Tonight's party is to mark the birthday of Huey Long, and it's happening at a spot Huey might well have picked for a party. In fact, he did lots of times. The Sazerac Restaurant and Bar of the Fairmont Hotel, once known far and wide as the Roosevelt.
A hundred men and women in nice clothes sip and nibble amidst the Art Deco. Whether they know it or not, each of these lives has been marked by Huey Pierce Long.
Underneath a blown-up photograph of Huey, a woman with auburn hair and spaghetti straps is waving a mojito around and talking to anyone who'll listen.
Huey Pierce Long and the most famous hotel in town made their debut the same year, 1893. The hotel was named the Grunewald then, didn't become the Roosevelt until 1923, and didn't become Huey Long's headquarters until 1928.
The man who put the grand hotel and the grand governor together was Seymour Weiss. Son of an Abbeville merchant, Weiss began working at the Roosevelt as manager of the barber shop, but quickly moved to manager, president and then principal owner. Huey met him in 1928, when he was successfully campaigning for governor.
Huey didn't spend much time in the Governor's Mansion, splitting time between the Heidelberg Hotel in Baton Rouge and the Roosevelt. Seymour Weiss became one of the Kingfish's top advisors and unofficial treasurer. All transactions were strictly cash, especially those connected with the "deduct box."
Into the deduct box went salary deductions from all state employees and contributions from corporations and donors. When Huey was governor, the box was kept in a safe in his suite at the Roosevelt. When he later went to Washington as a senator, the box went along to the Mayflower Hotel, then to a vault in the Riggs National Bank.
But Huey loved New Orleans and was especially partial to jazzy musicians. "Professor" Manuel Manetta's band was always engaged when Long was due to arrive at the railroad station on Basin and Canal. The band would meet Huey at the station and play for a street parade over to the Roosevelt. "Oh yeah," Manetta remembered, "he was grand marshal."
Another musical pet was Castro Carazo, orchestra leader at the Roosevelt's Blue Room. Huey liked to dance, especially to "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" and "Harvest Moon." Eventually, Huey hired Carazo as band director of his beloved LSU Tigers. He further promised that Carazo would lead the Marine band in Washington "when I am elected president." Together, the pair collaborated on Huey's theme song, "Every Man a King."
The Roosevelt was the scene of some of Huey's most notorious bad-boy behaviors. One was the visit of former President Calvin Coolidge and his wife. Sniffing publicity, Long showed up and was asked about his hometown by Coolidge.
"I'm from Winnfield, way out in the sticks," Huey told the dignified ex-president. "I'm a hillbilly, more or less, like yourself." Coolidge then asked how Huey got along with the two Louisiana senators. He thought a while and answered, "One of our troubles down here is you just can't tell how long you're going to be friendly."
When photographers asked for a picture, Huey quipped, "It's a picture of past and future presidents" and predicted how he would tear down the White House and rebuild it.
Then, there was the Emden affair. The German cruiser was visiting New Orleans, and the ship's commodore and the German consul arranged to call on the state's governor. Seymour Weiss had been appointed colonel in the militia and was outfitted in glamorous uniform when the visitors arrived. He ushered them to Huey's suite, where they were greeted by a man wearing green pajamas, blue slippers and a red-and-blue robe.
"Huey looked," a newspaper reporter said later, "like an explosion in a paint factory."
There is no record of Long's sobriety during these incidents, but his love of the Roosevelt's bar, home of the Ramos gin fizz and the Sazerac, is well-documented. In fact, on one trip to New York, Huey brought along Roosevelt bartender Sam Guarino to show the locals how to mix gin fizzes.
"I'm sampling these to make certain you gentlemen are getting the real thing," the Kingsfish proclaimed to reporters. He sampled five.
Drunk or sober, Huey spent plenty of time at the Roosevelt. So much time that he built a 90-mile road -- Highway 61 -- directly from the state capitol in Baton Rouge to the Roosevelt.
On the day before he was murdered, Huey played a round of golf with Seymour Weiss. He later mentioned to Weiss that he had moved the deduct box, but before he could elaborate, he got a phone call summoning him to Baton Rouge.
Huey P. Long was shot a week after his 42nd birthday. Twice in his final hours, when he was already going in and out of lucidity, Huey was approached by Weiss wanting to know the whereabouts of the deduct box.
"Later, Seymour, later," he replied both times.
So far as anyone admits, the box was never found. But there are those who insist that all that money is sealed up in the walls of a wonderful old New Orleans hotel.
"So this is commemorating Huey Long's birthday, huh?' The woman with the auburn hair and spaghetti straps is trying to keep from giggling, but not too hard. "I remember him from the movie. Blaze Storm. Blaze Starr. And Paul Newman played Huey Long, right?"