In 1930, French Quarter resident Lyle Saxon cooked up a savory gumbo of fact and fiction that's become a New Orleans classic.
- by John Sledge
Nearly two centuries beyond his death, Jean Laffite haunts the French Quarter still.
That’s Laffite with two f’s and one t, like he always wrote it. New Orleanians customarily spell his name with only one f and two t’s.
Spelling aside, tour guides regularly invoke the old pirate’s name, and his spirit may be easily conjured at Jean Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop Bar at 941 Bourbon, Café Lafitte in Exile at 901 Bourbon and Jean Lafitte’s Old Absinthe House at 240 Bourbon.
Other buildings claim at least partial association, including the Cabildo on Jackson Square, Maspero’s Exchange at 440 Chartres and Napoleon House at 500 Chartres. Throw in the modern establishments like Jean Lafitte Clothing (1000 Bourbon) and the Jean Lafitte House (hotel at 613 Esplanade), and his status seems quite secure. In contrast, his brother Pierre is largely forgotten.
Lyle Chambers Saxon was born 1891 of Louisiana parentage in distant Washington State. His parents divorced, and his mother took him back to Baton Rouge to live with her father and two sisters. He rarely mentioned his childhood afterwards, even with close friends, except to say that he was quiet and bookish.
Saxon attended Louisiana State University but quit one class shy of his degree. That didn’t keep him from landing a job downriver at The Times-Picayune, where he quickly distinguished himself writing about New Orleans' wonderful heritage. Soon he was living a bona fide literary life, penning stories and running with the likes of William Faulkner and Sherwood Anderson.
He moved to Greenwich Village during the late 1920s, where he churned out a series of quaint regional titles that included “Father Mississippi” (1927), “Fabulous New Orleans” (1928), “Old Louisiana” (1929), and finally “Lafitte the Pirate.” The latter rapidly blew through its initial 5,000-copy print run and was listed as a New York Times Bestseller.
The book served as the inspiration for Cecil B. De Mille’s forgettable 1938 movie “The Buccaneer” starring Frederic March. Saxon derided the film, loosely based on his book, but the 1958 remake directed by Anthony Quinn, starring Yul Brenner and Charles Boyer, was better.
Saxon profited handsomely and used the funds to restore 534 Bourbon Street. This was one of three French Quarter houses he saved when the area was widely shunned as a vice-ridden slum. Saxon’s efforts to promote the Quarter were unstinting, and he is now recognized as a preservation pioneer. He was quietly homosexual at a time when it was dangerous to be otherwise, and by the time he died in 1946 he was a revered local figure.
“Lafitte the Pirate” fits comfortably within that period genre defined by the artful blend of history, folklore, and legend—more literary interpretation than strict fact—and enhanced by sketches featuring crumbling buildings with quaint rustics in the foreground.
New Orleans was a font of such efforts, as demonstrated by Saxon, Grace King, and Harnett Kane, but other old Southern seaports like Mobile, Savannah and Charleston boasted similar examples. None of these books is a good model for the modern historian, but in their day enhanced public appreciation for historic architecture.
Saxon was conscious of his academic limitations, but he enjoyed enviable access to materials and to several old-timers whose reach back faintly echoed the early 19th century. “In writing this biography, I have tried to present a truthful picture,” he wrote in his foreword. Nonetheless, he admitted that the “task of sifting truth from legend has proved a long and difficult one.”
William C. Davis, author of the 2005 book “The Pirates Laffite: The Treacherous World of the Corsairs of the Gulf,” gives Saxon’s endeavor a mixed review. He labels it overall “a hodgepodge of legend and lore” but credits the likable antiquarian with at least faithfully quoting documents at hand.
Despite his conscientious transcriptions, Saxon embellished his own prose, which doubtless explains the volume’s popularity. He was a master romancer. Early in the book he traced a young man seeking the Laffites down a muddy New Orleans street.
“Once in crossing a ditch he slipped and nearly fell;” Saxon wrote, “he heard laughter, and turning, saw two dark-haired girls looking down from behind a half-open window blind. He smiled back at them, ‘whereupon the elder girl let fall a red rose, and laughed again and clapped shut the window.’”
That little touch about the rose is in its own quotes, indicating Saxon drew it from somewhere, mostly likely the lad’s letter at his elbow. Alas, the document is now lost and the lovely detail can no longer be confirmed.
Saxon employed his own memory in describing the book’s exotic settings. Of the approach to Barataria, the Laffites’ remote coastal lair, he wrote: “At last, this land of reeds and water is left behind, and Barataria Bay stretches out to the far horizon; one can smell the sea. The sky is an inverted bowl of gold and blue, and one can scarcely say where water ends and sky begins.” This gives the narrative an irresistible “you are there” quality that seduces the reader.
Not the least of this book’s pleasures is Suydam’s accompanying artwork. Edward Howard Suydam (1888-1940) was a painter and printmaker who illustrated several of Saxon’s books.
All his work educes just the right mood, whether it is mystery, beauty or adventure. He thoroughly explored the French Quarter when working on “Lafitte the Pirate” and even traveled down to Barataria Bay. His architectural grasp is delightful, demonstrated by sketches of balconied buildings crowding Royal Street, Maspero’s Exchange Coffee House with its entresol fanlights and the Napoleon House courtyard foregrounded by rude benches.
Each chapter head features some kind of perfect little rendering—a Creole cottage, windblown live oaks, or a bit of iron lace. Other sketches are more literally historic, none so chilling as that of two forlorn figures dangling from a gibbet, with a tall ship receding in the background.
Ninety years beyond publication, Saxon’s book remains a broadly serviceable introduction to Jean Laffite. But it should not be taken too literally. Present-day New Orleanians understand this and manage it with characteristic aplomb.
This is nowhere better demonstrated than at Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop Bar, which historians now know was never owned by either brother. The establishment’s website sagaciously maintains that “it is within reason that the Lafittes could have used the place as city base for negotiations with potential buyers of their goods.”
That much is true. The building stood during the Laffites’ heyday, and they likely passed it many times. The owners admit that like so much else to do with the Laffites, the blacksmith shop association is “a gumbo of truth and French, Spanish, African, Cajun and American embellishments.” Saxon excelled at preparing such gumbo, and in so doing nourished a deeper appreciation for New Orleans history and culture.
That truth, as ever, is worth celebrating.
John S. Sledge is senior architectural historian with the Mobile Historic Development Commission and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. He is the author of seven books, including “Southern Bound: A Gulf Coast Journalist on Books, Writers, and Literary Journeys of the Heart,” “The Mobile River,” and “The Gulf of Mexico: A Maritime History,” all from the University of South Carolina press. He and his editor wife, Lynn, live in Fairhope, Ala.
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