Monday, October 19, 2015

#CollisionWithFame: New Orleans Mayor deLesseps “Chep” Morrison -- May 23 1964:

deLesseps “Chep” Morrison had blood ties to several of the oldest political families in Louisiana, including the Claibornes and the Morrisons.  Born in 1912 in Pointe Coupee Parish  to the parish district attorney and a mother from New Orleans “Uptown” society crowd, Chep attended law school at LSU and eventually went into the practice of law with his half-brother Jacob Morrison, and Hale Boggs, husband to his cousin Corinne “Lindy” Morrison Claiborne.  Morrison was one of several bright young uptown New Orleans politicians who sought to tame the historic corruption of New Orleans – he helped to form the League of Independent Voters and also was allied with the reform faction of the Democratic Party which lined up opposite the Longs in Louisiana politics.

In 1946, Morrison returned from World War II with the rank of colonel, and was quickly recruited to run for mayor against corrupt incumbent Robert Maestri.  Morrison won the election, and held the seat for fifteen years. As mayor, Morrison acted in the tradition of many post-machine reformers, moving to break the pockets of patronage in local politics, engaging public works, and dramatically expanding public housing. Unfortunately many of these reforms did not pay off in the long run for New Orleans, as the local housing authority became corrupt and its tenements as derelict as the old neighborhoods they displaced. Corruption retrenched itself in the police department.  Other plans, like legalizing the rampant gambling in the city, were dead on arrival.

And, while Chep displaced the “Old Regulars” in local Democratic politics, his own organization supplanted them, continuing a tradition of mayor-centered and neighborhood-based machines in local politics. He was not a good manager of race relations – his efforts to satisfy black constituents’ needs in public works; recreation; housing; and the integration of the police department; were offset by his poor performance on the violence surrounding the integration of the New Orleans public schools in 1960 and his continued public support for segregation.  Morrison thrice tried to win election as governor of Louisiana –1956, 1959, and 1963 – losing the Democratic primary each time.

Morrison’s efforts to promote trade with Latin America started before he took office.  As Time Magazine reported

Last week, a month and a half before taking office, Chep Morrison whirled round the Caribbean circuit on a second missionary journey to tell latinos that New Orleans in the future, as in the past, would be muy simpatico. The latinos liked to hear it: they liked Chep, too. Presidents and mayors showered him with banquets and tropical rhetoric. Chep responded by promising to learn Spanish in time to welcome them all to his city. New Orleans and its kinetic new mayor were off to a fast start in the competition to funnel postwar commerce and culture between the Americas.

These and other efforts -- reflected in the construction of the New Orleans World Trade center and other efforts to increase ties to South America – led to his appointment by President Kennedy as ambassador to the Organization of American States in 1961.  Morrison had returned from his OAS appointment to run for governor a last time in 1963, losing to John J. McKeithen.  His diplomatic career was dogged by allegations of ties to racketeers going back to his first mayoral campaign.

On May 23 1964, Morrison and his son Randy were traveling to a ranch in Tampico from Matamoras (near Brownsville, Texas) on a chartered twin-engine Piper Aztec. Also on board were Morrison’s fiancé, Carolyn Cataldo Vandergriff (Morrison was widowed), her son, two Louisiana businessmen, and the pilot Hugh Ward.  The party left Matamoras at 5:05 PM, headed south with sufficient fuel.  Storms diverted the flight from its original path, and the flight did not arrive at 6:10PM as expected.  Ranch hands reported hearing sputtering engines in the dense atmospheric cover – followed by the sounds of a crash at around 6:15PM.
Relief was dispatched on horseback but did not locate the wreck until the next day.  The rescue team arrived almost coincidental to a chartered airplane from New Orleans WDSU television.  John Corporon, who ran WDSU’s news operation and was building a reputation for excellence in local news, acted with alacrity on the news that Morrison’s plane had gone missing.  This move made national news, with reporting that “When the plane carrying former New Orleans Mayor deLesseps Morrison failed to land on schedule, Corporon wasted not a moment. He chartered a plane, sent out a reporter and cameraman to retrace Morrison's route. WDSU had the only New Orleans reporters at the crash scene and shot the city's only film of the removal of the bodies.” It was the first televised coverage of the recovery of bodies from a celebrity crash.