Let me confess that I have lived with slight uncertainty all of my life. Having heard my father characterized as an assassin all my days has been disturbing.”
The only child of Drs. Louise Yvonne Pavy Weiss Bourgeois and Carl Austin Weiss had brilliance on both sides of his family. He was urbane and adventurous like his mother, and like his father, a man known only to him through the memories of others, he had been something of a wunderkind who showed an early interest in science and medicine.
His earliest recollections were of Paris, where he and his mother had lived until the eve of the Second World War.
Yvonne, like practically everyone else from St. Landry Parish, was Catholic, as was her late husband, who graduated as the valedictorian of his class at Catholic High in Baton Rouge and whose no-nonsense Catholic father had attended mass every morning at 5:15. “At 5:10 a.m., [Carl Adam Weiss] would be sitting in the church waiting for Mass to start,” Yvonne’s sister-in-law Olga Marie Weiss told the writer David Zinman. “If he wasn’t five minutes ahead of time, he considered himself late.” Weiss, as you may know, is a fairly common Jewish surname, particularly in Germany, where the name was first recorded in reference to a Jewish family in 1197, but the Carl Weisses of Baton Rouge had converted to Catholicism long before the first Carl Weiss—Prof. Carl T. Weiss—arrived in New Orleans.
Though the specter of Hitler’s march through Europe had forced Yvonne and four-year-old Carl to sail back to the states and settle in New York, Yvonne, an unabashed Francophile, was determined that her boy receive a proper French education. At home, everything was strictly en français, and in 1942, after Carl turned seven, she enrolled him at the Lycée Français de New York. The lycée, established in 1935 by Charles de Ferry de Fontnouvelle, the Consulate general of France in New York, was in the midst of a dramatic expansion at the time, as it became the top choice of those in the French aristocracy who fled to the United States during World War II. His classmates included, among others, Philippe de Montebello, the prominent, long-serving Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Michel David-Weill, scion of the Lazard family fortune, which can be traced back to the founding of a dry goods store in New Orleans in 1848 that became what is today the largest independent investment bank on the planet.
Young Carl was also at the lycée at the same time as the world-renowned literary critic George Steiner, a polymath and polyglot considered to be one of the 20th century’s leading public intellectuals. Even though Steiner was seven years older and their time at the school only overlapped for two years, it’s a connection worth mentioning because of one astonishing fact. In 1924, Steiner’s parents, fearful of the increasingly anti-Semitic, right-wing nationalism that appeared to be on the verge of taking power, uprooted their family from their native Vienna to Neuilly-sur-Seine, a suburb of the bustling, cosmopolitan Paris. Five years later, on April 23, 1929, when George announced that he was ready to join the waking world by sending his mother into labor, her attending physician at the American Hospital of Paris was a 23-year-old American, newly-arrived after studying in, of all places, Vienna.
Thus it came to pass that Francis George Steiner, Fellow of the British Academy, was delivered into the world by Dr. Carl Austin Weiss of Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
After finishing la seconde (the French equivalent of 10th grade), Weiss Jr. decided to leave the French system and enroll as a freshman at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, 200 miles north of his mother’s home on Long Island. Four years later, in 1954, he returned to New York for medical school at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons. He then trained at Bellevue Hospital in New York, where, coincidentally, his father had completed his residency more than 25 years prior. Before embarking on a career in private practice, he spent two years in the military, piloting planes as a captain in the Air Force out of Barksdale Air Force Base, located right outside of Shreveport (He would sometimes claim the experience was proof that Louisiana remained an inescapable part of his destiny). Eventually, Carl became a respected (and wealthy) orthopedic surgeon and entrepreneur (though not all of his businesses, like the 7,000-acre catfish farm he purchased in Louisiana, were successful).
For most of his adult life, Carl was ambivalent, if not outwardly indifferent, about the father he never knew but whose name he carried. He’d grown up a world away from Louisiana, privileged and sheltered from the notoriety that would’ve been his inheritance had he and his mother decided to stay in state. Carl’s aunt, Ida Pavy Boudreaux, would later recall her nephew claiming that he’d simply learned to block out the controversy of his father’s death. Otherwise, it was too much to bear.
But something changed when he turned 50. He’d spent his entire life underneath the shadow of a man he never knew, but ultimately, like so many other fatherless sons, he wanted nothing more than to prove that his dad never intended to abandon him.
Of course, he had followed the efforts of some of his more outspoken relatives to clear his father’s name, but while he never said so publicly, it seems obvious that Carl was wary the ways in which they seemed to reduce the question of his father’s guilt or innocence down to politics.
Carl Austin Weiss, Jr., like his father and his grandfather, was a man of science, and if there was any chance of vindicating his father from history’s judgment, it would be through the dispassionate findings of science. That was his hope at least.
[The Gospel of Matthew] says, ‘By their fruits, you shall know them.’ I think my family has not borne bad fruit, and I don’t think that my father was a bad apple.”
On July 25, 1985, a little over a month before the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Long’s assassination, Huey’s oldest son, U.S. Sen. Russell Long, met personally with the son of his father’s assassin over breakfast at a hotel in New York. The two men both swore to keep the substance of their two hour-long conversation private, but over the years, certain details inevitably leaked out.
“Neither of us had the power to shape the events that happened on Sept. 8, 1935,” Long wrote in a brief press statement on Sept. 6, 1985. “I contacted Dr. Weiss before my last visit to New York City. We had the opportunity to meet for about two hours on the morning of July 25, 1985, and discuss matters of mutual concern. At the conclusion of our meeting, I told Dr. Weiss I would not discuss anything he told me without informing him first, and I would assume he would accord me similar consideration.”
Although the two men remained true to their word, we do know that at some point Weiss asked Long whether he believed in the credibility and the veracity of the statements made by Huey’s bodyguards. Long assured him they were all men of honor and integrity and that he’d spoken with each of them throughout the years. Their accounts, he said, were entirely consistent and never wavered.
But Russell Long did reveal at least one bit of information that managed to astonish Carl.
Almost matter-of-factly, he told Carl about how he’d recently been contacted by a woman named Mabel Binnings, daughter of the late Louis F. Guerre, former commander of the Louisiana State Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation. Binnings claimed that among the items she inherited from her father, who died in 1966, was the gun that Carl Weiss, Sr. used to assassinate Huey P. Long, which she’d only discovered recently after opening an old safety deposit box.
If Russell wanted it, she said, then she would be happy to turn it over to him for free. He had no interest in possessing the alleged murder weapon, however, and instructed his staff to write Binnings a letter politely declining the offer.
It was a stunning revelation. The gun had been missing for 50 years, presumed to be lost forever. Indeed, Guerre had been asked about the gun numerous times over the years, and he consistently denied having any knowledge about its whereabouts.
For Carl Weiss, Jr., its existence offered the tantalizing possibility of proving, once and for all, his father’s innocence, and to Russell Long’s tremendous credit, he encouraged Carl to reach out to Binnings.
It may have been impossible to imagine at the time, but Long’s decision to share this information with the son of his father’s assassin set into motion a years-long legal drama and true crime sensation that would eventually garner worldwide attention. Within the span of six years, the Louisiana State Police would reopen their investigation into the death of Sen. Huey P. Long, the body of Dr. Carl Austin Weiss, Sr. would be exhumed from its eternal resting place at Roselawn Memorial Park, and Mabel Guerre Binnings would be forced to surrender the alleged murder weapon, along with a cache of long-forgotten documents and never-before-seen photographs that comprised the original investigatory file.
Next page: A Murderer or a Martyr?
Warning: The following pages contain images that some may find disturbing and inappropriate for children without parental guidance.