Who Created the Big Easy?Sometimes a nickname is so apt, so perfect, that it fits like a glove: the way the “The Big Easy” has become synonymous with New Orleans.

 Tracking the term “The Big Easy” provides a happy, if rambling, stroll through New Orleans memory – the way following a walking club on Mardi Gras Day can give you a skewed city tour.

Is it an old term?

“‘The Big Easy’? That’s a modernism,” local historian Sally Reeves says – and certainly she’s about as familiar with historic New Orleans as anyone alive is likely to get. The city’s founder, Bienville, can be credited with “Crescent City,” but he never called it “Le Grand Façile.”

There is no listing under that name in New Orleans Jazz: A Family Album written by Al Rose and Dr. Edmond Souchon in 1967. Neither Bruce Raeburn of the Hogan Archive of New Orleans Jazz at Tulane University nor jazz historian Jack Stewart could immediately recall any early dance hall or club named “The Big Easy” (“But if I do think of something, I’ll let you know,” Stewart promises.)

Then there was columnist Jill Jackson – a regular contributor to the Rider’s Digest on the old New Orleans Public Service streetcars in the 1940s and 1950s. Did she invent the term?

Jill Jackson is alive and well (except for a case of shingles) in Hollywood, Calif., and still turning out gossip columns. Did she coin the phrase “The Big Easy?” Absolutely not. Jackson insists: “That’s after my time.”

Columnist Betty Guillaud popularized the phrase. “That’s all there is about me on Google!” Guillaud says. She wrote for The States-Item and later The Times-Picayune beginning in the late 1960s. When did she begin using the local term? “It was about the same time they started calling New York ‘The Big Apple.’”

In fact, there doesn’t seem to be any reference to “The Big Easy” prior to 1970.
That’s the year author James Conaway published his novel The Big Easy. The book follows the adventures of a police reporter (which Conaway had been at The Times-Picayune) through the underside of New Orleans, with crime, drugs and racial disturbances scattered through the pages.

Did the name exist before Conaway’s book?

There is an Internet site maintained by word researcher (and Manhattan traffic court judge) Barry Popik (www.barrypopik.com) that carefully records all possibilities of occurrences of “Big Easy” and finds three, all for New Orleans dance halls and none as a nickname for the city.

Was the phrase used elsewhere in connection with the city of New Orleans?
A digital search of The New York Times for 156 years finds Conaway’s “The Big Easy” mentioned in a review of top crime novels in that paper on Dec. 6, 1970. From 1851 until then, there had been 29 uses of “the big easy,” but none connected with the words “New Orleans.” From 1971 to 2004 there were five mentions of “the big easy,” all with “New Orleans” and all made after the movie with the same name was released.

So where did Jim Conaway get the phrase “The Big Easy?”

Well, like any good reporter, Conaway just made note of something he heard on the street. Conaway, originally from Memphis, had gone to Southwestern University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and had been a Wallace Stegner Fellow in Creative Writing at Stanford University when he was hired as a reporter for The Times-Picayune, arriving in town two days before Hurricane Betsy in September 1965. “I was an English major – I thought I’d have to teach English or sell insurance. Journalism saved me,” he explains. His first day at work began the morning after the hurricane hit.

Conaway soon became a police reporter. “It was a noir experience – real life noir – although I didn’t realize it when I was having it,” he says. The world of Criminal Court at Tulane and Broad was fascinating. “Bigger than life characters, a lot of corruption but a lot of freedom,” he says. “People could do exactly what they wanted.”

He often rode the bus and walked from Claiborne Avenue to the courthouse, an adventurous route. “Once [The Times-Picayune editor] George Healy saw me walking. He screeched to a stop and made me get in the car! He just didn’t get it,” Conaway notes.

It was while walking that he overheard two black men use the phrase “the big easy,” perhaps describing the city as a place where any musician should be able to succeed with ease. “I was really struck by the phrase, ‘the big easy.’ It was one of those things. You hear something sometimes, and then it sort of goes away. It was only later that it came back to me,” he says.

In the book, the phrase is used as an explanation for the city’s lack of riots in the 1960s. “The Big Easy’s just 10 years behind the rest of the world, that’s all. You might say it’s just too goddamn hot to riot,” one character says. There is a racial disturbance in the book but it’s not similar to the New Orleans Black Panther incidents, which occurred just after its publication.

Conaway would complete Judge: The Life and Times of Leander Perez, in 1973 and a novel, World’s End with a local setting – and a explosion at the Boston Club as a plot device – in 1978. Here his New Orleans writing ended.

On one of his last days at The Times-Picayune, Conaway recalls that, “[veteran police reporter] Jack Dempsey had a little piece of paper and he put it on my desk. He said ‘You might want to look into this.’ I opened the piece of paper and it had David Ferry’s name written on it.” Ferry would be one of the characters in former District Attorney Jim Garrison’s odyssey into the Kennedy assassination.

By that time Conaway was gone. He and his wife Penny left New Orleans after two years, went to Europe and eventually settled their family in Washington, D.C., where he later become editor of Preservation magazine of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

In 1987, the film The Big Easy appeared, with a completely different story from Conaway’s novel. “I talked to my attorney but he said it’s difficult to sue about a title, especially if the plot is different,” Conaway says. Ironically, his World’s End title was also used by others.

Among Conaway’s best known works are The Texans, chronicling better known citizens of that state; Napa: The Story of an American Eden, on Californians; The Smithsonian: 150 Years of Adventure, a biography of that institution; The Kingdom in the Country, an exploration of today’s American West; and his own autobiography, Memphis Afternoons.

His most recent book, Vanishing America: In Pursuit of Our Elusive Landscapes, includes magazine pieces and some new writing. In it he has a New Orleans essay, “The Big Uneasy,” reflecting on his years in the city and comparing his hurricane experience of 40 years ago with the tragedy of Katrina.

He writes: “Insight may be the ultimate service provided to us all by a city older, more interesting and more enduring than most.”
Insight, yes; but inspiration, too!