by Leta Weiss Marks
Louisiana State University Press, $24.95
When I say New Orleans, I get a knowing shake of the head, or a wistful look. When I grew up there in the ’50s and ’60s, by the time you were 15, you’d certainly seen a lot: transvestites casually strolling in the French Quarter, strippers prancing on bar tops, jazz funerals, voodoo shops, cemeteries filled with spectacular above-ground crypts, property-threatening hurricanes. It’s a city whose most significant cultural activity occurs on a Tuesday, once a year every year, when people dress as their alter egos, move through a suffocating crush of drunk humanity, and beg for trinkets thrown off floats depicting scenes from Greek mythology. In New Orleans, eating is a religion, drinking is a birthright, and gefilte fish is made with trout and redfish. My grandmother Miriam, who belonged to the Orthodox shul, always made stuffed crabs when the ladies (all Jewish matrons) came to her house to play cards and have lunch.
Reading Time’s Tapestry brought back memories of the sensuality of our native city. Leta Weiss Marks, a native New Orleanian, has chronicled four generations of her Jewish family in New Orleans. Time’s Tapestry is a loving tribute to her Southern roots, but its genesis is the author’s quest to understand her father, Leon C. Weiss, who died when she was 21. Much of the material for the book comes from the oral history of Marks’ mother and aunt, both in their 90s. Marks gives us family tragedy and triumph, political intrigue, the portrait of New Orleans itself, as told from the perspective of strong women.
We learn that her American roots predate the Civil War with the arrival of Abel Dreyfous in New York from Alsace, France. Hoping to improve his prospects, Abel moved his family to New Orleans around 1839. The love affair of the author’s parents, Caroline and Leon, is the fulcrum of the story. The prominent and prosperous Dreyfous family, Reform Jews proud of their assimilation, opposed the marriage. The Weisses were of Polish and French descent and poor, and to Caroline’s parents they were too “ethnic.” During a summer where Caroline’s parents forced their separation, their love grew stronger, and the Dreyfouses finally accepted Leon as their son-in-law in a Reform ceremony in 1927.
Leon Marks was a talented and ambitious architect whose winning personality led his firm, Weiss, Dreyfous, and Sieferth, to great success. During the late ’20s and ’30s, Louisiana was governed by the infamous Huey Long, about whom no one held a neutral view. Those who supported his politics often did so with financial gain in mind; others called him a dictator.
Leon procured several important architectural commissions from Governor Long: a new governor’s mansion in Baton Rouge, a new capital building, a multimillion-dollar construction program providing new dorms, classrooms, a stadium, and library for LSU. More and more public contracts came to the firm, and the 1930s saw the building of several New Orleans landmarks. Long was assassinated in 1935, and in 1939 a grand jury investigating Louisiana corruption charged the Weiss firm with embezzling money and construction materials for buildings at LSU.
Marks tells us that Leon, so earnest and naive, had a gullible trust in what turned out to be a corrupt system. He was convicted of mail fraud and sentenced to two years in federal prison. Although Leon returned to his firm, his incarceration had damaged his spirit. Three months before the author’s wedding her father died; it wasn’t until she was an adult that the stories of Marks’ mother and aunt, and the newspaper articles of the time, began revealing the truth of her family’s past.
Important to Time’s Tapestry is the portrait created of Jewish life and culture in New Orleans. Social clubs like the Yacht Club and Mardi Gras balls were restricted, but Jews created their own clubs and found a way to adapt to and embrace New Orleans culture on their own terms. (The author’s aunt, for example, respected teacher and psychologist Ruth Dreyfous, led a small group of substitute teachers to fill in when regular teachers went on strike to protest desegregation.)
A disturbing quality of many contemporary memoirs is a raw sensationalism that takes the reader into uncomfortable private territory. Though it’s about a family from one of the most sensual and mysterious cities in the world, this book doesn’t seem raw enough. Everyone in New Orleans has some personal experience that mirrors the strangeness of the city. My own maternal grandmother was a witness to patricide when she was a young girl. Her mother, my great-grandmother, loved to gamble. Her daughter, affectionately known as The Madam, found nothing so enjoyable as playing at the blackjack tables until 5 am. So I would have liked from this interesting tale even more color and candor.
Jan Aronson is an artist in New York City.