Modern history


J. BLANC MONROE was not a large man, but his reach embraced all New Orleans. He was the city’s leading attorney, made all important decisions for the Whitney Bank—although he was only a board member—and ruled Carnival as Comus. Physically, he resembled LeRoy Percy in his prime, distinguished-looking, his hair just turning to gray, not tall but broad-shouldered and immaculately dressed, with a presence that emanated from his self-confidence and intensity. Like LeRoy Percy, he was direct, tenacious, fierce, and, when he chose to be, charming. In both there was coldness, arrogance, smallness, and pride of family. Monroe’s sister Kitty was the city’s social arbiter and leading hostess and married to a Harvard friend of Will Percy; Will ushered at their wedding.

In more important ways, however, they did not resemble each other at all. LeRoy had helped build a society; Monroe merely reflected one. LeRoy had ambitions of empire; Monroe had not so much ambition as expectation, expectation that the world would bend to him.

Monroe’s ancestors included two presidents, James Monroe and James Polk, one on each side of his family. His father, Frank Adair Monroe, chief justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court, had represented both Jefferson Davis and James Eads, and, like his friend Edward Douglass White, chief justice of the United States Supreme Court, had served as president of the Louisiana Club. Blanc Monroe so frequently argued cases before his father, who never recused himself, that the state legislature once considered a bill requiring recusal when a lawyer argued a case before a judge who was closely related. At a hearing on the bill, a state senator asked one witness, “You’re talking about Blanc Monroe, aren’t you?” Came the reply: “That’s right! That’s the son of a bitch I’m talking about.”

Not surprisingly, given his position at the pinnacle of his society, Monroe considered the world nearly perfect. Even as a young man, in an 1899 commencement speech at Tulane University, he did not question the order of things. His subject was the legacy of the Spanish-American War, a legacy controversial enough that Speaker of the House Thomas “Czar” Reed, probably the strongest Speaker in American history, resigned from Congress to protest it. Yet Monroe gave no hint of doubt, perspective, or depth of comprehension when he proclaimed: “Into the fiercely contested struggle for empire the ‘draught’ of the Anglo-Saxon race is forcing us…. [Other] powers suddenly loom up as neighbors to be jostled against and outranked in the race for trade…. [T]he eagle’s claws establish our claims to prestige and consideration…. We are powerless to resist the spirit of Americanism which exacts from us not exertion merely but the grandest efforts of our broadest men. We realize that we must indeed take up the white man’s burden.”

Monroe’s power came from his ability, his personal force, and his business and social connections. The combination of him and his law partner Monte Lemann made the firm Monroe & Lemann a formidable one. Lemann was Jewish, had a national reputation, was a close friend and Harvard classmate of Felix Frankfurter, would brief Franklin Roosevelt on Louisiana politics and Huey Long, and once declined appointment as a judge to the U.S. Court of Appeals. In terms of legal scholarship and argument, Lemann was a better lawyer than Monroe. Yet Monroe dominated the law firm, shouted at associates, once even publicly rebuked his partner for ordering a book for the law firm, a matter of a few dollars, without asking him.

Monroe was also “social,” which in New Orleans means Carnival. Not only was he once Comus, but the Atlanteans, one of the most prestigious krewes, was called “a wholly-owned subsidiary of Blanc Monroe.” Lemann, being Jewish, of course never received an invitation to any Carnival event.

But if Monroe used his connections and advantages, he did not rely upon them. He worked ferociously. No one could outwork him. His eyes could chill a man. He sent bills for his time to doctors who kept him waiting. He threatened to tow the cars of people who parked in front of his house. He drove people and bullied them. An attorney who knew him well said, “I’ve never seen a meeting he was in that he did not dominate.”

