The Legend Was a Lady: Remembering Martha Henry

To be honest, I didn’t know quite what to make of Martha Henry when I first met her on the set of White Light, a movie that I had written and was co-producing. After all, this was…Martha Henry! Even back then she a legendary stage actress who, either by circumstance or inclination, had made herself available for few movies. Here she was doing our little thriller. I could hardly believe our good luck, but how to…well, respond to her.

I needn’t have worried. The legend turned out to be a down-to-earth, no-nonsense professional—who smoked a lot. As I got to know Martha over the next weeks, a couple of things struck me: her total naturalness when she stepped in front of a camera, a naturalness, I was quickly learning, not necessarily the strong suit of many actors faced with a camera.

The other thing that struck me is how lovely she was. For some reason, I had thought of her as a brilliant actress, but older and—dare I say?—rather plain. Instead, I found myself mesmerized by this strikingly beautiful woman. Nothing on a movie set appeared to perturb her. She did what she was supposed to do, on time and without complaint—although in retrospect she might rightfully have lobbed a few expletives in the direction of the script and the guy who wrote it.

White Light didn’t amount to much but Martha was wonderful in it. She deserved so much better than the movie we surrounded her with. But I had such a lovely time with her, aglow with the pride of having gotten to know her, accompanied, I have to admit, by a bit of a crush.

Years later, I saw her at Stratford in a production of Long Day’s Journey into Night in which she played the morphine-addicted Mary Tyrone. I was reminded all over again of just how good she was—brilliant! The Canadian theatrical legend once again in flower!

Hearing of her death, I was overwhelmed, sadly thinking back to those days on the set of the little movie in which she shone so brightly. The world knew the theatrical legend. Briefly, I befriended the delightful woman.

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Final Curtains

With Michael Caine, circa 1975

This past week Silverview, the last novel by the great John Le Carré arrived on my doorstep. Earlier, I saw No Time To Die, which—spoiler alert!—may very well be the final James Bond movie. And now word has come from London that Michael Caine at the age of 88 is retiring from acting.

Pondering these—for me, anyway—seismic events, I was struck by the realization that Le Carré, Bond, and Caine all have been part of my life ever since I was a kid. In their various ways they served as escape routes out of my humdrum small Ontario town youth. I owe a lot to them.

The glamour and the exotic locales of the Ian Fleming Bond novels, followed by the first three Sean Connery films, enthralled me. The books and the movies seemed so off-limits, a forbidden door I dared not open. Naturally, I couldn’t wait to get pry it open— sneaking in to the Capitol theatre in order to see Dr. No, the first Bond movie. The opening words of Casino Royale, Bond’s debut, are hardwired in my brain: “The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning.”

 I stumbled upon David Cornwell, who wrote under the pseudonym of John Le Carré, in 1963 when he published his groundbreaking The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. I was immediately caught up in its dark, “atmosphere of chilly hell,” as J.B. Priestley called it, the burnt-out case that was the novel’s protagonist, Alex Leamas. I’ve devoured Le Carré novels ever since. Some were better than others, of course, but I’ve stuck with him over these long decades as he seemed to go on forever. Until, suddenly, so sadly he exited last December at the age of 89.

The secret agents who occupied the dark international spy world fascinated me back then, obviously. That fascination led me to my second-favorite novelist of the era, Len Deighton, and his nameless hero in Deighton’s 1962 novel, The Ipcress File. In fact, Deighton’s 1966 Billion Dollar Brain was the first hardcover book I ever bought. It cost $4.65. I still have it.

From there it was a short hop to Michael Caine who personified the cool imperturbable spy renamed Harry Palmer for the novel’s film version. I’ve admired Maurice Micklewhite aka Michael Caine ever since. He has made over a hundred films, and I’m pretty sure I’ve seen them all—well, okay, almost all—the very good (The Man Who Would Be King, Get Carter, Educating Rita) and the horrible (Jaws 4: The Revenge, The Swarm).

During my years as a journalist whenever I was asked about my favorite interview, I would always mention Michael Caine. I first met him late one night while he was shooting a movie atop a Hollywood hill. During the many times I’ve talked to him, he was always a lively, humorous interview, one of the few actors who actually seemed to enjoy talking to journalists, perhaps confident in the knowledge they were never going to give him a bad review. I know of no one who ever did. I’m not sure which I will miss more, Michael Caine on the screen or Michael Caine sitting down for a conversation.

