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In Search of Earl Long 

Seeing your governor go crazy on TV is an experience you can't shake. Jason Berry explains why he sent Uncle Earl into the hereafter in his new play Earl Long in Purgatory.

Jean-Paul Sartre once wrote, 'Hell is other people.' But politicians crave other people. How would a stompdown schmoozer like Earl Long act without people? How would he explain himself?

Most of us have a primal memory of politics -- that sudden awareness of people in power out there. In 1959, when I was 10, my father called me into the living room. He pointed at TV news: "Son, I want you to watch history-in-the-make. Look at that man. He's your governor. His name's Earl K. Long. Look out now! Three men are holding him down in a wheelchair. Can you believe that? They're dragging him into a mental hospital and Channel 6 is beeping out his curse words!"

Watching your governor go crazy on TV is what I would call a DLE -- "Deep Louisiana Experience." The moment was like a seed planted in my psyche. With the passage of time I have come to see Earl Long not as an aberration but a precursor, a forerunner casting a long weird light on the state of things to come. The old warhorse left office in early 1960, ineligible to succeed himself. As outgoing governor, Earl Long attended the inauguration of Jimmie Davis with his girlfriend Blaze Starr, a 23-year-old strip teaser from the Sho-Bar on Bourbon Street. Earl Long was separated from his wife of many years, Blanche, who had also been a key advisor.

"Uncle Earl," as he entreated "good Christian women" to call him on the hustings, was the original comeback kid. A man who had a psychotic break on the floor of the legislature, bounced between two mental hospitals in less than a month, got himself sprung only to cavort with a young woman who literally symbolized sin ... that man then announced his candidacy for Congress. And won the House seat in the first primary -- no runoff -- in August 1960, in middle Louisiana, the Pentecostal heartlands. Not until Bill Clinton survived impeachment would a politician prevail over such epic damage in the national media, where headlines had called Earl "the crazy governor."

Long died nine days after winning the Congressional seat and thus did not attend the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy, whom he had shown some good times on Bourbon Street when JFK was a senator. Imagine those two Democrats, sexual lions both, cementing deals in D.C.

The madness of Uncle Earl permeated these latitudes like a foggy dream. Out of the mist came Jimmy Swaggart, David Duke and Edwin Edwards, trudging across psychological marshes, hungry for media, giving the state a persona of the absolute bizarre. Swaggart, the televangelist who fell from high ratings because of afternoons on Airline Highway with a hooker at $35 an hour, is back on the air, still raising money after all these years. Duke, a target of federal prosecutors for suspect fundraising tactics, is somewhere in Russia, hustling money god-knows-how. Edwards, who opened Louisiana to massive toxic waste dumping, enjoys the good life, waiting for the appeal to be heard on his casino extortion conviction.

We are oft-told that Louisiana politics is a spectator sport. A chemistry in public life here stirs hunger that must be fed. We want to see big men punished precisely because they are so extravagant, promising the sky, leaving stale crumbs at the end.

I wrote Earl Long in Purgatory with the idea of the governor drifting between sanity and madness in a spiritual zone that functions like a mental ward. Jean-Paul Sartre in No Exit has a character famously say, "Hell is other people." Politicians crave other people. What would it be like for a garrulous pol to be alone in a room with time stopped? How would a stompdown schmoozer act without people? How would he explain himself?

Uncle Earl reflects on this point, pivoting off a reference to Robert Maestri, mayor of New Orleans in the 1930s and one of Huey's money bags. (Thanks to Christine Wiltz's book The Last Madam for insight on Maestri.)

EARL: You don't rewrite the Old Testament when you run for office. Look at Bob Maestri. Man sold mattresses to the biggest bordello in New Orleans. He got elected mayor, his mattress sales shot up like a rocket. Bob was a shrewd man. I cultivated him after Huey died. Because a politician's first job: to make people feel good when they see you. Especially people who don't like you.

