ALL THAT GLITTERS
Typical array of jewelry worn by the legendary late New Orleans restaurateur, James Brocato, aka �Diamond Jim� Moran, on an evening around town: Diamond studded eyeglasses, cost $12,000; diamond filled dental bridge, $2,500; collar pins and studs, $12,500; diamond lapel pin spelling out �Jim,� $2,500; diamond studded fountain pen, $5,500; �Moran� buttons, $10,000; blue sapphire edged with diamonds, matching ring and cuff links, $30,000; diamond encrusted wrist watch, $3,500; diamond laden belt buckle, $8,000; cat�s eye ring with diamonds, $11,500; gold topped walking cane, $3,500; diamond shoe lace bars, $5,000. That comes out to $106,500 in jewelry � and that�s not counting the $225 mink tie.
�Sometimes I overdress!�
� Diamond Jim Moran
Throughout his life, Jimmy Brocato never knew the meaning of the words, �understated elegance� � or �understated� anything for that matter.
He served diamonds in meatballs at his famous La Louisiane Restaurant in the French Quarter; sat in the sacristy at St. Mary Italian Church on Chartres Street Sundays with mob bigwigs like Charlie �Lucky� Luciano and Frank Costello, taking communion with them; foiled a pre-1935 plot on the life of Huey P. Long; drove down French Quarter streets in a Corvette convertible with heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano; and was paid $50,000 just to make a showing at the Kentucky Derby � the Duke and Dutchess of Windsor were paid a paltry $10,000 for the same outing.
The legend of Diamond Jim Moran was in constant perpetuation up until the very minute he died of a heart attack in his restaurant in 1958. Who else dies decked out in an estimated quarter of a million dollars in jewels?
Even today, made guys who hang around in bars in the Quarter and talk about old times, and paisans who sit on wooden crates and read racing forms, hawking apples and okra at the French Market, and old hookers in faded summer dresses who long ago moved out to pasture, and politicians, cabbies, waiters, bouncers, the up and coming and the down and out … they still talk in reverent terms about the man known simply as �Diamond Jim.�
Everybody who was around then says they knew Diamond Jim, or knew somebody who knew him. But did anybody really know him?
Most still scratch their head in amazement because they never did figure the guy out, or because as stories about Diamond Jim have been passed down through the nearly 50 years since his death, they�ve been embellished seemingly to fit Moran�s larger-than-life persona. Not that embellishment was needed.
After Moran died in 1958, it�s said that many in Louisiana cried � including shoeshine boys and bouncers in the French Quarter, longshoremen on the docks, and Moran�s long time friends � Gov. and Mrs. Earl K. Long.
There was shock around the country also. Entertainer Jimmy Durante wept and said, �Geez, I�ll never go back to New Orleans. There�s no reason to go back now that my pal, Jimmy, is gone.�
Marciano cried and said, �I�ll miss Diamond Jim � his love for boxing. And man, that lentil soup he made. I�ll miss those times at his camp on Lake Pontchartrain after a tough fight. I can�t believe he�s gone. The world will never be the same.�
Costello, it�s said, was despondent for weeks and let a lot of mob business run unattended as he mourned his friend, Moran. Even powerful Sen. Estes Kefauver � who dogged the mob and many of Moran�s friends, including Costello, during his seemingly interminable televised �Kefauver Committee� hearings into mob activities during the 1950s � said, �Jim represented the American dream. He was truly a gem of all the people � my dear friend.�
So who was this man who would rate a chapter in any book about the �great characters of New Orleans?� A man who regularly walked with mobsters and politicians, call girls and show girls, movie stars and moguls; a kid who shined shoes on the street outside the restaurant he would one day own; and about whom it is said was instrumental in blocking a hit on Huey P. Long in the Roosevelt Hotel three years before the Kingfish was actually gunned down in Baton Rouge? Who is this guy who spent six months of a two-year sentence in a federal penitentiary in Atlanta, Ga., after taking an arrest for prohibition violation and keeping his mouth shut because of upstairs action in a legal joint he owned on Elks Place, while a drunken Huey P. Long was hauled down a fire escape to freedom draped over the shoulders of a bodyguard?
Hypocrite? Bad guy? Good guy who handed out dollars like they were dimes to Depression-era families?
Little Jimmy Brocato was only seven years old when he had to hit the streets of the French Quarter, shining shoes and club fighting in prelims to pick up a few bucks after his old man, Nunzio � an olive oil importer in the Quarter � died of yellow fever. Shining shoes was an �honorable way to make a living,� Jimmy�s mom would say. Nevertheless, she frowned on boxing and forbade Jimmy to get into the ring � but Jimmy didn�t quit boxing. He just borrowed the name from a boxing buddy of his, Pal Moran. Jimmy Brocato became Jimmy Moran and Mama Brocato was never the wiser.
