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The Father of New Orleans

The judgment of history has been kind to John Law, but history can afford tolerance.

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He sounds like he should come to us from right off an MGM backlot. Splashy costume drama in 1950s Technicolor with the protagonist a handsome, social-climbing roue, athletic in and out of bed, a cardsharp who kills a man in a duel, escapes a dungeon, befriends the most powerful royal court in Europe and enlists thousands of investors in the wildest land speculation in history Š .

Who else to form the psychic mold of a city such as New Orleans than a man with the artfully appropriate name of John Law? A man whose friends called him not Johnny Law, but "Jessamy John," meaning fop or dandy.

John was born in Edinburgh in 1671, the fifth of 12 children sired by a prosperous goldsmith and moneylender. By the time he was grown and gone to London, he was more than 6 feet tall and markedly handsome. He mastered the fledgling laws of probability and became a gambler.

At 23, he also became a felon. A quarrel with a fellow rake named Wilson led to drawn swords and Wilson's death. Despite friends in high places -- rumors included the very king of England -- Law was unable to hurdle the vigorous prosecution pushed by Wilson's family and was sentenced to death.

Somehow, Law was able to cheat the law. In later years, he would claim that he had drugged his jailers and sawed his irons off singlehandedly, though it is more likely he was helped by agents hired by wealthy backers.

One way or another, Law escaped to the continent. In various countries, he indulged his old favorites, love and chance, but in Amsterdam, he also hung around banks and studied the hows and whys.

In Paris, he discovered Katherine Seignur, an Englishwoman married to a Frenchman and the love of his life. She was beautiful and haughty, both despite a birthmark on her face. Law talked her into running away with him. (If you are still with me on casting this genre cinema role, try Lana Turner.) The couple went to Venice and frequented ridotti, multistoried casinos where guests wore masks and where Law's gambling and moneylending produced a considerable bankroll.

But Law's resume revealed a flaw, one which often haunts the careers of certain rapscallions: the desire for legitimacy. Soon he was back in England and his native Scotland, seeking pardon for his crime and petitioning now-Queen Anne for help in establishing a national bank, with currency based on land. He was stunningly unsuccessful.

Back to France went Law and his now-wife and child. Because of the extravagances of Louis XIV, martial and otherwise, France was in fiscal chaos. Yet the royal minister of finance was as uninterested in Law's proposals as his British counterparts had been.

Enter the namesake of a city. In 1707, the Duke of Orleans was 36, three years younger than Law and -- like him -- a rake. But this king's nephew was more than just another jaded aristocrat. He was an amateur chemist and necromancer, a painter and composer, who played the flute and collected art by such as Titian, Raphael and Caravaggio. (Here I might suggest Claude Rains.)

After Louis XIV died, the duke became the regent for the 5-year-old king, and Law at last had his royal champion. Within a whirlwind, Law and Orleans had founded the first national bank of France and issued paper money on such a scale that, after it failed, France didn't try paper currency again for another 80 years.

Encouraged by the bold duke, Law formed the most powerful conglomerate the world had seen and called it the Mississippi Company. The company aimed to develop French resources in the New World and to that end founded a city at a bend in the Mississippi River in 1718. Soon Law was printing posters depicting a land of tropic palms, cool mountain tops and accommodating Indians.

Such images helped fuel speculative investing on a scale never seen before. Shares in the Mississippi Company opened at 150 livres and were selling at 10,000 within months.

The judgment of history has been kind to Law; many of his banking practices are now commonplace in financial circles. But history can afford tolerance. Like many a visionary, Law was ahead of his time. The frantic bubble burst and a half-million investors went bankrupt.

Law left France without much of his family or fortune. He petitioned the Duke of Orleans for both, but on Dec. 2, 1723, the duke died of a heart attack in the arms of a mistress.

Again ahead of his time, Law saw the investment potential of art and bought works by Leonardo, Holbein and Tintoretto. But as the realization grew that his reputation and fortune would never be restored, his health began to sink. A French visitor in late 1728 declared him "the same man, with small means but playing high and boldly, his mind occupied with projects, his head filled with calculations." Six months later, Law was dead of pneumonia in Venice. His brother had Law's children declared illegitimate and ineligible for any inheritance. In the end, the children of Law had no protection under the law.

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