Ten months ago, when I first met Mike Fawer, the only thing I knew about him was that he’d just published a memoir with the word “bayou” in the title. That was enough to pique my interest. If the memoir, which is titled “From the Bronx to the Bayou,” was good, I’d be happy to write a review on the Bayou Brief.
The writer Jason Berry, whose book about the history of New Orleans- “City of a Million Dreams”- is, at least in my opinion, a genuine masterpiece, had connected the two of us. If Jason vouched for him, then, at the very least, I knew Mike Fawer must’ve had a story to tell.
Still, I’m always skeptical about the literary merit of memoirs written by someone who hadn’t ever been known as a writer. More often than not, the prose is frustratingly sloppy, and by the end, even if the person’s story is compelling, it’s impossible not to imagine how much better it would have been with the help of a professional editor.
So, when I agreed to meet Mike Fawer, who I was told worked as a big-shot lawyer, for lunch at Cochon in New Orleans, I wasn’t sure what to expect, which was, even in hindsight, the best possible way for me to meet someone as remarkable as Mike.
I decided I liked the guy almost immediately. In his memoir, he acknowledges some of his own personal shortcomings when he was in what others may describe as the prime of his career, but it was clear he had long since dropped whatever pretense he may have carried as a younger man.
At the time, he was only a few weeks away from retirement, and at 83, he could have passed for someone 20 years younger. He’d decided to grow his hair out, to trade his suits for comfortable but style-conscious linens. He looked more like a writer than a lawyer, I thought. Plus, he knew the art of the curse word, and over the course of lunch, I discovered he also was a damn good conversationalist with a damn good story to tell.
I had to read Mike’s book, even though I’d already made a decision to not simply write a review. He was eager to tell his story, and no one could tell it better than he could. You needed to hear it in his voice, not mine.
I told him I wanted to meet again and that I was happy to help him get his story out. First though, I needed to read his book.
I soon discovered that there isn’t another criminal defense attorney in Louisiana who had collected as many riveting stories about the law as Mike Fawer. His memoir isn’t just good; it’s great.
He graduated from Columbia Law School in 1959; one of his classmates was a transfer student from Harvard named Ruth Bader Ginsburg. His very first job out of law school was working for the Department of Justice under Bobby Kennedy, where he’d encounter a man named Carlos Marcello, a man he’d later cross paths with decades later while working in New Orleans.
The very first time he ever argued a case inside of a courtroom was, by pure happenstance, in front of the 89-year-old American icon, Judge Learned Hand, who spent 45 minutes engaging him in a robust discussion. It was one of the final cases ever decided by Judge Hand; he passed away only a few months later.
When he arrived in New Orleans, he quickly earned a name for himself as a brilliant criminal defense attorney with a knack for selecting the right juries and a zealous attention to detail that is exceptionally rare, even among criminal defense attorneys.
He was breakaway star of the first case in New Orleans history to ever earn wall-to-wall coverage on television, which is the subject of the first episode of the podcast.
Mike helped earn Edwin Edwards an acquittal, working alongside the legendary attorney Camille Gravel. On the morning Congressman Bill Jefferson’s Virginia townhome was raided by the FBI, Mike was one of the first people he called. “I’m headed to your office,” Jefferson said. Mike didn’t know who he was talking to.
During his sixty year career, Mike Fawer represented poor people, rich people, accused murderers, civil rights icons, and corrupt politicians in some of the most sensational cases in Louisiana history. He also made his mark in Mississippi history as well.
Over the course of seven months, Mike shared with me some of his most remarkable stories in a series of conversations I recorded for a podcast we’re officially launching today, Combat in the Courtroom.
I later brought on Ben Collinsworth to produce and edit the series, a process that has required countless hours and without which none of this would have been possible. Some of my conversations with Mike required another take; as it turns out, I’m a terrible audio engineer. As a consequence, Ben also had the opportunity to interview Mike as well.
Ben also lined up an original theme song (think “Law and Order” redone in the style of a New Orleans funk band).
This podcast wouldn’t have been possible without Ben’s talent and expertise.
But Mike came up with the name.
The first two episodes are already online, and if you want to skip ahead, you can. But during the next week, we’ll be publishing compendiums to both episodes, so you may want to wait.
Either way, before you do anything else, you should buy Mike’s book, “From the Bronx to the Bayou,” which is available on Amazon in hardcover and on Kindle.