Modern history

Part Four



IN NEW ORLEANS each lamppost on Canal Street, which local boosters claimed was the widest street in the world, bore a plaque engraved FRENCH DOMINATION, 1718-1769, SPANISH DOMINATION, 1769-1803, CONFEDERATE DOMINATION, 1861-1865, AMERICAN DOMINATION, 1803-1861, 1865—. The inscription suggested something secret about the city, that New Orleans was willing to yield on its surface, but that the real city lay deeper, that from behind a mask it had seen everything, and that it intended to survive.

No American city resembled it. The river gave it both wealth and a sinuous mystery. It was an interior city, an impenetrable city, a city of fronts. Outsiders lost themselves in its subtleties and intrigues, in a maze of shadow and light and wrong turns. Houses were built with faux stone fronts facing the street; the faux stone did not extend to the sides. Modern poker, the most secretive of games, was invented there. New Orleans had not only whites and blacks but French and Spanish and Cajuns and Americans (the white Protestants) and Creoles and Creoles of color (enough to organize their own symphony orchestra in 1838) and quadroons and octaroons.

Each group lived an apparently separate existence. In the mid-1920s, the Vieux Carré, or French Quarter, was mostly a gritty working-class slum where people spoke French as often as English. Women lowered baskets to the street to grocers who loaded them with food and added a pint of gin. Artists and writers had taken to the area, seduced by its cheap rents. Oliver Lafarge wrote his Pulitzer Prize-winning Laughing Boy there; Faulkner began writing there, encouraged by Sherwood Anderson, who entertained visitors like Theodore Dreiser, Alice B. Toklas, Gertrude Stein, and Bertrand Russell. One of Anderson’s friends even wrote a book about Paris without ever having visited it, instead using New Orleans as his model; Parisians read it, Anderson reported, with “delight.” The smells of the docks hung over the whole area: sickly sweet rotting bananas—the United Fruit Company was the single largest user of the port—and the more intimate smell of the dozens of bakeries making bread. The finest restaurants—Antoine’s, Galatoire’s, Arnaud’s, Broussard’s—were there, and so were working-class cafés. In Jackson Square at Billy Cabildo’s, for 50 cents one got an enormous bowl of homemade soup, boiled beef, an entree, dessert, and coffee. The square itself was surrounded by hedges where prostitutes took clients.

Downriver from the French Quarter lived working-class whites. They made their living from the port, from sugar and timber mills, from great slaughterhouses.

The social elite, those with whom LeRoy Percy hunted and played poker, lived upriver in the great homes on St. Charles and in the Garden District. There maids waxed the grand ballrooms by sitting on towels and sliding across the floor. Chauffeurs picked up teenaged girls for lavish parties where a black jazz band—one included Sweet Emma—entertained. Fine young men took young ladies to Furst & Kramer’s downtown; it had a pastry counter, a candy counter, a soda fountain, a marble fountain in the middle of the room, cages of songbirds everywhere, and every box of candy carried the slogan “Happiness in every box.” On Canal Street at Katz & Besthoff drugstore, soda jerks delivered ice-cream sodas to cars parked on the street. Well-dressed doormen at Maison Blanche and Holmes department stores knew all the chauffeurs and called for them by name as their employers came out.

But underneath this perfect order lay a drumbeat. It was heavy and sensual. Most streets, even uptown, were graveled, not paved. The ice man sang and sweated delivering blocks of ice. Wagons rolled past the houses selling fruits and vegetables, sometimes three men on a cart creating a melodic, contrapuntal effect. Louis Armstrong said: “Yeah, music all around you. The pie man and the waffle man, they all had a little hustle to attract people…. The junk man had one of them long tin horns they celebrate with at Christmas—could play the blues and everything on it.”

Only recently, jazz had been born from deep in the bowels of the city, its beat emerging from the African jungle into Congo Square, then spreading to the whorehouses of Storyville, where Jelly Roll Morton and the Spasm band, possibly the original jazz combination, and a little later Louis Armstrong, played. At its peak, Storyville had had two newspapers and its own Carnival ball, and the best houses had advertising brochures. One claimed to be “without a doubt, one of the most elegant places in this or any other country…. Miss Lulu stands foremost, having made a lifelong study of music and literature.” There were also one-dollar “cribs” that were less than elegant, and women who threw mattresses down in doorways less elegant still. It had closed in 1917 by order of the Secretary of the Navy, exercising wartime authority, but its legacy still lingered, only spreading the women and houses and music into other neighborhoods. “Jazz is all the same—not anything new,” said Armstrong. “At one time they was calling it levee camp music, then in my day it was ragtime. When I got up north, I commenced to hear about Jazz, Chicago Style, Dixieland, Swing—all refinements of what we played in New Orleans. I always think of them fine old cats way down in New Orleans—Joe and Bunk and Tio and Buddy Bolden—and when I play my music, that’s what I’m listening to…. You want to feel the smell—the color—the great ‘OH MY’ feeling of the jazzmen and stomp around in the smoke and musk of the joints.”