The new Bond movie runs two hours and forty-three minutes, nearly twice as long as Dr. No. It tries to jam everything into itself—homages to the earlier movies (the Aston Martin, the Dr. No-like finale, a Hans Zimmer-channeling-John Barry/Monty Norman score); an unrequited love story; a heavy-handed, convoluted plot anxious to make it all very important when it isn’t.

After seeing the latest installment, I had to reluctantly agree with what Phoebe Waller-Bridge, one of the many writers who toiled on the hodge-podge script, observed of Bond: “…It’s a life none of us would ever want, if we’re honest. We don’t want to go put a bullet in someone’s head to sleep with people and have martinis. It’s a kind of fantasy nightmare.”

 You can’t help but suspect producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson have turned in the keys to the Aston Martin, polished off the last shaken martini, and decided to go out with a final $250 million blast. If No Time to Die isn’t the end of the Bond franchise after twenty-five movies, it certainly feels like it.

The other night, I crawled under the bedcovers, eagerly settling in with Silverview, overwhelmed suddenly with a sense of sadness and regret. This was it. Le Carré’s books, the Bond movies, Michael Caine performances, they were at their end.

 Then what of the guy who had followed them so loyally from adolescence into old age? Could he be far behind? The math, depressingly, said he couldn’t be. But I could still smell the scent and smoke and sweat of a casino at three o’clock in the morning. For now, there was no time to die. Not until I finished the Le Carré.

Ron Base’s latest novel, The Sanibel Sunset Detective Saves the World is now available. Click HERE to order your copy.

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Writing in the Time of Covid

https://www.amazon.com/dp/B09CLR7T11

If you are a writer, a worldwide pandemic leaves you with little choice but to do what writers are supposed to do and yet try to avoid—write!

In the past two years, hunkered down in Milton, Ontario, unable to travel or even go out to a movie, I’ve certainly gotten plenty of writing done. I’ve had time to complete two Sanibel Sunset Detective novels, a Milton mystery, as well as finish the first two installments for a new series of mysteries set at London’s iconic Savoy Hotel, co-authored with my longtime friend, Prudence Emery, who actually worked at the Savoy for five years.

Outside the tiny bubble in which my wife Kathy and I have existed, the world has been thrown into chaos. Millions have died; millions more have become ill. How does a writer writing what are designed as entertainments deal with this sweeping reality?

Well, I’ve dealt with it by sending poor Tree Callister out to save the world. Sort of. What else can a hero, even an unlikely one like Tree, do in a vulnerable time such as this?

One of the benefits of being a writer is that you are able to leave reality behind and jump through the looking glass into a world that you have created and where you are in control. That’s been particularly true over these many months. I’ve been able to get away not only to Sanibel Island, Florida, but also to London, England and live in a legendary luxury hotel. I’ve even exercised control over my life in Milton, something I’m not otherwise able to do.

As I finished The Sanibel Sunset Detective Saves the World, I considered finally leaving Tree to fend for himself. After all, what do you do with a hero after he has saved the world? But then late the other night, as he usually does, Tree came calling. He has another adventure in store. What can I do but once more follow him through the looking glass, filled with curiosity about what he’s going to get up to this time?

You can download a copy of The Sanibel Sunset Detective Saves the World... HERE.

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TEN YEARS LATER: REMEMBERING BRIAN

Impossible…It can’t be ten years since the journalist, broadcaster, bestselling author, life loving force of nature, and best friend, Brian Vallee, made his exit. But there you have it, time passes and Brian is gone and a decade later a day seldom goes by that I don’t think of him and the many raucous times we lived through together. What follows was written when he died, but the emotions it expressed back then remain true today as I and his many, many friends pause to remember…

The digital readout on the phone said: “Vallée B.” In addition to everything else he’d accomplished, I told him, he had become a rap artist. He liked that idea.

When he called, I knew it was time for my daily dose of the Vallée B news: another old newspaper pal gone; a new piece of information unearthed for the Edwin Alonzo Boyd book; the trouble editing the Conrad Black biography; the endless frustrations with a publisher over his latest book.

