Oral History – John Pope

John Pope
There is no biography for John Pope at this time.
Interviewee: John Pope
Interviewer: Margaret Olsen Rodriguez
Transcriber: Margaret Olsen Rodriguez
Session I
March 23, 2022
[Begin Session I]

MARGARET OLSEN RODRIGUEZ: I am recording to my computer.

JOHN POPE: Yeah. You’re fine.

RODRIGUEZ: Alright. So, first of all, my name is Meg Olsen Rodriguez and I am interviewing Mr. John Pope of New Orleans, LA, for the LGBT+ Archives Project of Louisiana. Today is Wednesday, March 23rd, 2022, and I am interviewing Mr. Pope in his home via Zoom. That being said, do I have your verbal consent to record this?

POPE: Yes, you do.

RODRIGUEZ: Thank you. Alright. I’m going to start out with some questions about your earlier life and then we’ll move on to Katrina, Mardi Gras, New Orleans, Journalism, and the LGBT community.

POPE: How many hours. How many days have you allowed for this? Kidding. [laughs]

RODRIGUEZ: [Laughing] Are you? No, it’s, supposed to be an hour to an hour to an hour and 15 minutes.

POPE: I have another meeting at 11. no 11:30. I’m good.

RODRIGUEZ: I had to do the math there. Alright. First of all, when and where were you born?

POPE: November 5th, 1948, in Hattiesburg, MS at 11:10 in the morning. We . . .We C-section babies get to get the time.

RODRIGUEZ: What was your first job?

POPE: [exhales] Part time or full time?

RODRIGUEZ: We’ll start with part time.

POPE: [0:01:43] Well, between summers in college between freshman . . after my freshman . . . no, after my senior year in high school and freshman year in college I worked part-time for Humble Oil, which my father worked for. I was working in . . . I worked in two departments. The second department I was in the paleo lab. I was washing soil samples because you get the gunk off the rocks and geologists can see if those samples indicate there might be oil. And then I didn’t work after my sophomore . . . my sophomore . . . sophomore summer I took all of my . . . I need a natural science, so I took all of biology at Tulane in one summer. You needed natural science and I knew it wouldn’t count on my GPA. And, then in my junior year I started working at for The Daily Texan, which was the student newspaper at the University of [0:02:40] Texas. I continued that in my . . . Damn Right [in response to interviewer’s Hook Em Horns hand sign] . . . continued that in my senior year and after my senior year I . . . well, between senior year and grad school I needed money, so I moved the Tulane . . . helped move the Tulane Law Library. One building to another. And then in grad school I worked for The Daily Texan on the staff. And between my years in grad school, I was a summer intern for the U.S. Information Agency in Washington, which was great because I got to be on my own in a big city earning substantial money. And, unlike school, my nights were free. And that gave me a taste of what real life was like so when my father said, “You’re going after your doctoral” I was “Nope” and so finished the masters and got a job at the States-Item as a copy editor in June of ’72, became a reporter in March of ’73. The papers merged in 1980. I was a general assignment reporter until the spring of 1985, when I started covering AIDS and that segued into Health and Medicine until Katrina, the storm that changed everything. After Katrina I was put on higher the Higher Education Beat, which consisted of a lot of budget cuts to make up for the diminished budget in enrollment. I said the mantra of the state college system should be “Slashing Our Way to Greatness”. And let’s see. Higher Education until flbbbb early 2015 and then in September . . . on September the 12th, I think, 2015, I was told I was no longer a staff writer. I would be a contributing writer, which meant that I was on my own. I was 66 at the time so I didn’t have a mortgage, I didn’t have tuition to worry about, so I thought cool and my book came out a month later. My book of obituaries. So, I was set. I’ve been doing that ever since. I’ve . . . in addition to work on the newspaper I freelanced for Variety, The Washington Post, Reuters, several in-flight magazines and bup bup bup bup bup Preservation in Print, which is the monthly magazine of the local Preservation Resource Center of New Orleans. I’ve been busy.

RODRIGUEZ: Yes, you have. And it’s impressively busy.

POPE: [0:05:26] Well, thank you.

RODRIGUEZ: To me. And how did your mother’s being a journalist influence you?