One joint in particular was called the Frenchman’s, where musicians gathered after work, usually not until 3 A.M. Jelly Roll Morton recalled, “It was only a back room, but it was where all the greatest pianists frequented…. The millionaires would come to listen to their favorite piano players…. People came from all over the country and most times you couldn’t get in.” Across the street a drugstore sold cocaine; newsboys sold three marijuana cigarettes for a dime.

If all these societies seemed separate, they were not. Personal, social, political, and financial histories ran deep, connecting everyone. And perhaps more than any other city in America, New Orleans was run by a cabal of insiders, and everything from politics to the money the jazz musicians made depended upon them. Looking on as if from behind a two-way mirror, these insiders watched and judged and decided.

THERE WERE LAYERS of insiders, and folds within layers, with position largely defined by Mardi Gras. “Mardi Gras runs New Orleans,” said one socialite. “It separates people.”

The celebration itself—the balls, masking, street partying—began in the 1700s. In 1857 men of the finest families organized the first pageant of Comus. By the 1920s the city’s Christian male elite belonged to at least one, usually more, of the exclusive “krewes”—Comus, Rex, Momus, the Atlanteans, and Proteus.

The commoners, those not inside, had only the parades. Even in the 1920s, several hundred thousand people lined the parade routes, and the krewes marched at night except for Zulu, the black parade, which marched Mardi Gras morning, and Rex, which followed later in the day. The night parades were led by a cadre of flambeau carriers, black men carrying torches burning oil, dripping fire on the streets. Then came horsemen all masked, then float after float, each an elaborate creation in line with that year’s theme; the krewe members on the floats, all men, passed by high above the crowds, looking down at a horde of screaming people seeking attention and favor, elbowing for position, stretching out their hands in supplication, begging to be thrown a trifle. For the moment the krewe members truly felt like royalty.

Not every krewe paraded, but each gave a Carnival ball. They were the peak of the social season and doubled as debutante balls. Men planned every aspect of them, and they suffocated differences. One Carnival historian wrote, “There is perhaps no other city in America where men are social arbiters…. The most prominent gentlemen of the city abandon their urgent business obligations to spend their hours considering who shall be invited to their ball. Demand for these invitations surpasses all bonds of reason, and throws the commercial and professional life of the city into chaos…. No qualities whatever are of any force unless an invitation is requested [by a krewe member] and issued through regular channels, and there are no other channels. This strict care in the list of guests may find occasional resentment, but no injustice is done. Any request that is refused was already in doubt beforehand. If a member’s request is not granted, he knows the reason and seldom has cause to be dissatisfied when he learns it…. Carnival is generous but in its social aspects protects its own. Wealth is no consideration, nor is ancestry unless supported by becoming character…. Instead of listening to the voice of scandal, Carnival hushes it, even where scandal looks to the masquerades for pabulum.”

Carnival mattered. National Book Award winner Walker Percy, a Greenville Percy and Boston Club member, would later observe, “[Carnival] queens are chosen by the all-male krewes at sessions which can be as fierce as a GM proxy fight. New Orleanians may joke about politics and war, heaven and hell, but they don’t joke about society.” One prominent New Orleans attorney speaks of a friend who was president of the Louisiana bar, president of the Chamber of Commerce, and president of the Dock Board, which runs the port of New Orleans, “Yet he values most that his daughter was queen of Comus.”

Rex, nominally “King of Carnival,” was the public face of Mardi Gras; his identity was announced. But the real king was Comus, whose identity was secret; at midnight Mardi Gras day, Rex and his court left their own ball to attend that of Comus. Secrecy added to the cachet. The queen of one important ball notes, “Often the men don’t even tell their wives who is what.”

The motto of Rex is Pro bono publico—“For the good of the public.” The motto of Comus is Sic volo, sic iubeo—“As I wish, thus I command.”

John Parker was Comus. Every Rex since 1888 has belonged to the Boston Club.