I always got the chapter and the verse. More than I sometimes wanted to know. But that was okay. He was Brian, after all, Vallée B. We talked nearly every day for over forty-two years. I don’t think we ever exchanged an angry word. Lots of jokes and arguments and jibes. But no anger.

The 70-year-old more formally known as Brian Vallée was a great newspaperman, an award-winning broadcaster, and a best-selling author. But to me he was simply and inevitably, Vallée B, that reassuring humor-filled voice on the phone, my closest and dearest friend.

He got me married twice (the second time as best man), helped me through a divorce, ran interference with various girlfriends when I was single, and when no one else would publish me, resurrected a publishing company he helped create, West-End Books, rolled up his sleeves and set about publishing my novel—an act of kindness and unwavering generosity that has quite literally changed my life.

It wasn’t just me, though. Brian was like that with everyone. If you needed help, Brian was there to provide it. He spent too much time trying to help everyone—dying pals, unemployed newsmen, frustrated writers, and wannabe journalists. Brian seldom said no to anyone.

He was handsome and charismatic, larger than life. Everyone he met just naturally gravitated to him. He was one of those people who existed in this special aura that acted as a magnet drawing in everyone he encountered.

I remember the moment I met him— lunchtime in 1969 at the Windsor Press Club. We were both reporters at the Windsor Star. I remember thinking he was somewhat shy and quiet. The next thing, I started hearing rumblings, stories from the late night front lines about this new guy Vallée. Not so quiet, as it turned out. Not so shy. A character.

He liked to play the piano late into the night. He did a little Johnny Cash and less Jerry Lee Lewis. He had a singular fault when it came to piano playing: he did not know a single tune. This, however, did not stop him. He played with ferocity and passion. So what if he didn’t quite know the whole song—or even half of it.

The amazing thing is, no one seemed to mind. Rapturous audiences would demand more. I used to wonder what they thought they were hearing. It wasn’t the music of course—there was no music—it was Brian. Everyone loved Brian.

But there was much more to him than his ability (as impressive as it was) to hold court around pianos. He also worked harder at his craft than just about anyone I ever knew. He took the business of journalism very seriously; the necessity to be accurate and true was paramount to him.

I don’t think he started out as a good writer, but he certainly finished up that way. The mellowing effect of the years, as well as his enduring relationship with his partner,Nancy Rahtz, provided him with a gravitas that opened the way to his finest work.

His last book, The War On Women, is also his best, a well-researched, eloquent cry for help for the victims of domestic violence.

In the past two years, he had become a passionate advocate for vulnerable women,and traveled the country speaking out for them. His fight for more awareness of domestic violence substantially raised the profile of that issue. He leaves a real legacy, a record of achievement few journalists can ever lay claim to.

There was so much more he wanted to do. Brian’s phone calls were filled with ambitious future plans both as an author and as a publisher. I marveled at what he wanted to do, wondered how he would ever get it all done.

But at the same time, those calls were filled with increasing complaints about back pain. He thought he had pulled something exercising. Instead of getting better, however, the pain grew worse.

His doctor sent him to physiotherapists.  They provided no relief whatsoever. He could
not work he was hurting so much. Now when he phoned his voice sounded weak. He
seemed much older. Something was wrong, I said. This had to be more than a
pulled muscle. Finally, blood tests were done. His doctor ordered him to get to a hospital.

He went into St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, May 14. He never left. Yesterday morning at 10:33 a.m., with wonderful Nancy at his side, Brian went away. I got there a moment before he left. I took his hand in mine, and he was gone.

So that is how forty-two years of friendship slips off; how the best friends leave. As he escaped away, I shouted how much I loved him, and how much he had meant to me—how I would miss him.

He just kept going. I hope he heard me.

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CAN YA DIG IT: SHAFT REMEMBERED

Fifty years ago, I was driving along the John Lodge Freeway in Detroit, Issac Hayes’ theme from the movie Shaft blaring away on the radio. That theme played constantly back then, its beat perfectly synchronized to the traffic on the John Lodge—to life in Detroit!

The news that Shaft was released half a century ago today, brought back memories of that drive along the John Lodge: “Who’s the black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks—Shaft! Ya damn right!”

Well, okay, no one paid much attention to the lyrics.

In those days I was doing an interview show for a Windsor radio station, desperate for anyone to talk to. At the same time, the so-called Blaxploitation era of movies was starting up, inspired by the huge success of Shaft. Detroit publicists were anxious to fill interview schedules for the visiting stars of those movies. Mostly, the mainstream Detroit press was uninterested in them or their movies.