POPE: She told stories she was . . . This is a whole other big story. She had a master’s in English from Ole Miss. But teaching just . . . I mean when the kids just didn’t get, understand Keats she thought [waves hand] she went to the newspaper The Hattiesburg American and she told stories. She was there during World War II when the paper was sort of like a journalistic version of A League of Their Own because it was a heavily female staff because all the men had gone away. And so Mom got to do a lot and she told stories about . . . I mean Camp Shelby was near so she did a lot of USO shows. She wrote back to Hattieburg from Camp Shelby with a caustic chorus from Russia. They were our allies then and she also Olsen and Johnson’s Hellzapoppin’. And it sounded really pretty interesting. Back then [sighs] since Sputnik everything was focused on science and so I thought, I liked math so I thought I could be a computer programmer and, well, I took one course in that and I thought no. Then I started working on The Texan and I had a really terrific teacher who showed me what could be done, and I met some cool reporters including Molly Ivins the columnist who became a great friend and I just thought, yeah, [laughs] this is for me. No regrets. So, Mom had a huge influence on me.

RODRIGUEZ: And you said that you were born in Hattiesburg, but you currently live in New Orleans. Why did you choose to move there?

POPE: I didn’t choose, I was eight months old. Humble Oil chose for my father. Humble Oil transferred him, Mom, and me to New Orleans.

RODRIGUEZ: That makes sense.

POPE: Yep.

RODRIGUEZ: And, I have read that you have a letter from Otto Frank. You wrote to him, and he responded. How amazing was that and how did you feel about receiving a letter from him? And was it hand-written or typed?

POPE: [0:08:02] It was typed with a hand signature. I had read and seen The Diary of Anne Frank. I was 10 years old. I was probably too young because I had nightmares for weeks. But I . . .I found his address, this was in the pre-Google era, I found his address in Switzerland and I wrote to him. And he wrote back and said how sensitive I must be and he was heartened that I was interested in Anne. He sent me a signed picture, he sent me an autographed letter signed and a picture of Anne, which I have framed [points to wall]. And it was pretty terrific. I mean I was . . . Maybe that’s why. . . maybe that’s what pushed me toward reporting. I’ve never been daunted by celebrity and or fame, infamy, whatever, I’m . . . no that was. It’s a proud possession. And then I’ve been to the Anne Frank House, twice, in Amsterdam and I must say I’ve been to Auschwitz, which left me feeling just utterly hollow. I’ve been to the Holocaust Museum in Washington. I’ve been to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, but The Anne Frank Institution was the only one that got me by the collar. I think it was because I had remembered from the book and the movie that Anne pasted, taped pictures of movie stars to the walls. I remember Norma Shearer and I think Astair Rogers and when we were walking through the annex and I saw the pictures still on the wall. I just thought woah there was a connection and it just it was really a gut punch.

RODRIGUEZ: Alright, I am now going to move on to Hurricane Katrina. I do have a lot of other questions, but I have to limit them. So, please tell me about your experience with Hurricane Katrina.

