Jack M. Willis
Piney Woods Journal Correspondent
By 1959, after serving a fraction of a term, plus two full terms at the helm of state government, Earl Kemp Long probably knew more about how to run the State of Louisiana that any other governor who had ever lived, including his brother Huey.
But Long’s governmental work ethic and personal living habits began to radically change, from what had been considered the norm, in early 1959.
Today, in retrospect, medical professionals familiar with the erratic behavioral patterns beginning at this time, say now that Earl’s personality change was probably due to the onset of a mental state known as manic depressive, and later called bi-polar disorder. The moods of the person affected range from boundless energy demonstrations, to the manifestation of a severe, lethargic depressive state.
One January morning a staffer walked into the governor’s office on the fourth floor of the State Capitol building and quickly noted that Long’s physical and emotional state was very unsettled, to say the least. He was white around the mouth, sweating profusely, and had a cool, wet towel draped around his neck. From his demeanor this particular morning, the staffer immediately concluded that the governor had suffered a stroke or perhaps even a heart attack.
In retrospect, it is now clear that the physical attack was indeed a stroke affecting a portion of his brain, because before where he had demonstrated phenomenal recall of events past, details of even current political scenarios began slipping away. The governor had always been a teetotaler, but now began to drink heavily coupled with chain smoking, even though he had almost given up smoking after suffering a heart attack in 1950.
After the monumental 1956 election, which he had won in the first primary, Long had made the statement on several occasions, that he felt he was too old to run for another political office, but now he began incessantly ranting about running for governor to succeed himself, even though state laws, current at the time, prohibited it.
When May rolled around it was time for the state legislature to convene, but it was obvious to Long’s closest associates that something was badly amiss in the Governor’s Mansion. Long was laboring day and night to get his legislative proposals ready for presentation to the Senate and House, staying up day and night, drinking “spiked” grape juice and chain smoking.
He began calling up and making dates with various female entertainers like the famous stripper Blaze Starr, and hauling the ladies around in a Louisiana National Guard plane.
His volcanic demeanor erupted on May 26th, 1959 when he charged into the House chambers at a joint meeting of the Senate and House, called by him, and commandeering the microphone, began to scream, and bellow at the shocked and dismayed legislators. His blistering language was punctuated with profanity and insults, which caused Lieutenant Lether Frazier and the Speaker of the House to want to crawl under their respective seats. They began to think the tirade would never end.
The next day it appeared that Uncle Earl was in a calmer mood, but everyone in the legislature waited with baited breath as they were called into joint session again. They didn’t have long to wait, because Earl soon tore loose and the profanity and insults were worse than the day before. He ranted and raved for a full two hours, even pausing one time to apologize to a group of Catholic nuns seated in the balcony, but they soon left because of the ear blistering language the governor was using.
The governor’s verbal assaults finally ended, but moves were started immediately by his closest associates to secure treatment for the obviously mentally deranged governor.
That night was a madhouse at the mansion. Earl threw chairs through windows, broke up furniture, and even though attending physicians gave Earl enough tranquilizing drugs to sedate a horse; they had absolutely no visible effect on the raging governor.
Early the next morning, the governor’s nephew Russell Long, in tandem with Earl’s wife Blanche, had the governor strapped down on a gurney and flown to a mental hospital in Galveston, Texas in a National Guard plane.
This confinement didn’t last long, with Earl playing a cat and mouse game with the family members. Volunteering to enter Oschner Hospital in New Orleans for treatment, he went but he didn’t stay. As soon as he had access to a telephone, he called some State Troopers on his staff and commanded them to come to New Orleans and pick him up, carrying him to the friendly confines of East Baton Rouge Parish.
After a hearing at the Courthouse in Baton Rouge, Earl was transferred to a state hospital in Mandeville. Once there, he fired the members of the hospital board who opposed him and soon gaining his freedom. It was now very evident to all who saw him in action that he was psychotic, suffering severe bi-polar disorder symptoms, and exhibiting far more boundless energy periods than intervals of depression. He ranted, raved, all the while demonstrating much hyperactivity, excessive jargon and illusions of grandeur.