You can be a yellow-dog Democrat, an attack-dog Republican, a vegetarian poodle loyal to those Green people -- but what every politician wants is love. If you're in politics, you want love.

It's physical, a rising heat in your body when you feel the adulation of the people! The people! That's what makes politics a pleasure. Meetin' farmers and blacksmiths, mommas, secretaries, store owners, night people, day people, people who don't know the difference between night and day. Politics is about love! Finding love from all those people. Finding love in the right places ... or the wrong places.

And because there is so much at stake, strange people -- every state has 'em -- like creatures they come crawlin' up from the caverns, searching for the succor and affection they been denied."

Yes, Virginia, there is a Caliban --Shakespeare's menacing creature in The Tempest. I was thinking of him in those lines about strange people crawling up from the caverns. Think of David Duke, with face remade by plastic surgery, running around in '91 as governor candidate and talk-show expert, a new-born Christian, the Hitler birthday parties on hold, proclaiming sanctity of life in the womb. Six hundred thousand white people voted for him. You think this state is not crazy? Flannery O'Connor could not have invented Duke.

Want another creature up from the caverns? Try Clyde Vidrine, a self-confessed rural pimp who became executive assistant to Gov. Edwards (the first administration) and after their falling-out wrote the kiss-and-tell Just Taking Orders in which he says he gave the governor $20,000 to secure a toxic waste pit deal. Vidrine was eventually murdered by a husband he had cuckolded.

There are many Calibans in Louisiana. But Uncle Earl was no such creature.

For the play, I made him struggle with the fact of his madness. Purgatory, that realm where souls waver between heaven and hell, is the perfect setting to explore Uncle Earl --both his brawling, lusty, pedal-to-the-floor personality and the high irony in that other side of his molecular composition: raw virtue, a strain of human decency, something rare that he brought to this sinful outback of democracy. I tried to develop the character's struggle with madness in a manner that would strike empathy with an audience that has forgotten (or is too young to remember) the stigma once associated with now-commonplace topics like bipolar disorder, therapy, anti-depressants, treatment centers, support groups.

By placing Earl in purgatory, I make the character wrestle with a definition of himself. Act One opens with Earl thinking he has been put back in a mental ward. Act Two opens with a radio fragment in which an unnamed biographer tells an interviewer that Earl Long was bipolar. As that information settles in, Earl realizes he is in a place without food or even a restroom because "I never have to pee." He now realizes he must argue his case to God in order to "find the holy escalator."

In a dramatic sense there is beauty to Earl's craziness.

He had a nervous breakdown on the floor of the legislature in 1959, babbling profanities, and had to be physically removed from the podium. What upset him, politically, was the all-white legislature pushing a rash of bills to deprive black people of their voting and other rights. Gov. Long had registered 100,000 blacks to vote in the 1950s. The day he came unglued he was fighting for them and for his own expanding political base.

When weighed against the sadistic theater of Alabama's George Wallace or Mississippi's Ross Barnett -- who literally stood in doorways at their respective state universities to prevent black students from entering, acts that inspired killings by the Ku Klux Klan -- Earl Long holds up well in history. As A.J. Leibling perceptively observed in The Earl of Louisiana, Long rose to the defense of black people at a time when Southern "moderates" like Lyndon Johnson and William Fulbright were shamefully silent on the race issue. In 1958, Gov. Long presided over the opening of LSUNO (now University of New Orleans) without kowtowing to racial extremists. The UNO library is named for Earl K. Long.

"As with his aggressive promotion of black voting rights, Earl Long has received virtually no recognition for his crucial role in enforcing the peaceful opening of a fully desegregated university," write Michael L. Kurtz and Morgan D. Peebles in the biography Earl K. Long: The Saga of Uncle Earl and Louisiana Politics. (Both books are available through LSU Press.)

In a medical sense, though, what explains Long's breakdown?

