Friday, July 10, 2015

New Orleans' love for 'Teddy Bear' Roosevelt bloomed too late to cuddle him in the polling booth

New Orleans, La. - Holed up here in New Orleans' historic Roosevelt Hotel, I've been curious about the origins of the place's name.

A grand hotel built in New Orleans at the turn of the 20th Century might be expected to honor the Crescent City's colonial legacy, named after a now-forgotten French comte or long gone Spanish patrĂ³n.

Or the hotel might have been caught up in the current Confederate controversy. But there's no need to consider wiping the name of a now-disgraced statesman or general of the "Lost Cause" off the edifice's exterior.

It's not named for for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a quite plausible honoree for New Orleanians, as he won near unanimous votes across the Democratic "Solid South" in 1936 from  impoverished Southerners devoted to, and benefiting from, FDR's New Deal largesse.

In fact, it's named for President Theodore Roosevelt, a Yankee and a...Republican!

To find out why, we made sure to schedule a lobby tour featuring the structure's colorful lore, courtesy an extraordinarily knowledgable concierge dedicated to continuing the Roosevelt's legacy.

On the tour we learned that the hotel has only been recently restored as the Roosevelt, Post-Katrina, from a Fairmont property. Workers pulled up the water-logged carpet, installed as a supposedly modernizing amenity in 1965, revealing the magnificent original tile work.

Our concierge-cum-tour guide regaled us with stories of Prohibition-era speakeasies, legendary Louisiana Gov. Huey Long's holding court on the upper floors and the hotel's claim to have first concocted the original Sazarac, with rye and absinthe.

So why, I wondered, "The Roosevelt?" And why does Teddy's name pop up around New Orleans?

Remember, in 1924 when the Roosevelt was renamed from it's original Grunewald moniker, Southern pride was still smarting from Reconstruction, which had wrapped up just a half century earlier.

Theodore's surname only added alliterative reminder of those two of Dixie's then most-detested bugbears: Reconstruction and the Republican Party: objects of so much florid Southern indignation.

Roosevelt was a card-carrying member of the Republican Party! And it was Republicans who in the wake of Appomattox imposed the humiliating program of Reconstruction of the former rebel Confederate states.

But New Orleans seems to not hold his party and Section against him.

TR's NoLa legacy isn't contained within the hotel walls.  Roosevelt's "Teddy Bear" legend has a New Orleans connection.

If you take the self-guided tour of the Crescent Cityh's historic Garden District's grand (mostly) Antebellum homes per the brochure furnished by the famous Commander's Palace restaurant, you'll walk by 2520 Prytania Street, where Roosevelt was entertained by a later Louisiana governor, John Millikin Parker, before heading off on the hunting trip where TR saved the life of the bear cub that inspired the stuffed Teddy Bear craze.

(We had to bring along a "real" Teddy bear, pictured above, decked out in Rough Rider ensemble, purchased in the gift shop at TR's Long Island home of Sycamore Hill in Oyster Bay, NY.)

That hunting trip was in 1907, during Roosevelt's second, but only elected term. Teddy had made earlier connections in 1898 when he was recruiting his Rough Riders for battle in Cuba in the Spanish-American War.  Joining Roosevelt and future Gov. Parker on that hunting trip and in the Rough Riders was John A. McIlhenny, of the Tabasco hot sauce brand-founding McIlhennys.

Roosevelt roots in New Orleans were planted way back to 1811 when TR's great-great uncle sailed a steamer down from Pittsburgh.

So, was it the Bavarian-born founder of the hotel, Louis Grunewald, among some of the South's then-few and far between Republicans, like his German immigrant brethren who settled in a cluster of counties in central Texas' Hill County?

Nope. Grunewald seem to have calculated that his business interests would benefit if he cozied up to New Orleans' arch-conservative, anti-reform Old Regular Democratic organization.

Turns out, the hotel was renamed in 1923-24, a few years after Teddy's 1919 passing.  The real reason New Orleans city fathers came to appreciate Roosevelt and name its grand hotel after him, despite his Yankee Republicanism, was his crucial role accelerating work on the moribund Panama Canal project, which brought in more trading ships from South America into the Port of New Orleans, boosting the city's bottom line in a big way.

Alas, the Panama Canal's completion in 1914 was too late for Teddy to reap any of that good will in the ballot box.

Although he couldn't become a Republican, Parker did join TR's Progressive Party off-shoot from the GOP, and made his first, unsuccessful, run for governor on it's Bull Moose ticket in 1916.  (Post-Progressive, he won a term as a Democrat.) Before Roosevelt abandoned a second White House bid under the Progressive banner earlier in 1916, Parker was even slated to be his hunting buddy's running mate.

In Roosevelt's winning run for a full term in 1904, only 380 voters in Orleans Parish backed the incumbent president - or 2.3%, far below a statewide total that couldn't even crack double digits.

(Maybe the McIlhenny family campaigned for the Rough Rider in Tabasco's home of Iberia Parish.  There Roosevelt pulled in nearly 22%, over double his statewide total.)

Unburdening himself of the "Republican" label so noxious to Southern voters of that era - after he stormed out of the GOP convention in to found the Progressive Party - didn't seem to help TR much in 1912.

Only 15% of Orleans Parish voters picked him in that four-way election, a few points of his 12% statewide.  (Again in Tabasco-land, he fared much better.  Iberia Parish was his second strongest statewide, giving him 27%.)

in 1924, the next election after the hotel's Roosevelt-renaming, a Progressive Party, inspired by TR's Bull Moosers, re-emerged with Wisconsin's "Fightin' Bob" LaFollette as its standard-bearer.

LaFollette wasn't even on the ballot in Louisiana, but you can't help wonder if Theodore Roosevelt had lived and been that Progressive candidate in 1924 if Orleanians would have demonstrated their appreciation for the old Rough Rider in the polling booth.

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