Almost half a century has passed since 1960. That’s when my father died. And so I posed the question to my brothers, will anyone write the story of our father for our children, grandchildren, and beyond?
There ensued a discussion of how best this might be done. We thought about separate mementos; we considered others sending me individual suggestions. What follows is the result. For any errors or deviations from good judgment that anyone may find herein, I resort on behalf of my brothers only a good legal technique, that being a request to “hold harmless.” For myself, I ask only for a kind reading.
A man can die twice. His physical self and perhaps whatever energy defines him may die at the instant we all know as death. But should that man be forgotten except for an entry on a family tree, he dies again. This document is meant to prevent that second demise.
The person of whom I write was a man who forked no lightning, but many who knew him heard his silent thunders. Failures were many, but none so deep as to cause him to rail against them. He had faults, we acknowledge, but some, like his first marriage, he righted by marriage to our mother.
I apologize in advance for any lack of order in recounting memories appropriate to a memoir. It is not my desire to do a stream-of-consciousness document, but rather I will record what I can remember as prompted by associations of one memory to another. Whenever possible, I will try to maintain an orderly sequence of events.
There are some few curiosities aroused when I trace backward to see what I know about my father. No doubt there are some inaccuracies in memory, and even more in the telling of events and stories about which I have no personal knowledge. I was given to understand that he spoke only French until he went to school. Being of an old Creole family of New Orleans, that is highly possible. I know that his conversations with his parents were usually in French. That was especially true when he talked to my grandmother; being stone deaf, she seemed to lip read French better than English.
Although it did not seem to be of more than passing interest to my father, a distinguished family history was part of that which informed his character. He could have traced his lineage to some of the very earliest settlers of Louisiana. One, on the Oliver de Vizin side, was the first “keeper of the King’s highways,” as well as the first official to be responsible for maintenance of Mississippi River levees. Another, a Duverges, was appointed to build the settlement called the Balize, at the mouth of the river.
It is true that he was not born in one of the old French neighborhoods of New Orleans, but in Vicksburg Mississippi instead. There has been no reliable reason passed down to explain why the family was residing there that I know of. One story is that PaPa was for a time with the Vicksburg newspaper as a reporter. This may fit, if it is so that he had been a critic at the old French Opera House for a time, but this has not been established. (Incidentally, these items are of the type that can be ascertained through research, if anyone should pick up the challenge.)
The subject of the French Opera House reminds me that Dad knew at least a little about operatic music, and had an appreciation for it. He knew a little of the music of Martha, and I can still hear him in my mind’s ear singing, “Martha, Martha….” He could also sing a few measures of the sextet from Lucia, and I still agree with his appraisal: that it is some of the most beautiful vocal music in opera. However, I cannot say that in all the years we knew him he ever expressed interest in attending an opera. Still, his influence was perhaps what led his sons to their appreciation of classical music.
A good and happy memory was the day during my formative years when Dad appeared at the front door with a phonograph. It was in a fine, stand-alone wooden cabinet. We were some surprised kids, probably in our teens. He had even bought a few records, none of them operatic, however. He had some Strauss waltzes and some circus music. He liked to repeat what he heard from the latter: “Children, of all ages….”
Memoirs are usually about things one personally remembers. Obviously, I cannot know first hand about my father’s childhood, but some things that have been told by others may give some insight about the man who came out of that childhood. The narrator-in-chief as I remember was Uncle Lloyd, who looked up to his older brother and fondly told funny stories about him. One that I recall was not so funny, but might promise a clue. He said that when Dad was a child, he would come home and throw his hat to a rack. If it landed there, fine; if not, look out!
He was not the firstborn in his family. That was his older brother Marion, who died as a child, perhaps of eating pork, but more probably a ruptured appendix. It is evident that Dad took over from there, as all his siblings looked up to him and sought his advice over the years. They obviously recognized his intelligence and I wonder that they might have seen him as a father figure even before Pa Pa died. Undoubtedly, he was an authoritative type even as a child.
About his childhood, at best all we have are bits of anecdotal evidence and a precious few photographs. My favorite of those pictures is one taken at about his age five. He is dressed in a sailor suit and appears to be holding a flower. Two other children are there, all three looking straight at the camera. An older boy, no doubt Marion, sits on a brick wall. A baby, Aunt Lucille, I think, stands in front of Marion. Where is their brother? He is standing straight and tall and high above the other two, on top of the wall, looking very imperious. Is he making a statement, being assertive? Perhaps not, but he by any interpretation, he is not being shy.