POPE: [10:10] Well, we had no idea what this might bring. My wife Diana Pinckley had never evacuated for a storm but she thought maybe I should get out of town so she took our cats, a friend, and the friend’s dog in my car to north Mississippi to get away. I . . I worked. I mean it’s what we did at the paper. So on August the 28th I went to the paper and I started working. That night . . later on I realized we were like the passengers of the Titanic before it hit the iceberg. We had no idea what would come because we were . . . people sneaked in wine and cheese. I remember Fred and I were talking comparing brands of coffee makers and we were socializing. It was great fun. I got the word that a one of our editors had a friend who owned property down the block. It was raised, fenced, and locked. Anybody who wanted to park there could. So I took advantage of that. I’ve never claimed to be prescient, but it was a good thing because when we came back after the storm, I think mine was the only staff car near the building that hadn’t either been flooded or trashed. Anyway, the storm came in the next morning. Our power went out around 5 and the photo department had no windows, so power was set up in there. Generators, computers, fans, and lights. So that we could keep blogging. And blogging was what we did and the beauty of blogs, I discovered, is that if you have something you can just [0:12:04] put it out there because people want to know. I mean we were getting 30 million hits a day on our web on NOLA.com and there were people even set up boards like “Hi, I am in the something something block of wherever if you want me to check on your house let me know the address”. And so it became this sort of communal information board. OK, on August 29th the storm hit. That morning the wind blew the rain sideways. The wind was so intense that it pushed the plate glass windows into parabolas and, yup, and then at 2:30 after the rain had stopped we thought, OK, we are going home. Well, no. Because friends who had biked out saw the canal the levy breach. I mean I got the call . . . I was doing medicine then. I got a call from a hospital say, “Pope, Bayou St. John is rising. Why?”. I didn’t know that it was . . . the levy had breached that fed into the bayou. And so, there we were. And the cafeteria was still serving food. We felt like passengers on the cruise ship from hell. But there we were. It was humid, it was dark. 13:27 and the next morning I woke up and looked out and we were an island. The water had risen around the paper. It was almost to the top step going in. And our publisher realized the situation was untenable. So, for the first time in the paper’s 168-year history we left town. We boarded delivery trucks and we went down the service road and got onto the interstate where there were people walking. I felt as if I were watching an Antonio [?] movie. I thought where are they going? Where did they come from? What do they hope to find? We stopped in a suburban bureau to pick up supplies. We stopped at Houma to drop off people who had worked on production and to use the press there. And then we went to Baton Rouge where we set up at LSU. The Manship School of Mass Communication let us use their equipment before the students came in. And we were put in married student housing there. I think people had put out I think 11 mattresses. There were guys were in one room, women in another and it was like a flop house. And those apartments could break up a marriage faster than infidelity. The building has since been torn [0:14:35] down. The preservationist here is shedding no tears. And then we realized we weren’t going home. We were put to work. We were exhausted. We were put to work immediately. I had to go over to the assembly center and the athletic center stadium indoor stadium where people were just being ferried in by helicopters dropping on the practice field. People were coming, being ferried out on gurneys with IVs streaming out of their arms. I was in the midst of this chaos. I felt like Scarlet [?] in Gone with the Wind. And I came back and wrote and got up the next morning and wrote some more. And then we . . . I live in a part of Carrollton that is known as the Sliver by the River because over the millennia the river . . . I’m a mile away from the river and the river just deposited alluvial soil from Minnesota and Iowa and other places upriver. So, it may seem counter-intuitive, but the land nearest the river was higher than the rest of the city. The city is like a bowl. So, my house was undamaged except for one broken window pane. My mantra became “I cannot gloat. I cannot complain.” We were lucky. And I mean at work we well wound up in were I mean when the students actually wanted to use their equip, their center, we moved into a former shopping mall that was called the Bunker Ray Business Center. We called it The Bunker. And we were at long tables with our cells and laptops. Our publisher was [?] enough because he refused to have an office. He wanted to work with us and we had some representatives of the Newhouse family who owned the newspaper come down to cheer us on and around this time we were told we had to find lodging. So, we didn’t know Baton Rouge real estate, but I had I had, as reporters do, I had a phone number. I found a real estate agent who let me know about a house that wasn’t . . . hadn’t been listed yet. It was in a succession, and . . . but the lights, cable, and water were still connected. Four bedrooms, two baths. And four days after I had evacuated with a gym bag and an umbrella, I was negotiating