The Last Night at the Sazerac
This was a happy night. The date was Aug. 25, 2005, and the Fairmont Hotel’s Sazerac bar was packed tighter than a Huey Long ballot box as people gathered to celebrate the former governor’s birthday. Long, whose actual birthday was August 30, would have been approaching a sprightly 112 that evening but there was still plenty life left in his memory,
Back in the Kingfish’s day the hotel, then known as the Roosevelt, was one of his favorite places, and the bar would have been a natural hangout.
In its better days, patrons of the Sazerac could sit in plush banquettes (wall-side circular sofas) and watch the bartenders twirl Old Fashion glasses in preparation of the perfect Sazerac, New Orleans’ classic cocktail. Or they could gaze at the Paul Ninas murals showing street life in New Orleans, one of which had a character that looked like Huey in Jackson Square. It was a perfectly eloquent bar deep in history and famous for not just one but two local drinks, the other being the frothy Ramos Gin Fizz.
Some people were dressed like Huey that August night in ’05. White linen suits were in danger of being splashed by booze as waiters elbowed their way through the crowd.
At one point the crowd was so large that it spilled into the lobby. That is where I saw Mayor Ray Nagin, who had made a quick visit to pay homage to Huey. Nagin was exuberant that evening. Earlier in the week there had been an announcement from Washington about approval of a Federal City military complex on the West Bank, and just that day Donald Trump had confirmed that he was going to build a high-rise on Poydras Avenue. “This will make other developers pay attention to us,” the mayor glowed, “we’re on our way now.”
Within the last year the bar had been compromised a bit. Management had inexplicably removed the banquettes and replaced them with regular cocktail tables. A wide screen TV had been added to give the place more of a sports bar feel. But on this night the crowd and the gaity overcame the blemishes. The Sazerac Bar was at its full glory.
No one knew that the evening was going to be the bar’s last carefree night and that it, and the Fairmont, were, like Huey on that day when a gunman was waiting for him in the state capital, facing their last days.
By Friday evening any patrons at the bar were likely gazing nervously at the TV image of that swirl in the gulf known as Katrina. The storm had take a disturbing shift in direction toward New Orleans. By Saturday the mayor, who had been so upbeat two days earlier, was suggesting that people should evacuate. By Sunday the evacuation was mandatory. On Monday the levees broke.
We have all had plenty to think about since that Monday. As we have rebuilt over lives I have recalled that last night at the Sazerac and how fortuitous it was that if the bar’s time was over, at least it went out with a full crowd and a tribute to its legacy.
Good news these days is measured not just by what’s new but by what is returning, and one of the best bits of news is that a Natchitoches developer with a passion for New Orleans has restored the old hotel. Now under the banner of Waldorf-Astoria and Hilton, the building will reclaim its former name as The Roosevelt. Better yet, management promises to return the Sazerac Bar to its earlier elegance. The banquettes will be back, the wide screen TV gone, the murals will be sparkling and the glasses will be twirling.
Mayor Nagin may have been right that August night. We are on our way. It is just that the path to getting there has taken more twists than we would’ve ever imagined.