He was at times fond of telling stories about himself as a child. A few indicated a bit of mischief. For example, one of his favorites was about his pet rooster. It seems that it had become road kill when it was rolled over by the neighbor’s car. My grandmother chose not to cook it herself, maybe because it had been his pet, but instead gave it to the neighbor who cooked it. As the neighbors lived next door, it was possible for Dad to lean out his window and speak to them as they were having dinner. His words to them: “I hope you choke on my rooster!”
There was another story about another pet, that one a goat. About all I can remember is that it ate a piece of paper money and Dad was upset because his parents insisted upon getting rid of the goat. What makes this incident noteworthy at all is the apparent indication that our father liked pets: in all of my years growing up, I cannot remember any times when he expressed the least interest in pets. When meats – and money – were scarce in the 40’s, he did raise little chickens in Clermont Harbor, but they were not to play with, but to eat. He had no compunction about grabbing one and pulling its head off when Mom was ready to cook dinner.
We have only questions about some more important aspects of his life. For example, was it his sense of honor that caused him to quit high school and not graduate because he thought he deserved the gold medal that was awarded to someone else? I think it was in this regard that he was found to have written on a wall, “Brother —– cheats.” He never denied being the author of that inscription.
Other than that unfortunate story, he must have had a satisfactory experience in high school. It may be, however, that the disappointment on reflection over time resulted in a psychological defense that allowed him to act as though higher education was not important. He never suggested college to any of us, and if we had not won academic scholarships, my guess is that we would have had to work our way though, maybe with the GI bill after the Korean War. Indeed, he counseled Wilfred to take a commercial course at Holy Cross, where he learned typing, shorthand and bookkeeping. Why not, Dad probably reasoned: one of his jobs after high school was as an office boy.
We were told that he had been a good athlete, probably the source of Roland’s abilities and interests in sports. He told us on occasion of his having been part of a St. Aloysius champion basketball team. He had personally set a record with fifty points in one game; somewhere, we may have a copy of the Times-Picayune photo of the team, with Dad holding the ball. It was in “Pictures out of the Past.”
Dad certainly liked sports, from football to baseball to boxing. He often went to see the Sugar Bowl on New Year’s Day at Tulane stadium. He would simply go to there without a ticket and he was able to procure one with no trouble as there were always some people trying to sell extra tickets that they could not use because of too much carousing the night before.
He loved the New Orleans Pelicans. He took us to many games as members of the “knot-hole gang, and promoted us to listen to the games from Clermont Harbor by way of a long extension as an aerial, used to pick up the weak signal of WJBW.
He even took me once to see professional wrestling at the Coliseum. He had warned me in advance that it was all rehearsed and that none of the wrestlers actually hurt each other.
Nonetheless, I believed it all very real anyway.
Early Success – a Mixed Blessing
An enigma of his adult years is linked to the ring that Mom would never wear but guarded closely to the point of having me keep in my bank box for years. Was it one that he reclaimed from his first marriage? When Roland finally had it appraised, and it turned out to be junk worth maybe $35, does it mean that he knew it to be false, or was he taken for a ride?
What little we know about Lucille Mouney perhaps is insignificant except that such information might be more about him than her. Did they go to Paris on a honeymoon? How long did the marriage last? Mom used to say that she was a golddigger, which is to say that she – and others – expected Dad to become wealthy.
Probably many did have such expectations, as I recall that he was chosen by Who’s Who to be one of the coming millionaires. Did he not have a half million dollars backing when he was less than 21? That was an outcome of his first invention, for which he held a patent for a device that would show theatre ushers where were located empty seats. He may have been only about age 18 when he conceived the product, about the size of a cigar box, battery operated to show combinations of little electric lights. (I have what may be the last indicator in existence. Come to think of it, it is just the right size for a cigar box, which prompt the guess that he used one to build his working model.)
In 1922, John Smith Kendall published History of New Orleans, in which he wrote, “The genius of one of the brilliant young inventors of New Orleans, Wilfred Louis Guerin, solved the question of how to do this rapidly, effectively and economically. His invention indicates the vacant seats at the entrance of the theatre…. The Guerin device is manufactured and marketed by the Guerin Theatre Seating, Inc., which was organized under the laws of Delaware, capitalized at $500,000….”
I wrote “patent,” singular, but it should be plural, for in 1922, “George V, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and of the British Dominions beyond the Seas, King, Defender of the Faith, Emperor of India,” issued to 22-year old Wilfred Louis Guerin, Patent No. 1900930.