for a house that I called the Pope Home for Vagabond Journalists. And we lived there for six weeks. Mark Schleifstein and [0:17:10] his wife and their anxious cat . . . were some of my . . .they paid me . . . rent for the rooms and I told Mark “I want a mezuzah on the front door, that’s your assignment”. It’s, as you know, a prayer and that we don’t need any more bad luck. It was near Broadmoor High School track so I could go running in the morning just to run off the stress. And it was common at work for people to call and get calls from family members who had evacuated Heaven knows where, and contractor’s and insurance agents. Invariably they would hang up in tears and you would go over, group hug, commiserate, back to work. Oh, and I didn’t tell you that when we were in the married student housing one of my mattress mates two or three mattresses down, his wife had evacuated to Vicksburg with their son and she was saying, just pounding him with all this stuff like What am I going to do? Am I going to enroll this kid in school? Are you going to come back any time soon? He woke up the next morning with chest . . . he woke up in the morning with chest pain. We thought he was having a heart attack. It was just stress. Imagine that. And so he was fine. But that was just the way we lived. And I remember when we were in The Bunker people had had pictures sent to them of their homes and one dear friend brought in pictures of her Waterford china her wedding crystal with flood marks on them. And one of my editor’s said, “Pope, go out. Take a walk” because I was welling up. And then I got a call from doctor a friend of mine whose wife was a fertility expert in the east. . . I mean 80 percent of the city flooded . . . and she worked in a fertility clinic in eastern New Orleans, and she went out in a P [?] robe to rescue a hydrogen tank with a thousand frozen embryos in them so they could be viable. It was a good story. And, while we were in Baton Rouge I was invited to speak at Harvard at a symposium where I spoke about it was on, I think about disaster . . . I was asked to speak about the stress of covering stress. I broke down three times. At one point it was I said, “I don’t know when I’m going to be able to do such simple things as use an ATM, pump gas, have a good, [0:19:49] drippy roast beef po boy or hero at Thomas Menevals [?] And I proceeded to lose it and it happened two other times and I got a standing ovation. I was invited back twice and invited to dinner at the Nieman curator’s house so I didn’t make a fool of myself. But we moved back the next week and the night before my wife had come down to help me close out the house. And over dinner, during which our waiter quit in the middle, he was kind of stressed, but I said, “I don’t know how much longer I can go out there, go on” and I’ll never forget what she said “You’re not allowed to say that. The hard part is just beginning”. And she was right. Diana Pinckley, my wife who died 10 years ago was a member of a group called Women of the Storm. 160 some odd women of all ethnic groups, income groups, geography all over the city descended upon Washington three times to lobby congress for money and to get congressional representatives down here because Anne Milling the founder said you cannot appreciate it until you have seen it. So, Diana was doing her bit there and we kept on going. And fast forward to the following April. We knew the Pulitzer’s were being awarded so I said, “Diana, get over here” and we were all at computer terminals just to see when the results would come up. And when the first award was Public Service which we shared with the Sun Herald of the Gulf Coast. Screams and carrying on. We got . . . then we won the staff one for breaking news. We were jumping up and down, hollering, and crying, and hugging each other. It was such a relief. I was . . A friend of mine gave me a bottle of [?] which I was drinking from the bottle that night at a really kick ass party. And we got a George Polk Award, we got a National Headliner Award, and the Medill Award for Courage in Journalism. The Pulitzer mementos are Tiffany glass, they’re really quite lovely, and I have mine. I could not look at mine for four months without crying. And I still give Katrina tours. I. . . a few years ago Estelle Parsons the actress, Bonnie and Clyde, she played Blanche. Got an Oscar playing Blanche Barrow. She was in town for the Tennessee Williams Festival at a panel I was moderating. I rushed over to say Hello and Are you having a good time? NO. Why? I want to see where Katrina hit. Want a tour? Yes. So, I took her and her husband through Katrina. And she’s a method actor who works on feelings. She draws on feelings to get into performance. She looked at me and said, “This is tough on you, isn’t it?”. I said, “Not as much as it used to be.” I used to cry on those tours. But she was the only person in years of tours who thought about what it must mean for me. I could go on. We were . . . my wife and some other Women of the Storm did and audio, a two CD self-guided tour of the Katrina wreckage . . . nominated for a national, I think Audie Award. We used a cliché that every nominee uses “It’s great to be nominated” i.e. we didn’t win but, and I think I probably have a trace of PTSD because I can get really worried just when I see clouds and I say to myself, “Pope, it’s only rain”. I mean last night tornadoes came through and you’d better believe I was staring at the set and it was . . . it hit, the tornado hit about 7 miles east of me and again, can’t gloat, can’t complain. I was lucky.

