray that in heaven they would be granted that which was denied them on earth. These 'rights' they were willing to swap for a sack of corn meal, a side of meat, a pair of shoes.

It was therefore relatively easy for Huey Long, with a mind as superior to that of the local politicians and patricians as the elephant's is to the flea's, to come upon the scene and, with his tireless energy, his extraordinary resourcefulness, his superior showmanship, greater ruthlessness, more flamboyant promises, keener understanding of the mass mind, to buy the legislature, pack the courts, and win the elections. Stealing elections was no novelty in New Orleans or Louisiana. The novelty was that Huey engagingly admitted his skullduggeries. 'I buy legislators like sacks of potatoes,' he said on one memorable occasion. 'I'm for reforestation in Louisiana,' he told me, 'because I see the time coining when I'll have to vote the pine trees.' And there was additional novelty in the fact that Huey gave the people something for their money. They got the two things that dictators always hand out—bread and circuses. When the people put up, say, one million dollars for roads, Huey gave them perhaps a half million dollars' worth of roads. This satisfied the voters. 'Well. Huey gives us something for our money,' they said.

Presented by

David L. Cohn

David I. Cohn was a regular Atlantic contributor during the mid-1900s. A Mississippi native who studied at the University of Virginia and Yale, he authored books as diverse as African American history (God Shakes Creation), American industry (The Good Old Days), and and matrimony (Love in America).

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