A Mayor called “Chep”

Nearly 70 years ago the city and its politics were about to undergo a dramatic change

A portrait of Chep Morrison in his officer’s uniform.

It was a new day.

A young railroad executive named Jimmy Fitzmorris moved amidst the crowds on St. Charles Avenue, near Canal, in front of Kolb’s Restaurant. In the May sunshine, the atmosphere was electric as the parade arrived. Military bands played. Dignitaries from Latin American nations waved from convertibles.

Applause went up from the multitude as a car adorned with American flags rolled to a stop. Sitting high atop the back seats were deLesseps S. “Chep” Morrison, and his wife, Corinne. Morrison wore a white, double-breasted suit for inauguration day, 1946.

“It was like Mardi Gras,” says Fitzmorris, remembering that day nearly 70 years ago. The new mayor, flashing his winning smile, caught Fitzmorris’ eye and motioned him over. He asked Fitzmorris to meet him at his office to talk about getting involved at City Hall.

The course of New Orleans history was about to shift radically. Chep Morrison would go on to serve as mayor from 1946 to ’61, and remained the dominant figure in local politics until ’64. The man in the white suit was to embody a dynamic, ascendant era.

Out the gates, one thing Morrison had going for him was contrast. His predecessor as mayor, Robert Maestri, had the manners and speech patterns of the plainest of New Orleanians. He is known in local lore as the guy who turned to the visiting President Franklin Roosevelt over dinner at Antoine’s with the Yatty query, “How ya like dem ersters?” He was also portrayed as being cozy with corrupt elements in the city, and through the Long machine at the state level. He shunned the press. In his 10 years as mayor, the aging, jowly political boss had gradually come to epitomize for some people all that was wrong with politics in old New Orleans.

top: A triumphant shot of Morrison, standing on the balcony in front of the then-new City Hall (between 1957 and ’61, probably ‘57).  bottom: The mayor and the City Council in front of the new City Hall. From left to right: Walter Duffourc, Jimmy Fitzmorris, Glenn Clasen, Mayor deLesseps S. Morrison, Victor Schiro, Paul Burke, Henry Curtis, and Fred Cassibry, sometime between ’58 and ’61.

The newly elected mayor was virtually Maestri’s opposite. Morrison was fit, handsome, worldly and eloquent. He was a bridge-builder, as salesman, a human dynamo. Only 34 at his inauguration, he was about a quarter-century younger than Maestri.

Morrison was emblematic of a new American know-how that had just months earlier delivered the world from evil. The Army colonel had helped cut a swath across Nazi-held Western Europe. He earned the Bronze Star for assisting with the Normandy invasion. He helped restore liberated port cities in Belgium and served as the military occupier’s equivalent of mayor in Bremen, Germany. In New Orleans, which built the Higgins boat, suddenly teeming with returning veterans eager to build a new civilization, such a resume meant something. That Morrison was a handsome young officer didn’t hurt among women voters, who were his vanguard.

“Morrison was always meticulously dressed, well-coifed and had the image of a playboy,” says retired University of New Orleans history professor Raphael Cassimere. “He was also a successful warrior, and people loved that image.”

But if Morrison was to play hero, then he must have an archenemy. And he soon found a volatile, vindictive and powerful one in the governor’s mansion. “Uncle” Earl Long spent the late 1940s and early ’50s antagonizing and lampooning “deLasoups” “Cheppy Boy” Morrison. As payback for Morrison’s support of Long’s opponent in ’48, Long enacted measures through the state Legislature aimed at crippling the city – and ultimately at forcing Morrison to resign. Long took tactics from the playbook his brother Huey had used in ousting Mayor Walmsley in the ’30s. Baton Rouge tinkered with the city’s balance of powers, slashed its sales tax and increased its obligations to firefighters. Uncle Earl wanted to snuff out the upstart.

“It was jealousy,” says Fitzmorris, who served on the City Council from 1954 to ’66. “Chep was like a diamond in a ring. Chep drew people. He was a fresh face.”

Morrison refused to bow to the Long machine. He eventually rallied to bring “home rule” (government independence granted by the state) to New Orleans. The new city charter rethought local government and established the mayor-council form in place today. “The great hero of the anti-Longs was deLesseps Story Morrison,” says historian Edward Haas, who has authored books on both Morrison and his successor Mayor Vic Schiro.

Morrison’s CAO and political confidante Dave McGuire – in “many ways the brains behind Chep,” Haas says – once compared Morrison to sex: “When Morrison is good he’s very, very good,” McGuire said. “And when Morrison isn’t good – he’s still good.”

Locally, he was untouchable. In 1950, ’54 and ’58 he won the mayor’s race without a runoff.

“Morrison was somebody who was looked on as the answer to all the problems in the world,” Haas says.

A Flowering City
As time passed, there seemed to be more and more evidence to justify that view. As early as 1947, Morrison appeared on the cover of Time magazine with the flags of Latin America flying behind him. The port, whose commerce had plummeted immediately after World War II, returned to full form as Morrison began trotting the Western Hemisphere on its behalf.