Jimmy also fell in love with diamonds as he shined shoes on one of his regular corners � Esplanade Avenue and Decatur Street. Across from the old U.S. Mint on that corner was a jewelry store that fascinated the shoeshine boy. The kid stared endlessly into the window of that jewelry store, transfixed on all that glittered behind the glass.
�My dad fell completely madly in love with those diamonds,� says Dr. Bobby Brocato, one of Diamond Jim�s four sons, and a dentist in the upstate town of Many. �He was fascinated by them just as he was fascinated by the restaurant where he shined shoes on the sidewalk outside as a kid. He swore one day he�d own that restaurant � and he swore, he�d own diamonds, just like the ones in the window.�
Moran parlayed his shoeshine money and ring earnings, along with cash from a few other hustles he had going, into a barbershop on Howard Avenue across from what is now the Union Passenger Terminal.
It had been pretty much a hand-to-mouth existence for Moran, until a man with a familiar face sat in his chair one day. The two became fast friends. Moran�s customer was none other than Huey P. Long.
As Long�s political fortunes grew, so too did Moran�s bankroll. In time he opened the Ming Toy, a Chinese restaurant on Elks Place across from the then Roosevelt Hotel, the New Orleans headquarters of Long.
�Despite what a lot of people think,� Brocato says, �my dad was never Huey P. Long�s bodyguard. But they were very close friends. And I emphasize very close.�
As a U.S. Senator, the radical populist Long was constantly butting heads with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. When word got out that a drunken Long was partying above the Ming Toy at an illegal speakeasy, the place was busted, and Moran was arrested for violation of the Volstead Act [prohibition] while a drunken Long wound up sleeping it off in his bed across the street at the Roosevelt Hotel.
Years later, then New Orleans Police Chief, George Reyes would say, �The order to raid the Ming Toy didn�t come from police headquarters. It came from Washington.�
RETURNING THE FAVOR
Moran did six months of a three-year sentence, kept his mouth shut and gained his release, because he was a �model prisoner.� Besides, the big fish had gotten away. Moran was considered small potatoes.
�Senator Long never forgot that,� Brocato says. �When daddy was coming home from Atlanta, he was wearing a seersucker suit and it was in the middle of the winter and it was terribly cold and raining. The conductor told my dad he was going to be let off at what was then called the �Carrollton Station� [ed note: the train stop at Carrollton and Tulane avenues] instead of the regular station. When daddy got off the train, a big black limo pulled up, a guy jumped out and opened the door and inside sat Senator Huey P. Long. He said, �Welcome home, Jimmy!� The senator took off his big overcoat and wrapped it around Daddy and ordered the driver to take them to a �welcome home� party at the Roosevelt.�
In short order, the man known as Jimmy Moran opened his first restaurant, began his collection of diamonds and influential friends, and was re-christened on the public stage as �Diamond Jim Moran.�
Huey P. Long�s fame and following grew. He proclaimed every man a king and fought repressive poll taxes at home. He attacked Standard Oil and preached, �Share the wealth� all across the land. Everywhere Long stopped to preach his gospel the crowds were massive. Every chance he got, Long railed against President Roosevelt, and at one point he was even money to unseat the popular Roosevelt as the democratic nominee in 1936. As Long�s comet ascended, so too did Moran�s stature, fortune and power.
�Daddy got a call one night from a friend of his in New York,� Brocato says. �The caller, a very powerful man who by this time had become good friends with my dad, got a tip and passed it along to Daddy. The caller warned him that �Senator Long is going to be assassinated at the Roosevelt Hotel. The men who are going to do it are planning it right now at 811 St. Louis Street.� My dad passed this information along to Senator Long ,who had his bodyguards go to that address. When they got there, they didn�t find the men, but they found an arsenal of weapons and enough information that pointed to a hit. Senator Long thanked my dad and told him, �Tell your friend in New York thanks. And tell him I owe him one.��
The friend was Frank Costello, the man who would become known as the �Prime Minister of the Underworld� and second in command in what would come to be called La Cosa Nostra, only to Charles �Lucky� Luciano and the man Luciano personally picked to move slot machines into the Greater New Orleans area. The favor Costello performed for U.S. Sen. Huey P. Long was duly paid off. The appreciation was spread all around
The kid from the rough streets of the French Quarter who never made it past the second grade, reinvented himself into what he had always wanted to be, a powerful figure, covered from head to toe in his beloved diamonds and mingling on a daily basis with anybody in America who was anybody including �the Yankee Clipper,� Joe DiMaggio, and his bride, �the woman every man wanted,� Marilyn Monroe, as well as movie stars including Robert Taylor and Barbara Stanwyck. Every night was party night at La Louisiane. The fabulous food was cooked at the Moran home by Diamond Jim�s devoted wife, Mary, and delivered every lunchtime and dinner time to the restaurant; the place was packed every night. Jimmy held court, and every now and again, some lucky lady would cut into a meatball and find a one carat diamond inside. Laughter all around. Dom Perignon for everybody!