Butler had picked Blanc Monroe to represent the city, to represent the money, regarding reparations. Not only did Monroe embody the city’s establishment, but he had back-channel connections to St. Bernard Parish. Monroe had already made Sheriff Doc Meraux a director of the Whitney Bank, one of the most conservative banks in the South, though, as another board member put it, Meraux “was tres ordinaire.” (In the 1990s the financial magazine Barron’s noted that the Whitney was “doing business exactly the way it had a century earlier. It offered no credit cards, had no automatic teller machines,…made the loans it did extend on a handshake, all under a thick coat of secrecy.”) The day the decision was made to dynamite the levee, Meraux was given $5,000 by the Whitney through an intermediary, and later he filed a claim for $235,000 in reparations.

Monroe could make a deal when it served his purpose or fight when that served his purpose. When he fought, he was relentless, yielding nothing. He was the perfect choice for Butler to unleash upon the city’s adversaries—the victims of the dynamiting.

NEW ORLEANS had publicly promised that citizens of St. Bernard and Plaquemines would suffer no loss. The mayor, the city council, the levee board, the presidents of every bank, every major business, of the Association of Commerce, the Cotton Exchange, the Board of Trade, and leading individuals had all pledged their civic and personal honor that this would be so.

In theory, the Reparations Commission, on which St. Bernard and Plaquemines had four votes to the city’s three, with two men chosen by the governor, was to guarantee fair treatment of the victims. Commission chairman was Ernest Lee Jahncke, a Tulane classmate of Monroe who owned a shipyard. He was also one of three Americans on the International Olympic Committee and a fine sailor—later an assistant secretary of the navy, he preferred the title of “Commodore,” given him by the Southern Yacht Club, to “Mr. Secretary.” A man of principle, he would later oppose sending a U.S. Olympic team to Nazi Germany in 1936, and at the commission’s first meeting he declared: “The words of the people of this city and of the state are pledged to the complete recompense of those who have lost their homes and property to save the city of New Orleans from grave danger. It is the function of this committee to see that full justice is done in every instance, and it will do so.”

But the Reparations Commission would have no power. Indeed, when it first convened, Butler called it to order, even though he did not serve on it. He then dropped into the background, but he, Monroe, Hecht, and Dufour—the few men whom Butler had chosen and with whom he met each day—determined how the city met its moral commitment. Without consulting the mayor or a single member of either the levee board or the city council, these few men decided everything.

Butler, Monroe, Hecht, and Dufour decided to use the Orleans Levee Board, whose members were appointed by the governor, as the vehicle to pay reparations. They decided that the levee board would issue bonds to pay them. They decided the millage. They decided that Blanc Monroe would represent the city and the levee board in all reparations work. Only after the decisions were made did they inform public officials of them. (Typically, Butler invited the levee board president to a private meeting, informed him that Monroe was to be hired by the levee board, and the board president then told other board members, “The business interests suggested Mr. J. Blanc Monroe be appointed as Special Counsel of the Board”; by unanimous vote, the board promptly did so.)

More important, Butler and his colleagues decided how to handle the nearly 10,000 refugees. Roughly half stayed with friends or relatives; the city housed the rest in a warehouse lined with cots. At first, the city met its obligations well enough. Butler created subcommittees to handle food, employment, transportation, even education for the children. But as expenses rose and the Red Cross refused help, a new realism informed decisions.

The first indication of this new realism came when the members of the food subcommittee asked for “guidance” in a meeting with Butler, Monroe, and Hecht in Room 326 of the Canal Bank Building, that plush conference room with leather-backed chairs, the long table, and shining objets d’art. The subcommittee chairman explained that his subcommittee did not consider the refugees “as objects of charity. They are for the most part industrious, self-supporting and self-respecting citizens who were forced to leave, on short notice, their homes and possessions that the city of New Orleans be saved. They are crowded into the city without adequate housing, ready cash, or disinterested assistance except from the committee…. They [cannot] be cared for by herding in concentration camps without having a heritage of bitterness toward our city which will be long remembered.” But food expenses alone were running $20,000 a week, far above what they had expected. It was only the middle of May, and the flood would likely cover the two parishes deep into August, three months away. What should their policy toward relief be?