But an unknown Canadian interviewer? I was more than willing to hurry across the Detroit River clutching my portable tape recorder and the publicists were only too glad to have me. Thus I spent time with everyone from Ron O’Neal (Superfly) to Pam Grier (Coffy) to Fred Williamson (Black Caesar) and Raymond St. Jacques (Cotton Comes to Harlem). Even Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte got into the act with Buck and the Preacher.

The irony was that almost none of these movies was ever released in Canada. It didn’t matter to me, and no one I talked to seemed to mind that they were spending time with someone who wasn’t going to be much help to them.

I don’t remember at the time interviewing Richard Roundtree, the guy who started it all. But years later my then wife Lynda and I ended up spending an evening in Toronto with him and his girlfriend Cathy Lee Crosby. Beautifully dressed, ridiculously handsome, Roundtree was a delightful, charming man, and as un-Shaftlike as you can imagine.

The radio show ended when I moved on to Toronto. The Blaxploitation era of movies was short-lived. But this morning, with the theme from Shaft once again blaring from the radio, the years dropped away and I was back on the John Lodge Freeway.

Can ya dig it?

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THE LEON ROARED: Remembering Leon Spinks

One of the strangest experiences I had as a magazine writer was the time I spent with the onetime World Heavyweight Champion Leon Spinks who has died far too young at the age of 67.

When I met up with him, Leon had, to the vast disbelief of everyone, defeated Muhammad Ali for the World Heavyweight Championship. Now he was training for a rematch. In September of 1978, the Chicago Tribune’s magazine dispatched writers to report on both camps. Lucky me, I got Leon.

He was training at a Kutsher’s Country Club, at the time the longest running so-called Borscht-Belt resort in the Catskill Mountains of New York State. The resort hotel was, to say the least, an odd choice. For the mostly white Jewish clientele, it was as if Leon had landed from another planet (“That guy’s an animal,” snarled one vacationer). For Leon, it was as if he had arrived on another planet.

Any sort of mutual understanding was not helped by Leon’s reticence and downright unfriendliness. His entourage was making half-hearted efforts to polish his image so that he was a more user- friendly heavyweight champion than the uncommunicative, unpredictable kid from the St. Louis projects with a noticeable chip on his shoulder.

There were problems with this attempt at refurbishment so close to the second fight. For one thing, the presence of a pack of sports writers did not make Leon happy—he yelled at and then threw out a disliked hometown reporter from one event, causing outrage among the gathered press.

Everyone assigned to cover him was having difficulty understanding what Leon said even when he did choose to say something. Leon had lost his two front teeth in sparing bouts, causing his speech to slur. Mostly he refused to wear the false teeth that would have made him easier to understand.

We would all gather on Adirondack chairs on the lawn behind the hotel following one of Leon’s press conferences, trying to agree on what it was exactly he had said.

Another problem was simply that Leon refused to listen to anyone. He freely admitted that he was enjoying the money he had finally earned following an impoverished childhood. It was generally believed, he was much more interested in enjoying his wealth than he was in training to win his upcoming fight with Ali—he was being paid over four million dollars, big money in 1978.

Leon, it seemed, was doomed to be Leon, him not liking anyone and everyone not liking him. Still, at barely six feet and weighing in at 195 pounds, he hardly struck an observer as a fearsome heavyweight fighter. Watching him trying to adjust to fame trapped in the foreign culture at Kutsher’s, you couldn’t help but feel a pang of sympathy for a twenty-five-year-old seemingly in way over his head.

There was a vulnerable quality about him that was touching. You could see the loneliness in his eyes and a sadness that on occasion displaced the suspicion and mistrust. He would lean against a doorframe staring forlornly at the swirling crowd in front of him, nuzzling Champ, his tiny poodle, and he was a kid lost in an alien land.

One morning he did manage to inadvertently make a simple human connection. At his improvised gym one morning, in front of a group of hotel guests, Leon was skipping rope, his boom box blasting out, skipping in time to the music, picking up speed as he went along. Leon skipping rope was something to see.