No less a personage than George Eastman of Eastman Kodak ended that bit of fame. We have copies of the legal documents with his named signed at the bottom. My belief is that Eastman used the power of his corporation to try to prove patent infringement, thus causing Dad to finally sign away his rights in 1932.
It was not long before Dad bounced back. Probably early in the 1930’s, he was granted another patent, this for what he called “suspender shirts.” I can still picture some of the cartoon-type advertising in the local papers; my memory makes me almost certain that Charles Chase was the artist. These strips showed that because a man’s shirt could be buttoned to his pants through an elastic buttonhole, he did not need a belt and his shirttail would stay in, even if he bent over.
There were also children’s clothes. I well remember wearing some to school. Marketing was by the Guerin Suspender Shirt Corp., officed at 518 Carondelet Bldg. Dad never, or at least seldom, made excuses, but Mom used to say that this venture failed because of the inability to get proper materials because of the war effort beginning in 1941.
We can only guess how he handled disappointments having to do with his inventions. Similarly, he must have been terribly affected during the Great Depression following the financial crash of 1929. I remember one Christmas at Mazant when I was sick, probably with flu, and I asked Mom why Dad was crying. She said it was because we could not go out on Christmas because I was sick. I don’t think I believed her even then, but the question is begged: why was he crying, an unusual emotion for such a stoical man. Stoic he was, but what about his silent struggles?
A tough time, the ‘30’s. Wilfred Jr. was already born, and three more of us came in the
‘30’s. I was born in 1932, and the banks “took a holiday” in 1933. I take no blame for either event, but neither was good for family finances.
It was about that time when President Roosevelt said the only thing to fear was fear itself. I have read somewhere that only one person was happy that the banks had closed. She was a woman who just the day before had overdrawn her account.
Sometime during the late 1930’s Dad acquired an Esso (Exxon) service station. It was located at the corner of St. Claude and Elysian Fields. In addition, he operated a used car business in the same square and fronting on Elysian until some time in the 40’s. Another reason for that change, I recall, was that the used car business had become very tight, as new car production had ceased from 1942 to 1946, the years of World War II.
It must have been about that time that Dad made his first venture into the real estate business. Earlier, in 1940, he had sold the service station business to Uncle Lloyd. I have a minor clue as to why he terminated his connection to this business, as I recall that he made a statement, perhaps more than once, to the effect that the term “service station” implied service, and that customers demanded too much when they came in for gas.
The station, the used car lot, and the first office for the real estate business were all located in the first block of Elysian Fields, going from St. Claude toward the river. As a matter of fact, the first Giant Schwegmann’s was on that corner, and I believe construction of it necessitated Dad’s losing his lease. But it was a great location while it lasted, because Dad was commuting on the old L&N in those summers, and the train would stop right in that block of Elysian and all he had to do was walk across the street.
Shangri La and other Joys
For him Clermont Harbor ranked just below his wife and children in the objects of his affection. It was also Clermont that gave him his next best shot at success. The time was near the end of WW II, when there had been an economic recovery from the Depression. He had for years dreamt of one day owning the Clermont Harbor Hotel. Now it had been put on the market, a stately presence that had had its own ups and downs. (I might mention that a few years ago I wrote an account of the hotel and its history; it may be accessed at the Hancock County Historical Society by those who wish more information. Most of the information on which that account is based is a complete title search given to Dad by his attorney at the time of purchase; it begins at the beginning, with the purchase of land from the US Land Office for $1.25 per acre in 1837.)
It was the hotel that helped rekindle his ambitions. Even before he formed a corporation to buy it, he bought an option for a temporary period, enabling him to write to the U.S. Army Air Corps and suggest a lease for the department to house personnel. There had been a rumor that a military installation was planned for an area north of Highway 90. This did not materialize, and the option was allowed to lapse.
Subsequently, in late 1945, Dad formed a corporation called the Clermont Harbor Hotel Corporation. He became president and owned a 51% interest. One of the minor stockholders was Jules Harris, for a time our neighbor in Clermont. I believe it was he who found others who were interested enough in the project of restoring the hotel to buy the balance of minority stock interest. Whether Dad invested any cash is unknown, but it is clear that his commitment was to supervise the reconstruction, arrange for the purchase of furniture, bedding, and the like, and to contract with others willing to lease the restaurant and the nearby Pavilion.
