Thursday, October 6, 2011

An interview with ROSEMARY JAMES, former “publicist for the Gorilla Man,” now the doyenne of literary New Orleans

Rosemary James, a former reporter for The New Orleans States-Item and WWL-TV, is co-founder of The Pirate's Alley Faulkner Society, a nonprofit organization devoted to writers and their readers. The author of Plot or Politics, and My New Orleans: Ballads to the Big Easy by Her Sons, Daughters, and Lovers, she and her husband own Faulkner House Books, one of the country's most famous independent bookstores, and are at the heart of the literary scene in New Orleans.  She and her husband Joe DeSalvo host the annual conference dedicated to Faulkner’s memory Words & Music: A Literary Feast in New Orleans. I'll be speaking there and signing books in mid-November. Y'all come! 

Q. Rosemary, thanks for taking the time to tell our readers about your New Orleans.  As a political reporter at The States-Item you were sometimes assigned to cover my dad’s mayoral campaign.  Since some folks out there may still be wondering if I made all that up, could you tell us about your coverage?  You got to know Dad fairly well, didn’t you?
A: As a matter of fact, I wrote and/or suggested so many stories on Rodney that people in the newsroom at The States-Item began calling me, some times, Rodney’s public relations lady or, alternatively, the Fertel campaign manager.  Your Dad appealed to me because he believed in his cause, a cause I liked, too, and he gave us a unique twist for campaign coverage. He was charming.  He was fun, arriving at the newspaper offices on occasion in a gorilla suit or, alternatively, safari drag. There were, as I recall, 22 candidates who qualified in 1968 to run for Mayor in the Democratic primary, including Lieutenant Governor Jimmy Fitzmorris, who wanted, essentially, to maintain the status quo at City Hall in terms of haves and have-nots and who was supported by most of the municipal political establishment; City Councilman Moon Landrieu, who pledged to give black New Orleanians a fair piece of the political pie; A. Roswell Thompson, the operator of a taxi stand and a member of the Ku Klux Klan who hated everyone who was not a WASP; and your father, an eccentric animal lover, outraged by the sorry condition of the Audubon Park Zoo, a place where resident polar bears were at the time walking around with green mildew/algae covering their fur.  The campaign for the nomination was prolonged when Landrieu was forced into a run-off for the Democratic nomination with Fitzmorris but Landrieu won with a coalition comprising 90 percent of black voters and 39 percent of whites. In the general election, Landrieu defeated Ben C. Toledano, the only Republican to make a serious bid for mayor of New Orleans in the 20th century. In that contest, Landrieu's pro-civil rights stance was rewarded when he received an overwhelming 99 percent of the black vote.  Long story short, Landrieu was elected, your Dad was not but Moon and Rodney were the only two politicians in the election to keep their promises. Rodney ran on a campaign to “Get a Gorilla for the Zoo,” a means of calling public attention to the deplorable conditions at the zoo. His campaign strategy was successful. While he didn’t become Mayor, he was responsible for making people about the horrid conditions at the Audubon Park Zoo and instigated its renaissance. And he bought and donated not one but two adorable gorillas for the Zoo. Moon ran on a Civil Rights platform, calling attention to the lack of equal rights in New Orleans politics.  When he took office, about 20 per cent of city employees were Afro-America but that percentage quickly rose to about 45 per cent. 

