New Orleans

Long would have perhaps been impossible if he had not been preceded by a long period of decay and corruption, and the death of democracy in all but name. But even when he had come on the scene and had begun an era of terrorism without parallel in the United States, he could not have succeeded if the so-called 'good' people had not cravenly submitted and even, many of them, shared in one way or another his loot. ('Beware of the good and the just,' wrote Nietzsche.) What did the cardboard gentry of New Orleans do when Long insulted, vilified, bullied, and outraged them? They talked back to him—at cocktail parties in their own homes. What were they afraid of? If they were bankers, they were fearful that Long would send his bank examiners into their vaults to raise hell about some of the perhaps dubious collateral they held for loans, that he would withdraw state deposits, or hamper them in a thousand ways in making profits. If they were business men, they feared that Long would raise their realty assessments, double their taxes, legislate drastically against them. On the other hand, Louisiana was spending prodigious millions building roads, schools, hospitals, bridges. Juicy contracts were to be let. They went to the deaf, dumb, and morally blind. And, my dear, remember this: in our theology, money is regarded as the root of all evil; yet money—big money—is the only thing of all the things possessed by man that has the qualities of the gods. It stands, as history too often bears witness, above family, friends, country, or religion. It is indifferent to everything save its own protection and its own increase. Like the gods, it consorts only with its own kind. And here in Louisiana money was being poured out in a golden stream that rivaled the flood of the Mississippi.

Under its temptations, liberty meant no more to many of the self-styled aristocrats of New Orleans - their originals lived by noblesse oblige and died poor—than it did to the poverty-stricken, ignorant, malaria-racked Cajuns and peckerwoods back in the woods and swamps. Even when the low-comedy gentry were personally and vilely insulted, they took their medicine like little men and smiled. During the national banking crisis of 1933, Long invited a group of the so-called powerful bankers of New Orleans to come to his office in Baton Rouge. When they were assembled Huey ordered his bodyguard to draw his pistol and prevent them from leaving the room while he went outside on other business. As he walked out, he yelled back to his personal thug, 'If them -------- of -------- git hungry, git 'em some sandwiches.' (Years later Adolf Hitler was to proffer sandwiches to an Austrian guest—a man whose name was Schuschnigg.) It is not recorded that Huey's guests ate upon this occasion; it is recorded that men were once killed in the South for offering an insult of this kind. Certainly the time had come when, as Long himself said, 'Nothing is lost save honor.'

In the '70s, the decent folk of New Orleans fought battles with carpetbaggers in the streets. But in the 1930's, when the gentry were faced with homegrown cutthroats, they merely bowed so low and so often to their masters that they seemed to have developed permanent ridges in their backs which gave them the hunchback appearance of men walking perpetually under bridges. They sat back—the great bankers, the leading business men (leading what?), the unctuous lawyers—while city and state sank deeper and deeper into the bogs of despotism; too frightened to speak and too cowardly to act. It remained for a young doctor to kill the dictator, or to be slaughtered by Long's bodyguard along with the dictator. The facts of the assassination have never been established. It is clear, however, that the great of New Orleans came out of theft cellars only when Long was dead. Then they danced, Salomes of the swamps, around his gory head. Then their voices, used to whispering, became hoarse with their raucous shouting.

But even then they did not act. Huey still terrorized them from the grave. And, while they timidly, peeped out from behind the palm trees that line theft homes, the Long organization reorganized. It had learned a lesson. It would not aspire, as Huey had aspired, to the national stage. It would grant the peasantry a modicum of liberty—1905 Tsarist Russian model. Its future demands would be modest. They would be limited to a quieter but even more intensive looting of the natural resources of one of the richest states in the Union.

