Part One of Three
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Only the Eternal could know all that happened.”
Five weeks ago, on a bright Sunday afternoon, eight Louisiana state troopers, immaculately outfitted in their deep blue formals and round-brimmed Stratton hats polished to a shine, hoisted a simple wooden coffin bearing the body of former four-term Louisiana Gov. Edwin W. Edwards down the front steps of the state Capitol in Baton Rouge and then onto a horse-drawn hearse. As the hearse began its route down the mile-long stretch of North 4th Street to the Old State Capitol, there was a strikingly symbolic moment that would be impossible for any student of Louisiana history to miss.
The penultimate journey of the Cajun Prince, a country boy who emerged from the fertile prairies of Avoyelles Parish—Prairie des Avoyelles—and defined Louisiana during the final three decades of the 20th century, passed under the gaze of the Kingfish, Huey Pierce Long, Jr., a man whose claim on power had been comparatively brief, less than seven years, but whose myth persists even today.
Nearly 86 years ago at the same exact location, a funeral cortege estimated to number some 200,000 people, more than six times the entire population of Baton Rouge at the time, packed the steps and the lawn outside of the new skyscraper state house to bury another former governor. LSU’s bandmaster, Castro Carrazo, led the procession out of the Capitol’s bronze doors as the National Guard Band marched behind him, playing a solemn, minor-key version of “Every Man a King,” which Carrazo had reworked the night before into a dirge.
A blimp floated above the river town, documenting the “largest gathering in Louisiana history” and the state’s most elaborate funeral since the death of Confederate General Pierre Gustave Toutant-Beauregard in 1893, the year Long was born.
“Beginning with daybreak on Thursday, mourners began to stream into Baton Rouge from all sections of the state; by special train from the cities, by chartered bus, by glossy limousine and mud-spattered farm pickup. Looking westward from the observation gallery atop the capitol’s thirty-one-story central section, it is possible to see for nearly seven miles along one of the state’s principal highways,” wrote Hermann B. Deutsch, the legendary columnist for The New Orleans States-Item in his 1963 book The Huey Long Murder Case. “No bridge had yet been built to span the Mississippi at this point. Consequently, as far as the eye could see from this lofty lookout platform, a solid line of vehicles was stalled. They moved forward only a bit at a time, as the Port Allen ferries, doing double duty, picked up deckload after deckload for transfer to the east bank.”
During the previous two days, 80,000 mourners made the pilgrimage to Baton Rouge to see their beloved Kingfish lay in state, carrying with them a library’s worth of school books and flowers that would cover acres and acres of land surrounding the Capitol.
11 days before his death, Huey P. Long celebrated his 42nd birthday by escaping for a quick getaway to Manhattan, where he stayed in one of his favorite digs, a suite on the 32nd floor of the Hotel New Yorker, Room 3200. The hotel’s owner, Ralph Hitz, surprised him by carrying up an enormous birthday cake and having Lila Lee, a singer from New Orleans who accompanied jazz guitarist Nick Lucas every night in the supper club downstairs, serenade him with a rendition of “Happy Birthday.”
Huey was in the prime of his career and at the height of his power. According to at least one account, he’d amassed a personal fortune of at least $2.5 million ($50 million in 2021 dollars). His political organization, the Share Our Wealth Society, boasted more than 27,000 clubs and 7.5 million members nationwide. In the late summer of 1935, he was the second-most photographed person in the entire country, exceeded only by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the aristocratic first-term president who promised the country a “square deal” and who considered Long to be “one of the two most dangerous men in America” (the other being Gen. Douglas MacArthur).
Officially, Long served as Louisiana’s senior United States Senator, seniority he claimed after helping to engineer Congressman John H. Overton’s victory over two-term incumbent Sen. Edwin Broussard. Broussard had committed the unforgivable sin of criticizing Long for refusing to relinquish the governor’s office and allowing his seat in the Senate to remain vacant for more than a year.