The hotel setback was one that I was old enough to observe, as I was fully 13 years old. He had embarked on a hard struggle to renovate a beautiful structure that had never seen success and was beginning to deteriorate. That took the better part of a year, during which Mom always swore that his hair turned grey. He reopened on June 1; the fire was on June 2. I have a clear recollection of someone at the service station asking Dad about the fire. That much is clear; what is not is that I thought Dad might have used the “f” word. If he did, it was the only time in all the years that he did so in front of me.
In any event, he called the hotel a “Jonah,” essentially dismissing it. At this point, he arranged to buy out the other 49% stockholders. He eventually came out OK – not rich – by dividing and selling the land.
If he was beaten down, it showed only in his acceptance of it. Wilfred commented years ago, I think when Dad was still alive. He said that Dad seemed to want to stay “small,” not to grow. He cited his withdrawal from a real estate business partnership with a man whose name I believe was Moore. They had an office on Elysian Fields in the same block as Dad had his used car lot.
After that, Dad seemed to have perhaps lost his ambition. Instead, maybe we should call it acceptance of who and where he was. That’s not all bad. Matter of fact, it is something that many ought to recognize but cannot. Arthur Miller wrote of a salesman named Willie Loman who could not come to that realization and acceptance.
And while thinking of Dad as a salesman, we must remember that he was a good one. Whether his talent was natural or taught does not matter. He had a great talent. I have seen him in action on many occasions. He had a knack of going to the close simply and with gentle persuasion.
There was also room for fun in his life. As with most high intelligent people, a good sense of humor was often evident. Never boisterous, he did not allow himself to belly- laugh. At most it was a controlled chuckle, often accompanied by “That’s rich!”
He loved to tell stories of incidents at J.D. Cathey Chevrolet. The one I remember best was Dad’s way of saying that a good salesman needs to know when to stop talking. It was about a “colleague” who had gone through the sales process with a husband and wife who were ready to buy a used car. The man had the cash money in his hand, and he was ready. But the salesman was not finished, and said he wanted to show them how “strong” the car was. He said, “Look, the doors are so strong that I can swing on one.” With that, he opened a door and proceeded to do just that, when the door parted from its hinges and he fell on his face. His would-be buyers just turned and left, their money safely pocketed away.
One of Dad’s favorite recollections was about another sales person who loved to call the new ads into the newspapers. It was not his responsibility, but he liked to flirt with the lady taking the ad on the phone. Knowing that he was not too literate, Dad modified the verbiage with the best ten-dollar words that he could coax out of his vocabulary. Unaware of the changes, the flirter made the call to the Times-Picayune and began his usual fun with the lady. But when he got to the big words, all he could say is that he would have to call back, because “these words cannot go over the telephone!”
Another colleague gifted in the language had a pat answer when asked a question he could not answer: “I disremember.”
He had other good stories, some having to do with his own used car business. He had entered a car into the jalopy race that took place as I remember on a field down in St. Bernard Paris. (For the younger fold, a jalopy was a car that ran but was not worth anything else, as the body was junk.) I think it was across St. Bernard Highway from the Chalmette battlefield. We went to the bid day of the races. One of us asked Dad if he would drive his own car. The answer came back quickly: that pleasure was given to the man we all knew as Eddie the Porter. He was a black man, to Dad, a “darkee.”
Eddie did not win. But he did not die either. I think he may even have had a good time. About all I can remember was a large number of jalopies bumping into each other and starting and stopping and sometimes not starting at all. But we had fun, and I was impressed that Dad could afford to waste a car.
I still wonder about the possible connection to Dad when we read in the paper one day about a sales person at a car agency on the Northshore. The details are forgotten, but I recall that it was about a success he enjoyed. It was said by others in the agency that he had “pulled a Guerin.” I wonder, did Dad’s abilities achieve the status of legend?
Mom had a diamond pin that she treasured. (Roland, maybe you can check whether there is still such in Dad’s effects.) She said it had been awarded to Dad when he became a member of the 100-Car-a-Year club. That was during the Depression. I am told that such a goal is even now considered a success in the business.
His early experiences with automobiles stayed with him over the years. Even in later life, one might have heard him refer to his car as “my machine,” and the shock absorbers on his machine were better known as “knee action.” That last part was spoken as one word.
The Depression – “a Green-eyed Monster”
Mom also used to tell about the rough times during the Great Depression. It seems that once during that time Dad sold a new car for cash, but instead of getting his commission, Mr. Cathey used the amount to pay monies he owed to the salaried employees.
