In this the week of city elections in which, I suspect, the city’s first ever female mayor will be re-elected, we pause to remember a much earlier mayor with his own superlatives: Louis Roffignac. Roffignac was the city’s last French-born mayor; the only one to have a cocktail named after him and the only one to die in a chateau.
Compared to the guillotine, moving to Louisiana didn’t seem to be such a bad choice. That was the plight of Count Louis Philippe Joseph de Roffignac, a native of Antouleme, France who in 1766 was born with royal blood. His godfather and godmother were the reigning Duke and Duchess of Orleans. Their son would become King Louis Philippe.
Being royalty might have brought some peer advantage when Louis was growing up, but not so much that by the 1790’s when French radicals on the streets became preoccupied with the annoyances of revolution. In 1800 Spain had ceded Louisiana to France. That was all Louis needed to hop the next boat to the new world.
Any guy whose godparents are named Orleans would have to be considered a fast social climber in a frontier town named after the family. That was the case with Louis who became a state legislator, a bank director and then mayor of New Orleans, a job he held for two uninterrupted terms from 1820-1828. During his administration levees were extended, Royal and Orleans streets were paved and parts of downtown were, for the first time, illuminated with gas lamps. He also kept interesting company, having hosted both Andrew Jackson and the Marquis de Lafayette.
For all his accomplishments, however, Roffignac would best be remembered for the drink that carries his name.
Just how the Roffignac came to be named after the former mayor is unclear, but the drink was on bar menus long after the mayor was forgotten and into the era when the nightlife blazed with electric lights instead of lanterns.
Made with grenadine, brandy, whiskey, a twist of lemon and seltzer then served with ice in an Old Fashion glass, the drink is a local version of the genre of slow slipping cocktails. In an age when the male work force spent many hours both during and after work propped against a bar, the Roffignac had its following, especially at one Poydras Street spot in particular.
Maylie’s was the second to last of the authentic old Creole restaurants. The original Tujaque’s in the Quarter was the last. (Where Maylie’s once stood there is now Walk-Ons, a sports-themed bistreaux.)
Gradually, the Roffignac would disappear from bar menus except at Maylie’s, which operated a mere 110 years, from 1876 through 1986. That the drink is remembered at all is probably because it was the house specialty there. When Maylie’s closed so did the public life of the Roffignac. The drink had a history that spanned two countries and one incredible noblesse obliged politician.
A more intriguing ending was that of Mr. Roffignac. The circumstances of his death, at 80, in 1846 at his chateau near Perigeueux, France sound suspect to me, but here’s the lowdown: One evening he was seated in an “invalid chair” examining a loaded pistol when he was suddenly seized by an apoplectic stroke and fell to the floor. The fall triggered the pistol, which sent a bullet into his head. He died instantly.
Roffignac had returned to France after his stint as mayor of New Orleans. At the time of his death, he was said to be preparing for a return visit to the city. We don’t know if there were some folks in France who did not want Roffignac or, more importantly, his wealth, to leave the chateau. But that is just conjecture. It was a tragic end, but a good life – one worth lifting a drink to, with an extra twist of lemon.
Have something to add to this story, or want to send a comment to Errol? Email him at email@example.com.
SOMETHING NEW: Listen to Louisiana Insider a weekly podcast covering the people, places and culture of the state: LouisianaLife.com/LouisianaInsider or Apple Podcasts.
BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT: Errol’s Laborde’s books, “New Orleans: The First 300 Years” and “Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival” (Pelican Publishing Company, 2017 and 2013), are available at local bookstores and at book websites.
WATCH INFORMED SOURCES, FRIDAYS AT 7 P.M., REPEATED AT 9:30 A.M. SUNDAYS.WYES-TV, CH. 12.