Frank Manning, at home.
Frank Manning probably knows more about the colorful Louisiana politics of this century than anyone. Given a little time and an attentive audience, he can relate behind-the-scene details of recent history that will astound you.
Manning lives in the Garden District, but he spends much of his time in the Quarter, talking with friends and keeping up with current events. He is the retired Chief Investigator for the Louisiana Department of Justice. Prior to that he was Chief Investigator for the Department of Revenue for the State of Louisiana. He is now Secretary-Treasurer of the Crescent City Democratic Association. In the '30s he served as one of Huey Long's bodyguards.
He is also a scientist and inventor. He assembled two of the world's largest mobile telescopes, and was the first person to depict the topography of the moon on a sphere (the “Manning Moon Ball”). He also patented and manufactured the Manning Tasty Shrimp Fish Lure.
The second of nine children, Manning was born to Frank and Mary Manning of Yazoo City, Mississippi, on December 23, 1903.
The elder Manning, who was originally from Yazoo City, attended school in New Orleans, where he met Mary Segali. They married and returned to Yazoo City where he became the sheriff.
There they raised a family. Two of their daughters died of pneumonia, and subsequently Frank Manning, Sr., died of a gunshot wound, so Mary Manning moved her children back to New Orleans. Frank, Jr. was fifteen at the time.
He joined the Navy and later the merchant marines, serving as a Cadet Master-at-Arms on the S.S. Leviathan. On board he learned about astronomy and lens grinding.
After leaving the merchant marines, he returned to New Orleans and took up financial investigation, eventually becoming active in politics.
He also began acquiring a fine collection of antiques and art, including many paintings by Knute Heldner.
Manning married Ethel Leonard, a former Miss Wisconsin, and they have six children.
Ground Pat'i — “The last still I broke up….”
Community Standard: During the Depression, you had a studio in the French Quarter. Where was it?
Manning: I had a little second-floor place on the corner of St. Peter and Royal… I used to let Charlie Cantrell and Pat O'Brien sleep on the floor… Pat is still a good friend of mine, and so is Charlie. They had a little bootleg place around the corner.
Community Standard: They had a bar during the Prohibition?
Manning: Yes, that's right. They were selling very good bootleg whiskey. Pat had connections over in Alabama and around Kiln, Mississippi; he was bringing it in, and it was tolerated.
Community Standard: You once owned the building in which Pat O'Brien is now located. When was that?
Manning: That was about 1928, for a very short term. That building was about $3600, I think. Of course, at first Pat had a small place and as he went on he expanded.
Community Standard: Did respectable people come down to the French Quarter in those days or was it just sort of a wild place?
Manning: It was kind of wild. On Bourbon Street every place along there had girls that were hustling. There was a place in the 400 block of Bourbon where the police tolerated it. (They were paying them off.) Some of the places were quite respectable. You'd go in and the love-for-sale girls were about three dollars. There'd probably be ten or twelve of them. You'd look around and the madam would look you over. If you found one you liked, you'd take a little scoot upstairs.
Frank Manning, on the courtyard at the Devéze-Henderson House, 612 Royal Street (photo by Patricia B. Mitchell).
Community Standard: Why did you have a place in the French Quarter, when your house was in the Garden District?
Manning: Had it mostly for amusement and also for undercover operations. We were empowered to enforce the alcohol act. All through that section they were making alcohol and barrels of wine. Some of the stuff they made — we'd seize it and turn it over and find two or three dead rats in the barrel! And they would serve that to people! The last still I broke up in the French Quarter was down on Toulouse Street at the corner where the Ground Pat'i is now. It was a small still, but it was a still that could make about a hundred gallons a day. We used to pass there and smell the stuff. If two of us agents signed that we smelled alcohol, we could get a search warrant. The amount of alcohol that we seized! We had enough alcohol to make a stack twenty feet high by sixty feet long of three- and five-gallon cans. The three-gallon cans were usually Belgian cologne spirits alcohol, smuggled in. As Chief Investigator, I turned it over the various hospitals. Finally they had so much they couldn't use it, so we used to put it in our automobiles as fuel. An automobile runs beautiful on that alcohol! It has a beautiful blue exhaust and you can't hear the engine run… of course, you're using very expensive stuff.
Community Standard: What other illegal practices did your department try to control?
Manning: We used to seize marijuana — more marijuana than you could put in two trucks. They would have it in those lard cans — those five-gallon cans … all processed. They had girls who would roll cigarettes up and they'd sell 'em for ten cents a cigarette — that marijuana — years ago. We'd raid those places and, as a rule, we'd turn the stuff in or dump it in the street.
Pat O'Brien's —“That building was about $3600.”
Community Standard: Was French Quarter real estate desirable around 1930?
Manning: All the property in the French Quarter was up for grabs during the Great Depression. It was in deplorable condition. No one seemed to want it. It was very, very run down all over. The Pontalba Buildings were the same way. One was taken over by the City of New Orleans under an agreement. The other was taken over by the state. Bob Maestri, the mayor during that period, was able to obtain federal funds and through WPA he set crews to work on them and reworked all those buildings — the Upper and Lower Pontalbas. In the Lower Pontalbas about 1930 all the ground floors were just mud. Bums and anybody who wanted to would go in there and sleep. They were in deplorable condition. The stairs were breaking down and the roofs were leaking. No one lived there.
Community Standard: Was the whole French Quarter abandoned?
Manning: No, a few of the old Italian families lived in the Quarter and a few of the restaurants kept up their places. Broussard's old restaurant was good. Galatoire kept his place going, although things were bad. Antoine's kept going.
The Court of the Two Sisters — “It was vacant.”
Community Standard: During the Depression you owned the Court of the Two Sisters. Approximately what was the value of that property around 1930?
Manning: I owned the Court of the Two Sisters for a year and it cost me approximately — it cost me nothing. It was at that time under a listing. I bought it, no cash down, for ten thousand dollars. My realtor sold it and I made a thousand dollars profit without going to any trouble at all. Back then that was a hell of a lot of money.
Community Standard: When you owned the Court of the Two Sisters, was it a restaurant?
Manning: It was absolutely nothing. It was a barren, leaky building with all kinds of pipes leaking in it, with electrical wires you couldn't put on — you'd try to turn them on, and they'd short out.
Community Standard: Did people live there?
Manning: No. It was vacant.
Community Standard: Now that type of property would be very valuable, wouldn't it?
Manning: It's worth a lot of money now, but at that time, you could buy almost anything. The Absinthe House on Bourbon street was up for $3400 and didn't have any takers.
Frank Manning is pictured in 1972 standing in Capitol Park, Baton Rouge, near the gravesite and statue of Huey P. Long, whom he served as bodyguard and personal secretary (photograph by Patricia Mitchell).
(See also Part 2 of this interview.)
Copyright © 1975–2006 Henry H. Mitchell.