He picked up more speed, skipping faster so that his rope was a blurring arch. Now Leon was dancing to the music as he skipped, a superb show of coordination. Suddenly, a little man in a Budweiser sun hat cried out, “All right! All right!” And the next thing, the late-middle-age white audience was into this, calling out, clapping along in rhythm with the music and Leon’s dancing. Unbelievably Leon began dancing even faster, the audience clapping away with him.

Finally, Leon came to a stop. As he did, onlookers broke into delighted applause, having witnessed a remarkable performance by a superb athlete. Leon, caught in the magic of the moment, was all smiles as he shook hands and posed for pictures. No one around him could believe what they were seeing. Fleetingly, he was not such a stranger in a strange land.

As the lore of boxing records, it did not end well for Leon. Muhammad Ali beat him handily a couple of weeks later in New Orleans. Ali became legend while Leon faded into a footnote until last weekend when his death was reported (his brother Michael did much better, becoming heavyweight champion in 1985, successfully defending his title three times).

As for Kutsher’s, it too faded, and finally closed in 2013. Since then, the hotel itself has been demolished.

A young, angry fighter and the alien landscape upon which he briefly skipped rope, both gone forever.

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Chasing Plummer

The news of Christopher Plummer’s sad and tragic death from a fall at the age of 91 has been heart-breaking to those of us who have long admired him. I wrote the following appreciation in August of 2012 as Plummer made what turned out to be his final appearance on the Stratford stage–perhaps on any stage…

CHASING PLUMMER: I’m not certain exactly when I became so fascinated with Christopher Plummer.
It may have been as a teenager when I got up at six one morning and drove to Stratford to line up at the Festival Theatre for rush seating to see Plummer in Antony and Cleopatra. I lined up for three hours before the announcement came that all the tickets for the day’s performance were gone–Plummer vanished in a puff of smoke and a closed box office.

Devastation.

I’ve been chasing him around ever since.

Curiously enough, in a life spent (misspent?) talking to celebrities, I never interviewed him. I would see him at a distance from time to time, atop the CN Tower for some event or other, hurrying across the street loaded down with shopping bags in my old Yorkville neighbourhood. Maybe it is just as well we didn’t meet, since in those days he was known for his arrogance and his unwillingness to suffer fools from the press, or anyone else, gladly.

I ran into him again last year at the annual cocktail party hosted by the veteran Hollywood journalist George Christy, a long-running tradition at the Toronto International Film Festival. But he remained at an elusive distance.

By that time, however, attempting to make up for that long-ago lost opportunity, I had seen him onstage a number of times: as John Barrymore in Barrymore; Julius Caesar in Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra at (finally) Stratford; as Prospero in The Tempest, again at Stratford.

And the other day, I witnessed his brilliant star turn in A Word or Two, the one-man show he has created and written, as mesmerizing and memorable an hour and a half inside a theatre as one is likely to spend.

Here then for our entertainment is the last of the great, flamboyantly romantic actors in a starry lineup that once included Olivier and Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, Rex Harrison, O’Toole and Burton. These were larger than life men of the theatre, their personal lives often as turbulent and memorable (sometimes, in the case of Burton, more so) than the characters they played onstage.

They are all gone now–O’Toole announced his retirement earlier this summer–leaving only Plummer to bestride the world. To watch him at the Avon Theatre is to witness something we will not see again: an eighty-three-year-old legend, at the top of his game, commanding the stage with humor and eloquence, and incandescent star power–the last of the breed, making a final bow.

Or is it?

After all, I started rushing to see Plummer fourteen years ago thinking this was the last, the end, the finale. Yet he’s still on a stage, blissfully unaware that he has to exit anywhere any time soon.

A Word or Two is not traditionally autobiographical (“And then I made…”)–if you were not already aware of it, you might be forgiven for missing the fact that Plummer took up acting as a career. It is, rather, a carefully constructed piece built around the literature young Christopher was weaned on growing up in Montreal’s Westmount, the stories, the plays, the poetry that enchanted him.

Those stories and the poetry, he proposes, have lately provided a path through the vexations of age, beginning–and ending–with Lewis Carroll’s poem, The Aged Aged Man (“Who are you aged man, and how do you live? And his answer trickled through my head like water from a sieve”).

The middle years, the years of The Sound of Music, years of floundering in too much drink and too few good film roles, are frankly discussed in his beautifully written autobiography, In Spite of Myself. They are not part of Plummer onstage at the Avon. Of his contemporaries, only Richard Burton gets a passing mention.

