It was a few days after Hurricane Katrina, and Anderson Cooper was in a truck with police officers stationed on North Rampart Street when they passed by his father’s old high school.
Wyatt Cooper, who briefly lived in New Orleans’ 9th Ward, died when his son was 10, so the CNN anchor has limited memories of him. But that day, they started flooding back, and the city he had barely seen since he visited it with his father as a child was suddenly familiar again.
He remembered long streetcar rides up St. Charles Avenue and visiting St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, where X’s marked a grave thought to belong to voodoo priestess Marie Laveau.
Cooper’s coverage of the storm became deeply personal, he said. It was also the blossoming of a long-term love affair with New Orleans.
“I think New Orleans is the greatest city in America,” Cooper said in an interview Saturday. “And I just think the history of it, even now to go and walk by the Convention Center and to know what happened (there after Katrina) … there are places I find it’s haunting to go to. And I’m happy to see the city is back and better than ever.”
The media darling certainly hasn’t been a stranger to the Big Easy in the past decade. He’s been so devoted to news coverage here that after the BP oil spill in 2010, he temporarily moved the show he anchors, “Anderson Cooper 360,” to New Orleans.
Come this summer, New Orleanians will be able to see him for a happier reason: a live tour with fellow TV personality Andy Cohen, who hosts the nightly Bravo show “Watch What Happens: Live” and who wrote a 2012 memoir, “Most Talkative: Stories from the Front Lines of Pop Culture.”
Called “Deep Talk and Shallow Tales,” the live show will take place June 24 at the Saenger Theatre. It’s billed as an “intimate evening” between the two stars, who have been friends for more than 20 years.
The program has been presented throughout the U.S. about a dozen times already. It usually involves tequila, videos of “ridiculous things” and lots of laughter, Cooper said.
“We want it to be a fun night out for people. Usually the audience has had a couple of drinks — I like to encourage that sort of thing,” he said, chuckling. “I like to lower expectations and raise alcohol consumption. It makes for a better show.”
Cooper made several quips Saturday about a city known for over-consumption. His personal weaknesses for fully dressed shrimp po-boys at Domilise’s and pecan pie at Brigtsen’s — duly noted on his Instagram account — have reached an “addiction” level, he said. He also has a penchant for sno-balls at Hansen’s, where he loves strawberry but has been known to eat two at once because he couldn’t decide between flavors.
But during the interview at his hotel in the French Quarter, Cooper revealed a deeper connection to a city that he escapes to, if just for a weekend, between shows in New York or Washington, D.C.
He already discussed the city in his book “Dispatches From the Edge: A Memoir of War, Disasters and Survival.” Written two years after Katrina, the book mapped tragedies he’s covered in the U.S. and overseas, as well as losses in his own life that first motivated him to become a reporter.
New Orleans haunts him even now, he said. He inevitably sees streets and thinks how they looked inundated with floodwater, and he is constantly trying to learn more about those who didn’t make it after the levees broke.
The 9th Ward reminds him of a man he saw the Friday after the storm, dead on top of a car, as he was reporting by boat.
And he can’t pass by the Morial Convention Center without thinking of 91-year-old Ethel Freeman, whose body was left there by her family when the buses came and who became a symbol of the government’s inadequate response to the storm. Her son had no other choice, Cooper said, but to put his contact information on a piece of paper in her pocket and cover her with a blanket.
“I try to carry with me a lot of people I’ve met along the way and whose stories I’ve told,” Cooper said. “There were a lot of people I met during those days that I think about when I close my eyes at night. To this day.”
The world saw Katrina’s impact on Cooper during an emotional on-air interview with former U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, as he broke journalistic decorum and lambasted her for praising fellow politicians rather than addressing immediate problems so apparent in the Gulf Coast.
Looking back Saturday, he defended the moment, saying the better storytellers are those who allow their reporting to affect them.
“I’m sort of the least expressive person around. I’m sort of not very emotional, and I sort of try to just ask factual questions and stuff,” Cooper said. “But I think there’s nothing wrong with showing you’re a human being.”
For someone who calls himself reserved, Cooper has made a habit of revealing emotions lately. His latest book, coming out this week, is titled “The Rainbow Comes and Goes: A Mother and Son on Life, Love and Loss.” In it, he discusses his brother’s suicide, his grandfather’s alcoholism and the untimely death of his father.
Co-written with his mother, socialite heiress Gloria Vanderbilt, the new book began as a series of emails after she got sick at the age of 91. The way Cooper explains it, neither wanted to leave any secrets between them before she died, especially because there was so much Cooper never got to learn about his father.
“We decided to have a conversation about all the stuff we didn’t know about each other,” Cooper said. “We sort of consciously set about doing this.”
Cooper hopes to return to New Orleans soon to promote the new book. In the meantime, he said, audience members will be able to ask him any questions they may have during the “Deep Talk and Shallow Tales” show, including about his family and about New Orleans.
“There’s some kind of touching moments and stories, so it’s a mix,” Cooper said. “And you can’t come to New Orleans and not tell New Orleans stories.”