July 2011 / Huey P. Long Bridge
Leonard Earl Johnson
Les Amis de Marigny / New Orleans in Exile, July 2006
Photo credit from the top:
1 & 2: U. S. Government Public Domain
3: Coleen Perilloux Landry
Leonard Earl Johnson
The Huey opened in 1935, the year its namesake, Huey P. Long, was shot and killed in the lobby of the State Capitol in Baton Rouge. As governor, Huey levied taxes on oil production in Louisiana. With that money he built both The Bridge, and the Capitol building where he was murdered. It is the tallest capitol building in America. The Bridge is the highest. And no one knows who shot Huey.
Before the bridge opened, all trains crossing The River at New Orleans did so aboard ferry boats that landed on the Westbank at the town of Westwego, a descriptive name given the settlement, in 1870, by the Texas and Pacific Railroad. Incidentally a second bridge, built later and bearing Long's name, crosses the Mississippi at Baton Rouge. Both bridges have superstructures made of high-towered steel that looks, from a distance, like the skyline of a great modern city.
Huey, the man, was only made of flesh. But he was some powerful flesh. Nicknamed "The Kingfish" early in life, his political career gave the nickname special significance as top-feeder in the Louisiana political pond. Huey Long's first elected state office was Railroad Commissioner. He first ran for governor in 1924, and lost.
Four years later, in 1928, he won, and grew in office to became the era's second-most colorful politician. The first was his younger brother, Earl.
Love Thy Brother
Brother Earl occupied the Governor's Mansion, fittingly, after big brother Huey had moved out. And while Huey may have been something of a rounder while there, he was fabulously circumspect compared to Earl.
The married Governor Earl openly dated Blaze Starr, a popular Bourbon Street stripper, and he was widely regarded as fully in possession of a very loose screw.
He used to say of his trysts with Blaze that he wore cowboy boots in bed, "For better traction on them hotel sheets."
Something of a forerunner of today's destination hotels, Hotel Roosevelt sat across Canal Street from New Orleans undulating French Quarter, and was mighty popular with both Long brothers. Huey even said he built the Airline Highway from his office in Baton Rouge, "To have a straight hard shot at the Hotel Roosevelt, in downtown New Orleans."
Nice, but not as colorful as cowboy boots on hotel sheets.
Private health insurance's big bite out of today's health care dollar would strike them as laughingly overpriced, and inexcusably inefficient for the ones receiving the care -- the people casting votes.
When Huey took office the state of Louisiana was mostly illiterate, had few public schools, school books, hard roads, or hospitals. The Kingfish set out to remedy that.
He was an American seat-of-the-pants socialist who taxed business, including the sacrosanct oil industry, to pay for public schools, roads, hospitals, and more. In return, citizens voted for him in droves each election day.
When he left the Governor's Mansion, in 1932, before his term expired, it was to move up to the United States Senate.
In the Senate he launched his "Share-Our-Wealth Society," complete with its own theme song, "Every Man a King," while maintaining control of the Democratic party back home. (Still smarting over the Republican led "War Between The States," Louisiana had no Republican party in those days.)
Long had set his cap for the presidency occupied by another American seat-of-the-pants socialist, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, scion of the family from whom Huey's favorite hotel took its name.
Taxing oil and challenging an incumbent president can make one enemies. Huey had his, then and now. He ended up, after all, assassinated in the lobby of the new skyscraper State House his taxes had built.
Some crotchety opponents are said to have honored vows to never cross any bridge named Huey P. Long. (Such vows, though befitting their times, were more bombastic than practical, I expect. In any case, the bridge was so popular that every few years since it opened Louisiana has built another one.)
Thousands loved The Kingfish, and came -- even walked -- to Baton Rouge, from all over the state, to attend his funeral.
Today, Huey's life-sized statue stands on the state grounds where he is buried, in front of the Capitol building he built. Another of him stands under the dome of the United States Capitol, in Washington, D. C. It is part of program by which "Two-heroes of each state," are honored. The other sent by Louisiana is Edward Douglass White, a Confederate veteran and, later, U. S. Supreme Court Chief Justice.
Brother Earl spent time in the state loony bin during his term in office. Being governor, he cured himself by firing the institution's director and hiring a new one who released him. That tops anything Huey ever did. Even taxing Standard Oil.
Earl once strapped a crate of Texas grapefruits to the grill of his car. He had purchased the fruit while at a loony bin in the Lone Star State. He was there at his wife's behest, and against his will.
Of this incarceration, Fort Worth columnist, Molly Ivins, once told an audience at Tulane University, "Texas authorities took one look at Earl and said, 'Looks like a fine and fit governor to us,' and released him."
With those Texas grapefruits strapped to the front grill of his black Cadillac he drove back to Louisiana stopping along the way to give sweet grapefruits to grateful voters. This parade included his aides, the press, police and his wife, who wanted to lock him up again. I have never learned where Blaze Starr was that day, but I like to think she was in the Cadillac with the governor and the grapefruit.Back to the KingfishHuey's construction projects, like the afore-mentioned bridge and State House, still stand.
The oil taxes, however, from offshore drilling -- negligible in Long's day, but huge today -- now go to finance the good causes of the federal government in Washington.
In other states, oil revenues are more equitably split with the state.
Charity Hospital in New Orleans was founded in 1736 by the Sisters of Charity, and derives its name from them, not the universal medical care initiated by Huey Long. It is -- was -- the second-oldest hospital in the United States.
Huey set out to build Charity into a skyscraper housing a model hospital, and making it the flagship of his statewide health system. The skyscraper opened four years after his death, and there is now a Charity Hospital in most every Louisiana city, but post-Katrina New Orleans.
Huey's twenty floor high-rise hospital still stands, but as a dark hulking ghost towering over The Big Uneasy.
After two hundred and seventy-five years, and countless "con-servative" plots to shut it down, Charity Hospital was felled by hurricane winds, faulty levees, and an unwillingness of the good people from Washington to spend Louisiana's offshore oil revenue to reopen it. But that is another story, maybe.
© 2011, Leonard Earl Johnson, All Rights Reserved.