The organization sent a delegation to vote for Roosevelt at the last national Democratic convention, and settled down to the rich pickings. State-appointed thieves swarmed all over Louisiana like rats in the hold of a wheat-laden ship; buildings were erected that began to sink before the flooring was nailed down; building materials were converted to the use of politicians and contractors; the proceeds of bond issues evaporated; and the president of Louisiana State University squandered a million dollars in margin speculations. (Huey had promised the people 'education,' and his leading educator gave it to them on a scale that startled even Louisiana.) Was all this brought to a halt from within the state by the people of the state? It was not. It was brought to an end—a temporary end, I fear—by the Federal Government, through the old anti-gangster device of prosecutions for income-tax evasion and the new device of indictments for using the mails to defraud. Louisiana may soon, therefore, be saddled with liberty through the actions of a young doctor, who laid down his life, and the Department of Justice, which is laying down indictments.

Now all this is important, not only because it involves the degradation of the democratic process, but also because it raises the question, applicable to a far wider sphere, of the logic of distinguishing between a people and its dictator. Democracy had already been debilitated in Louisiana before Long appeared. One might suppose, therefore, that the people wanted him at first because he promised to remedy obviously bad conditions, and, as his power grew by the partial fulfillment of his promises, he soon came to have a strangle hold on the state. The feeble qualms of the people died into acquiescence as Huey gave them bread and circuses; the rich and the strong bowed low, because to fight was to risk profits. The result was a tyranny supported by the masses of the people and accepted by the classes. One treads, therefore, upon dangerous ground in saying that there is a sharp distinction between the dictator and his subjects, that he is a rotten excrescence grafted upon their pure flesh. For you, as a European, I am sure that this is full of meaning and suggestion.

I set out to tell you something of sensory New Orleans, but I make no apology because I've said so much about political New Orleans. In Europe—certainly in England and France—a number of intelligent women take an intelligent interest in politics in the wider sense of the term. Here, only a few women are interested, and their attention is centred upon transitory men rather than permanent issues; that is, they are for Roosevelt or against him. They exert almost no pressure upon anything except the sound waves—in contrast with the power wielded by French-English political women—and influence almost no men who influence politics even in the narrower sense of the term. In all New York there is not, to my knowledge, a single literary-political salon presided over by a woman; not a single house where some wise and gracious woman gathers weekly and informally men who represent all shades of political opinion in a cosmopolitan international city. An extraordinary phenomenon indeed in a country where women trumpet the fact that they have more 'rights' and, a greater freedom than any other women in the world, and yet are unable or unwilling to use their position to make for a better country. In order to gain their political attention you must be a mistreated cat, a thirsty horse, an unmarried mother, a French soldier, or the Armenian victim of a Turkish atrocity Make of this what you will. But I could not be your mail-order guide to New Orleans without telling you something of its fantastic political background.

There are numerous guides to New Orleans, but, I am sure that you will not use any of them; not even the best of them, New Orleans City Guide, a federal project book done under the direction of one of the South's ablest writers and authorities on New Orleans—Lyle Saxon. Negroes say that there are two kinds of preachers: manuscript and talking—those who read from the printed page and those who preach from the heart. Tourists, too, are like that, but happily you are not a manuscript traveler. I suggest, therefore, that you merely roam at will in the French Quarter, sensing the smells, watching the play of light and shadow in the narrow streets and on the walls of mellow houses, noting the traceries of iron grilles, the sudden flame of flowers blooming in a courtyard, the grace of an ancient Negro woman toting a bundle of clothes upon her head, a coffee ship coming in from Rio and Santos, a prostitute combing her hair in the sunlight, a wizened Italian woman going into St. Louis Cathedral to say Mass. These are New Orleans. These are the things that never die.

If you pass the door of a house at 719 Toulouse Street, ring the bell, and when Louise, the pretty mulatto maid, answers, ask for my friend Roark Bradford and walk in. He is, as you may know,the author of many novels, innumerable short' stories, and the book upon which The Green Pastures was based. Brad is an old-fashioned Southern gentleman, who will welcome you with marvelous coffee, luscious fried catfish, and delicious anecdote. His wife, Miss Rosé, who was rescued from the darknesses of Indiana by her gallant husband, scorned the catfish until, upon abet, it was proved to her that the Encyclopedia Britannica devoted ten times more space to it than to her illustrious progenitors. Since that time she has eaten catfish, played Chopin preludes while the moonlight lay like silver on the Bradford patio, swooned, and generally behaved in the manner of a Southern lady—a contented convert among the heathen.

