Overruling the Lords of Misrule
James Gill is a Brit whose sardonic humor and no-holds-barred columns on the op-ed page of New Orleans' Times-Picayune rankle some readers (especially politicians) who believe the British have misunderstood the city since the War of 1812. What is most irritating to them, however, is that Gill does understand the city, perhaps more than many natives -- and he reports what he learns.Like a social anthropologist, Gill not only pulls skeletons out of local closets, he also exposes the relationships that connect many of the dirty little secrets he uncovers.That is what Gill has done in painstaking detail in his newest book, Lords of Misrule, Mardi Gras and the Politics of Race in New Orleans ($47.50/$18; University Press of Mississippi), scheduled for release in March.The book traverses the history of established Mardi Gras in New Orleans, from the first parades before the Civil War to City Hall's efforts to dismantle the racist vestiges of old-line Carnival organizations via a 1991 anti-discrimination ordinance. The new city law sought to integrate the all-white, invitation-only clubs that sculpted the historical face of Mardi Gras. Instead, it merely chased the old boys' clubs under cover.Lords of Misrule is a history book that reads like a novel. It is peppered with names from decades of New Orleans social registers. The tome also is steeped in myriad facts stitched together to form the fabric of the patchwork culture we call New Orleans. At its best, it is the first such Mardi Gras tell-all, replete with unconscionable acts of violence concocted, and even advertised, by the founders of the secretive krewe of Comus and other influential carnival clubs.Why would an Englishman transplanted to the American Deep South in 1979 take on such a controversial book of revelations?"It was the desegregation ordinance (proposed by former City Councilwoman Dorothy Mae Taylor) and the disputes over that that got me interested in writing the book," Gill relates in his thick English accent. His interest was piqued, he says, by statements made during the emotionally charged debates in the City Council chamber in the waning days of 1991."I remember it was the Rev. Carl Galmon, a fiery civil rights activist, who denounced these krewes as the creation of the Confederacy," the author says. "There's a lot of debate about how much good it does for the economy of the city during Mardi Gras. I wanted to take a look at what effect it has really had on the history of the town."What Gill found was a racist legacy spattered with bloody encounters. Interestingly (or alarmingly), many of those acts were led by the Carnival elite, local political fathers and the upper echelons of New Orleans society.The Carnival clubs in the early years wielded political power as easily as they danced the waltzes at their annual balls. They lashed out unashamedly at ethnic groups by running notices in a daily newspaper (edited by noted bigot Henry Hearsay) that called for people of the city to meet at specific points and then bandy together for the "good" of the city. In 1890, the mob gathered to lynch Italians jailed in parish prison on charges of assassinating Police Chief David Hennessey. Other times, the men gunned down "Negroes" deemed to have overstepped their bounds and converged on a state Constitutional Convention in order to thwart efforts to give blacks more power.These actions were not secret; they were discussed in the pages of New Orleans newspapers, and sometimes the calls to action included the names of "upstanding" citizens who belonged to the leading men's clubs in the city.The Lords of Misrule -- named for the lead character in the Twelfth Night Revelers' 1870 carnival outing -- is aptly titled.Power StructureEarly Mardi Gras festivities were rooted in pagan rites but were later refined by "outsiders." That is the most striking revelation of Gill's book -- that the recent influence of "outsider" groups such as Bacchus and Endymion are, in fact, an example of history repeating itself.The city's 19th century "newcomers" set up a power structure within their Carnival clubs that for decades nurtured New Orleans mayors, state legislators, even a governor. The power elite also was responsible, Gill notes, for the 1891 lynching of a group of Italians at the Parish Prison and a riot at a constitutional convention in 1866 that left 34 blacks and three whites dead and more than 150 others injured.Carnival's early power structure also promoted vicious, armed confrontations with blacks and Jews like the infamous battle of Liberty Place (still a bone of contention among the races). Some of these actions led to the disenfranchisement of blacks and other minorities statewide."The history of the South and the history of Mardi Gras are in some ways the same thing," Gill concludes. "The people who belonged to these elite krewes (particularly Comus, Momus, Proteus and Rex) were, for a long time, the same people who were running the show, the same people who controlled the city. They controlled the money and, in some cases, the politics. There was a time when these people were more political, more inclined to run for office."We had one [member of] Comus, Francis T. Nicholls, who actually was governor of Louisiana. We've had a lot of them as mayors of New Orleans. It is clear that the tone of the city was set by the people who created the Mardi Gras we have today. And the blood lines are the same -- it's still the same people."The names include U.S. Appeals Court Judge John Minor Wisdom (who, ironically, penned some of the opinions that desegregated New Orleans while he was lunching in the Boston Club); Joseph Henican, Councilwoman Peggy Wilson's grandfather; Times-Picayune publishers Ashton Phelps Sr. and Ashton Phelps Jr.; and former mayors Martin Behrman and Charles Waterman, to name just a few. Today the krewes' influence is rooted more in economic arenas and power bases such as the Tulane University board of administrators, whose president, John Weinmann, was Rex 1996.Gill's discussion also highlights debates between krewes and critics who claimed Carnival clubs should be forced to divest themselves of the racism that tainted their history. Others contend that the city's year-round obsession with Mardi Gras stymies its political and economic progress."For all the talk of Carnival bringing all these tourist dollars to the city, there are people who think that it has also drained the energies of the population, particularly the elite class that has been distracted from the tasks that make other cities prosper." It is what distinguishes us from Atlanta and Houston, he says."Mardi Gras is, at the very least, a perfect symbol of the different attitude here," Gill says. "I'm not saying it's an inferior attitude; I mean to say 'different.' A lot of people might say that not being like Houston or Atlanta is a blessing."For the most part, New Orleans is very proud of Mardi Gras, which the local and