However, at least once during that period Mom believed she was saved from utter penury by the Little Flower of Jesus, St. Theresa. What I remember is that she really needed new shoes, but had no money for them. She did have enough, nonetheless, to give one of her last nickels to a lottery salesman who came to the door. She had to pick the numbers, and was reminded of a dream she had had the night before of that young nun. (Her last name, by the way, was Guerin, and Dad had what they called then “a great devotion” to her and even wore a third class relic pinned to his clothes.) In the dream, St. Theresa and another nun approached Mom at a St. Charles streetcar stop and asked if the approaching car was the one they should take. Mom remembered the number of the car, and those became her choice in the lottery.
A day or two later, the same lottery person came by again, telling Mom to go to a local grocery where she could claim her winnings. She sent Roland, who returned with a shoebox full of money. It totaled $30, “in the heart of the Depression,” she used to say. She bought her shoes and had money left over.
The lottery itself was a fact of the Depression. It was a way to give a few people employment and to give their customers some hope of having a windfall. It helps to have hope when there is little else. Like the lottery, the Depression also fostered punchboards, a simple gambling device that could be distributed to bars, stores, and the like. Those who had an extra nickel or two could hand over a coin in exchange for a stylus by which he or she could punch through a square, forcing out a little role of paper indicating what the prize was, if anything.
Come to think of it, Dad had tried the market in that way too. We used to play with the leftover punchboards. There were lots of them in the garage. I also remember something about penny gumball machines, too. Now and then, we would take a ride around to the places where he had installed them and watch him open the coin box with a key and extract the pennies.
How bad were the economics of the time? It was said that even some of the immigrants who had come from “the old country” were going back home. Dad was certainly influenced by his memories of the Depression. For the rest of his life, he was financially conservative. Other than an occasional investment in real estate, mostly in Clermont, he relied upon Savings and Loan deposits, which took the form of homestead bonds. Unlike regular savings accounts, these were backed by the full strength and credit of the institution.
Another fact of the Depression was Huey Pierce Long. I think he was beloved by both my parents. I have a memory, probably not of my own experience but of someone saying so, of Mom crying over Long’s assassination while talking over the back fence at Clermont. It was 1935, when I was only three. But I think it really happened.
Dad, on the other hand, expressed his regret in another way, and he did so for years. He believed that Long was killed by people in the Roosevelt administration because they knew that had he lived he would become president. Dad spoke of listening to a Long speech on radio shortly before Long was killed, and claimed Long said that the Roosevelt Hotel had been bugged and that a man named “Wise” or “Weiss” had drawn the short straw to do the shooting. The blame for the deed fell to a young physician, Dr. Carl Weiss, but I have always wondered about the similarity of Long’s loyal backer, Seymour Weiss, who ran the Roosevelt Hotel.
Other than his feelings against the Roosevelt administration, Dad was not very political. One thing was sure, however, he took many opportunities to rail against deficit financing.
He would have been greatly disturbed if he had foreseen the national debt of today.
There were other stories about those lean years, when we lived at 1701 Mazant St. Our parents owned a little double house, but often could not get the tenant to pay the rent. Jobless, the tenant simply did not have the rent, and sometimes Mom would give a quart of milk for the little infant child of the tenant.
There were occasional knocks on the door by men who were hungry. Mom never sent one away without making him a sandwich. That’s what the ‘30-s were like, and all the while there was a trunk full or Guerin Theatre Indicators in the garage – a dream that did not come true.
No matter that it must have indeed been difficult to sell cars to people who did not have jobs, we survived. I do not remember ever being personally hungry. Looking back, we would nowadays be considered poor. We did not have a refrigerator; we had an ice box. Our heating system consisted of space heaters which we could not leave on all night because of the danger inherent in them. In the morning, time to get dressed for school, my mother would hold my shirt over one of those heaters so that it would be warm against my body when I slipped my arms through it.
The telephone we used is still something of a mystery. We had one, and that fact alone elevated us. Some neighbors would come over to use our phone. One was tubercular, and Mom would wipe off the phone with a wet rag when the lady was finished. Of course, we had a party line, meaning that sometimes the phone would be in use by another party and we would have to wait to make a call. Another point of mystery: why did Dad cut a hole through the baseboard beneath the phone, and sometimes pass it through to the tenant. I can only assume that he had made an arrangement for the tenant to pay for part of the expense of the phone.
But we always had a new car, probably a demonstrator not actually owned by Dad in many of those years.
