The death of Blaze Starr last week made the papers as far away as England, which goes to show what a hold Earl Long retains on the popular imagination.
Starr’s late-1950s act in the French Quarter was red hot, almost literally, in fact, because it took off as she rose from a flaming couch. In posthumous tributes she became not a mere stripper, but a burlesque star.
Whatever artistry may have been involved in her show, however, her death all these years later would have been hardly noticed had she not had a very public affair with Long as he approached the end of his third and final term as governor of Louisiana.
Starr made sure that no one forgot her conquest, publishing a memoir that related the deep affection she, born in West Virginia in 1932, felt for Long, from Winnfield and 37 years her senior. Her devotion was less than total, however, for she claimed to have enjoyed a “quickie” in a closet with JFK at the Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans when Long was otherwise occupied.
The book was made into a movie starring Paul Newman, but, for whatever reason Starr took up with Long, it was not because he was that handsome. Newman as a pea-patch Louisiana politician, albeit one with considerable charisma, was not exactly typecast, and the movie offered little clue as to what made Long such a dominant figure.
A large part of his appeal came from his wisecracks, and Long will be well represented in any collection of political quotations. As for the sanctity of the ballot, for instance, he declared, “When I die, I want to be buried in Louisiana, so that I can remain active in politics.”
He was indeed buried in Winnfield, but, as we approach election season, it appears that Long would not get far as a gubernatorial candidate these days. He built up a network of charity hospitals, introduced various welfare programs and gave schoolchildren free lunches and textbooks, for instance. In the era of the Tea Party, he would be dismissed as a wishy-washy, liberal do-gooder.
If death left him politically inactive, his life certainly ended with a bang. Maybe consorting with Starr should not be regarded as a sign of mental imbalance, but, at a joint legislative session in 1959, smoking cigarettes and appearing drunk, he delivered a 90-minute oration that was largely incoherent. The press depicted him as a clown, although his theme was in fact remarkably enlightened. He lambasted state Sen. Willie Rainach, leading segregationist at the time, and declared that, though it might cost him politically, he would continue to champion equal rights for black people.
That speech was enough to raise widespread questions about his sanity.
Thus, his wife Blanche, in cahoots with the state’s hospitals director, had him committed to a Galveston, Texas, hospital. He talked his way out of there by agreeing to treatment at Ochsner, but, once back on Louisiana soil, made full use of his official powers. He fired the hospitals director, tapped a more malleable replacement and a new shrink duly diagnosed the governor as compos mentis.
The voters evidently agreed and Long was a congressman-elect when he died in 1960.
The contrast between Long and our current governor could hardly be starker. Consider, for instance, their different takes on religion. Whereas Bobby Jindal wears an evangelical heart on his sleeve, Long boasted, “I know how to get in and out of Baptist churches and bet on horses.”
They did, however, share a fondness for keeping the public in the dark. But Long did not need to tame legislators to shield his goings-on, explaining how politicians can keep their own counsel: “Don’t write anything you can phone. Don’t phone anything you can talk face to face. Don’t talk anything you can smile. Don’t smile anything you can wink. And don’t wink anything you can nod.”
Perhaps Long’s most celebrated remark was at the expense of then-New Orleans Mayor DeLesseps “Chep” Morrison, who hung out with the Gabor sisters and was quite the dandy. “Dellasoups,” Long said, “has $50 neckties, and $400 suits. Put a $400 suit on Uncle Earl — look like socks on a rooster.”
Between them, Starr and Long put on quite a show.
James Gill’s email address is email@example.com.