Prohibition Was No Match for New Orleans’ Most Famous Bar
By hook or by crook, the French Quarter’s famed Old Absinthe House was able to survive the Great Depression and Prohibition.
A few months back, we looked into the early history and heyday of New Orleans’s famous Old Absinthe House, the oldest bar in that city and one of the oldest in America. Here, in Part III of our investigation, we’ll look at the bar’s fortunes during Prohibition and the Great Depression.
In 1919, when Prohibition was imposed, the Old Absinthe House, at the corner of Bourbon and Bienville streets in the heart of the French Quarter, had been in operation for some 80 years, the last 20 of them as one of the most famous bars in America. Its proprietor, Pierre Cazebonne, a rotund, pugnacious little Frenchman from Pau in the Pyrenees, had owned the bar since 1913, buying it from the Ferrer family, who had bought it in the 1870s from the family that founded it, the Aleixes. All the owners had faced challenges, but none would face as grave ones as Cazebonne.
Prohibition descended on a deeply divided land, where half the people were grumbling and incredulous and half grimly satisfied at the other half’s discomfiture. As one would expect, New Orleans was in the grumbling half. In fact, Prohibition really threw the city for a loop. A quarter of a century before, it had transformed itself from a commercial port city into a tourist Mecca, on the basis of good food, good times and good drinks—and plenty of them. Without the drinks, the rest of the package was in danger, like a three-legged stool when you take a Carrie-Nation hatchet to one of the legs.
All three of the famous bars that served as tent-poles for the city’s drinking culture—the Sazerac bar, Henry Ramos’s Stag Café, and the Old Absinthe House—were of course forced to stop serving alcohol. The Sazerac reopened as an “oyster bar and soda fount,” selling a non-alcoholic “Sazerac Fizz” concocted by Joe Pittari, late of Henry Ramos’s bar. There was liquor, too, of course, but after one bust the bar stuck to the straight and narrow. As for Ramos, he quit his lease, auctioned off all of the bar’s fixtures—from the “elegant mahogany bar…and counters costing $6,000” to the large oil paintings of race-horses and such, to the “beautiful art glass canopy, 50 feet long” that graced the front of the building—and turned over the keys to François Sartre, who had run the reasonably popular “Old 27” restaurant on Carondelet St. and wanted to expand. Ramos and his brother then went into the paint business (their brand: “Ramos Jinn Phizz Paints”). He died in 1928, having never picked up his bar tools again.
Chris O’Reilly, owner of the Sazerac bar, wriggled around for a while—when the soda fountain failed, he tried a restaurant, then a delicatessen, then he went into the hardware trade, leaving the Marx Art Store to take over the hallowed old space. But he had incorporated, right before Prohibition, and the speed with which he brought his Sazerac Corp. back into the liquor business when Repeal was announced suggests he might have sort of kept a hand in, one way or another. In any case, the Sazerac Corp. is still with us, still selling booze,and doing better than ever.
Unlike Ramos and O’Reilly, Pierre Cazebonne was no quitter. Sure, he was calling his place a “French restaurant,” and with Louis Chevalier, former head chef at the St. Charles Hotel, in the kitchen, it was, for a time. But when that didn’t work, he was quick to change it into a soda fountain. In any case, he kept the interior just like it always had been, and he kept selling liquor, just like he had always done. Once the Federal government put some teeth in their Prohibition enforcement, that also meant that Cazebonne got arrested, hauled into court, and fined. That was in January, 1920. And again, in March, 1920.
After that, Cazebonne wised up, and got other guys to be the figurehead of his operation. Thus, it was no longer Pierre Cazebonne’s Old Absinthe House you went to in order to drink Scotch Highballs when you weren’t supposed to, but rather Herbert Roscher’s or Joe Garfield’s or Louis Massera’s Old Absinthe House—Cazebonne went through figureheads like Donald Trump does Acting Secretaries. After the joint had been raided so often that the Absinthe House name had become radioactive, then you were drinking at Anthony DiFranco’s A.B.H. Cabaret, or Ferdinand Trambino’s Casino. Whoever was fronting the place, it was always Cazebonne who cashed the checks (literally—the Feds had copies) and Cazebonne’s lawyers who posted bail.
Judging by some sketchy police reports, Trambino seems to have been something of a yegg—a wise guy (Di Franco, on the other hand, was a kitchen guy: he had been Chevalier’s sous chef). That raises some suspicions about the Casino, which featured live music and dancing. Prohibition, it turns out, had not been the only upheaval in Crescent City nightlife: at the end of 1917, the Navy forced the city to close Storyville, the 38-block district just a five-minute walk from the Absinthe House where prostitution in all its myriad permutations was practiced openly and legally.