RODRIGUEZ: [0:23:56] Yes. And I, yes, I am so glad that you are safe and my heart goes out to the people who are struggling right now after the tornado.

POPE: There were four alumnae of the Times-Picayune who started Friends of the Times-Picayune and there was a fundraiser cocktail party in New York. I could not go but I have a posse in New York. And I called them. I had never raised money before, but I called them and I put the arm on them. In an hour I had gotten $1,000 in pledges. And I realized, “Yes, I can raise money for something if I believe in the cause.”

RODRIGUEZ: Yep. And now I would like to move on to the Mardi Gras slash New Orleans. What is your earliest Mardi Gras memory?

POPE: Going to parades with my parents on St. Charles Avenue. I [chuckles] Rex introduced doubloons in the 1960 parade. There weren’t that many and in the true fashion of New Orleanians when one landed at my mother’s feet she stomped on it and said, “That’s mine”. The person she was keeping it from was my father.

RODRIGUEZ: And how has Mardi Gras changed since the first one that you remember?

POPE: [0:25:20] Oh geez. Well, there are, back when I was young, back before the earth’s crust cooled, there were not that many parades but in the mid to late ‘60s this idea of a parade for everybody. There had been a proliferation of Krewes K-R-E-W-E-S. The parade giving organizations sprang up and they were just come one come all and they Endymion Bacchus, are just ginormous parades and they attract a lot of folks. And there is still the old-line group of Krewes, and the king of carnival is Rex and I’ve been profiling Rex for, gee, 30 some odd years and it’s . . . I . . . and this year I live streamed coverage of the Rex and I feel like Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby. I’m an observer. I like these folks and but I’m not one of them and I don’t beat myself up because I’m not one of them. I’m fine with being an observer. [?] And when it comes to snagging beads and it’s [sigh] it’s fun as long as you don’t take it all that seriously. I mean one year when my wife and I were at the Rex Ball. Yes, we went to the Rex Ball. Looked damn good in formal wear and this friend whose daughter was making her debut and she just said, “I’m so proud.” and I was thinking “Why? Did she win the Nobel Prize while I was asleep? No because your daddy’s rich and your mama’s good lookin”. And I . . . but I held my tongue. I learned the observer. I mean, yes, there are cackle moments. I remember once during the Rex Ball the band swung into “Chain of Fools” and I said to Diana, “Do they know what they’re hearing?” And she said, “Probably not.” And at Comus the oldest organization one night the band played, “I’ve Got Friends in Low Places” and we thought “really” [laughs]. It was either a marvelous prank on Comus or a bit of self-awareness. I tend to go with the former. But you
just . . . you have to. As I learned when you . . . before we move to our house on Willow Street we lived on Eleanore which is lovely it’s near Audobon Park and one night I had to leave work early, cross the route where the parade would be blocked off from the parades to the dry cleaners to pick up clothing, and go through and then cross another parade line to get home and I was thinking, “There is more to life than dodging parades.”

RODRIGUEZ: And did you have a favorite Mardi Gras?

POPE: [0:28:35] Yes. Let me get emotional here. 2006. It was the Mardi Gras that mattered because the city was still recovering from Katrina and we were still in Iraq then and a group at the paper had made T-shirts for a relief organization “Screw Fallujah Save New Orleans”. My wife wore one of those T-shirts on Mardi Gras and it was, there were, three high school bands McDonogh 35, St Augustin, and Xavier Prep that combined to form The MAX Band, McDonogh . . . And they were wearing T-shirts with the letters on them. They didn’t have much, but they played and those kids got out there and did it. And I realized how [chuckles] how emotional I was when the band stopped for a moment where I standing and I was talking with [0:29:34] one of the band chaperones and we both started crying. The King of Carnival that year was Paul Mclhenny whose family owns the Tabasco empire M-C-I-L-H-E-N-N-Y. And I brought up the idea with him that if you know some people brought up the idea that there shouldn’t be a Mardi Gras and I said, “Oh, they’ll be a Mardi Gras. It may not be as big, but people will have their celebration. They will have their time to go out and recreate.” I think you can coin that. But no, that was the Mardi Gras that mattered. I feel that way about the jazz fest that year, too because I mean we went to the Fairgrounds Infield, passed houses that still had blue tarps on the roof and people, a lot of people there had . . . were still working on their houses. And the highlight to me of my 40 some odd years of jazz fest experience was at the first week of the 2006 jazz fest when Bruce Springsteen and Seeger Sessions Band. Yup. It was the start of their tour and I’m a big fan of Pete Seeger. I interviewed him three times. I have his autographed picture in the other room [points to other room]. I thought, “How quaint. Folk Songs.” Well, no. Because there were so many of them were pointed at illusions of what we were going through. “How can a poor man stand such times and live” “Oh Mary don’t you weep no more” “Pharaohs army had drowneded” “My Oklahoma home is blown away”. And he took us with him. Two and a half hours and the highpoint came when he . . . he interpolated some of his own songs including “My City of Ruins”. And when he sang that my wife and I and most of the twenty thousand or so other people were standing there in the twilight with our fists in the air, sobbing. But he launched into a beautiful, poignant rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In”. Yup. I mean it’s a warhorse but he made it just sound like a benediction. And we were all just emotionally flattened by that. It was wonderfully cathartic. Ok. I’ve seen him 7 times but that was the time that meant the most. Because he tuned in. I mean he was not just trying to perform. He visited . . . the musicians clinic gave 80 thousand dollars there. He visited a couple of other rescue sites. So, he’s the real thing. Yup. I know that was a digression into jazz fest but it’s important.