Good author that he is, though, Plummer continues to promote In Spite of Myself, giving himself over to a book signing following a recent performance.

The lineup snaked around the Avon’s lobby. Plummer arrived dressed in a black pullover, apologizing for being late, the soul of charm. The kid who couldn’t get into Antony and Cleopatra lined up for an autographed book, fearing that as it was so many years ago, he would get to the front of the line and Plummer would once again disappear in that puff of smoke.

However, this time the kid brought along some insurance in the form of friends, Hans Gerhardt and his wife, Helga.

Hans is something of a legend himself, the former general manager of the Sutton Place Hotel–“the hotelier to the stars,” as TV personality Robin Leach called him. Hans has known Plummer since the days back in the eighties when the actor stayed at the Sutton Place, often tinkling the ivories on the house piano into the wee small hours. Plummer in fact provided an admiring blurb when Hans published his autobiography, HotelBiz:A Memoir. If anyone could get me to Plummer, it was Hans.

Sure enough, as soon as Plummer spotted Hans and Helga he lit up. They shook hands, exchanged warm greetings, and then Hans did what he was supposed to do: “I’d like to introduce you to my friend Ron Base.”
Plummer acknowledged me with a vague smile. Ah, well, at least he didn’t disappear in a puff of smoke.

As I left the theatre, I stopped for one final look back at Plummer, still patiently signing away. Longevity never turns out to be all that long. Any way you cut it, this is the end of something. The final curtain is not down yet, but you can’t help but think it’s on its way, and when that happens, that’s it. There are no more Christopher Plummers out there waiting in the wings.

I keep thinking we will replace the fallen legends that so informed our lives, but they don’t get replaced. They simply disappear and are irreplaceable, and we are the poorer for their absence.

For the moment, thankfully, we still have Plummer, the aged aged man defying the deities that have made us all aged aged men. I know he won’t, but I hope he goes on forever.

With me chasing, still trying to get into the theatre.

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Some Secrets Can Get You Killed…A New Novella

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Walking In New Orleans: Uneasy in the Big Easy

If the young men (and a couple of women) displaying Confederate flags, outfitted in what is best described as biker-militia casual, are to be believed, the South Will Rise Again.

At least that’s what the banners sprinkled among the Confederate flags announce. However, on a bright Sunday afternoon in New Orleans, the South isn’t so much rising as it is reclining on a lawn across the street from a line of stone-faced police officers.

Behind the police line and surrounded by a makeshift fence, is a is statue of Jefferson Davis, the one and only president of the Confederacy, the conglomeration of eleven slave states that broke away from the Union in 1861, precipitating the American Civil War. The dark echoes of that war continue to reverberate through this city of three hundred and eighty-four thousand (down about ninety thousand post-Hurricane Katrina) more than one hundred and fifty years after the South lost.

The city plans to tear down the Davis statue, one of four memorials to the South’s Confederate past the mayor and his council have earmarked for removal. That it’s taken so long to do this in a community that is sixty per cent African-American comes as a surprise. What is not so surprising is that these guys with the Confederate flags want the memorials to stay where they are.

“That statue has been here since 1908—this same exact spot since June 3, 1908,” one of the sons of the South explains. “All of a sudden they want to tear it down? It’s part of our heritage,”

Never mind that our southern son is actually from Tulsa, Oklahoma and that the statue was erected in 1911 not 1908.

“I’m from here,” assures his friend, standing nearby.

“We’re all in this together,” adds the guy from Oklahoma.

The Big Easy these days is decidedly uneasy, although for the first-time visitor, New Orleans, as it always has, puts on a fine, if slightly edgy, show, part history, part lesson in the failings of man confronted by nature, but mostly a reminder of the town’s dedication to ensuring that a good time is had by all.

Street musicians are everywhere along Bourbon Street in the French Quarter. Artists showing their work ring historic Jackson Square, and the palm readers in front of St. Louis Cathedral are out in force, anxious to tell you your future—a subject the first-time visitor would just as soon avoid.

There are lineups outside the Cafe du Monde, tourists anxious to savor the chicory coffee and beignets, a local favorite, basically deep-fried donuts drenched in powdered sugar. The fried oysters at Lűke, the upscale brasserie that features Creole cooking, are delicious. The dress code at the city’s most famous restaurant, Commander’s Palace, remains firmly in place: no jeans or shorts, collared shirts required, jackets preferred.

