Once Upon a Time in New Orleans

Cavorting with the corpse of Ernie K-Doe leads to a dark corner of the Big Easy’s past. 

Ernie K-Doe’s funeral, New Orleans, June 2001

It was June 2001 and we were seeking shelter from the sun, having just finished dancing for several hours in a New Orleans funeral procession. The second line had followed the brass bands from downtown out to St. Louis Cemetery No. 2. The parade honored the late Ernie K-Doe, self-described “Emperor of the Universe.” K-Doe a local rhythm and blues recording artist, had one chart buster back in 1962 — Mother-in-Law.

Hoofing back in the direction of our hotel, we stopped at the first available watering hole, Cosimo’s, a little bar at 1201 Burgundy St., on the edge of the French Quarter. Not your typical raucous Bourbon Street dive, Cosimo’s was cool and dark and quiet inside. The bartender looked like she may have been serving drinks at the place since it opened. Cosimo’s was the kind of place where native New Orleans residents came to escape the hordes of tourists. The regulars all seemed to know each other.

Cosimo’s bar, 1201 Burgundy St., New Orleans.

A new digitized jukebox had recently been installed and the bartender was having difficulty figuring out how it worked. During some small talk, she let it slip out that owner of the place also owned the jukebox company. When she walked to the other end of the bar, I leaned over and whispered to Alison, “This place looks like it’s mobbed up.” Since then, the term “mobbed up” has become an inside joke with us because I seem to see vestiges of organized crime around every corner. Perhaps this annoying little quirk of mine fits more snugly in a city like New Orleans, a city that never has tried to hide behind a veneer of respectability as much as St. Louis. The corruption in the Crescent City has always been closer to the surface, less hidden.

After we got back home, I received a review copy of Rearview Mirror: Looking Back at the FBI, the CIA and Other Tails by former FBI agent William Turner. After he split from the bureau in the 1960s, Turner became an editor at Ramparts magazine. Later, he helped New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison investigate the Kennedy assassination. Lee Harvey Oswald, the alleged assassin, had spent time in New Orleans in the year preceding the assassination, hanging out with a group of right-wing extremists, including Clay Shaw, David Ferrie and Guy Bannister, an ex-FBI agent from Chicago. Bannister ran a private detective agency in New Orleans, which was a front for Anti-Castro guerrilla operations.

David Ferrie, left, with Lee Harvey Oswald at a Civil Air Patrol outing in 1955.

In 1968, when Garrison started trying to unravel these connections, he had a sit-down with Dean Andrews, a friend and fellow attorney. Garrison believed that Shaw was involved in the plot to kill Kennedy because he had briefly hired Andrews to defend Oswald almost immediately after the alleged assassin had been arrested. Here’s an excerpt from Turner’s book:

“… Within days of the assassination, attorney Dean A. Andrews had tipped the FBI about a link between Oswald and Shaw, who was using the pseudonym Clay Bertrand. … Andrews, a Falstaffian figure with a flair for hip language, later told the Warren Commission that he had ran a kind of turnstile law practice in which he secured the release of `gay swishers’ arrested by the police in violation of sumptuary laws. … Continuing, Andrews mentioned that on the day after the assassination he was recovering from an illness in the Hotel Dieu Hospital when `the phone rang and a voice I recognized as Clay Bertrand asked me if I would go to Dallas’ to defend Oswald.’ …

“Although the (Warren) Commission discounted Andrews statement, Garrison didn’t. He knew Andrews, having gone to Tulane law school with him. … So one of the first things that (Garrison) did when he reopened his JFK file in late 1967 was to send his investigators into the French Quarter to seek out the elusive Bertrand. Back came the word: Clay Bertrand was the name Clay Shaw used in the Quarter, and one of his haunts was Cosimo’s bar, which Andrews had depicted … as a ‘freaky little place where he once spotted Bertrand.'”

Of course, I didn’t know this when I was sipping a near beer at Cosimo’s in the summer of 2001. The 20th Century was still clear in my own rearview mirror and 9/11 was not anywhere on my horizon. The day that we danced at Ernie K-Doe’s funeral I was supposed to attend a luncheon at the Association of Alternative Newspapers’ convention at a big hotel on Canal Street. The keynote speaker was Oliver Stone, director o f the movie JFK. (In the screen version, Stone cast comedian John Candy as Dean Andrews.) My plan was to collar Stone, after his speech, and ask him if he needed a researcher on another one of his projects, a film about the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., which still remains dormant. Instead, I opted to dance at a New Orleans musician’s funeral.

The jukebox selection at Cosimo’s even nowadays tends more towards Frank Sinatra. Still I image that K-Doe’s one hit, Mother-in-Law, might have been playing on a sultry New Orleans’ night more than 40 years ago, when Clay Shaw and David Ferrie partied and plotted down on Burgundy Street.

Ernie K-Doe and Oliver Stone unwittingly conspired to bring me to that bar stool at Cosimo’s on a hot summer’s day. You could call it a random convergence or something more fatalistic. However you choose to spin it, it’s funny how you can be standing in the wake of history and not even know it until long after you’re immersed by a wave of time.

Come to think of it, I guess that’s what history is.