The Rebirth of a Legendary New Orleans Bar
Read the last chapter of the fascinating history of Nola’s Old Absinthe House and find out about its recent renovation.
The Old Absinthe House is the oldest bar in New Orleans, a city that has no shortage of old bars, and one of the oldest in America. This column has been exploring its history from its founding, back in 1841 (give or take), to the period at the turn of the last century when it was one of the most famous bars in America, to its struggles during Prohibition and the Great Depression.
Here, in the fourth and final part of our series, we see the bar going through a whole new cycle of up and down and, we hope, up again.
Owen Edward Brennan was a son of New Orleans’s Irish Channel neighborhood who seemed to know everyone in town. In 1940, he sold his half interest in the successful Mid City pharmacy/liquor store he owned and started looking around for something a little more fun, in the meanwhile filling in as manager at the Court of Two Sisters restaurant on Royal Street and working as a sales manager for Schenley, the big whiskey company. That last gig certainly didn’t lose him any friends, particularly when whiskey was tightly allocated due to wartime restrictions. It took him a while, but finally he found that fun thing: the Old Absinthe House. In 1943, he was able to secure the lease from Johnny Marchese, who had run it as a dance hall since Repeal.
For a guy who had never owned a bar before, Owen Brennan had impressive instincts. The first thing he did was get rid of the dancing. Sure, there would still be music, but it wouldn’t be the anonymous dance band shit Marchese had been putting on. Brennan instead took a page from Pat O’Brien’s bar on St. Peter Street, which Robert Kinney identified in his 1942 The Bachelor in New Orleans, an eccentric (and gloriously-illustrated) insiders’ guide to Crescent City nightlife, as “probably the most popular Saturday-night bar in the French Quarter.” Why? “The spirit of Pat’s is robust!” was Kinney’s verdict. The main thing that made it so was the presence in the barroom of Mercedes LeCorgne Paulson and Sara Belle “Sue” Wheeler, each seated at her own piano and each equally adept at playing any request a tipsy patron could generate, razzing up the fast numbers with bawdy wordplay and squeezing every last drop of sticky sentiment out of the slow ones.
Owen E. Brennan was not Benson H. “Pat” O’Brien, though. Although he had the same popular touch, he tempered it with a certain elegance: he could fold together pure corn and le bon ton and come out with a seamless confection that was slangy but not vulgar, classy but not stuffy. When Owen Brennan stood on Bourbon St. eating a hot dog, he did it with a glass of Champagne in his hand. For the Old Absinthe House, that combination meant, first of all, that Brennan also secured the services of “Fats” Pichon.
Walter Pichon (1906-1967) was born in New Orleans and, as a Creole of color, grew up surrounded by jazz, then in its youngest and most vigorous form. And yet he had also been trained at the New England Conservatory of Music, paid for by none other than George Gershwin, who had heard the young pianist practicing at a seaside resort in New Jersey and thought he had potential. After spending the late 1920s and early 1930s playing in various jazz bands in New York and on the road, Pichon got homesick. Back in New Orleans, he spent a couple of years leading bands on riverboats before settling down behind the piano at Lucien Cazebonne’s Old Absinthe Bar, a block down Bourbon from the Old Absinthe House (see Part III). That’s when Brennan found him and promptly poached him away.
This was a coup—Pichon, who could play anything from Debussy to the Dirty Dozens and improvise a lyric with as much facility, if not quite so much lubricity, as Mercedes and Sue, was perhaps the biggest attraction in the French Quarter, and he brought the crowds in. (Brennan even installed a mirror over the piano, so guests in the back could see Pichon’s fingers moving at lightning speed.)
Another O’Brien’s touch that Brennan imitated was the paralyzing signature drink. While the Pirate’s Dream—billed as “the High Brow of All Low Brow Drinks”—never achieved the popularity of O’Brien’s famed Hurricane (which Brennan also knocked off on his menu), at least it was a reliable source of rum, of which it held some four ounces, and maraschino cherries, with which it came liberally festooned. As for O’Brien’s craps-shooting, underage drinkers and occasional riot, there Brennan drew the line. His customers were expected to dress well and behave.
Those who were willing to do so found an Absinthe House transformed, pretty much the same way Tex Avery had transformed the cartoons of the day. Where Jos Ferrer had allowed customers to post their business cards, Brennan handed out cards for people to sign and tack up. In no time the walls were thickly crusted with these scrawled notes, plus business cards, personal documents—for example, the letter a New York photographer pinned up firing him from his last job—and greenback dollars in all denominations, or at least up to $20, plus foreign notes from all around the globe and any other exotic piece of paper that happened to walk into the bar in someone’s pocket.
