ULTIMATE NEW ORLEANS: Chris Rose by a Landslide
He has a gift for dead-on sarcasm, a penchant for potty humor and a heart that breaks for all New Orleans.
He was popular before Katrina, but his writing since has made him beloved.
Back when the city was becoming one with the lake, and people were realizing that home was not there anymore, Rose’s “Dear America” letter popped up on the Web like Mardi Gras beads out of the blue.
Evacuees snatched at it and forwarded it endlessly.
It said, in part: “… We’re gonna make it. We’re resilient. After all, we’ve been rooting for the Saints for 35 years. That’s got to count for something.
“OK … we make jokes at inappropriate times …”
Rose took his wife and children out of the city ahead of the storm. He wrote “Dear America” before he headed back.
His own house Uptown was still there; but the city he had fallen in love with was in tatters. That was the story.
Since then his Times-Picayune column – rambling, whiney, wryly funny – has struck a chord with both the exiled who read him on-line, and the discontented returnees who have access to the actual newspaper.
Before Katrina, his column drew readers who wanted to snicker at tidbits about teenybopper celebrities such as Britney Spears – nutty 60-second interviews with the personalities of the moment. Sample question to Bob Dole: “Ever want to get liquor-store drunk and play video games?”
A sign on a Times-Picayune delivery van calls him “The 60-Second Man.”
“I don’t know what I think of that,” Rose muses.
“My publisher used to introduce me as a gossip columnist, but I didn’t think that’s what I did. I was an entertainment columnist.”
Rose was a staff writer when he took over Betty Guillaud’s column in 1998. Guillaud’s was a gossip column – no two ways about that – cherished by the members of the upper crust who liked to read their names in bold face print.
“She had written about Muffys and Bootsies for 25 years and she had replaced Tommy (Griffin) who did it for 25 years before that,” says Rose.
But New Orleans was changing, says Rose. “It was exploding. It was a Bohemia, a bacchanal-on-the-bayou-type place. I decided to dirty up that column significantly.
“I went back and forth from the Odyssey Ball at the New Orleans Museum of Art to the Marilyn Manson show at the State Palace Theatre. I wrote about it. I didn’t get invited to any more high society events after that.
“People went from wanting to see their names in Guillaud’s column to not wanting them to be in mine …
“It was fun, running up a $40 bar tab while I was waiting for Jessica Simpson to come out of the ladies room with coke on her nostrils.”
The fun has ended, he says.
For more than a year now, the column has been all Katrina, all the time. He writes not just the tragic storm stories, but of his reaction to them. “I am writing my memoirs as I go along,” he says. They are the readers’ memoirs, too.
Within four months, he had enough material for a book, 1 Dead in Attic.
He was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He shared in the two Pulitzers awarded the entire Times-Picayune staff. He served as a commentator on NPR and appeared several times on NewsHour with Jim Lehrer . He was chosen King of Krewe du Vieux. He learned that Dr. John is basing three songs on his next CD on some of Rose’s columns.
And he plunged into clinical depression. He announced it in a 4,366-word Living section cover story headlined “Hell and Back.” He’s now on Cymbalta and in therapy and is feeling much better, thank you.
“People come up to me on the street and say [his voice softens to a purr] ‘How ARE you?’”
Although Katrina may have kicked it up a notch – or ten – colleagues say Rose has always been intense. A man in search of a worthy obsession.
“We used to call it ‘The Rose Zone.’ That was anything in the extreme, maybe drinking all night at Molly’s, or playing cards until 5 a.m. We’d say ‘you’ve passed into The Rose Zone,’” says Michael Perlstein, a fellow Times-Picayune reporter now teaching journalism at Loyola University.
His buddy Walt Handelsman, who moved on to New York’s Newsday in 2001 after collecting a Pulitzer for editorial cartoons in The Times-Picayune, compares the early Rose to a young Hunter Thompson. “Chris could stay up until seven in the morning four days in a row hanging with celebrities and tell you what it was like. He had this incredible energy. He always knew where the best bands were; what people were doing; what was going on …”
But Rose paid his dues. After collecting his journalism degree from the University of Wisconsin, he started work in the mail room of The Washington Post, where, he says, he pandered to editors until they were annoyed enough to let him write. He was assigned to the community news section – but he had higher aims.
“I wanted murder and rock and roll and crime and prostitution – so I came to New Orleans,” he says.
In 1984, he joined The Times-Picayune. For a while he was an on-the-road correspondent, covering meetings, interviewing officials, cranking out the kind of news stories that are never, ever written in the first person. It was the antithesis of what he does now.
Mark Schleifstein, 1997 Pulitzer winner who in 2002 co-authored Washing Away – the series that predicted what would happen if New Orleans was hit by a hurricane – worked with Rose as part of a team covering the 1988 presidential race. He holds him in high regard.
“I think he is a great writer. I was upset at first when I heard he had moved into Living [The Times-Picayune’s feature section.] I thought it was a waste of talent; he should have been covering hard news.”
However, as a columnist Rose got to be the star of the show, and he was good at it. His earlier columns were sometimes as much about his adventures in tracking down Lindsay Lohan, et al. as they were about the celebrities themselves. That made them all the more readable.
Moreover, he’s a showman in the traditional sense; mesmerizing onstage – Woody Allen on fast-forward. Long before Katrina, he wrote his own comedy show, The Asshole Monologues – a send-up of The Vagina Monologues – and it’s been a local favorite for years. He plans to stage it again in the spring, in Monkey Hill Bar, Uptown.
“Sometimes people come up to me and say ‘Hey – you’re the asshole guy,’ he says.
Nevertheless, celebrity can be inconvenient for a journalist.
Handelsman tells about the time Rose decided to write about what it would like to be homeless, and so dressed in tattered clothes and took to the French Quarter, huddling in doorways and begging for coins.
“And people would walk by and say ‘Hi, Chris. How ya doin’?’
“I love that story,” says Handelsman, “It tells you something about Chris that he would try something like that.”
He won’t be begging for coins any time soon. As of December, his book had sold 65,000 copies. (He is passing a good chunk of that along. He donates $1 for every book sold to The Tipitina’s Foundation, ARTDOCS and other New Orleans organizations. He has raised another several thousand for the New Orleans Musicians Clinic from honorariums that are offered to him for speaking engagements.)
Now he’s mulling over offers for movie rights.
There’s more to come. The title of his new book, Upside-down Purple Car, was an observation from his five-year-old son Jack, when the family toured the Ninth Ward.
“It’s a perfect metaphor for New Orleans,” says Rose. “If New Orleans were a car, it would be purple.”
Our city was certainly turned upside-down. Handelsman remembers coming to New Orleans two weeks after the storm. “I cajoled Chris out of his house, and his sadness, and we drove around, and we looked and stopped and cried and took pictures. It was horrible. But it was a Chris Rose experience. He knew the city and understood its rhythms and here it was all destroyed.”
Rose does understand New Orleans. Which may help explain, why Rose, of all people – and not, for instance, Schleifstein, who predicted it all and lost his own house in Lakeview – became what Schleifstein calls “the voice that was needed to represent the angst and the anger that the public was feeling.”
Or maybe Rose himself answers it best.
“You have had the destruction of a cultural epicenter; sorrow, grief, collective despair – somebody’s got to write the funny stories.”