New Orleans

1940 New Orleans street scene (Marion Post Wolcott / AP)

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.

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