Even the bar’s history was in play. After putting a marble plaque outside repeating the long ago-debunked claim that Jean Lafitte and Andrew Jackson had planned the defense of New Orleans there (they hadn’t), Brennan didn’t stop there. He decked out the building’s old “entresol” (the half-height storage area wedged between the first and second floor) as a museum, stuffing it with bric-a-brac from the antique shops on Royal St., including a giant punt gun used for commercial duck-hunting. That was all designed to lull people into boozy complacency for the “secret” side-room, where lifelike papier maché figures representing the general and the pirate, plus various other parties were grouped around a table lit only with a guttering oil-lamp. Among them was an older African-American man, consulting a paper. When you approached the table, he would slowly rise to his feet. Shrieks ensued.
That man was known as “Uncle Tom,” which certainly gives us pause. But his job involved more than just scaring the tourists, which he did so well that the Absinthe House had to stop the act and ended up hanging the dummies in the corners of the barroom. He was also a sort of tour guide or docent, showing customers all the historical parts of the place, and took turns singing in the bar-room. Like Pichon, he was a large part of the public face of the Absinthe House. So were the black entertainers that Brennan brought in, such as Ethel Waters and the Golden Gate Quartet (in that Green-Book age he also guaranteed them accommodation), and so was the “experienced colored bartender” who could “mix all New Orleans cocktails” he advertised for in 1947 and 1948, presuming that one was actually hired (the Brennan’s Absinthe House bartenders whose names have come down to us—Al St. Germain, Joe Palumbo and Joe Gilberti—were of French or Italian extraction). All of this was unusual for a French Quarter bar, if not unprecedented; it certainly wasn’t how they did things at Pat O’Brien’s.
Yet the greatest driver of the immediate success enjoyed by Brennan’s Old Absinthe House was Owen Brennan himself. “Owen just knew what it took to make people happy,” his sister Ella later recalled. “It was an instinct. He understood hospitality and he understood service.”
With his constant presence as host, the Absinthe House went from strength to strength, allowing the family to buy the restaurant across the street in 1946 (in 1950 Brennan’s Vieux Carré became simply “Brennan’s”). Meanwhile, Bourbon St. got seedier and seedier, as strip joints moved in and straight businesses moved out. To quote one bilious observer from 1949, “In Napoleon’s day the Bourbon road / Was trod by royal shoes, / But today the proud old name just means / A place to lap up booze.” But at the Absinthe House, at least, customers still put on their nice clothes and acted like ladies and gentlemen, more or less. Cayetano Ferrer, who first made the bar famous back in the 1870s, would have approved.
Owen Brennan died in his sleep on November 4, 1955. He was only 45 and was mourned by all who had ever met him. His siblings and, eventually, his son stepped in to guide the bar through this devastating loss, but by then the family’s focus was more and more on their restaurant, which, following Owen’s plan, they soon moved off Bourbon to the much more civilized Royal St., where it still is.
The Absinthe House continued chugging along, Fats Pichon and all, until 1959, when the Brennans struck a deal with the ABC television network to sell them a half-interest in the place and let them use it as a hanger for a new series, Bourbon Street Beat. The planned series was one of several road-show knockoffs of the hit 77 Sunset Strip, a juvenile-lead detective procedural filmed “on the streets of Hollywood.”
First, though, the old building needed work. After all the years and all the termites and all the hurricanes, it was crumbling, and now there was TV money to fix it. At the end of June, it closed for six months of heavy renovation, including serious structural work involving iron girders and lots of masonry. In a way, this could be said to be the end of the bar that had been founded by Jacinto Aleix back in 1841.
When the bar reopened in December, it was a different place. Gone were the cards and such—the new walls, which had the former contents of the upstairs museum bolted to them, were even designed to resist thumbtacks. There were new, replica absinthe fountains. All the building’s wonky angles were righted, its wormholed woodwork replaced with new and the top-floor apartment, which Owen Brennan used to lend out to friends such as Louis Armstrong, Robert Mitchum and star columnist Robert Ruark, was turned into banquet space, bedecked with faux-antique paintings on the swanky cabinetwork. The managers wore scarlet coats and the bartenders ruffled shirts. It all looked nice on camera.
Bourbon Street Beat, not so much. The show, most of which was filmed on the same tired Hollywood backlots where everything else was, lasted one season. ABC sold the Brennans back their half of the bar. Bar patrons found a way to tack up cards again. The bell that the bartenders used to ring when they got a good tip was now augmented by an auto horn, for a bigger one, and a cannon, into whose muzzle they’d toss a firecracker when somebody really peeled off the bills.
Nothing helped much. But as one patron put it a couple of years later, “gone now is the musty, smoky old Absinthe House, victim to progress and termites and Ella Brennan’sbusiness acumen, for it is now the Brennan Old Absinthe House, in Brennan fashion, with red-coated waiters, and an air of sophistication.”
They needed those waiters because elegant drinking was doomed on Bourbon St. The Brennans, now fantastically successful restaurateurs, tried adding food—first Creole, then steaks (they must have added the kitchen during the renovation, since they were out of the gate with the food pretty much the minute ABC folded the series). That worked, for a time, and then it didn’t. They tried cabaret, just as Pierre Cazebonne had. This time, the padlock was their idea: in May, 1963, just about 20 years after Owen had bought it and used it to build the family’s fortunes, they sold it.