Q: You also did some pretty famous coverage of another outsized New Orleans personality – Jim Garrison, who prosecuted Clay Shaw and others for conspiracy in the assassination of President Kennedy. Tell us about that story. 
A: That was a story of the tragic death of Camelot’s hero, an around-the-bend paranoic-schizophrenic with delusions of grandeur, and a scapegoat, the likes of which had not been seen since the French persecuted Dreyfus. An American tragedy, the assassination of a beloved American President became a three-ring circus, when the Warren Commission, the government appointed investigative body charged with answering all of the questions raised by John Kennedy’s death, failed miserably in its mission, leaving most questions unanswered, therefore shedding doubt on the Commission’s conclusion that there was a single assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald.  The Warren Commission did not satisfy the public’s demand to know who killed JFK.  Rather, the Commission opened the door for a barrage of conspiracy theorists and political parasites, such as New Orleans District attorney Jim Garrison, who had ambitions for higher office, including the U. S. Senate and/or Governor of Louisiana.   This flamboyant high-flying rabble-rouser had been discharged from the Army for mental illness but was able hide this fact and convince New Orleans voters he was the man to clean up crime in the city. Even before his assassination investigation, Garrison demonstrated his vampirish need for feeding on others to create the headlines he needed to keep his manic-depressive ego alive. Although a regular free customer at strip joints and houses of ill-repute and on the take from mobsters who owned the city’s nightlife himself, Garrison sought “crime-buster” headlines regularly rounding up the working girls and jailing them to get media attention. They were released, of course, as soon as the headlines appeared and Garrison would be back on Bourbon Street B-drinking with them.  Senator Russell Long had questions about the conclusions of the Warren Commission and he encouraged Garrison to claim jurisdiction and begin an investigation.  Garrison kept the investigation on the Q-T initially but the States-Item’s police reporter Jack Dempsey, got wind of it and mentioned it casually in one line in one of his weekly columns.  States-Item Managing Editor Walter Cowan and City Editor John Wilds decided we needed to find out what was going on and assigned me and two other reporters, Jack Wardlaw and David Snyder to work the story.  We proceeded on the basis that even the fact that Garrison thought he had jurisdiction to investigate the death of a President was news worthy of reporting.  Since Garrison was not talking to us, we quizzed our various sources in state and local government and at the Criminal District Courthouse and police headquarters.  At the time, fines and fees collected in Criminal Courts were placed in a fund, which the DA could utilize for investigations.  Sources, including Garrisons former chief investigator and first assistant DA confirmed to me that he was, indeed, off on a wild hair investigation and, then, the fines and fees fund, public record, revealed that his investigators were spending public funds for trips to Dallas, etc. So, we wrote a straight forward, very short story stating that the District Attorney of New Orleans was spending (an we itemized the expenditures we found) public funds to investigate the assassination of President Kennedy.  I made an appointment with Garrison, showed him the story and asked him to comment.  He said only, “I refuse to confirm or deny.”  And he smiled like the Cheshire cat when he said it.

We ran the story the next day with his comment and very quickly the national media descended upon New Orleans.  He called a news conference and, not for the first time or the last, he lied to the media.  He said he had never had an opportunity to see the story before it was published and he said that the story had ruined his investigation. 

Thereafter, every time press interest in the case would start to wane, he would propound a new theory. “The Theory du Jour,” we began calling his pronouncements, most of them entirely bizarre.  One week it would be 14 Cubans shooting from storm drains. The next week it would be LBJ or H. L. Hunt and the far right in Dallas. What he first called a "homosexual thrill killing" evolved, under the influence of the conspiracy buffs who flocked to New Orleans, into a massive CIA and federal government plot.

The only conspiracy theory he refused to accept was the one most thinking journalists believed to be the right one, that the mob did it in outrage over the loss of their assets in Cuba. Every time a journalist proposed this concept to Garrison he either hauled that person before the Grand Jury or threatened to do so.  He was so vindictive when the mob theory came up that representatives of key media, including the New York Times and NBC, left town.

Finally, during a dry period of no headlines, Garrison pronounced that he had solved the crime of the century. He arrested Clay Shaw—a self-made, erudite, much-admired man within the international trade and cultural arenas of New Orleans—for conspiracy to murder President Kennedy, alleging that he was the mysterious man referred to as “Clay Bertrand” in an FBI interview with New Orleans lawyer Dean Andrews, a Runyanesque, minor mob figure in New Orleans. Dean told the FBI that “Clay Bertrand” called him and told him to go to Dallas to represent Oswald.  Insiders said later that Garrison, nuts as he was, knew very well that Clay Shaw was not “Clay Bertrand,” and that the decision to arrest was cynically based on a dislike of Shaw and a desire for a new round of national headlines.  Dean Andrews told me before he died that he had told Garrison Clay Shaw was not Clay Bertrand, well before Clay Shaw was arrested and that he was, essentially, told by Garrison to keep his mouth shut.