Historians Kurtz, the Dean of the Graduate School of Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, and Peebles, who has since died, researched the question carefully. The governor's collapse, they write, stemmed from bipolar disorder, a condition marked by "extreme fluctuations in mood, ranging from an elevated 'high' to a severe depression."

Heavy drinking and a hyperactive night life worsened Long's health. His breakdown made Louisiana a national scandal. Today, bipolar disorder is treated through pharmaceutical drugs; the manic mood swings can be managed with proper medical care. Had such drugs been available to Earl Long, his brawl with the legislature might have impressed the national media, rather than make him a laughing stock. His issue was the right one.

Yet all of that does not the stuff of tragedy make. Long was too wild and unvarnished to suggest nobility before the fall. Running around with a stripper does not fold into Lear raving on the bayou. Uncle Earl had too much fun.

Leibling captured that rascally personality. So did Paul Newman in a bravura performance as Earl in Ron Shelton's film Blaze. For the play I wanted a character moving in and out of madness -- colorful at one turn, self-searching at another -- on a quest to find himself.

After his collapse at the Capitol, Uncle Earl was brought back to the governor's mansion, shouting, incoherent, out of control. His wife, Blanche, with the help of his nephew, U.S. Sen. Russell Long, signed commitment papers. State troopers took the governor to a hospital in Galveston, Texas. Earl threatened to sue Blanche for orchestrating his kidnapping and movement across state lines. As he cooperated with physicians, Earl negotiated an agreement with Blanche in which he would be released and not sue her.

He returned to Louisiana on June 17 -- and refused to enter Ochsner Hospital, as Blanche had arranged. The first lady signed new commitment papers. State troopers brought Earl against his will to a state mental hospital in Mandeville, as I and many others saw on television. Leibling reports that as Long entered the hospital the supervising physician said, "Hello, governor. I'm Dr. Belcher." Earl growled: "You were Dr. Belcher." Nine days later he orchestrated his release and had Belcher fired.

Earl Long's lust has an antique charm when compared with the sexual adolescence of a Gary Hart or Bill Clinton. Pundits engaged in endless armchair psychoanalysis of both men. Why did Clinton get hot with Monica in the Oval Office with his staff just outside the door? What made Gary Hart think he could go out on that sailboat in the '88 campaign, with two young women and Louisiana's Billy Broadhurst, and think he would not get caught? Hart was arrogant and emotionally remote; Clinton, brilliant but sexually conflicted, was gigantically selfish more than tragic.

Contrast all that with Uncle Earl's torrid, over-the-top romance with Blaze. He didn't give a damn -- even introduced Blaze to reporters as "the future first lady." This did not sit well with Miss Blanche at the big house in Baton Rouge. As Earl Long says in the play, "There is nothing moderate about me."

For the play, I supposed that when you put a politician in purgatory, he starts telling stories about his life to make sure he's sane. He gets bored. Then what? I figured Earl would try to get people to vote. Everyone in purgatory is dead. Hmm, dead men voting. ...

A "dead men voting" scene in Earl Long in Purgatory was equally inspired by Woody Jenkins' sleazy tirade and legal battle against Mary Landrieu after she beat him in the 1996 U.S. Senate race. Jenkins threw around accusations of vote fraud, pointing at African-American wards in the city with thinly veiled racism. There is a Louisiana Caliban for you. Early in the post-election debacle, Orleans Parish Clerk of Criminal Court Ed Lombard showed good stuff on TV news, ripping at Jenkins with undisguised scorn. Ed, show charity toward Uncle Earl for his actions in purgatory.

From the script:

EARL: All you who have passed on, come you departed souls! Let no man deny you the exercising of your franchise on account of a certificate from some piddly coroner! Come over here and talk to your Uncle Earl! You, ma'am: where'd you pass away? Red River Parish! One of my favorite parishes. Red River Parish is a land of milk and honey. Now you can put an echo in your death, ma'am. People will be more serious about tending your grave in Red River Parish. Keep a link with your neighbors and loved ones -- just sign here. Oh? Well, that's all right. Just put an X. Next election, your vote will be counted. You can trust your Uncle Earl!