Every time in the past that the Absinthe House had been sold, it went from one person to another. This time, it went to a corporation, the Old Absinthe House Co., a Brownsville, Texas, concern that was a subsidiary of the Newport Corporation. The Newport Corporation was owned by Anthony and James Moran Jr., who had inherited the venerable Restaurant de la Louisiane (on St. Louis St., not far from the Absinthe House) from their late father Joseph “Diamond Jim Moran” Brocato.
Before buying the restaurant, Brocato/Moran, a former boxer, had been a bodyguard for Huey Long and was a reputed associate of Carlos Marcello, who was Carlos Marcello, in the same way that Sam Giancana was Sam Giancana and Lucky Luciano was Lucky Luciano. After buying the restaurant, Moran testified before the Senate’s Special Committee to Investigate Organized Crime in Interstate Commerce, led by the junior Senator from Tennessee, Estes Kefauve. Kefauver never laid a glove on him.
If the Morans were legitimate businessmen, they weren’t particularly careful ones. Sure, they brought back an ailing Fats Pichon for a brief stint in 1963. But it wasn’t long before the arrests started. Often they were for prostitution, which went on with the connivance of the bartenders, or at least some of them. There was also a bust, around the same time, for watering the booze, although I can’t find if that one stuck: the Newport Corp. had some pretty serious lawyers.
The bar still had some vestiges of its old Vieux Carré charm: a reporter who wandered in early one February morning in 1976 found it quiet, with a small hickory fire burning in the hearth and a black pianist, some unheralded collateral descendant of Fats Pichon, playing “with enormous ease, with such a total lack of effort that he appeared to be a part of the piano.” The reporter thought him the best he had ever heard.
In the 1970s, the Absinthe House was still serving Absinthe Drips, or at least Herbsaint ones (using the local substitute), and attempting to make the famous New Orleans drinks. But the Moran brothers, like the Brennans, were more interested in restaurants than bars (Jimmy Moran Jr. had even apprenticed with the original Alfredo, of fettucine fame, in Rome), and as their restaurant empire expanded to include New Orleans institutions such as the Acme Oyster House, the Absinthe House just went with the flow. Indeed, by 1981 it was being managed by Carlos Marcello’s nephew Vincent; his tenure ended when he became a guest of the federal government later that year due to an enterprise in which the words “intent to distribute” featured prominently. Back at the bar usual stuff went on—in 1982, two bartenders were booked for pandering. By then, most of the building was occupied by Tony Moran’s Italian restaurant. The Absinthe House title really only applied to the square barroom on the corner.
By the time I first made it to the Absinthe House, in 2002 or 2003, it was just after Tony Moran had sold it. As far as I could see, it was just another Bourbon St. bar, newer than some and older than others. There were a few pieces of memorabilia—mostly placards for old New Orleans drinks nobody was going to order and no bartender was going to make—tacked up on the walls, high enough to not get stolen or written on, and business cards everywhere (no cash). There was a marble absinthe fountain, but there were no glasses of the green fairy placed under its spigots waiting to receive the slow drip that called her to life. There was Bud and Bud Light, there was Jack and there was Coke. It was just a bar.
Tony Moran had sold the lease to one Yousef “Jober’t” Salem Al Adwan, a Kuwaiti medical student who somehow found himself in the New Orleans bar business. In 1997, at age 32, he had come to public attention in the French Quarter when he bought the Old Absinthe Bar, the space a block from the Absinthe House where its original 1870s bar and other fixtures had been moved during Prohibition and operated in competition with their original home. Salem promptly changed it from a failing jazz club to a highly successful Frozen Daiquiri stand—“Mango Mango,” he called it. The old bar, now decrepit, plus the absinthe fountains and the other surviving fixtures went into storage. While there was some expectation the same fate would descend upon the original Old Absinthe House, it did not. Indeed, for fifteen years, it ran much as it had before, dishing out drafts and shots to Sugar Bowl crowds and whoever else it could filter out of the passing flow on Bourbon St. In 2004, though, Salem took the old bar out of storage and installed in the back-room event space, where it rested uneasily, the statues that topped the beaten-up old fountains gazing with dismay at the beer-swillers and shot-shooters.
Salem, however, bided his time. He had a plan. Last year, it clicked into action when he hired a team of young service industry professionals—a chef, craft cocktail bartenders, all that one expects from a top modern bar. Then the renovations started. The old fountains were restored and replumbed, the bar was refinished, the back room redecorated. The front bar still sucks in tourists from the passing flow, but when the back room—“Rue Bourbon,” they’re calling it—opens later this year, it will mark not just the bar’s 178th anniversary, but the return of civilized drinking to 240 Bourbon St. for the first time since the Brennans relinquished the space 56 years ago. That’s a long time between Absinthe Drips.