It was June 24, 1973, two days after his 50th birthday, when Ferris Jerome LeBlanc left his Royal Street apartment for a night on the town.
He was tall and lean with dark hair, a handsome man of French and Chippewa descent, looking every bit the Californian on a Sunday stroll in the French Quarter.
LeBlanc joined a jovial crowd at 604 Iberville St., a second-floor gay bar at the corner of Chartres and Iberville streets. The new Metropolitan Community Church had been meeting at the bar, and some members stuck around for fellowship and beer. Patrons gathered around the piano to sing along, as they always did. It was a beautiful day.
It was the last time anyone ever saw Ferris LeBlanc alive.
A favorite uncle
Fast-forward to Jan. 11, 2015. Marilyn LeBlanc Downey, Ferris LeBlanc’s sister, had traveled from her home in California to visit her son, Skip Bailey, and his wife, Lori, in Tucson.
“She came to visit me for my birthday,” Bailey said of his mother. “When she got to my house, after a couple of days she said, ‘Would you go look up Uncle Ferris on your Internet?’”
It had been 42 years since Bailey or anyone in the family had seen or heard from his uncle. He had always hoped to hear something — anything — from the man who he’d been so close to as a child.
“My first memory of him is when I was 4 years old. He was coming back after the war, and he had this red MG sports car with big wire wheels. I was 4 and already a car nut, and he gave me a ride in it. That was the coolest thing in the world,” Bailey recalled.
LeBlanc was a hero outside his family, as well. He had earned his place among the greatest generation, the thousands of Americans who helped defeat the Nazis at the Battle of the Bulge. He handled the ammo, made it back alive and was honorably discharged.
After the war, LeBlanc settled close to his family in Morgan Hill, California, eventually becoming a cosmetologist with a state license. As Bailey grew up, his uncle encouraged the boy’s appreciation for art.
LeBlanc settled down with a boyfriend named Robert, and they lived as openly as they could at the time. They were a happy-go-lucky couple who worked in the same salon. There were frequent trips to San Francisco. They loved to dance and do hair.
“He and Robert, they were very educated and classy people. … They had really great parties and dinners,” Bailey said.
By the early 1960s, though, LeBlanc and Robert had parted ways. LeBlanc was now making a life with a man named Rod.
Bailey was a teenager at the time, a budding artist, and LeBlanc and his new partner helped pay for the nephew’s art supplies, college tuition and even a new engine for the van he drove to school.
A family money squabble
“In about 1966, he and his partner, Rod, decided to go into business for themselves and start a rabbit farm,” Bailey said. “My grandparents had some acreage in Morgan Hill, and they rendered him an acre. … They did that for about a year, and then they just stopping paying rent.”
After a few months, LeBlanc and his beau moved off the family property to a trailer next door. Bailey’s father died around that time, and his grandparents went to small-claims court to try to recover the money their son owed them.
“We got a judgment, and immediately after that, they sent me a notarized letter, a bill, for everything they paid for my college education, for the engine in the van, everything.
“They claimed that it was equal to the rent they owed, so we were even. It just killed me. I mean, this is my uncle doing this. But I knew it wasn’t my uncle. … He would never do that. It was this Rod guy.”
The partners packed up and left town. Not long after that, Bailey’s mother learned that her brother was back with Robert and they were living in Oakland.
Gone without a word
Sometime in 1970, Robert called and told the family that Ferris LeBlanc had vanished — had just left one night and never come back. For years, the family wondered where LeBlanc had gone.
The decades passed without a word.
The 1970s, ’80s, ’90s and still nothing, then the new millennium.
Deadly fire becomes legend
It’s January 2015 when Bailey sits at his computer to Google his uncle’s name.
“I typed in his name and did a little search, and my computer screen lit up. There were five pages of ‘Ferris LeBlanc,’ and that’s when I found The UpStairs Lounge fire …
“I was crying and I said, ‘Mom, I found out what happened, and it’s horrible.”
Thirty-two people died in the UpStairs Lounge that summer night in 1973. The story is now legend.
About five minutes before 8 p.m., the buzzer sounded at the door downstairs. When the bartender asked a patron to see who it was, he opened the door to the stairwell, and all hell broke loose.
Someone had started a fire with lighter fluid in the stairwell, and when the door was opened, flames quickly spread to the carpet and up the drapes. Fire and toxic black smoke filled the bar. The bartender led 30 people, some badly injured, to safety through a back door.
Somehow, that door locked, trapping the rest of the patrons in the fire.
Ferris LeBlanc was among the dead, his body identified by someone who recognized a ring he was wearing.
The authorities had little to go on. With a name like LeBlanc, they may have assumed that he was a local and that the family was ashamed to claim the body. But no one in California was ever contacted.
Bailey and his family read in almost every account of the fire that LeBlanc’s body was never claimed. Most of the reports of the time insinuated that it was a case of shame or rejection.
Family arrives to pay respects
On a warm day in May, Bailey, his wife and mother arrived in New Orleans. Marilyn LeBlanc Downey felt that her brother was calling her to come, she said.
The family was allowed an emotional tour of the former UpStairs Lounge, soot still visible in places. They came to pay their respects and to grieve, to be in the place where Ferris spent his final hours. They wanted to feel his presence.
“For us, he died in January” when they learned about the fatal fire, Bailey said. “The shock of his death is still really strong. Especially when we found out how he died, that’s been traumatic.”
‘He was loved’
“We needed to be able to tell people and spread the word about our family’s story, as well as his story, so that they know what really happened, that he left the family and we didn’t leave him, we didn’t disown him,” Bailey said. “He took off. He was loved.
“There never was an issue with him being homosexual — at the time we didn’t use the word gay — the family never ever cared.”
LeBlanc and the three unidentified victims were laid to rest in separate coffins in a city-owned field behind Resthaven Memorial Park on Old Gentilly Road.
From California, Bailey made calls to city officials and eventually was granted access to the potter’s field on May 13. Resthaven’s records show that LeBlanc is buried in Panel Q, Lot 32 of the field, but the graves were never marked. The coroner’s office, the family was told, kept those records, and all of them were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina’s floodwaters.
A time to grieve
The family came prepared, though. Lori Bailey found a news clip that showed the fire victims being laid to rest as a priest conducts a service. By magnifying the footage, the family thinks they were able to stand very close to where LeBlanc is buried.
The family had hoped to bring LeBlanc’s remains back to California, but that’s not possible. For now, all they can do is grieve.
“Things just don’t shut off,” Marilyn LeBlanc Downey said by phone after returning to California. “The information and all that we witnessed and felt (in New Orleans) was really comforting. But it was very, very traumatic, emotional and heartrending. But I knew that I had to do it, because my brother, Ferris, told me ... that he would be with me. And that helped a lot.”