We moved from Mazant St. when I was in second grade. This must have been about 1939. The reasons for moving are not fully ascertainable, but Wilfred has an opinion that there may have been a foreclosure. Dad did not buy another house right away. We lived in Clermont that summer, while Dad searched for and found a house to rent. This was 2314 Gallier, the first of three residences in that block. I know that Dad was concerned about maybe having to move too soon from 2314, as he worried about a “for sale” sign nailed to a post on the porch. He asked me to watch for a time when no one was around to observe and to go to that sign and hang on it till it loosened from its nails. It did not come down, but just hanged there at an angle. He instructed me to leave well enough alone, commenting that it was not as prominently displayed as it had been. I knew it was not quite right, but reasoned that Dad’s thoughts must have been clearer than mine.
Is there any one thing I can point to which I feel helped Dad – and us – to come through those years. The answer is a resounding YES: it was Clermont Harbor. It was perhaps a retreat, a sedative for the difficult times. Maybe that’s why Dad loved it so in all those years. He did more than take from it: he gave. He was for several terms president and secretary of the Clermont Harbor Civic Association. He designed the unique roof of the replacement community pier after the ’47 storm. He encouraged other home owners not to build their own piers, but to support the community pier instead. He conceived of, contributed to, raised funds for, and supervised the building of Guerin’s reef.” It was his idea to encourage all property owners to extend a wire to light a lamp in their front yards, as the town had no street lights.
The reef deserves separate consideration. It became for us a central part of our existence at Clermont every summer. My memory traces its existence from the beginning, as I was with Dad when he negotiated the purchase of a barge load of oyster shells. We had gone to a boat pier just past the old White Kitchen on Highway 90. There we met with a man who could take a barge loaded with dead oyster shells through the waterways to Clermont. I heard the exchange between that man and my father. And, I learned something about my father. The man said, “You know, I’ll do what I’m paid to do, but those shells will not cause live oysters to grow.” To this my father said firmly, “You leave that to me. You just deliver the shells.”
I don’t know how he knew. Maybe he read an article somewhere, but live oysters did form, and for years we had an oyster reef that attracted some of the best fishing in the area. Even though the “natives” would go out to the reef and tong for oysters during the winter, the reef continued to produce.
Since it was our father’s idea, he had directed that the shells be dumped just about directly in front of our house, less than a half-mile out, easy rowing distance. I doubt if anyone criticized the location; after all, it was his idea and he had put up the first ten dollars.
Our way of reaching the reef was our 16-foot cypress skiff which Dad had had made. It was a wonderful boat, heavy but seaworthy. The sides were made from single pieces of cypress, probably eighteen to twenty inches wide. A live-bait well separated two sections, and we, the boys, would fill it with minnows, catching them as they fed on cracked crab between our hands at low tide.
Dad loved to catch fish, but when they had stopped biting, his patience took over. He would sit, rod at the ready, in the by-now risen sun, protected by his signature pith helmet. When not in the skiff, he loved to just sit on the sea wall with his line in the water, but for us boys the reef was always calling. We would go out at daybreak on weekends, and on some weekdays he would take the early train home from New Orleans, and then we would go to the reef in the late afternoon. Usually, morning was more productive; I recall counting the catch one day at eighty.
Strict with his children in some ways, he dictated usage of the skiff by laying down hard and fast rules. First, he would never take more than one of us at a time to the reef. We were all good swimmers, but that did not matter: it was one at a time, and we took turns, keeping track of a schedule with little argument. We were allowed to use the skiff, but only in shallow water, never as far out as the reef.
Clermont was a central part of his career in later life, too. It happened that he had been practicing as a real estate broker in both Louisiana and Mississippi when one day he got a letter from Jackson, MS that said new legislation required that a broker be domiciled in the state. Dad chose to keep his domicile in Louisiana, meanwhile protesting to Mississippi through his lawyer, Bob Genin. They took the approach that a state could not legislate someone out of business, but in the end they did just that.
It was at this point that he began to buy and sell properties, mostly vacant lots, in Clermont. He would buy inexpensive properties, paying cash, and put them on the market for ten dollars down, ten or twenty dollars per month. Sales took the form of “bonds-for-deed.” Under such contracts, title did not pass until the deal was paid out; this was another way he showed his financial conservatism.