international media every year bill as "the world's largest free party." Few people, however, are aware of the real history of Carnival."It's a very bloody history," Gill says.Their Business'The 1991 legal battle over the anti-discrimination ordinance ended with a ruling that any krewe that parades on city streets must cease practices that bar minorities from its membership. Three of the oldest and most traditional krewes -- Comus, Momus and Proteus -- responded by pulling their floats off the streets and retaining their very private clubs, balls and tableaux. Others have integrated, at least on the surface, Gill says."How has Mardi Gras changed? Well, we don't lynch people [anymore], but the real bone of contention, of course, was the exclusiveness. [Krewes] are just as exclusive now as they ever were, which, personally, I think is their business," he says."Clubs are not distinctive to New Orleans; they are all over. Rich white guys who tend to want to spend their time with other rich white guys are found everywhere. Critics of Mardi Gras say it has drained the intellectual resources and capital of the city to its detriment. If that is true, then it probably is worse here because more people are involved."As many as 30,000 people are associated with krewes in New Orleans and surrounding parishes, according to Gill's book.On the surface, Gill concludes that "things haven't changed much" since Taylor's ordinance. I think what fans of the old line would say is that it has become a lot tackier."In the realm of political muscle, however, the krewes 'influence has been dismantled."That has changed tremendously," Gill says. "They've withdrawn from the political scene, really. That doesn't mean that they didn't retain positions of considerable power and influence -- the guys with the money always have a certain amount of control -- but as far as political offices, no."What the anti-discrimination ordinance has done, Gill notes, is chase some of Mardi Gras' oldest traditions underground. Such was the case with Comus, which ceased parading rather than open its doors."We've sacrificed a rather charming part of the tradition," Gill said. "It was Comus that invented this whole thing. They didn't invent parades, of course, but they invented the whole idea of the themed parade and the themed tableaux."Comus also stayed true to its roots by keeping its parades short and pedigreed, basing its themes on the works of literary greats such as Milton, Edmund Spenser and Mark Twain. The appeal of Comus parades was not as "common" as that of the three-hour, glitzy "super-parades." Comus instead appealed more to the learned and to traditionalists.'Damn Yankees'Although the roots of New Orleans' Mardi Gras are French, Gill points out that Comus' themes and founders had no trace of Creole, French or even Louisiana blood."It was good old American know-how: let's get this thing sorted out and organized, theme it, and they made it grand," Gill says."When I first came here, I absorbed the notion that what we had here was a vestige of the old Creole culture, which is only partly true. Certainly the masked ball [is a Creole tradition] ... but the fact is that in its current form, [it was established by] people who not only weren't Creoles, but weren't from Louisiana."His book points out that the masterminds behind Comus were John Pope of Brooklyn, N.Y., who owned an apothecary shop in the Garden District; S.M. Todd from Ithaca, N.Y.; F. Shaw Jr. from Alabama and New York City; L.D. Addison from Kentucky; Joseph Ellison from Louisville, Ky.; and his brother, William Ellison, from Pittsburgh. They were all "Americans" -- not Creoles or Frenchmen -- and they weren't even born here."That's what shocked me forcefully," Gill laughs. "You think you have this fine Creole tradition, and you find it was a bunch of damn Yankees who came down here and just invented it one night."Gill's book is the result of many months' worth of investigation into the krewes of Mardi Gras -- especially Comus, which still keeps the names of its members and kings a secret. The book also discusses the Boston Club, a haven for Mardi Gras old liners. The club remains nestled in a very commercial stretch of Canal Street -- and is even listed on the National Register.Other old-line krewes that Gill dissects are Momus and Proteus, which, like Comus, chose to abandon street parades rather than have their membership policies opened to public (i.e., City Hall) scrutiny and influence."I didn't know a lot about Mardi Gras until I wrote this," admits Gill, whose Louisiana writing career began as a reporter at the Houma Daily Courier in 1979."I knew what went on in public, but I didn't know about its true social significance. The ones I'm really interested in are the old-line krewes. They were the ones that were the appreciable targets of the ordinance, the good ones with the histories. They're gone [from public view], so there isn't anything to look at."'A Good Read'Gill, whose resume also includes two books on thoroughbred horses published in England, isn't finished dissecting local history. He already is at work on his next book, a history of politics in Louisiana."I'm trying to do for politics what I did for Mardi Gras," he says." The important thing is I try to make this entertaining ... a good read. I think that politics lends itself even more to that. I think it's going to be such a wealth of funny material."Based on first-hand accounts from his career as a journalist as well as extensive research, Gill's book will try to answer a recurring question: What makes this state so tolerant of corruption?"One of the obvious reasons that people are tolerant of corrupt politics is because the people are corrupt themselves," he says. "Louisiana's history is full of interesting crooks."Gill couldn't say when that book will hit the shelves, but no doubt many of his readers are looking forward to it -- and perhaps a few aren't.Until then,Lords of Misrule will satisfy Gill's many fans -- and tweak those who have felt the sting of his wit. It is a well-written, interestingly presented and highly entertaining exploration of facts and connections surrounding one of the city's most sacrosanct traditions. He is judicious with personal commentary, opting to let the story tell itself."I think when you issue a report about people running around killing one another, comment is kind of inconsequential," he explains.In one passage, Gill writes, "Mardi Gras may be best known to the outside world as a public festival, but upper-class New Orleans knew that its real significance lay in the annual reaffirmation of social eminence over merit."So, has the experience jaded him against Carnival itself?"No. I enjoy it," he admits. "I take my kids to the parades. I find myself catching beads, and I certainly don't need beads. I do catch a few parades -- and I go to a ball from time to time."Of course," he adds with a grin, "I can't tell you whether I'm a member of Comus or not."