The whole case against Shaw was manufactured and the jury, which heard six weeks of nonsense testimony from Garrison’s witnesses, returned a not-guilty verdict in less than hour.  Oliver Stone, not known for sane thinking himself, swallowed Garrison’s line of blarney and produced a despicable film, JFK, which portrayed Garrison as an innocent, honest, hard-working, family man kind of hero, when, in fact, Garrison was a wife-beater, a closet homosexual pedophile whose target was young boys, and a Machiavellian fanatic who would stop at nothing to get attention. Hardly the “untouchable” as portrayed by Kevin Costner.  Garrison destroyed Clay Shaw’s life and in the process he destroyed himself.  He went from a highly intelligent, manic-depressive eccentric—who once told me and another reporter that he had to lie in bed until he felt like “one big amoeba-like blob of guilt” before he could get up and do any productive work—to an out-of-control lunatic in the period of a couple of years or so. 

In any other city, if you told this story, people would not believe you.  In New Orleans, tell the story and those in your audience will immediately clamor to compete and tell a down-the-rabbit-hole story of their own set in New Orleans. 

Q: After your career as a journalist, you and your husband Joe DeSalvo started Faulkner House Books in the building where Faulkner lived and where he wrote his first novel, Soldiers’ Pay, New Orleans Sketches, Sherwood Anderson and Other Famous Creoles, and Mosquitoes and worked on Wild Palms and Pylon. I know that has been a labor of love.  Tell us about Faulkner House Books. 
 A: My husband is a recovering attorney and, when we met in 1981, he’d been acquiring books for 25 years or more and had an impressive collection.  One of the first things he told me was that his retirement dream would be to operate a bookstore specializing in good contemporary literature and signed and rare editions.  We married in 1982 and had a nice life going, dividing our time between the house I had renovated in the French Quarter and the house we bought on the lakefront in old Mandeville, where we created a marvelous garden with 300 varieties of roses and every imaginable flower we could get to grow in Zone 9 humidity and heat.  We talked about his dream and one Sunday, when reading the real estate section, I discovered that the Faulkner House at 624 Pirate’s Alley was for sale.  Ironically, I had seen this house on my first visit to New Orleans and had told my companions then that I intended to live in that very house one day.  After much agonizing, we put in a low-ball offer and it was accepted. That was in 1988. Two years and an extensive renovation later we opened Faulkner House Books in the room in which Faulkner wrote his first novel on his birthday. And we took up residence on the upper floors, selling both my house on St. Philip Street and the Mandeville house.  We made a decision early on that living in a residence with such an interesting literary heritage, obligated us to share it with others.

On a lark, and with several others, we invited everyone we knew to “The First Annual Meeting of the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society,” a black-tie event  at Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carre of dramatic readings and toasts to Faulkner by men and women, including one of Faulkner’s romantic interests, novelist Joan Williams, our first overnight guest at Faulkner House.  The theatre event was followed by a block party with food and music and Faulkneresque décor (old cars and wild palms were added and the mosquitoes came on their own) in Pirate’s Alley.  Guests who attended encouraged us to do it every year and we have, plus adding to the event considerably each year.

Q: And y'all are the force behind the annual conference Words and Music: A Literary Feast in New Orleans.  Tell us about how that came to be and what will happen a bit later this fall and especially about your annual literary prizes.
A: We were granted (501) (c) (3) status by the IRS in 1992 and since then we have created a prestigious literary competition, which attracts entries annually from as far away as Australia and Malaysia, and offers prizes ranging from $1,000 to $7,500 for winners in seven categories: novel, novella, novel-in-progress, short story, essay, poetry, and short story by a High School Student. The prizes are awarded during our multi-discipline fall festival, Words & Music, which this year takes place November 9 – 13. 

