The Fine Governor of the Great State of Louisiana

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People have asked me, how did you, an Englishman living in Portugal, come to write an article about Huey Long, a long-dead American politician of the 1920s and 30s?

And what does a Brit know about America? For some, it’s not so long ago that the hapless Governor Thomas Gage of Massachusetts was directing British fire at Americans, giving history a little push in the process. And according to others, the scheming Queen of England is still trying to recover sovereignty over the colonies of British North America which George III u2018carelessly lost’ in 1776. And what about all that post-9/11 talk of the u2018presidential’ Mr. Blair? Spare me, please: these are aberrations.

The answer lies in my having read, 30 years ago, u2018a great and seminal work,’ in Murray Rothbard’s words: Albert Jay Nock’s Our Enemy The State. The companion essay at the end of that book, Nock’s On Doing the Right Thing, had the merit for me of marrying the British moral compulsion to u2018do the right thing,’ or individual responsibility, with the principle of the inalienable right to liberty enshrined in the American Declaration of Independence.

The short answer, however, is that I once saw a fine movie called Blaze.

Most of the movies I watch are American. That’s a fact of life in the global multiplex, because most movies are American anyway. America rules the world, and has done for quite some time. For once, I am not talking about the empire, nor about the great leaders, nor even Pax Americana in its 21st-century version, also known as "pre-emptive war."

I’m talking about exports of popular culture (what used to be called subculture). The fast food. The soft drinks. Time management. The pharmaceuticals. The gasolina-guzzling SUV. Rock and roll. Madonna. The planes. The Boeing 707. The shuttle. The film stars. Natalie Wood. Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Fred Astaire. The mafia. Frank Sinatra. The media. CNN. The X-Files. The directors. Robert Altman. Elia Kazan, a Greek from Constantinople who made wonderful movies but whom Hollywood did not have the grace to forgive for being the first to shop its communists to the House Unamerican Activities Committee. Steven Spielberg. The software. This keyboard.

And Blaze Starr, the nom de guerre of a New Orleans stripper, born 1932 in a mountain cabin in West Virginia, where she was christened Fannie Belle Fleming, and lived to tell a tale in a part-fictional and romanticized Hollywood movie to which she herself contributed as production consultant and in which she has a small part1.

The main character in this movie is three-time Louisiana governor Earl K. Long (1895—1960), younger brother of Huey. The individualist, maverick appeal of the film lies in the fact that he is portrayed as being his own man, a latter-day Rhett Butler of politics, not giving a damn about what people thought, and being thoroughly unconventional (as well as what the British would call u2018very naughty’) in an office where it was the done thing to be sober, correct and u2018proper.’

The movie, which has an excellent, well-constructed script, had me laughing out loud at the wit and wisdom of "Uncle Earl," excellently played by that gentleman-prince of actors, Paul Newman. It seems to me absolutely fitting — and a confirmation that the movie must have got at least something right — that Winnfield, Louisiana, the Long birthplace where it was partially filmed, has a sign on the side of an old building in the town which says, "Welcome, Paul Newman."

Where politics is concerned, let alone entertainment and sexual dalliance, one should not expect honest truth. This movie thoroughly mixes politics with the scandalous liaison between state governor and stripper. Indeed it plays on the analogy between political power and sexual conquest which Oliver Stone used to such good effect in his excellent u2018dirty presidency’ movie, Nixon, in which he has Chairman Mao ask Henry Kissinger, who’s on the state visit to China with the president, what his secret is for having so many women. Kissinger replies that power is a great aphrodisiac, and Mao lewdly chuckles.

In Blaze, Earl Long is shown in the last year of his life, in his tender affair with Blaze, and how it affects and is affected by politics. His colorful escapades into the glittering New Orleans nightlife (in our first glimpse of him as he gets out of his governor’s car on Bourbon Street we hear that "it’s a fine night for prowlin’"), alternate with his worry that he is going to lose the election for governor, and that if he does so his baby will no longer love him because he will become a has-been. Blaze tries to reassure him, telling him that he will still have status: he will be, after all, an ex-governor. Earl whips back in an instant, "I don’t want to be an ex-governor. I ain’t ex-governor material."

The popular and media image of Earl Long (the u2018crazy governor’) has not surprisingly focused to excess on this final year, 1959-1960, a time which was traumatic for him because it was when one of the main and most disturbing events of his life occurred — his breakdown and temporary committal. The movie, good as it is in my opinion, only strengthens this focus, and it has also come in for some flak for not telling things exactly as they were.