GUYS LIKE LUCIANO
When they weren�t partying at the restaurant, it was an Italian feast at Moran�s huge camp at Little Woods on Lake Pontchartrain. The camp was especially convenient because guys like Luciano, Costello, Dandy Phil Kastel, �Milwaukee Phil� Alderisio and Meyer Lansky � the financial wizard of the mob � could fly in on seaplane, party and hobnob with Moran, then head back to their homebases around the country without anybody ever knowing they had been here.
�I idolized my dad,� Brocato says. �I was always in awe of him and the people who came to visit him and pay homage to him � people who came just to be with him. I remember one time, Mr. Frank … Frank Costello, had a meeting with Dad at the restaurant. Well, he came about two hours early and I panicked. I called my dad and Dad said, �Well, he�s a nice man … he likes you. Just talk to him. I�ll be there.� Mr. Frank and I talked for a long time, and he and I became friends also. I mean, here I am, a kid still wet behind the ears and I�m friends with people like Frank Costello. I wouldn�t trade those kinds of experiences for anything in the world.�
The slot machines rolled into New Orleans and became as prevalent in juke joints and restaurants around town as video poker machines are today. Back then everybody was paid off: cops, judges, politicians � Everybody got a cut and Diamond Jim Moran bought more diamonds and passed out ever more largess to the poor. By the time Long was assassinated in the capitol in 1935, the Indian Chief slot machine addiction was spreading throughout New Orleans � nickels, dimes and quarters poured in and made somebody somewhere a little richer and somebody somewhere else a little poorer. An anti-gambling preacher here or a political reformer there, with neck veins bulging, would vent their ire and try to rouse the very public that was supporting the illicit gambling. A police captain or a politician would call a press conference, and with axe in hand, would wade into a sea of confiscated Indian Chiefs. Those that were too worn out to �opperate as they should� would be tossed off the stern of a boat to the depths of the Mississippi off Algiers Point all to the orchestrated clicking of news cameras. Before the machines hit the bottom of the river, they had been replaced by new machines being cranked out, and were fleecing suckers all over the city. Not a coin was lost.
On the evening of April 13, 1958, Diamond Jim Moran was where he usually was, entertaining friends at a table at La Louisiane. The laughter was especially raucous because there was a lot to laugh about, and tonight maybe, just maybe, a lady at the table would find a meatball with something special inside on her plate. Somebody would recall what Chep Morrison, the mayor of New Orleans. had said, �at this very table� and again there would be laughter all around. A round of drinks for everybody at the table, and since no racehorse anywhere in America did anything without Diamond Jim Moran knowing about it, the conversation eventually turned to racing and especially to the Kentucky Derby, which was coming up in less than a month.
�One year the Duke and Duchess of Windsor were going to be paid $50,000 just to appear at the Kentucky Derby,� son Bobby Brocato recalls. �And, they offered to give $10,000 of it to Daddy just to go to the Derby with them. Then, Bill Quorum who was President of Churchhill Downs pulled a switch and decided to give the Duke and Duchess $10,000 so he could pay my dad $50,000.�
Just as quickly as Diamond Jim Moran came onto the New Orleans scene, he left it that night � And he left it just as he would have wanted, son Bobby says: Surrounded by friends he loved, wearing diamonds with which he had a lifelong love affair and in the restaurant that was his life, the place that served �food for kings� cooked by his lifelong companion in her kitchen at home and delivered each day and evening.
The hoi polloi and the hoity toity cried that evening and the day after.