AS EXCLUSIVE as the Carnival balls were, membership in the clubs of New Orleans marked the real insiders, for the krewes had a larger membership than the clubs. The city’s first club was formed in 1832, four years before New York’s Union Club. In 1842 the Boston Club, named after a card game, was founded, and several men, including Louisiana Senators John Slidell and Judah P. Benjamin, subsequently a Confederate cabinet officer and then adviser to Queen Victoria, belonged to both the Boston and Union Clubs. Then came the Pickwick Club and the Louisiana Club. All were exclusive, but the Louisiana Club has been called the most exclusive club in the country; only members were allowed within its walls. In 1905, President Teddy Roosevelt visited New Orleans during a yellow fever epidemic. It was an act of heroism that won the city’s heart—in the preceding century, the disease had killed 175,000 people in Louisiana alone—and the Louisiana Club gave a luncheon in his honor. But before even the president, himself from one of the nation’s grandest families, could enter the club, he had first to be made an honorary member. The club president at the time was Edward Douglass White, then a justice and later chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

From the beginning the clubs mixed power and society. In 1874 an organized army of Confederate veterans, including White, defeated the largely black city police force in a pitched battle and overthrew the Reconstruction government. (Federal troops later restored it to power.) Of the Pickwick Club’s 161 members, 116 fought in the battle, and the plans for the uprising “were largely formulated under the roof, within the walls, and by members of the Boston Club, screened from the public eye by the sanctity of the club walls,” according to the New Orleans Times-Democrat, which added, “The Boston Club [is] composed of gentlemen who know what’s what…and stands today, as it has always stood, at the forefront of the social system of New Orleans.”

Half a century later the only thing that had changed was the role of the Jews. The first Rex, in 1872, was Jewish. Jews belonged to the Country Club and the Southern Yacht Club, the second oldest in the country. The most socially prominent law firms and banks had Jewish partners and board members, and Jews and gentiles socialized.

Yet Jews occupied a complex never-never land in New Orleans society. By the 1920s the clubs and Carnival excluded Jews, except for a few token members of Rex (but Jews were never in the royal court). The exclusion was gradual, beginning in the late 1800s and early 1900s as immigrants from eastern and southern Europe, including Hasidic Jews, seemed to threaten the nation’s ethnic and racial identity. New Orleans, despite its Catholic heritage, showed a violent bias against Italian immigrants. Immigrant Jews were far more foreign; even native New Orleans Jews discriminated against them. Immigrant Sam Zemurray became president of the United Fruit Company and built one of the greatest mansions on St. Charles Avenue but was never accepted into the elite all-Jewish Harmony Club because, says the daughter of one of the city’s oldest and wealthiest Jewish families, “he spoke with an accent.”

Carnival snubbed even elite Jews. One prominent Jewish woman recalls, “Mother used to get invitations to all the balls but it just stopped.” The exclusion was punctuated with an insult. Rex stopped along his parade route for a toast at suitably important places. These stops had always included the Harmony Club. But one year, probably 1913 or 1914, with a crowd of Harmony members waiting in the street and a waiter holding a tray of glasses, Rex went right on by. The Jews would never wait for him again, and Rex would never stop again. Later, Baron de Rothschild was in New Orleans during Carnival, and society ladies prostrated themselves before him. While he was Jewish, he had been received in all the real courts of Europe. In New Orleans he was invited neither to any club nor to any ball of Carnival royalty. Jews continued as partners and intimate friends with men who were Rex and Comus and president of the Boston Club. But a line had been drawn. Jewish members of the elite resented it bitterly, although to avoid embarrassment on both sides they routinely vacationed outside the city during Carnival.

Jews had been among the Boston Club’s founders—Judah Benjamin was Jewish—and one served as club vice president as late as 1904. But by the 1920s the Boston Club had no Jewish members (nor did it in 1996). One Boston Club member bragged of his club’s “spirit of noblesse oblige.” But he also spoke of a harder racial edge: “Your club man must have a sense of the fitness of things. A club in its membership must follow Darwin’s law of natural selection. In club life as in all other activities only the fittest survive.”

In 1927 every bank president in the city but one—believed to be a Jew, although he denied it—belonged to the Boston Club. Charles Fenner, whose investment firm later merged into Merrill, Lynch, Pierce, Fenner, and Smith, was a club past president. John Parker belonged. So did LeRoy Percy; whenever he came to New Orleans, a limousine picked him up and took him to the club, where he played poker. (Gentlemen all, no one even kept careful track of money. After one game Percy sent a check of several thousand dollars to cover his losses, noting, “The aggregated amount may be three [hundred] out of line on either side, but any way, this will do to go on account.” Another time the club manager wrote Percy to ask what he had won because “there is a discrepancy in the sheet”; the club had several hundred dollars too much and the manager was trying to find to whom it belonged.) The club men had power.

But these men were not like Percy. His vision extended deeper and wider than theirs. Unlike Percy, these rulers of New Orleans did not initiate or create, did not grow or make or build things. Bankers and lawyers, they judged what other men grew or made or built. Their power was over money itself, and whether to give it to those who produced or created. It had always been that way. From the city’s earliest days New Orleans had close ties to the money centers of New York, Boston, Philadelphia, London, Paris. English bankers began living full-time in New Orleans in the early 1800s.