Butler, Hecht, and Monroe decided that “relief be granted only people who had been placed in necessitous circumstances.” More significantly, to cut costs, they would have John Legier, a New Orleans banker on the Reparations Commission, offer a resolution “to deduct from personal damage claims the amounts extended by way of relief for parties claiming damages.”

Any money given the displaced refugees, even for food or housing, would be deducted from their settlements.

The commission promptly passed this resolution; the governor’s appointees, both of whom came from New Orleans, joined the city’s representatives, outvoting those from St. Bernard and Plaquemines 5 to 4. By then Butler and Monroe had taken effective control of the entire reparations process.

THE REPARATIONS PROCESS began when a flood victim filed a claim. If he or she could not reach agreement with Monroe, who technically represented the Orleans Levee Board, the Reparations Commission theoretically served as an arbitrator. The commission’s decision could be appealed to the courts. But in fact Monroe dominated the entire system. He did so chiefly because he had, literally, written the commission’s rules. He had done so even though the commission had its own legal adviser in Percy Saint, attorney general of Louisiana, and its own staff. And in procedure—in the rules—lay power. Monroe used it.

First, the rules stated that the firm of Monroe & Lemann would decide whether to reject a claim or settle it. (Monroe and two assistants actually did nearly all the work; his partner had little involvement.) If a claimant protested Monroe’s decision to the commission itself, the commission relied heavily on the factual findings of Monroe.

Second, Monroe prevented small claimants from having legal representation. After two attorneys spoke to several claimants about representing them on a contingency basis, he, Dufour, and Esmond Phelps had the state bar association threaten them with disbarment. Saint, the attorney general, then promised publicly that for claimants who wanted an attorney, “[v]olunteer legal services will be obtained.” A resulting headline read, “Legal Advice for Refugees to be Gratis.” But after several attorneys offered to work pro bono for the refugees, Monroe, Dufour, Phelps, and others again went to the bar association and had it decree that such work would be “unethical” and, again, cause for disbarment. The commission, with Jahncke voting with the representatives from St. Bernard and Plaquemines, then voted to hire an attorney to help claimants. Monroe, Butler, and Dufour promptly had Saint “state the legal objections to this policy.” The idea of hiring an attorney for the claimants was killed.

Third, and most important, the rules stipulated that no partial payments be made. This contradicted the policy the Reparations Commission had announced at its very first meeting, when, recognizing that few refugees had savings and even fewer had an income, it had formally resolved that “a man may file his claim as his losses become provable.” Jahncke himself promised, “If a man receives forty percent of the claim immediately, he will receive sixty percent more as soon as humanly possible.”

Monroe’s prohibition of partial payments was an extraordinarily powerful weapon. Claims were divided into “schedules,” with each schedule covering a different kind of loss—crops, equipment, housing, etc. The rules stated that once a given schedule was filed, it could not be amended; no further loss on that schedule could be added. Claimants who wanted money quickly had to limit their claim to losses they could prove while water still covered their property; after the water drained away, if more damage was found, they would get no compensation. If Monroe disputed part of a claimed loss, the claimant received nothing for that schedule. Even if Monroe accepted as valid part of the claim, the claimant received nothing. Only a complete settlement of a schedule released any money.

Most refugees needed money desperately. By refusing partial payments, Monroe was starving them into submission.

A FEW WEEKS after the levee was dynamited, Butler estimated that claims would total $6 million. Hecht estimated them at $6 million. They were both wrong. Claims would exceed $30 million. The figures made Monroe and Butler even more rigid, even more suffocating.

Typical was the case of Sigmund Tarnok, owner of a large nursery, who needed operating capital to reopen his business but resisted a settlement offer. Tarnok’s attorneys brought to Monroe an independent estimate of losses confirming their claim, buttressed it with statements from two leading young businessmen whom Monroe knew, and even convinced Monte Lemann to write him a note saying, “There may possibly be something in [Tarnok’s] contention.”