Of course (as legend holds it that Mayor Martin Behrman said at the time), “you can make illegal, but you can’t make it unpopular.” The closing of Storyville was like dropping a large, flat rock into a very shallow mud puddle. All the muck in there—the whores, the madams, the bartenders, the bouncers, the squid-fingered whorehouse piano “professors,” the blasting, pumping, gutbucket trumpeters, everyone—slopped out and into the surrounding blocks.
Before Prohibition, Bourbon St. had been a fairly quiet one—in fact, the Absinthe House was about the rowdiest thing on it, not counting the old French Opera House (the one that burned down in 1919, only months after Prohibition took hold). Yet as Richard Campanella points out in his magisterial 2014 Bourbon Street: a History, there were enough seeds of an entertainment street there—a German beer garden, a few restaurants (including Galatoire’s, founded by a homeboy of Cazebonne’s and still going strong), a couple of other bars and, of course, the Absinthe House itself—to make it the natural choice among the neighboring streets for someone looking to open a speakeasy or other illicit sporting resort.
Bourbon St. began filling up with decidedly wet cabarets and dance clubs of the sort which had previously been confined to Storyville. To be sure, not all of the women who frequented them were professionals. But not all of them weren’t, either. At the same time, the even quieter side streets between Bourbon and Basin St., where Storyville had begun, started filling up with bogus “hotels” and “rooming houses” where the fishers of men could bring their catches.
I don’t know exactly what went on in Cazebonne’s various cabarets, but seems somehow significant that one of his arrests came in 1926 when, at age 50, he was caught in City Park “spooning” in his car with an unnamed young lady. In any case, the Prohibition authorities took a dim view of Cazebonne, his cabarets and his various partners and later that year they succeeded in getting the building “padlocked,” a tactic whereby the authorities literally put a court-ordered padlock on a space that was a persistent nuisance and left it there for a year. That year would be the only extended period that no alcohol was served in the building on the uptown, riverside corner of Bourbon and Bienville since the Aleix family had begun setting ’em up there.
Let’s step back for a moment and consider the effect of Prohibition here. In 1919, the Old Absinthe House was—besides being one of the most famous drinking establishments in America and an icon of Creole New Orleans—an often busy but never disorderly bar. It avoided disorder by having a culture and a code of behavior that was enforced by the older habitués and absorbed by the novice drinkers who came there, to be exported in turn to the other, newer establishments they patronized. Prohibition killed most of these old institutions: they were attractive targets for the authorities, well-known enough to set an example, and raids were frequent. If, on the other hand, they managed to avoid official attention the things they had to do to stay open all too often rendered them unfit for civilized drinking. Meanwhile, all the uncivilized places chugged along with barely a dent in their business.
The padlock marked the end of the Cazebonne period of the bar’s history, which was plenty sporty but was yet too brief to be a true dynasty. Or at least it would have marked the end, if not for a surprising little coda that occurred in 1928, when the bar was finally unlocked. At that point, the building’s lease had been signed over to the Vieux Carré Commission, organized to preserve the French Quarter’s unique heritage. The plan was that the occupant of the building’s top-floor apartment, Jacinto “Jos” Ferrer, the Absinthe House bartender whose brother had sold Cazebonne the lease in the first place, would sell the Louisiana Historical Society the historic old fixtures, still preserved in the padlocked barroom: the marble absinthe fountains, the walnut bar, the intricately-carved old clock,the mirrors, the cavalry sword and all the rest. They would then loan these to the Association, who would then re-open the Absinthe House as some sort of—well, nobody was exactly sure. They had a plan.
So, however, did Pierre Cazebonne. As soon as the padlock was off, he popped into the old barroom, claimed the fixtures as his by right of sale in 1914, and hauled everything off to an undisclosed location, right down to the old business cards that Jos had allowed the bar’s customers to tack all over the walls. Undisclosed, that is, unless you knew a New Orleans cabdriver, newspaper boy or soda jerk, who would direct you to the old brick building at 400 Bourbon St. on the corner of Conti—one block from the Old Absinthe House. There, if you could convince the eye in the door-slot that you were no Prohibition agent, you could drink all the bootleg booze you wanted, slid over the very bar that had graced the Absinthe House for more than 80 years. Cazebonne, who perhaps had more balls than brains, finally even put the old sign right out front. After a couple of raids, this building, too, was padlocked.