Longtime friend, the late New Orleans mayor, Robert Maestri reflected, �If Huey had not been assassinated, Jimmy would have been the most powerful man in America. When Jimmy died, our life ended.�
Another friend and frequent duck hunting companion, the popular syndicated columnist Robert Ruark defended Moran: �Sure he knew Capone and Costello. So what? He knew Truman also!�
New Orleans clothier Joe Gemelli was a bit more philosophical: �In a direct or even indirect way, Diamond Jim Moran had an enormous influence on New Orleans. Some people say he took from the poor with those slot machines, but hey, he also gave a lot to the poor. He was always helping somebody out. So I guess it was like Jim putting money into one of his pockets and taking it out of another and giving it to somebody who needed it. In between, people had a good time and it all helped make New Orleans what it was. Tell ya one thing, it�ll be a long, long time before they forget him.�
THE SON ALSO RISES
He was heir apparent to a fortune in diamonds, a legend-in-the-making who had already been bounced out of Loyola pre-dental school for racking up 17 Fs, only to come back and graduate near the top of his class; had a derby winning horse named after him when he was only 16, had met and dined with the rich, the famous and the infamous by the time he had moved out of his high chair; served as director of the New Orleans Health Department � where he closed down Lake Pontchartrain four times because of pollution … So what in the world is New Orleanian Dr. Bobby Brocato doing with a dental practice in an eclectically furnished little wooden building in the outback of Many?
Well, a woman led him there.
�But it wasn�t Katrina,� says Brocato, who is a son of the legendary New Orleans raconteur, the late �Diamond Jim Moran.� �It was my wife. She�s the reason I�m here. She�s from Many. I love her, so I followed her here, opened my dental practice and life has been great.�
To be sure, of Moran�s four sons, Bobby was a favorite. It was always, �Daddy and Bobby.� Father and youngest son were inseparable. Countless photos show the two together at racecourses, in Moran�s famous restaurant, La Louisiane, talking it up with politicians and mobsters.
�He was the light of my life,� Brocato says of his father. �He was everything to me. I hate to say this but while I think of my mother once a day, my dad is always on my mind. And I know he�s here with me. He�s here in spirit.�
Growing up in the French Quarter, young Bobby could do no wrong in the eyes of Dad.
�Mr. and Mrs. Joe W. Brown [New Orleans millionaires and race horse owners] were very close to Dad,� Brocato says on the porch of his log cabin-style office, as he lights up yet another Romeo y Julietta cigar that he almost chain smokes. �Well they had this horse, they bought it for only $1,700 and they named it after me: Bobby Brocato. Well I�m enrolled at Loyola, but I�m never there. I�m in love with this horse and wherever Bobby Brocato runs, that�s where I am. One day the dean of students calls me in and tells me, �So you�re Bobby Brocato … I see your picture in the sports pages a lot … with a horse. Well, you�re outta here!� I say, �What!� He says, �Expelled … You�re never in class and you�ve got 17 Fs. Goodbye!�
�I was terrified to go home and tell Dad. When I did tell him, he looked at me and said, �Well look at it this way, you�re going to be the best cab driver in New Orleans.� The next day when I went to work at the restaurant, I was told my job had been eliminated. Dad didn�t speak to me for nearly a year. That almost killed me. I got the message. I went back to Loyola and graduated from dental school near the top of my class.�
Though not before one last fling with his four-legged namesake.
With Bobby Brocato set to run in the Santa Anita Derby, the human Bobby Brocato told his dad he was going fishing out of Grand Isle. He then hocked his father�s 30.06 hunting rifle, the one with the interchangeable barrels and diamond tipped scopes, and hopped a plane to the Derby.
�I got $375 for the gun and the plane fare was something like $340,� Brocato says. �Johnny Longden, the legend himself, was riding Bobby Brocato. They hit the top of the stretch and Longden made his move. They breezed home by six lengths in record time.�
Of course, when the two-legged Bobby Brocato winds up next to his horse in the winner�s circle and has a victory wreath placed around his neck, the fact that his father was back home in New Orleans watching all of this on television and wondering how his favorite son had been diverted from Grand Isle to Arcadia, Calif., was the furthest thing from his mind.
�When I got home, all Daddy asked was how much did I win?� Brocato says with a big grin.
Brocato admits his world was shattered when his beloved father died of a heart attack in 1958, in the restaurant where the two had spent so much time. Brocato�s lifestyle took a dive and �things were financially tight in my last years in dental school.
�Mrs. Joe W. Brown helped me out a lot,� Brocato says. �A lot of other people helped also, Dad�s friends. I could never thank them enough.�
So what happened to the inestimable fortune in diamonds that had played such a dominant role in his father�s life?
�I never saw any of them,� Brocato says. �I was the youngest brother and my three brothers got the diamonds. They said it was in the best interest of the business. Since then, two of my brothers have died. I guess you could say we reconciled. I think Dad would have wanted that. They got the diamonds. And I got … well, I got things that even diamonds could never buy.� � G.G