Harold Judell never revealed the end of the story, but the beginning was certainly intriguing. At the time of the outbreak of World War II he worked for the FBI in Washington, where he was a go-to guy for J. Edgar Hoover.
Since there was no CIA at the time, the FBI handled foreign matters and Judell was sent to South America.
American intelligence had received word that the Japanese had set up a command post in Peru. Such a presence would have given the enemy a foothold to overseeing activity in the eastern Pacific as well as throughout the continent. The center of the espionage had been pinpointed to a Japanese laundry in Lima. Judell was part of a group sent to visit the laundry.
What happened next? We do know that the visitors were not there to get their shirts cleaned. All that Judell would concede was that by the end of the day there was no longer a Japanese laundry operating on the site. In 2006, on the occasion of a significant birthday, I tried hard to break the story. “Harold, you’re 90 now; the war has been over for 61 years. Can you tell now what happened at the laundry?” “No,” he answered with the determination of a guard at Fort Knox.
Later in the war he was stationed on the Dutch Island of Curacao. Word had been received that there were German U-boats in the area with the intent of opening fire on a refinery at the far end of the island. Judell contacted the U.S. Navy to see if planes could be sent to attack the subs, but the word came back that there was no aircraft in the area. The island would have to suffer the consequences. Later that afternoon, Judell sat with the Governor General on his veranda, each with a tropical drink, as they watched the firework-like show of explosives in the distance.
Judell, who died at 95 in February, would also have a colorful post-war career. The Milwaukee native eventually settled in New Orleans, where he had earned a law degree at Tulane University and became a prominent bond attorney. The work got him involved with politicians and the list stretched far. Imagine in one lifetime having worked alongside Hoover and Earl Long.
During the 1960s, when the state was studying the possibilities of building a domed stadium, there was one huge obstacle: how to avoid paying for it. Moon Landrieu, at the time a city councilman and a member of the dome commission, recalls talking to then-governor John McKeithen and the two were stymied about raising funds. They decided to call Judell, who had already been credited for putting together the financing for the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway. It was he who developed the bond plan that made the dome possible. “Without Harold,” Landrieu would tell The Times-Picayune, “I don’t think it would have been done.”
I personally witnessed a less visible, but crucial in its own way, moment when Judell had been appointed to a “blue ribbon committee” to resolve a volatile Carnival discrimination ordinance that had been proposed by a city council member. The issue divided the city socially and racially. Judell worked quietly to bring about a compromise.
Finally an acceptable plan was brought before the entire committee. The mood was good. Approval was imminent, but at the last minute someone questioned one line of the document that could have been misinterpreted. There was concern. The whole issue was about to explode again. But then Judell walked to the document, pulled out his fountain pen, scratched out the questionable sentence and replaced it with the sort of legalese that only an experienced lawyer would know. Everyone approved. The document passed unanimously.
Business was good and he became wealthy. At one time he owned a French Quarter hotel as well as a St. Charles Avenue apartment building, but the real gold in his life, that New Orleanians knew best, was his second wife, Celeste Seymour Judell. She was a strikingly attractive woman whose mother had been a silent-movie era screen star. The couple spent much time in New Orleans when they were not traveling, quite often as spectators to major tennis tournaments or to her condo in Manhattan. Celeste, who died last July, became a big supporter of the New Orleans opera and public television. She exuded style and excellence. There was no more elegant a couple whose lives had been such an adventure, than Celeste and Harold.
Services for Harold Judell were at St. Patrick’s Church, a place he had helped support. The aisles were filled with old friends and colleagues. To the end his life has been one of stories to tell and secrets to keep.