Images from Huey P. Long’s funeral, Sept. 12, 1935
From left to right: Color-enhanced still frames of the funeral cortege, Credit: Smithsonian Channel, America in Color. | A crew of gravediggers prepares the area known as the “sunken garden” for Long’s burial, Credit: Louisiana State Archives. | Color-enhanced rendering of pallbearers carrying Long’s casket into the state Capitol on Sept. 11, 1935, Image credit: Lamar White, Jr., Bayou Brief. Photo credit: Louisiana State Archives. | Two aerial photos, one taken from the Capitol during Long’s funeral procession on Sept. 12, and the other taken from a blimp (likely the day prior) of the line outside the Capitol of those waiting to pay their respects to Long while his body lay in state.
But even after he left Baton Rouge for Washington, D.C., Long was still very much in charge. His successor as governor was a childhood friend named Oscar Kelly “O.K.” Allen, a man who surrendered practically all of his decision-making authority—and even the chair behind his desk in the Capitol—to the Kingfish.
“Oscar was sitting in his office, and a leaf blew in through the open window and landed on his desk,” Huey’s younger brother Earl once joked. “He thought Huey must have sent it, so he signed it.”
Long’s near-complete control over Louisiana and his considerable skills as a political performer—on the floor of the United States Senate, on the radio, and on the campaign trail—made him the subject of endless speculation, intrigue, and trepidation.
The Kingfish was a name he’d given himself, taken from the character George ‘Kingfish’ Stevens, leader of ‘the Mystic Knights of the Sea Lodge’ on the syndicated radio show Amos ‘n’ Andy, known for coaxing the duo into all sorts of dubious schemes and for coining the catchphrase “Holy mackerel!”
Today, although the body of Huey P. Long rests 16 feet below the ground, his presence towers over the place, literally. For the first five years after his death, a spotlight illuminated the night sky above his gravesite until, on what would have been his 47th birthday, state officials unveiled a 12-foot bronze statue, designed by New York sculptor Charles Keck and perched atop an 18-foot marble pillar.
The legislature had set aside $50,000 for the statue (about $1 million in today’s dollars) “after a plea for funds by popular subscription brought only a $75 check from a Shreveport ‘Share the Wealth’ club,” according to the Shreveport Times. (In 1938, the legislature also purchased Long’s home in New Orleans for $75,000, with the intention of turning it into a museum. 41 years later, however, the State of Louisiana sold the home, and today, it’s owned by a married couple who purchased the property in 2011 for $949,000).
Is the nostalgia for this man well-earned, or does he continue to symbolically stand watch over the Capitol in Baton Rouge because we otherwise would not know where to put him? Prior to the murder of this nation’s handsome young president on a sunny afternoon in Dallas, Huey P. Long’s death had been the 20th century’s great American assassination conspiracy.
Indeed, two high-profile books about Long’s death had been published earlier that same year, including one that was sent to press on Oct. 31, 1963. The renewed interest had nothing to do with the disclosure of additional information; there were no deathbed confessions or mea culpas, no missing evidence that had suddenly been found, nothing more than the mere passage of time.
It should be said, however, that it is also possible the Kingfish was due for a reassessment in the 1960s for other reasons. For one, the death of his younger brother Earl on Sept. 5, 1960 marked at least the symbolic end of the Long era in Louisiana. But more generally, it’s easy to recognize in hindsight that the 1950s weren’t entirely fair to Huey Long the historical figure, as America increasingly retreated into a sort of paranoiac conservatism and began to view social liberals and those preaching the virtues of wealth redistribution as seditious allies of nefarious Soviet communism.
Perhaps today, in the diminuendo of Donald Trump’s cantata, as we begin our first attempts at figuring out what exactly we should make out of his nativistic, baroque presidency and whether it’s appropriate to define a man who lost the popular vote both times he stood as a candidate in a general election (and who never once mustered the approval of more than 50% of Americans) as a populist, Huey Long is worth another gander.
Whereas Donald Trump got elected on the unfulfilled promise of building a wall on the southern border and making Mexico pay for it, Huey Long promised to build roads, bridges, hospitals, and schools throughout the entire state. He took out bonds and taxed the rich to pay for all of it, and in so doing, he catapulted Louisiana into at least some semblance of 20th century modernity.
“Outside of God, [Huey Long] was probably the greatest builder this state has ever known,” the late Louisiana superlobbyist Ted Jones once argued.