We are very proud of the writers we have been able to attract to Words & Music, thanks in no small part to the patronage of the Ruth U. Fertel Foundation and other private foundations and individuals.  Our presenters have included such writers  as National Book Award winners Tim O’Brien and Julia Glass last year and this year Pulitzer Prize winners, novelist Junot Díaz  and playwright Nilo Cruz, and critically acclaimed Vietnamese American author Andrew Lam.  We are delighted that you have agreed to lead a round table discussion featuring Díaz and Lam on the subject of Exile Literature, incidentally, as well as a discussion on memoir writing with Signe Pike.   (Our schedule and pricing info for 2011 can be found on our web site, Our annual free master class for creative writing students and teachers, this year on November 9 will feature Tom Carson, author of the new novel, Daisy Buchanan’s Daughter, and our interns volunteers are working on various literary projects including and on-line literary journal, The Double Dealer, which we hope will go live before the end of the year.

We also host a year-round calendar of free events featuring authors such as yourself with new books, and are looking forward to the event celebrating publication of “ The Gorilla Man and The Empress of Steak,” Sunday, October 9th from 4 to 6:30 p. m. at The Cabildo, one of the historic seats of colonial government in Louisiana which overlook Jackson Square.  In addition to your talk and signing, the event will feature New Orleans musician Armand St. Martin, playing, appropriately, such old Professor Longhair favorities, as “They All Axed for You.” The public is invited to these events but we require rsvps so that we can adequately prepare food and drink.

Q: You grew up in Charleston and spend several months a year there.  I only visited there once and found it like a small New Orleans but with water (since our water is hidden behind levees).  And I was struck by how much more serious they are about history: the carriage drivers seem to know what they were talking about.  How do you compare the cities?
A: Charlestonians do take their history seriously, some might say too seriously. Some of my best friends are re-enacters!  During the recent re-enactment of the firing on Fort Sumter, which set off the Civil War, I was reminded of a tale told by Oscar Wilde.  Wilde was visiting Charleston and was feted by all of the grandest of dames.  At each tea party or dinner party or ball, Wilde would make the obligatory polite compliments to his hostess, such as “your ballroom is stunning.” And the hostess, without fail would reply, “but, oh, Mr. Wilde, you should have seen it before the wahhhr.” This went on for days and days.  Finally, on his last evening in Charleston, Wilde was standing on one of the grand piazzas of East Battery overlooking the Atlantic, conversing with his hostess, thanking her for her generous hospitality.  It was fall and there was a full harvest moon and he commented, “What a glorious evening and look at that georgeous harvest moon!”  The hostess replied, “Oh, yes, Mr. Wilde, but you should have seen it before the waahhr.” [Did John Guare have this in mind when in Louis Malle's Atlantic City he has Burt Lancaster deliver the nostalgic line: "You should have seen the Atlantic Ocean back then"?]

Charleston is home for me but I have spent more of my life in New Orleans than Charleston.   Quite unexpectedly, I was born at my grandmother’s home in the country in  North Carolina, while my parents were visiting.  My early years (until age six) were spent in Charleston and in Panama (until age 12), where my father coordinated Commissary activities for the Pacific Fleet during World War II and just after, then back to South Carolina. I left Charleston, where I had been working for the local daily, for New Orleans because I wanted to try something different, find a more liberal environment in which to live. I went to New Orleans to visit friends in graduate school at Tulane and on a lark asked Frank Allen, then States-Item managing editor, to give me a job. No one could have been more surprised than me when I got back home and discovered I had the job. A month later, I was in New Orleans, had an apartment on Esplanade and was ready for a new adventure. I went to work for the States-Item on January 1, 1964, arriving at work on foot during one of the city’s very rare snowfalls.

To me, there is no more beautifully situated city than Charleston, located as it is facing the Atlantic Ocean on a narrow peninsula between two tidal rivers, so that you are never out of sight of water or far from ocean breezes, where you are only 15 to 20 minutes away from good beaches. Charleston has an amazing array of architectural landmarks dating from as early as Hugenot edifices of late 17th, early 18th century to the ante-bellum sea island cotton money villas to the contemporary mac-mansion reinventions of the Charleston single house in planned communities such as Ion and Daniel Island.  I still think that Charleston is more beautiful aesthetically than New Orleans and her breathtaking qualities, along with my oldest friends, keep drawing me back.  