It never ceases to amaze me that some people expect objective veracity in a movie (as if such a thing were indeed possible), and get upset or angry when a constructive fiction is used to portray an aspect of character, a revealing element of a story, or a timeless philosophical or moral truth which is not in accordance with their own particular interpretation, or the way they would like the world to be.

I can accept that those who knew and loved or hated the real life people portrayed in a film, and even those who have researched them, will find things which can be faulted. But surely, they are not looking at the movie on the right terms. All art, including cinema, is interpretation. Even biography, however faithful to the historical record and possibly to the personality of the man or woman whose life it describes, is not the same as the real thing.

Yet it is a sign of the times that those who criticize a movie for distortion, for not being true to life, or for being in some way dangerous or unfair, seem unable to grant that viewers have powers of discrimination and judgment of their own, or to make a critique of the interpretation rather than of the so-called facts or events portrayed.

To all those I say, you have a choice: don’t watch it. But freedom in this context means letting others watch it and allowing them to make up their own minds, and accepting that some will like it and some will not.

Intelligent criticism will also perceive and accept that, whatever the flaws in a work of art, it almost invariably has something to say about the life and times of the period in which it is made (much more than about the period which it describes).

In any event, the good and bad opinions of Blaze mean that it passes my u2018diversity test.’ That is to say, it meets Oscar Wilde’s dictum that "diversity of opinion about a work of art means that it is new, complex and vital." It is above all a movie which pays tribute to a sense of unabashed fun, not least in the spirited performance by Lolita Davidovitch as Blaze and in Paul Newman’s bravura performance as Earl — an epic and exuberant portrayal of "a scoundrel of a politician that y’all are gonna love," as one reviewer puts it.

I also feel that a great deal of care has gone into the detail. At key points we see evocative images, photographs on the wall or TV images: in one scene, Earl pours from a bottle of wine with the label "Dixie" on it. In a scene in Blaze’s room, a black and white TV shows a headshot of JFK campaigning. In the log cabin where Blaze (Belle) was born, when she goes to visit her mother, FDR’s portrait hangs (albeit that he is by then long dead). In the state capitol and elsewhere, Dwight Eisenhower’s portrait oversees the proceedings. Finally, when Blaze first visits the governor’s mansion, she sees a photo on the wall, and asks Earl who it is:

Earl replies: "That’s my brother Huey. A great man. Could have been president of the United States."

When Blaze asks why he wasn’t, Earl says, "Back in 1935 he ran into a small problem…"

Blaze: "What small problem?"

Earl: "A bullet. God rest his soul."

It is salutary to remember that by 1959 Earl Long, who at one time assisted the campaigns of his more flamboyant elder brother, had been around as a politician for a very long time. He first came to power as lieutenant governor of Louisiana in 1936, a year after Huey Long’s assassination. He then effectively inherited the Long political machine which Huey had methodically built up. In 1939 he assumed the governorship for a short time when his scandal-ridden predecessor resigned. Although defeated for re-election in 1940, he twice again served as governor, from 1948 to 1952 and from 1956 to 1960. The Louisiana Secretary of State’s website has a useful small summary entry on the political accomplishments of his career, part of a complete historical series on the governors of Louisiana.

In an absorbing article, which I strongly recommend, Webb Williams describes how most people have swept aside those political accomplishments because of the events of that final year, specifically the breakdown and the affair. He quotes noted author and New Orleans columnist Jason Berry’s distillation of the whole ironic story:

"Here was a man who had a psychotic breakdown on the floor of the Louisiana legislature, bounced between two mental hospitals in less than a month, got himself sprung out — only to cavort with a young woman who literally symbolized sin. That man then announced his candidacy for Congress! And he WON! He won the House seat in a hard-fought election during the dog days of the summer of 1960, in the middle of Louisiana, the Pentecostal heartlands! Not until Bill Clinton survived impeachment would a politician prevail over such epic damage in the national media, where headlines had called Earl u2018the crazy governor.’"

Jason Berry has also written an interesting account of the background to his play "Earl Long in Purgatory" in which he implies that, in the final analysis, Long was a foretaste of things (politicians) to come: "With the passage of time I have come to see Earl Long not as an aberration but a precursor, a forerunner casting a long weird light on the state of things to come." In another article, entitled "Long remembered," he has evoked the memories of Jay Chevalier, a composer and bandleader who played on the hustings in the 1960 election for the governorship, in which Long was defeated, and also took a small part in Blaze. The unanimous opinion of those who knew and have researched Earl Long carefully is that he was not crazy, but was under severe pressure and possibly suffering at times from an illness which today might well be cured.