On one of his purchases, he and the seller both manifested their integrity. It is a complicated story, but worth the telling. Dad had observed three or four vacant lots either on Forest or Oak and had identified the owner through court house records as Mr. Hugh Turner Carr. They knew each other well. Dad went to see Carr, and asked if he were interested in selling the lots. He said he was, and they agreed on a price. With that, Dad completed an Offer and Acceptance, and wrote a check for the price. He went from there to the lots and proceeded to put up a for-sale sign. At that point, a stranger drove up and asked whether Dad was the owner of the lots. After thinking about it for a minute, Dad said that he was. Then he was asked a price, and the stranger agreed to buy.
Another Offer and Acceptance was completed and a check was tendered to Dad. He then drove back to Carr, and explained what had happened, offering to undo the sale by Carr, who said that he had made a deal and that he was satisfied.
Two other stories relate to the integrity of the man, though not with the same story-book endings. The first involved an agreement that Dad had with Mr. Joseph Chalona, our neighbor in Clermont. The Chalona family owned the Chalona Fruit and Produce Company, dealing in bananas from Central America. They were wealthy and owned much raw land in Hancock County.
Some undeveloped real estate was in the form of lots along the beach road near Lakeshore Road. It was low land, and Chalona had committed to Dad that if he would see to it that the land was filled he could then market them as agent. Dad proceeded to hire a dragline and supervised the digging of a borrow pit, transferring the soil to the front of the lots. (To this day, a canal that runs parallel to the beach road is visible.)
Dad and Chalona were not only neighbors, but friends as well. Perhaps Dad was reluctant to ask for a contract, but there was none in writing. During the process, Chalona died. Afterward, an appointment was secured with Chalona’s son, to whom Dad, dressed in a suit and tie, presented his case. He explained that he had invested a great deal of time (I do not know who paid the dragline expenses) and would like to continue with the understanding he had had with Mr. Chalona.
The son had no such interest and refused to continue the project. There was deep disappointment. I remember the words, “He is not the man his father was.”
The other incident involved a man who had bought a house on Poinset Ave. in Clermont from Dad. He was a principal of a New Orleans school. For special clients, Dad was known to present a gift of a bottle of whiskey as a thank-you. Having just graduated from Loyola and already committed to enlist in the army for three years, I was spending my last few days in Clermont before leaving. Dad asked me to take a ride with him to deliver the gift, and upon presenting it to the client, mentioned that I had just graduated with a major in education. With that, the principal, without a sound, handed back the bottle and walked away. Dad realized what he had done, but his attempt to explain that I was about to leave for three years was fruitless.
To me, it was evident which of the two men need not be ashamed.
During the time when Dad had a broker’s license, I was licensed with him as a salesman, and did in fact sell some houses and land in both states while I was in college. That was the time of the Korean “police action,” meaning that I was to be drafted. As it worked out, both Roland and I enlisted in the army for three years, but that is another story. What Dad decided was that I would pay poll taxes during that time, using our Clermont Harbor address and I would thereby become an official Mississippi resident. It was planned that I would then become the broker, with Dad as my salesman, after discharge.
This was all legitimate, as Mississippi had many years before passed the poll tax system as a way to discourage poor blacks from voting. It was a good plan, but after my service obligation I was really anxious to embark on a real career. The problem was that Dad had aged in those three years, and it became apparent to me after trying to learn the real estate business that I needed something else. I chose the insurance field, but my company required all agents to be full time and therefore I had to surrender my real estate license.
That was in 1958. I do recall that Dad was disappointed, but there was a blessing in all this, in that he had been continuing business in Mississippi in another way. He was buying and selling small parcels and taking mortgages on them (more properly called bonds for deed). Thus, he was able to spend many leisurely hours and days in Clermont.
A by product of all this was that when he died in 1960 Mom had an income from the regular payments on the properties sold in the intervening years since the change in Mississippi law. This income was crucial to her finances until Social Security started about six years later. Besides, keeping the books on those payments was an invaluable way of Mom’s passing the days.
Copies of some of his Clermont Harbor maps survive. He used these in his selling practice to show how many sites he had sold, as well as those for which he had acted as agent.
Clermont was also the symbol by which others, friends, neighbors, and relatives too, always thought Dad successful. That, and the new car, of course. Whatever the time, others looked at Dad with respect and called him “the little Napoleon.” Uncle Lloyd was fond of saying that when Dad would enter a room full of people, they would break into two parts, like the parting of the sea, and form an aisle for Dad to walk through.