Near Bradford's house at Bourbon and Toulouse Streets, you will come upon the site of the French Opera House erected in 1859. The Opera had its own company which remained in the city throughout the season; it was the scene of the brilliant social life of the town; and it produced for the first time in America such works as Bizet's L'Arlésienne, Saint-Saëns's Samson and Delilah, and Lalo's Le Roi d'Y's. For those persons who desired solitude, the Opera House contained a number of boxes enclosed with latticework, and a favorite New Orleans anecdote concerns itself with the Creole beauty who was almost born at the opera. So absorbed with the performance was her mother, as she sat in one of the loges grillées where femmes enceintes could enjoy both music and privacy, that it was not until the middle of Faust that she turned to her husband and said, 'Pierre, I do not think I can wait for the ballet!'

There is no danger of anybody's being born in the Opera House now. It burned to the ground twenty years ago. And the New Orleans of 1919 infinitely richer and more populous than the New Orleans of 1859—found it impossible to restore it. The city turned to the phonograph; it heard an occasional symphony orchestra that made a showboat stop in a riverside town; later it dialed the radio; soon, perhaps, it will have television. Under these circumstances the restoration of the Opera House would have been superfluous, not to say thriftless.

Not far from this melancholy site you will come to a street of gayety and color—Rampart Street. It is a favorite haunt of large numbers of Negroes, who make up one fourth of New Orleans's population. Here you will find mulattos, quadroons, and octoroons who are communicants of the Catholic Church, who speak the local French patois and bear the proud names of French and Spanish families. Here, too, you will find Negroes of every shade and description, from all parts of Louisiana and Mississippi; they are Baptists and have Anglo-Saxon names. But all the Negroes, of whatever kind, move to the radio and phonograph music that eternally plays on Rampart Street, so that every lounger or pedestrian is a figure in a ballet whose choreography springs from the instinctive sense of rhythm of the unrehearsed participants.

Always on Rampart Street there is big talk, the enchanting odor of fried catfish, the aroma of Hearts of Love Hair Dressing, Come-To-Taw perfume, and the acrid stink of sweat. In the store windows along Rampart you will find such exotica as pistols, brass knucks, and dirks freely and publicly displayed amid a jumble of guitars, jews-harps, accordions, hunting boots, underwear, and suitcases. And all this is the South the South of laughter, love, music, gayety, and sudden death. It is the universal law of crime everywhere on earth that violence is greatest in Southern countries. But, for all that, Rampart Street with its Negroes, guitars, songs, and guns is as much a part of the essential New Orleans as the holy peace that hovers amid the long cool shadows of the two-hundred-year-old Ursuline Convent.

You know, of course, that such a city as this cannot be 'done.' It can only be savored. Only slowly will it reveal itself to you, like a shy but sapient woman who conceals not to mystify but to beguile. For New Orleans is old and has seen much and is a little weary, but she is still beautiful and quietly conscious of her charm. Such a city gives but her hand to the tripper. Her heart she holds for the quiet and patient lover. You may be sure that it was hard for me to leave her for the perplexities of the plantation and the complexities of government Farm Relief algebra.



1This letter was written before the recent elections in Louisiana in which the Huey Long machine, after a reign of twelve years, went down to defeat. The governor-elect, Sam Jones, promises honest government to a fraft-ridden state. His victory was achieved through the rural vote. New Orleans, still under the thumb of a Long mayor and the Long machine, threw its strength unavailingly to Governor Earl Long, Huey's brother. It remains to be seen whether the Keeley cure of decent politics will shatter the nerves of the citizens of New Orleans or revivify them.—Author

2Jambalaya au Congri (popularly called 'Congri') is a favorite New Orleans dish made of rice, onions, salt meat, cowpeas, and ham, boiled together and served steaming hot.—Author

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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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