Monroe ignored his own partner’s plea, and replied to Tarnok with a threat: “[I]f the case is reopened…I promise I will oppose with every obstacle the payment of one penny to the Tarnok Company.” Tarnok accepted a settlement of 19 cents on the dollar.

It was not only Tarnok whom Monroe pushed; he pushed everyone, and he pushed hard. The crevasse had drowned or driven away millions of muskrats and minks, and wiped out at least two full seasons of trapping. Several thousand trappers had been making between $3,000 and $8,000 each per season; a handful made even more. Compensating them could cost millions of dollars. So Monroe squeezed again. With Butler’s approval, he had the state conservation commission review the trappers’ claims. Trappers paid a tax on each pelt; many evaded it. If the state examined their claims, the trappers would have to minimize their losses or expose themselves to prosecution for tax evasion. One of the first trappers audited had shipped 15,000 pelts, worth from $25,000 to $35,000, out of state to avoid taxes. A group of trappers went to court to block further state review. The State of Louisiana fought the lawsuit; Monroe himself argued the case for it. He won.

Monroe pushed so hard, and won so often, that his victories themselves became a problem. On June 21, nearly two months after the crevasse, the chairman of the food subcommittee raised a question “illustrated [by] an aged negress.” She had settled for and received $27, but “her home is under water. The payment of the claim does not relieve your committee of the necessity of supplying her with food.”

Butler, Hecht, and Monroe discussed the situation at length at a weekend meeting in Butler’s home on St. Charles Avenue. They sat comfortably in the solarium where Butler so often sat in solitude surrounded by objects that reminded him of his plantation. The street was lined with great mansions; indeed, Butler’s was modest compared to his neighbors, but upstairs in his wife’s bedroom was the Carnival gown that earlier that year had cost $15,000. The issue was a serious one. Paying any money to a claimant after a claim had been settled might establish a dangerous precedent. Still, they could not starve these people. Believing they were being generous, they decided to feed any refugee who received a settlement of less than $100 but could not return home.

Within a few weeks their tolerance expired. A group of black refugees pleaded for an extension of food payments, explaining that the marshes from which they had earned income—they had gathered moss and sold it as mattress filling—were waist-deep in mud. But for these people, aid had ended. They were informed, “As long as we continue to feed you, you are not going to work.”

Earlier, Monroe had decided another case of extraordinary relief. It had involved the Canal Bank, so Butler had recused himself from the decision. Monroe had approved a payment of $850 to reimburse Butler’s bank, the largest one in the South, for the use of its yacht Lurline.

THE CREVASSE VICTIMS fought back. Not all claimants were powerless. Some did have lawyers and political connections. Meanwhile, the Reparations Commission itself had begun to balk at Monroe’s bullying and excesses. For some of those whom New Orleans had flooded out, the issue was survival. And they had the weight of the promises the city had made behind them.

Fifty-seven of New Orleans’ leading citizens had pledged full compensation to the people of Plaquemines and St. Bernard. Butler himself had called the reparations “a moral obligation undertaken by each and every” one of those fifty-seven signatories. Each one of them had affirmed that moral obligation not only to the governor and the victims, but to the Mississippi River Commission, to the secretary of war, to the secretary of commerce, and to the president of the United States. Throughout the state, the city was being accused of breaking its word. Governor Simpson, who had been so reluctant to allow the crevasse, was well aware of the outrage among the victims.

Simpson had already declared his candidacy for reelection. In a few days, Huey Long would announce his candidacy for the same post. Long was already castigating the “plutocrats,” the “self-appointed” rulers of the state—the men like Butler and Monroe. Already, Long and Monroe detested each other; five years earlier Long, then utilities commissioner, had threatened to throw Monroe in jail for contempt. Politics compelled Simpson to intervene for the crevasse victims. So did his own sense of decency. But Butler and Monroe still held a trump card. They seemed unaware of the implications of playing it.

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