Morrison also moved swiftly to clean up city government. Corruption in the police department remained a persistent problem, but from the citizen’s perspective city services – from sanitation to street paving – were visibly improved. “He got rid of a lot of old political hacks, and it’s hard to get rid of people who have been on the public’s leg for a long time,” Fitzmorris says.

The landscape of the city was transfigured. Morrison brought a permanent VA hospital to town. A new, fashionable airport terminal went up. The New Basin Canal was filled in. The Pontchartrain Expressway rose and the Mississippi River Bridge connected Algiers to downtown. New neighborhoods emerged from the soil in Algiers, Lakeview, Gentilly and along the Lakefront, including a golf course community called Pontchartrain Park. Miles and miles of streets were paved and pipes were laid.

The population grew vigorously. As of the 1940 census, New Orleans’ population stood at 495,000. By ’60, it had shot up to 628,000 – still the city’s all-time peak.

With the help of attorney Lester Lautenschlager, Morrison created a re-imagined recreation department to serve the booming families of the mid-century.

Haas grew up in the Irish Channel, his entire childhood bracketed by the Morrison years. NORD was at the center of that childhood, he says. “I spent my weekends and my summers at Lyons Center. We’d be out there until 10 o’clock, when they turned out the lights.”

Morrison himself had a young family. He and Corinne were raising two sons and a daughter. That daughter, also named Corinne, now an attorney, remembers his love of sports and recreation. She also remembers how proud her father was of his administration’s accomplishments.

On a typical Sunday, the family headed out from the house on Coliseum Street to morning Mass at St. Patrick’s Church. Immediately afterward, Morrison would sit in the pew scribbling down the thoughts that had come to him over the waves of Latin. Monsignor Henry Bezou would come out and talk politics a bit with the mayor. Then the family would take a car ride to see the latest project underway. “You see that over there, Boolie?” Morrison would say to his daughter, using his pet name for her, pointing to a messy construction site. “That’s gonna be the new civic center.”

Corinne says her father “loved the 1950s architecture – the glass, the steel.” This was obvious in the modern conglomeration of new government buildings along Loyola Avenue.

Morrison worked with soft-drink mogul Bill Zetzmann to eliminate a spiderweb of rail lines and dangerous grade crossings, consolidating six train stations into the Union Passenger Terminal. From there a vast redevelopment unfurled, driven by planners Brooke Duncan and Louis Bisso, all the way down Loyola Avenue. It was anchored by a gleaming City Hall.

As downtown and new neighborhoods developed, a movement of young architects emerged to design innovative schools, churches, libraries, commercial buildings and even residences. This group consisted of World War II vets and recent architecture school graduates such as Charles Colbert, Buster Curtis, Arthur Davis, James Lamantia, John Lawrence, Albert Ledner and John Rock. These young guns spoke a language new to New Orleans: Modernism.

It was an exciting time, says Ledner, now 90. New Orleans, known for its ornate, classical structures, was suddenly seeing straight lines and revelations in geometry. Ledner says there was a “sea change” in architecture in New Orleans. “It was carried forward by the need for rebuilding both in this country and in Europe,” he says.

A burst of musical creativity also came during these years. Fats Domino became a household name. On Rampart Street in 1955, Cosimo Matassa recorded perhaps the first rock-n-roll song, Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti.” A kid named Allen Toussaint did session work in Matassa’s studio. By the end of the decade, Toussaint had recorded his own album, and at the start of the 1960s was writing hits for Ernie K-Doe, Irma Thomas and Benny Spellman.  

New Orleans was on a roll. But it quickly became apparent that Morrison had no intention of sticking around forever.

Looking Higher
Morrison, says Haas, “felt that the world was ahead for him. He saw himself in a major national position – if he could only become governor.”

He had several liabilities, however. He was from the Pointe Coupee parish town of New Roads, but through family connections and his many years in the city he was essentially a New Orleanian. And after all, he was now the mayor. This, coupled with his Catholic faith, ruled him out among some in Protestant north Louisiana.

Furthermore, Morrison was constantly skating the thin ice of racial politics.

“He was one of the southern white politicians who took advantage of the rising black electorate,” says Cassimere, who was president of the NAACP Youth Council in the 1960s. Morrison first claimed a position of “separate but truly equal,” Cassimere says. Then, when desegregation became increasingly inevitable, Morrison’s approach was to allow change, but as quietly as possible.

Growing up during the Morrison years, Cassimere was hopeful about the future. “Chep Morrison was a hero of my early life,” he says.
But progress was limited. Before Morrison, “blacks got crumbs,” Cassimere says.  “Morrison just gave bigger crumbs.”

Still, Morrison had the support of the city’s most prominent black political leaders, Avery Alexander, Clarence Henry and A.L. Davis. Earl Long described Davis as “a Baptist preacher that didn’t preach nothin’ but Morrison.” Morrison captured overwhelming black support in almost every race he ran, whether for mayor or governor.

