J.E. Bourgoyne, a retired journalist, guest house proprietor and French Quarter preservationist, died Friday at Touro Infirmary. He was 71.
In a varied career, he also was a trapeze artist, author and circus impresario.
Joseph Edward Bourgoyne III, known to his friends as “Jay,” was born in Plaquemine, the Iberville Parish seat. He graduated from LSU and moved to New Orleans in the 1960s, working first as a teacher at the old Washington Academy.
He joined The Times-Picayune in 1971. The world of the newspaperman by then may not have been as colorful as that chronicled in the 1920s play “The Front Page,” but Bourgoyne entered the business at a time closer to that era than the current one of sedate reporters virtually tethered to a laptop, smartphone and Twitter account.
It was a time when newsrooms “were natural gathering places for characters,” said Bruce Nolan, who started at the paper with Bourgoyne on the same day, on the same 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. shift.
“Not so long ago, the Times-Picayune newsroom contained a beloved spinster who wore her hat indoors, a Cajun protégé of Hemingway, a city editor on the best-dressed list, a fashion writer who disappeared for three days interviewing a visiting Irish actor, and a circus enthusiast who broke his leg when he fell off a trapeze in his living room,” Nolan said. “The circus fan was Jay.”
Bourgoyne loved to tell stories of his Plaquemine childhood and his own delight in small-town life.
He recalled trick-or-treating as a boy in costume with friends at a local bar; the barflies, having no candy, gave the children money instead. Then Bourgoyne and friends left, changed costumes and returned to the bar, hoping not to be recognized so they could rake in more loot.
When he was a teenager, he saved his money to buy a bus ticket, without his mother’s knowledge, to see Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand” dance show live in Philadelphia.
“He made it to the show, but the girl in the cast he had hoped to dance with turned him down,” said Stephanie Stroud, a friend. “He had to call his mother to get her to wire him money to get home.
“He was very young, but he hadn’t a care in the world. And he was like that forever.”
Another former newspaper colleague, Suzanne Stouse, echoed that sentiment.
“His childlike enthusiasm for the things he loved was irresistible,” she said.
Bourgoyne seemed to revel in not fitting the mold of the area he grew up in.
A former co-worker, Paige Hodgeson Clifford, said he told her of the time he pulled into Gonzales — not far from his hometown — with his circus and stopped at an Airline Highway diner.
“When the waitress came to the table, she said, ‘Y’all ain’t from around here, are ya?’ That made him laugh,” Clifford said.
The circus was a small, “European style” circus that Bourgoyne put on occasionally to entertain his friends and sometimes feature them, as clowns or in other roles. He called it the Circus Von Amberg, a play on the name of Isaac A. Van Amburgh, a 19th-century American animal trainer.
He co-founded it with his longtime companion, Jay Tyburski, and it played in local venues such as the Contemporary Arts Center.
Bourgoyne will be buried in the white tie and tails he wore as a circus impresario.
Bourgoyne and Tyburski also were partners in the Bourgoyne Guest House on Bourbon Street in the French Quarter — favorable reviews often mentioned its engagingly “eccentric” proprietor, Bourgoyne — and co-founded the Historic Bourbon Street Foundation, which presented an annual tour of homes on or near the fabled street.
In 2008, he authored “Marietta’s House: A Grandmother’s Cottage.” It was a memoir of the restoration of the Plaquemine home where he spent much of his childhood with his grandmother, mother and sister, “while my father went off to Alaska and other places looking for gold, and finding none.”
He performed a number of jobs at The Times-Picayune, including writing feature stories and compiling the daily “People” column of news items about celebrities.
One story, published in 1996, uncovered the mystery of sisters Flora and Piroska Gellert, Hungarian exotic dancers who performed around the world as Nita and Zita before settling down in New Orleans late in life.
Though for decades Bourgoyne had seen evidence of their existence around the French Quarter — their strangely painted home, their dance costumes for sale in a store — they were dead by the time he fully discovered their story and wrote about them.
“When I think of Nita and Zita, I think of youth, of adventure and of glamour. And I think of loneliness, of old age and of death,” he wrote. “When I am dead, no stranger will look at a photograph of me, or fondle something I made, and wonder about me. Wonder who I really was, why I did what I did, what I thought, what I felt, whatever became of me.”
Besides Tyburski, Bourgoyne is survived by a sister, Brenda B. Blanchard; a nephew; and a great-niece.
A Mass will be said at 11 a.m. Thursday at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, 411 S. Rampart St., with visitation at 10 a.m. He will be buried in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1. Tharp-Sontheimer-Tharp Funeral Home is in charge of arrangements.