Son, yes you over there: where did you live your life on earth? Evangeline Parish? One of my favorite parishes. All those Broussard weddings I attended! Evangeline is a fine, beautiful parish. Ancient oaks, Spanish moss, fertile fields. And you're buried where? Behind the court house. That's the best place to be buried! You can get in and out on election day, cast your ballot, four, five, six times. Sign your name right here, son. Let your Uncle Earl take care of the rest."

The idea for the script came upon me in 2000 as I gave a weekly lecture at Elderhostel, the cultural tourism group that programs events for tours of senior citizens. Pianist A. J. Loria and I do a music presentation for the group, and I sometimes throw in stories about politicians: Huey, Earl, Edwin Edwards and his famous line about being safe with voters unless caught in bed with a dead woman or a live boy. I sensed a great curiosity about Earl, the lesser-known Long, which made me think he was worth exploring in a dramatic work.

New Orleans Elderhostel director Barbara McCurdy was kind enough to let me give two script-readings for Elderhostel audiences. For the second reading, at an upstairs room in Ralph and Kacoo's restaurant in December 2000, I invited John McConnell, the actor who had played Huey Long in the play The Kingfish, and Perry Martin, who directed McConnell in that work and guided the production to a ten-week run at the John Houseman Theatre in New York.

(I saw The Kingfish in 1988 at the Orpheum during the Republican National Convention. I sat behind Jerry Falwell, who was flanked by several aides who looked like security agents. At the laugh lines those men would swivel their necks to see if the Reverend was chuckling before showing their own signs of mirth.)

At Ralph and Kacoo's that day I also invited my old friend Rob Couhig, whose success with the Zephyrs baseball franchise suggested to me that he had the timber to be an theater impresario. After the reading, in a huddle with McConnell and Martin over oysters in the restaurant, Rob signed on as executive producer. Last fall, when Martin began casting lines for a theater we hit a stroke of luck. Southern Rep had a schedule change and an opening for March.

The only piece missing was the music. I wanted the sounds of Louisiana to filter through Earl's mental chambers. I was reluctant to pipe in old songs by Jimmie Davis or even a recording of Randy Newman singing "Every Man a King." And so I called Spencer Bohren, whose wondrous work on acoustic guitar and warm flowing lyrics are for me an essential sound of this music-mad region at the bottom of America. Spencer took to the project; as I write these lines, he and Martin are in a recording studio in Lafourche Parish, finishing the music track.

For most of the 1980s, I lived on the top floor of a big house on Napoleon Avenue that Uncle Earl and Blanche had owned many years earlier. I lived in that apartment long after they had sold the place; the idea for the play came long after I had moved. In writing Earl Long in Purgatory, I have thought back to certain nights when I sat on the balcony under the oaks of Napoleon Avenue, gazing at the moon, wondering what secrets of Uncle Earl were hidden in that house. In whatever spiritual realm he inhabits, I hope the madcap governor enjoys my take.

click to enlarge Photo by Jack B. McGuire from Uncle Earl Deserved Better.
  • Photo by Jack B. McGuire from Uncle Earl Deserved Better.
click to enlarge Earl Long just after being committed to the state hospital on June 18, 1959. Capt. Herman Thompson of the East Baton Rouge sheriff's office stands beside the car and drove Long to the hospital in Mandeville. - Photo from the collection of the State Library of Louisiana, courtesy Jack McGuire.
  • Earl Long just after being committed to the state hospital on June 18, 1959. Capt. Herman Thompson of the East Baton Rouge sheriff's office stands beside the car and drove Long to the hospital in Mandeville. Photo from the collection of the State Library of Louisiana, courtesy Jack McGuire.
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