Many bi-polar victims consume volumes of alcoholic beverages and/or drugs, while augmenting them with “pep” pills, which he did. All of this imbibing and drug ingestion kept him on the go 24 hours a day, with almost no appreciable rest.
In his final political campaign, which was for Congress representing the sprawling 8th District, he was everywhere at once! He canvassed every city, town, hamlet and “wide spot in the road” in the District. He would halt his caravan at a “big city” mercantile, and then the next stop would be at a little country store, all the while spending money lavishly like it was going out of style, buying a profusion of items he didn’t need, or had any intention of using. He purchased lariat ropes, goats, chickens, eggs, hogs, corn, garden seed, hoes, hats, shoes and boots, earthworms, and cases of Mogen David wine which he gave to potential Black voters.
On one whistle stop in Jena in LaSalle Parish, he sported an entourage of reporters, photographers, and curiosity seekers numbering in the dozens. He spoke on a hot August afternoon on the east side of the LaSalle Parish Courthouse, which was located a scant two miles from where Earl had once graded lumber at the old White Sulphur Lumber Company mill.
Earl’s sound trucks, and the “rockabilly” band, hardly had to exert themselves to drum up a crowd; there was even a reporter from the national publication “Look” magazine, documenting the story and exclusive photos of Uncle Earl’s whirlwind campaign, which was later published in their December edition.
When a profusely perspiring Earl crawled up in the bed of the commandeered pickup truck, he lost no time launching a tirade against his opponent Harold “Catfish” McSween. After thoroughly lambasting McSween, he then responded to newspaper and national media accounts that he was running around with “strip teasers”. He screeched, “I’m 64 years old and just went through one of the worst operations a man can have. What would I do with a woman if I caught one?” Later in the colorful stump speech he would say, “I can think of a hundred things I need more than a woman!”
Election Day, Saturday, August 27th, 1959 dawned hot and sultry with Earl later awaiting election returns at his hotel room in the elegant Hotel Bentley in Alexandria. Unknown to the media, early that morning Earl suffered a major heart attack, which resulted in Earl telling reporters, “I’m feeling a little puny from eating some over ripe pork.” He wouldn’t allow his aides to carry him to the Baptist Hospital to seek medical care until the polls closed that night.
On that Election Day Earl pulled off a feat, that to this day, all the political pundits consider the most stunning upset and resultant victory of his storied political career. The final tally was 38,693 votes for Long and 34,235 for McSween, with Earl’s non-stop campaigning resulting in a rousing win.
But the heart attack was too much for his much abused body to overcome and Earl Kemp Long passed away at 7:11 a.m. on September 5th, 1959, almost 24 years to the day from when his brother Huey had died from an assassin’s bullet. Thus ended the ‘fire and brimstone’ era of Louisiana politics the Long family, more or less, invented.
One fact about Earl Long that practically everyone who had an intimate knowledge of him agreed on, and that was that the only predictable thing about Earl Long, was his unpredictability. Because no one, not even Long himself, knew what he was going to say or do next. He was the last of the charismatic “stump orators” who, through flamboyance and sheer force of personality, captivated the rural masses, and turned them into a formidable political power to be reckoned with.
Margaret Dixon of the Baton Rouge “Morning Advocate” succinctly summed up Long’s political career when she wrote, “Earl Long was the most fascinating, funniest, wisest, best informed, and thorough politician I ever witnessed.”
Please take kindly these recollections of one of the most famous eras in state, and even national politics. The saga of Earl Kemp Long receives more embellishment with every recall and retelling of snatches and patches from the crazy quilt woven by a man, whose antics and anecdotes doesn’t ever need to be forgotten, because they occupy a notable niche in Louisiana history.