In April 1925, just five months after Huey Pierce Long lost his first bid to become governor of Louisiana, the futuristic Exposition des Arts Decoratifs et Industrielles opened in Paris.
The sleek, geometric designs of the Paris expo, from which the term “Art Deco” is derived, could not have been more different from the dusty landscapes of Long’s north Louisiana base; but just a decade later, the Art Deco style became the dramatic public manifestation of Long, elected governor in his second try in 1928.
Charity Hospital and the Shushan (now Lakefront) Airport in New Orleans, and the new skyscraper State Capitol building in Baton Rouge, all commissioned by Long and designed by the Art-Deco-inspired architectural firm, Weiss, Dreyfous and Seiferth, were emblems not only of Louisiana’s growing prosperity, but also daunting fortresses of Long’s ascendance and power.
Ironically, it was in a secluded corridor high in the State Capitol, his architectural pride and joy, that Long was gunned down in 1935, just seven years after assuming the governorship.
New Orleans regionalist painter John McCrady received a commission from Life Magazine in 1939 to paint “The Assassination of Huey Long” for its series on pivotal moments in U.S. history. McCrady captured the richness and color of the lavish materials used in the Art-Deco adornments to the building, visible behind the staggering Long (and the artist and his wife, seen just over Long’s head) in this Social Realist painting.
McCrady also proved himself the equal of such French Art-Deco illustrators as Georges Lepape, whose Le Miroir Rouge embodies the simplification of form and dynamic rhythm of both the Roaring Twenties and the coming optimism of Long’s “Every Man a King” philosophy.
In the painting for Life, Long is a noble figure, a falling hero. In McCrady’s Art-Deco-infused caricature of Long, similar in style to his witty ink drawing, “The Artist in His Studio,” we see a buffoonish “Kingfish,” reminiscent of the clownish governor in classic short films of him conducting a rag-tag band and salivating over a chicken in every pot.
Another Long project, the recently-restored Shushan Airport, sported Art Deco forms and imagery inside and out, especially in sculptor Enrique Alferez’s monumental Fountain of the Four Winds In the approach to the terminal.
For Long, the new airport represented both freedom and security. From its secluded site, he could soar off to Washington, to serve in the U.S. Senate and challenge President Roosevelt at every turn; but the building also contained a fully-equipped surgery for his use, just in case plans went awry.
As so often happens, the fortresses proved penetrable, and being in the wrong place at the wrong time destroyed the illusion of invincibility. History and civics textbooks may tell the political tale of Huey Pierce Long; but Louisiana artists and architects, in paint and stone, discerned, revealed and enshrined the essence of a legend.