In like manner, he often walked ahead of Mom, not out of disrespect but because his natural manner was to be in the lead. This brings to mind an incident at which all of us laughed, except of course, Dad. It happened at Pontchartrain Beach, Dad walking in front, Mom following and eating an ice-cream cone. Someone walked by, a man wearing the newest in beach ware, a bikini that would make even modern women blush. Dad stopped short. Mom continued at her pace, though also observing the new style. Result: an ice cream cone squarely in the middle of the back of Dad’s head.
Acceptance with Quiet Dignity
I have consciously kept my telling of Dad mostly on an unemotional basis, partly because I think he would have dismissed anything that he thought maudlin. I think of how coldly, quietly he brought all his mortgage accounts up-to-date just a short time before he suffered the fatal heart attack. I say, the fatal one, because I believe that he had had at least one before, and may have told Dr. Brierre but no one else.
I recall a time, possibly even before my service days, when several of us, myself, Mom and Dad, certainly, were in the kitchen having morning coffee. Dad was in his usual stance of leaning on the stove, pouring his French-drip a little at a time. All of a sudden, he let out a yell and grabbed his chest, his knees buckling. He called to Mom to get him a cup of coffee, and after drinking it, announced the pain was gone. No one could have believed that coffee solved the crisis, but that is what happened. Looking back, there is no doubt in my mind that he had some kind of a blockage, is only for a moment. Did he seek treatment, and would Brierre have dismissed it? I think Dad probably did.
I wish I could put a date on that happening.
I think I recall him saying that it must have been his stomach.
Some evidence of changing health was becoming evident as he aged. He sometimes fell asleep sitting at his desk. He carried a damp wash cloth with him when he traveled to or from the Gulf Coast, stopping along the roadside to wash his face when he became groggy. He complained about circulation in his feet, and took a scissors to his socks to widen the mouths so that they would not feel so tight. Dr. Brierre called the cause “hardening of the arteries.” After he died, Mom had to search in his sock drawer to find an uncut pair of socks for his funeral.
No doubt his having been a long time smoker contributed to his declining health. Moreover, he had suffered for many years from a hernia which made walking any distance a problem, thereby limiting his exercise.
However much he knew about his condition, he must have truly been resigned to having a limited time left.
After he died, we had to assemble his several ledgers to see who owed on outstanding sales. It was important, because Mom at 54 was not close to receiving Social Security, and Dad had only a few small policies of life insurance. (It is noteworthy that in his effects was evidence of having had more insurance, but several policies had been cashed during the Depression.) Each ledger account had been updated recently, with clear notations reading, “This account brought up-to-date on ….”
Lesser beings have sometimes been called heroic.
Someone remembered later that Dad had been rather quiet on Thanksgiving Day. We had had the usual feast that Mom was accustomed to prepare. Merle and I had just returned from Europe a few days before.
The attack came in the night. Before any of us heard from Mom that Friday morning, all three of us experienced strange and unexplainable sensations.
Dr. Brierre called it a massive coronary. Dad was an excellent patient the whole week in the hospital. He made it a point to compliment the doctors and nurses for their efforts, but it was evident that he was declining, and he knew it.
Though he had showed little tender affection in his dealings with Mom over the years – it simply was not his way – it was at the hospital that he said to me and I think to my siblings as well, that while the nurses were very caring, the best of all was Mom. I am sure he wanted us to make sure she knew that.
I was with him when he died. I will not write about those last few moments, because it has been my own private memory all these years. I will say only that he died with dignity, and without pain.
Many other stories and descriptions could be added, for indeed it is difficult to put a life in a capsule. For a synopsis, I quote from the 1952 publication of Who’s Who in the South and Southwest:
Guerin, Wilfred Louis, real estate broker; b. Vicksburg, Miss., July 28, 1900; s. Morinville J., Jr., and Emilie (Bezou) g.; student pvt. And parochial schs., New Orleans; m. Carmela Cali, July 23, 1928; children – Wilfred, Roland, Russell, Gloria (Mrs. Joseph A. Vizzini). Engaged in candy wholesale bus, for self, 1919-28; with Chevrolet retail sales, 1928-38; owner bus., W.L. Guerin Automobiles, 1938-46; real estate broker, 1948 —; v.p., an organizer Am. Sulphur co., 1936; pres., Harbor Hotel Corp., 1946-57; builder, Guerin’s Reef, 1939. Pres. Clermont Harbor Civic Assn., 1940-41, 53, sec., 1955—. Mem. Real Estate Bd. New Orleans, Nat. Assn. Real Estate Bds., La. Real Estate Assn. Patentee vacant theatre seat indicators, suspender shirts. Address: 2338 Gallier St., New Orleans 17.