But living on the peninsula is not unlike living in the French Quarter, a time-warp village within a large metropolitan area with problems up the waszoo.  Charleston is beginning to make some of the same mistakes that New Orleans made over the years, spending too much money on monuments to political ego and not enough money on such important infrastructure improvements as roads and drainage and storm protection and allowing developers without taste put up insensitive condominium colonies in the middle of some of the oldest of the historic districts. Both cities are hurricane prone and Charleston was ravaged by Hugo just as New Orleans was by Katrina. Charleston is more relaxed socially than when I was growing up but remains priggish and uptight when compared to the Big Easy. And the creative juices of Charleston suffer by comparison to those of New Orleans. But, then, I can’t think of many cities anywhere in the world which can boast a cultural heritage as rich as that of New Orleans. While Charleston’s physical beauty is a joy to behold, the strength for me of New Orleans is its inner beauty, its ability to not only accept but to embrace people for who they are, what they are.  Ironically, New Orleans, labeled sin city by so many fundamentalists who don’t really know her, is one of the most Christian of all cities, practicing daily the teachings of Christ, such as, “Judge not!” or “Love Thy Neighbor as Thyself!” Many cities, including Charleston, frequently called the “Holy City” because of all of her churches, could learn a lot about true Christian behavior from New Orleanians and their remarkable faith.  And not many cities can emulate Christ in his miraculous ability to feed the multitudes with a few fish and loaves. But New Orleans does so daily.

Q: There are a number of restaurants in Charleston getting a lot of press.  How do you compare the quality of their dining to ours?  Do they have as much fun at table as we do?

A: Charleston had few in the way of good restaurants when I was becoming an adult.  The food was Lowcountry soul food…not unlike South Louisiana soul food…rice and beans and greens.  Today, there are many creative culinary professionals at work in Charleston and it is possible to get lots of really good food, both in terms of fresh products to prepare for entertaining at home and in terms of dishes consumed at Restaurants.  The problem in Charleston seems to be getting good wait staff at even the best restaurants.  The service is not at the same level as New Orleans.  Another problem is consistency.  We eat out a lot in Charleston and quality of the food preparation is not consistent.  Some of those restaurants getting national press are those who need to watch their consistency. While I do have fun with my friends when we dine out together the fun is their company, not in the food “scene.”  Charleston is still way behind New Orleans when it comes to boasting a lively Café Society, one that is living theatre, an ongoing drama in which people daily reinvent themselves. 

Q: After Hurricane Katrina, you published a collection of essays and memories called “My New Orleans: Ballads of the Big Easy from her Sons, Daughters and Lovers.” Why were you compelled to do this – and how do those ballads resonate after six years?
A: I was contacted by literary agent Michael Murphy and asked to consider doing the book and when Simon & Schuster agreed to the concept and agreed to donate a portion of their profits to the Pen fund for writers, I took on the assignment.  It was not an easy project, as New Orleanians and others we wanted to write a piece for the book were scattered all over Kingdom come and Simon & Schuster wanted the finished product by November 1, latest, which gave me just a bit over a month to assemble the essays and write the introduction.  There many I would have loved to have included, such as composer Allen Toussaint, that I simply could not reach in time.  Given the restraints, the book turned out the way we wanted it to be, not a storm chronicle but a momento to lift the morale of those who love New Orleans and thought she might not survive the blow.

I think the essays collected for the book remain “true” to their subject today because the authors of these essays see New Orleans for precisely what she is, good and bad, and were trying to capture the essence of the city at a time when we all thought we might lose it. Deep water was still standing in areas of New Orleans when some of those essays were written. We did not lose that “Come as you are” essence of New Orleans, that open-armed welcoming essence that snares people forever.

1 comment:

  1. guess You,Ms James,forgot to mention a story U concocted to take down Garrison in a court of law,then when it was over and th'former DA was found Not Guilty,You admitted You lied.i would think that someone holding herself up as a thorough reporter,You would tell th'whole story,which in this case is an obvious bias.On another note,if it weren't for said case in which You have false testimony,no 1 would know Your pert face-at least not on a national level-therefore You should-have been/be-thanking Mr G