“My parents were Morrison supporters until he died,” Cassimere says. “A lot of people in my parents’ generation felt he went as far as he could go.”

For many in Louisiana, Morrison’s quiet steps on race were too big. In his gubernatorial campaigns, he walked a line between maintaining black support and assuaging segregationists. “He always had the albatross of race relations around his neck,” Cassimere says.
Morrison ran and lost three times: in 1956, to his arch-rival Earl Long; in ’59, to the singer Jimmie Davis; and in ’64, to John McKeithen. With each successive election, he seemed to inch closer to victory. Corinne Morrison recalls: “He kept saying, ‘Boolie, last time it was only two points. Maybe next time it’ll be only one point.’”

The Last Years
In February 1959, Chep Morrison came home to find his wife had died suddenly, at only 37. “It was a tremendous blow because he adored Mother,” his daughter says. “But aside from that she was a great ambassador for the city.”

By the end of the year, Morrison was attempting to press on. He took up with movie actress Zsa Zsa Gabor, to the delight of the papers. Gossip also connected him with the widow Monteleone. He was starting to look like an international playboy. “After Mother died, it was one after another,” Corinne recalls.

In late 1960, Morrison took another hard hit. McGuire, known as Morrison’s “right hand” and his “right mind,” also died unexpectedly. And Morrison was in the midst of the greatest public relations crisis of his administration: School desegregation.

“He was at his worst with the desegregation of the schools,” Cassimere says. “That shocked a lot of people.”

The national media glare descended on the grotesque scene of protest outside of William Frantz Elementary School in the 9th Ward. A cluster of uncouth white mothers at the fringe of the city, making an event of it, polluted the air with racial epithets and obscenities.

The protests were egged on and assisted by the venomous Leander Perez from his St. Bernard Parish base. Perez, who would soon be excommunicated by Archbishop Joseph Francis Rummel for his segregationist activities, also happened to be a great political enemy of Morrison. He had found a way to both advance his agenda and damage Morrison.

Morrison complained that the protests were the actions of “a few misguided people … less than 100 people demonstrating – yet when I saw this on TV the same night, I got the impression that the whole city was rioting.”

The magic was fading. And the term limits imposed under the charter that Morrison himself had championed meant that his time was running out. Voters rejected an attempt to “Change the Charter – Keep Chep,” as the slogan went.

But President Kennedy’s election gave Morrison new hope that, as a Catholic, he might have a political future in higher office. In 1961, recognizing his impeccable credentials in Latin America, Kennedy named Morrison ambassador of the Organization of American States. This provided a launch pad for yet another run at the governor’s office in ’63-’64. He lost that election, but not his hope.

Following the election, he took a job at a local bank. To Fitzmorris, however, Morrison out of politics was “like a fish out of water.”

Anyway, in Morrison’s mind, he wasn’t done. Corinne is convinced that her father would have run for governor again. “He thought that he could do for the state what he’d done for the city,” she says.

Haas thinks Morrison might have had a chance. “Times were changing. They were going his way,” Haas says, pointing to shifting attitudes, a growing black electorate and the swelling political strength of metro New Orleans. In the meantime, some believed he might challenge his former ally Schiro in the 1966 mayor’s race.

In May 1964, Morrison asked his daughter if she wanted to join him and her little brother Randy on a plane ride south of the border into Mexico. She declined, because she had a date that weekend.

Morrison called Fitzmorris and asked him to tag along as well. Fitzmorris didn’t have time.

The party aboard the flight that Friday evening included Morrison’s date and her son, along with a couple of others. A heavy storm forced the plane to detour over a ranch in northeast Mexico. At about 6 p.m., farmhands saw the plane overhead, with engines sputtering, searching for a place to land. It circled the ranch twice, then crashed on treacherous terrain, short of a cornfield.

The rain poured down onto the silent wreckage.

“It’s just like you’re in battle, and the general gets killed,” says Fitzmorris, who was put in charge of funeral arrangements for his old friend.

In the shadow of grief, Fitzmorris also busied himself with raising money for a tomb and to support Morrison’s two remaining children.

Massive lines formed on the steps of Gallier Hall, where the bodies of Morrison and his son rested in caskets flanked by an honor guard.

Monsignor Bezou said the funeral service. The city was in shock. The face of New Orleans was gone.

Looking back through the roller-coaster years since 1964, searching for the impact her father might have had, Corinne says she sees aspects of Chep Morrison in the current mayor, in “his energy and his drive.”

“Maybe the training that he gave Moon Landrieu and some of those other people – maybe that’s his legacy,” she says.

After Morrison’s death, Fitzmorris ran twice for mayor, unsuccessfully, against Schiro and Landrieu, then served twice as a highly regarded lieutenant governor during the 1970s.

“I’ve met a lot of people in my life,” says Fitzmorris, now 92. “But I’ve never met another guy like Chep Morrison. He was one of a kind.”

 

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