“If a man really has a purpose in life, the ambition and the dream that he has become pretty much the same thing. Huey Long was a populist, very much of a populist,” Russell Long said of his father. “In my judgment, he was the best of all of the populists that came along, and he wanted to implement the idea that none should be too rich and none too poor. He wasn’t against people being rich, except that he felt by permitting the few to have so much, there wasn’t much left for the many. And he wanted to spread some of that wealth around.”
There was nothing unconstitutional or even illegal with Gov. Allen’s absurd deference to Sen. Long. Louisiana didn’t have a statute that could prevent Huey from commandeering Allen’s office at the Capitol or the apartment he’d set up on the 24th floor, believing the altitude was an effective remedy against seasonal allergies. Indeed, what was masterful about Huey P. Long, what scared his opponents more than anything, was that there was no reason for him to break the law when he could just as easily change it. Another terrifying fact about Huey—terrifying to his adversaries, at least, and a fact that neither he nor his critics cared to mention—was that he’d become wealthy as a lawyer before he was elected governor; a single case netted him the equivalent of a million bucks in today’s dollars, and business was easy come to by. If anything, Huey’s meteoric success as an attorney provided him with the autonomy and the professional respect needed not only to launch a campaign but to start a movement.
100 years ago in the hinterlands of Winn Parish and outside the parish courthouses in Caddo and Rapides, where widowed women had constructed mail-order monuments to honor the seditious white men who lost and died in a war over slavery, Huey P. Long began asking people to dream again—for fairness, for a respect, for a slice of the American pie, for a chicken in every pot, for a share of that wealth that Mr. Rockefeller had been amassing in the elixirs of electricity and the lifeblood of a new American economy extracted below the same land that Southerners called home. Huey P. Long was, in fact, selling somewhat of a fairytale, except that he was right: The oil underneath Louisiana could make a handful of East Coast American aristocratic families, families with Dutch or Welsh or Scottish surnames, a pair of palatial addresses in Manhattan and on the beach in Newport or maybe even Sands Point, a little lagniappe, or it would stay in Louisiana—just a portion of it, really, nothing more than 5%—and transform a banana republic into the most ambitious social democracy in the nation’s history.
“Who were the people that opposed Huey Long?” Ted Jones asked in 2010. “It was people who had wealth or vested interests and who felt threatened by the things that he wanted to do, because they either felt like they would have to pay some taxes or somebody else would come up and say, ‘Well, I want so and so, and I’m entitled to that. And we don’t think you are entitled to it.’ So the people that opposed Huey Long were not people who saw progress for the average person, but the Longs use their intellect to recover for the average citizen of this state to be able to enjoy some of the natural resources that were being taken away from them, and in which they had no participation or couldn’t enjoy any part of those benefits.
“The people that control[led] the government in those days were the wealthy and the vested interests, and you always heard Huey talking about the Wall Street crowd and how they control things and how the set up the gates to capital by Moody’s and everything and the only way you could get through that was J.P. Morgan and his crowd; [they] had the gates to the rating on your bonds, and there was a demand for better facility services, education, highways, bridges, and hospitals and things of that type here. That’s what propelled Huey Long: The need.
“He was a man of his time. His rule was necessity knows no law, and he went after it, and they can say he was corrupt. But Huey Long wasn’t nearly as corrupt as the fortunes that fault him.”
Not long before he died, Huey had invited a few out-of-state reporters, including Raymond Daniell of the New York Times, to accompany him on the ride from Baton Rouge to New Orleans. (Daniell also helped Long’s personal secretary, Earle Christenberry, in editing the manuscript of Long’s second book, a follow-up to his political autobiography Every Man a King titled My First Days in the White House). While driving by the ostentatious Metairie Cemetery, “Huey remarked that of all forms of human vanity, the building of monuments over graves seemed to him the silliest,” recalled Daniell.
“One of the reporters, who had been nursing a whiskey bottle all the way from Baton Rouge, looked at the Kingfish and predicted that ‘one day Huey would have a finer one than any in that cemetery,'” wrote William Ivy Hair in The Kingfish and His Realm. “For once, Huey Long seemed unable to think of a reply.”