Official or media labeling of someone as crazy (or out on a limb, or having base motives, or being a tin-foil hat conspiracy theorist, and more) can so easily be used as a way of stifling genuine and necessary dissent, or that which no-one wants to hear, particularly where whistleblowers are involved.

This is the understated lesson for our own times, which Berry’s comment hints at. Earl’s opponents’ used his liaison to try bring him down — attacking both his then controversial political program, which included civil rights for blacks, and his own integrity — by dubbing him crazy (and a few other choice politically incorrect epithets) and therefore unfit to govern. Perhaps what they truly resented was not even his avowed eccentricity, but rather his typically Longian, no-nonsense, tell-it-like-it-is attitude, and acute ear for sanctimonious heifer dust. Or maybe the fact that most often he was having a good time and they were not.

We hear in a recording played after the movie’s end-titles a simple and appropriate epitaph in Earl Long’s own words: "I’ve got one language, and that’s the truth." Even though we know that Earl can be a shameless political twister, we are still prepared to grant that his really is the language of truth.

Williams goes on to say, in connection with the matter of the truth or falsehood of the characters and events portrayed in the movie:

Long was never really a ladies’ man, but after Blanche (his estranged wife) had him committed in Galveston and Mandeville, he openly flaunted his friendship with Blaze. It seems, however, that he was more out to embarrass his wife than anything else. Longtime friend, Senator B.B. "Sixty" Rayburn of Washington Parish, doubted that Earl was in love with the woman. "I think he just had his problems and, evidently, Blaze was real nice to him — kindness helps anyone when they’re kinda’ down and out." Her book [on which the movie is based] included a disclaimer that it was a "novel," which by definition is a work of fiction.

Strangely enough, I feel that the movie, despite playing the affair with Blaze for all it is worth, does bear this out. Sure, there is the humorous side to it, at its best in the memorable scene where Earl, self-described as "the most powerful man in the South," having just been driving around the countryside garnering votes in the governor’s automobile with its personalized number plate (LA-1 in bold red letters on a white ground), makes effective use of his cowboy boots, keeping them on while in bed with Blaze, for "better traction."

But almost immediately we are treated to a tenderness in Blaze’s character which goes beyond the mere raunchiness. In one of many circular references which are a hallmark of this film, that same tenderness is echoed in a slushy scene near the end in which, standing atop the Baton Rouge state capitol built at Huey Long’s command nearly 30 years before, he offers Blaze an engagement ring.

That tenderness appears again in the closing hotel room scenes, after Earl, in an amazing political comeback, has won election to Congress, to the seat which he is destined never to occupy because he dies a week after the election. Finally, the political message meshes with the personal as we see the lonely figure of Blaze, all dressed in black, climb the vast steps of the capitol building to pay her last respects. Earl is lying there in state in the Art Deco marble halls — fittingly almost imperial in their dynastic pomp and splendor.

In the US, this movie is being re-released on DVD in April 2004. I strongly recommend it as a breath of subversive fresh air and a source of delightful, irreverent one-liners, and not least for the vicarious satisfaction of hearing Newman growling Earl’s abuse at "those bums in Washington." And for the soundtrack too: in the end-titles, Randy Newman sings his haunting song "Louisiana 1927" as the camera pans away from the top of the capitol building over the water and an almost unending horizon:

What has happened down here is the wind have changed
Clouds roll in from the north and it started to rain
Rained real hard and rained for a real long time
Six feet of water in the streets of Evangeline

Louisiana, Louisiana
They’re tyrin’ to wash us away…

This article is Part 2 in a series on "The Longs of Louisiana." Part 1 was published on in December 2003 and is entitled The Rebellious Spirit of Huey Long.

Earl K. Long Bibliography

Kindly supplied by Michael S. Martin, Assistant Professor of History, University of Louisiana-Lafayette

Links referenced in this article

No commercial endorsement of any product or service is hereby expressed or implied.

Other Links and References

  1. The part played by the real Blaze Starr is that of a character called Lily. Perhaps it is seeing too much coincidence in the name to note that Blazing Star is the name of a flower of the lily family, which grows in the American grasslands.

Richard Wall (send him mail) has a Master’s degree in International Relations from the London School of Economics & Political Science, and lives in Estoril, Portugal, where he currently works as a freelance writer and translator.

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