Come Repeal, however, Cazebonne was back, with a new sign: The Old Absinthe Bar, it read, which was strictly accurate, if damned confusing for the tourist. (Even more confusing for the old-timers was the fact that he put Jos Ferrer, who evidently bore no hard feelings, back behind the bar he had manned for so many years before Prohibition.) Pierre ran a nice, orderly and very popular bar for the rest of his days, like he was apparently born to do. When he died, in 1940, his son Lucien took over, thus qualifying the Cazebonnes as an Absinthe-House dynasty, if a schismatic one. This Rome-Avignon situation continued until 2004, when the bar was finally returned to the Absinthe House; but we’ll get to that in Part IV.
In the meanwhile, there was the Vieux Carré Commission, sitting there with four historic walls and nothing historic to put inside them. The original Absinthe House remained empty until the end of 1928, when the Commission finally broke down and leased it out. When it came to sinning, the lessee, one Mary Lee Kelley, made Pierre Cazebonne look like a fourth grader. Sure, Kelley billed the place as a complex of “Dining and Banquet Rooms, Coffee Shop and Art Gallery,” which all sounds innocent enough, but the tagline at the bottom of the advertisement she took out to announce its opening read “Music and Favors.”
Kelley knew from favors. A large and brawling Irish girl from Boston, Mamie Kelley found her calling in Panama, where she was touring with “800 Pounds of Harmony,” a singing quartet of similarly proportioned girls. That calling was not singing, but saloon keeping. In 1920, three years after arriving in Panama, she opened her first bar there. By 1925, she had opened Kelley’s Ritz, in Panama City. Kelley’s Ritz was truly notorious, a bar that pushed the bounds of decency, as they were then understood, far past the breaking point. She gave her clientele, composed mostly of sailors and coastal artillery gunners, interspersed with Prohibition-dodgers, transient fortune-hunters, and all the other Tropic-seeking riff-raff, what they wanted: booze, girls, and a floor show to make their jaws drop.
For Mamie Kelley, the Absinthe House was never more than a sideline, something to do when she went north to beat the heat, recruit new talent and audition hot jazz bands. Nonetheless, she made sure that it had all the essentials: loud music, dancing, and girls, all hiding behind a po-faced insistence that her place was, as she advertised in 1929, a “genteel” one—in fact, “Orleans’ smartest rendezvous.” The cover charge: a cool five dollars. That fin must have covered at least a couple of drinks, which flowed freely. When the Times-Picayune asked her, many years later, what she had served at the Absinthe House, she replied: “Never mind that…just say that I never took a rap.”
Eventually, Kelley grew tired of the fencing with Prohibition agents and went back to Panama City (she came back after the war and established herself as one of the city’s most successful madams). The Vieux Carré Commission sold her fixtures off in 1931, a year before its lease expired. Between then and the end of 1933 there were three different operators in the space, none of whom made much of an impression or, more importantly, much money. At least the last one, Santo Pecoraro, was able to avoid getting raided: taking advantage of the first crack in the dry law, he opened the whole place up as a (legal) beer garden. Unfortunately, to the speakeasy-trained drinking public, beer held little interest. From Pecoraro it went to another Italian, Johnny Marchese, who brought in liquor—Prohibition had finally ended—but also brought back the cabaret and the dancing. Marchese kept putting on two shows nightly throughout the 1930s.
As a columnist for the Kansas City Star put it in 1935, “Today America’s oldest saloon again is in operation, but it is a far, far cry from the place that knew the tread of the feet of Jackson, Bowie, Lafitte, Burr and O. Henry.” To be sure, it wasn’t the country’s oldest saloon, and of that long list of worthies, the only one who ever set foot in the bar was O. Henry. But one can still agree with the writer’s conclusion: “Somehow a jazz band in such a place seems highly incongruous.”
There is a 1941 photo of Marchese’s Absinthe House that shows it sporting a sign that reads “The Original Old Absinthe House—Dancing,” as if dancing were a part of the bar’s tradition. Beneath it hangs a big old “Drink Jax Beer.” Back in the 1870s, when Cayetano Ferrer was overseeing the bar’s rise to fame, if you were at the Absinthe House and you wanted to drink beer, you pushed your chair back, walked out onto the sidewalk and headed down Bienville to Chartres, where if you made a right you would find the Tivoli Beer Garden and Concert Hall. They would give you beer. At the Absinthe House, you drank absinthe, or maybe a little French brandy or a glass of Spanish wine. It was a refined place, for those with refined tastes.
Prohibition had swept away the oldest New Orleans drinking traditions, where the moderate consumption of alcohol was an unremarkable, if pleasant, part of daily life, not something to be doubled down on and hammered into a spree. Johnny Marchese might have run a square joint, but he wasn’t the man to find something to replace those traditions; to bring refined drinking New Orleans-style into the looming Atomic age.
That man was Owen Brennan, who I’ll talk about in the fourth and final part of this history. Stay tuned.