As a result, before the Civil War, on a per capita basis New Orleans was the wealthiest city in America. In the 1920s it remained—by far—the wealthiest city in the South. Its Cotton Exchange was one of the three most important in the world. Its port was second only to New York. Its banks were the largest and most important in the South. According to a Federal Reserve study, New Orleans had nearly twice the economic activity of Dallas, the South’s second-wealthiest city, and between double and triple that of Houston, Atlanta, Memphis, Louisville, Richmond, or Birmingham.

The city’s power over money also meant its power extended far outside the city itself. Percy recognized this himself when he, Parker, and several others organized the Staple Cotton Cooperative Association to control prices by limiting production. In 1926, Percy urged several New Orleans bank presidents and financiers, all but one of whom were members of the Boston Club, to force “a compulsory reduction in acreage” by refusing to lend money to planters who exceeded their crop allotments. “[S]uch an agreement made among the bankers would at once be accepted as effective and immediate relief would follow.”

A few other organizations, such as the Board of Trustees of Tulane University, indicated even closer proximity to the inside of New Orleans than did club membership. But the most interior institution in this city of insiders wielded the power of the establishment in a way unique in the United States, and probably the world. This organization was serious, not social, and did include an occasional Jew. It controlled New Orleans in the way that really counted: it controlled the money.

THE BOARD OF LIQUIDATION of the City Debt was initially created to handle the huge debt left over from Reconstruction. Mississippi, led by LeRoy’s father William Alexander Percy, had, similarly, created the Liquidating Levee Board, which built no levees but did eliminate old levee bonds by paying only pennies on the dollar, and then was abolished. But New Orleans, which produced few goods and grew no crops, had to retain the confidence of investors in New York, Boston, and London; the city had to pay off its bonds in full. So New Orleans bankers in 1880 created the Board of Liquidation and gave it extraordinary powers. (It operates today with many of those powers.)

First, every day the city deposited all the money it collected in taxes in the board’s bank accounts. The board paid off whatever notes and interest were due, then gave any money left over to the city government. In the 1920s, payments on bonds absorbed between 39 and 45 percent of all city taxes, leaving little for the city to spend on anything else.

Second, the city could issue no bonds—not for schools, not for roads, not for lighting—without the board’s consent.

But the most extraordinary aspect of the board was its composition. It had nine members: the mayor and two councilmen served ex officio, while six “syndicate” members, who made all real decisions, served for life. And the board was “self-perpetuating.” When a syndicate member died or resigned, surviving syndicate members picked a successor.

Though the mayor, the governor, and the voters had no say over who became a syndicate member, the syndicate members dictated decisions about nearly all large public expenditures. Elected officials controlled only current operating budgets. The syndicate members answered to no one but themselves—and their colleagues in the clubs.

Between 1908 and 1971 only twenty-seven men served as syndicate members; virtually all were either bankers or bank directors. Twenty-four of the twenty-seven belonged to at least one of the exclusive clubs; most belonged to several. At least two of the other three, probably all three, were Jewish.

In the 1920s three men in particular had strong voices on the Board of Liquidation. One was James Pierce Butler, Jr., a towering gangly man who headed the Canal Bank, the largest bank in the South and the only southern bank listed among the world’s largest; it also had intimate ties with the Chase in New York. Butler was a president of the Boston Club. A second man was Rudolph Hecht, president of the Hibernia Bank, who had a reputation for brilliance and arrogance; in 1921 he had received the Times-PicayuneLoving Cup, given annually by the paper to the citizen who had contributed most to the city in the preceding year, for his work as president of the Dock Board. Later he became president of the American Bankers Association. The third man, J. Blanc Monroe, was an unyielding litigator who dominated the board of the Whitney Bank; he combined social connections with real abilities to become the city’s most powerful lawyer. LeRoy Percy knew all three well, both through clubs and business.

In 1927, Butler sat snugly at the center of the New Orleans world of money, society, and power. His position was signified by the treatment given him by the Mystic Club, a Mardi Gras organization called “ultra-exclusive…[with] a reputation among fastidious people for presenting the most elaborate and most successful costumed entertainments of America.” That year the club put on a Mardi Gras ball whose theme came from a movie starring Rudolph Valentino and Doris Kenyon. Booth Tarkington, who wrote the movie, also wrote the pageant for the ball; the same jewels worn in the film by Valentino and Kenyon adorned Mystic’s king and queen. The queen’s gown was said to cost $15,000, double the $7,500 annual salary of the governor of Louisiana. The Times-Picayune, the paper that was run by and served as the voice of money and society and authority, ran photographs of all but the Mystic Club’s queen on its society pages; the photograph of the Mystic Club queen appeared on page 1. She was Mrs. James Pierce Butler, Jr.

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