You can board the jam-packed St. Charles Avenue trolley, imaging how it inspired Tennessee Williams to write A Streetcar Named Desire. On a Saturday night along Frenchmen Street, the party never stops as mostly youthful revelers spill onto the roadway, moving from club to club. Good luck finding the sort of Dixieland Jazz that made the city famous (Dude, Al Hirt is dead), but there is plenty of great funk and blues.

The French founded New Orleans in 1718. Then the Spanish took over before the French came back long enough to sell Louisiana off to the Americans for fifteen million dollars. No matter who was in charge, the town always has had a reputation as a good place for a great time. A city born in sin, says Troy Taylor in his book Wicked New Orleans: The Dark Side of the Big Easy.

“From the original charters that were based on fraud to the emptying of French prisoners to provide settlers to the region,” writes Taylor, “widespread government corruption, gaudy social functions, rampant prostitution and frequent lapses in any civilized moral code, New Orleans has a long and very colorful history of crime and vice.”

A topless woman in the early evening on Bourbon Street is about as close to vice as a first-time visitor gets, although what exactly passes for vice these days is anyone’s guess. Perhaps it’s just that the rest of America has pretty much caught up with New Orleans. You don’t have to leave home to be bad anymore.

 

Too old to be too bad, even on Bourbon Street, the first-tine visitor retreats to the oak-shaded magnolia-scented gentility of the Garden District. Fine old Victorian houses, complete with Doric columns, are intersected every so often by intricate ironwork, reminding that the Spanish are long gone but not completely forgotten. The actor John Goodman lives in the district; Nicholas Cage owned a number of homes around here before he went bankrupt. Sandra Bullock occasionally occupies a weird Swiss-style creation that would look better on the side of an alp.

The area’s best-known resident, Interview with the Vampire novelist Anne Rice, gets the prize for the most ingenious celebrity use of the neighborhood. A native of the city, she acquired a number of houses in the area over the years and then set parts of her bestselling books in the them, thus sharply increasing their resale value.

The Lower Ninth Ward, poor and predominately African-American, was hardest hit by flooding during Hurricane Katrina. Given what this neighborhood has suffered, the first-time visitor crosses the St. Claude Avenue Bridge and descends onto a flat landscape crisscrossed by neatly laid-out streets, unable to shake the feeling that he is stepping onto hallowed ground, certainly ground zero for the immense tragedy of Katrina.

Nearly twelve years after some of the worst flooding in U.S. history (eighty per cent of the city was underwater), the Lower Ninth looks better than expected, although abandoned houses remain and there are plenty of cement foundations on empty plots of land to mark where homes once stood.

But there are also impressive numbers of new and refurbished brick and frame structures, built off the ground this time so that hopefully they can survive the next flood. The locals tell you that privately funded efforts had as much to do with the revival of the neighborhood as any government aid. The best known—and most colorful—of the rebuilt houses are those financed by the actor Brad Pitt. You can spot the ones he is responsible for by the solar panels mounted on their roofs.

Only thirty-seven per cent of the pre-Katrina population has returned to the Lower Ninth. What strikes the visitor is the silence of the empty streets, a few people sitting on their porches, the odd stroller along banks of levees that have been rebuilt and strengthened, but which still look awfully vulnerable to an untrained eye.

The visitor departs, uncertain whether he has seen a community better off than it was or found an impoverished neighborhood still struggling to survive. Maybe a bit of both.

The iconic New Orleans the first-time visitor imagined throughout the lifetime it has taken him to get here, endures, but then so does the New Orleans of disastrous news reports, the town still conflicted about race and heritage.

A couple of days later, the statute of Davis is gone. Masked workmen with a crane make it disappear early one morning just before daybreak. If the South is ever to rise again as the Confederate flag wavers who stood vigil so fervently hope, it will not do it under the gaze of Jeff Davis.

Perhaps the Big Easy lies a little less uneasy as a result.

________

Grateful thanks to New Orleans resident Alan Markfield and his partner, Barbara Roston, for their generosity and hospitality showing my wife Kathy and me around town. They made a first visit to this complex, endlessly fascinating city a joy.

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