RODRIGUEZ: [32:32] And now, moving on to another hearty subject. How have your travels affected the way you see the LGBT+ community?

POPE: Well, except for making me appreciate the medical coverage that other people have. No, they . . . they actually haven’t because I’ve been to all seven continents and that it just that’s. I love travel and I’m not looking for AIDS angles when I go there or LGBTQ angles and I’m not trying to manufacture what isn’t there as far as I’m concerned I’m there. I have climbed my wife and I climbed the Great Wall, scaled the ruins of Machu Pichu, rode the Orient Express on our honeymoon, I turned 50 in the Galapagos Islands, and we, and we traveled and it’s really it’s not. Sorry. It’s just. I love travel but I. OK, we’ve I’ve been on two safaris. After the first I was flying home. My wife and I were flying home from Cape Town and in Atlanta we had to pick up our bags to go through customs. So, I ran into Ed Sussman whom I had known from AIDS conferences, and he said, “John, you missed a really good AIDS conference in Cape Town” and I went, I think “Ed, we were on vacation. You know, vacation, like fun”. So, I’m glad you had a good time. Oh yeah, we have seen Robben Island, we went to wine country, saw the penguins off of Cape of Good Hope. It was a great trip.

RODRIGUEZ: What you feel are gaps in the LGBT and AIDS obit coverage?

POPE: [0:34:39] Well, AIDS obits have sort of dwindled since combination therapy became a thing in 1996. I mean I have some friends who are long term HIV positive folks who are carrying on. Magnificently. And so there have there haven’t been that many AIDS deaths. I mean, unfortunately, the leaders I wrote about in the ‘80s and ‘90s have either died, moved, or gone on to live very productive lives here. So, and as far as LGBTQ issues with obits if it was an important part of a person’s life, yes. If he or she was an activist, yes, say it. It meant a lot to them. But if they happened to show up for a demonstration, not so much. I mean yes good for you [claps hands] for being an activist but space is tight and it would be fortuitus. I don’t mean to sound cruel cruel, but that’s the way life is, so to speak. And no, I wrote a lot of AIDS obits. In fact, I started insisting that we use AIDS as a cause of death. There had been an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal in I think 1985, written by a man who was HIV positive, and the headline was “Need We Ask Why These Young Men Are Dying?” and he said, he pointed out, that we hear about AIDS but where’s the proof of it because no one in the death notices seems to die of AIDS. So, I thought “good point” so that made me stiffen my spine and when I had the information, I could verify I used it. There is in my office slash laundry room an arrangement of silk flowers [points up]. I don’t like silk flowers as a rule but this . . . I put out the word that I wanted to follow a person with AIDS, words and pictures, until his death. So, a young man named Paul Rozier R-O-Z-I-E-R volunteered. So, a photographer and then later a videographer and I followed Paul until he died. And the story with pictures won Press Club Award of major story of that year. And Paul told his mother don’t have a big funeral or I’ll send down a bolt of lightning on you. The afternoon of his funeral was the biggest electrical storm we had ever seen. Yes, but no then I buried a lot of people, I spoke at funerals and I met some of the best people I have ever known because they were working very hard to spread knowledge and help people.

RODRIGUEZ: Do you recall the first AIDS related obit you wrote?

POPE: [0:37:57] Yes. Marty Shambra who was a restaurateur here and he was, how shall we say, flamboyant, and he died. And he died of AIDS, and I knew it. I put it in the obituary. The family went ballistic and, but my editor stood by me. I said I have the information and we are not here to play the dance of the seven veils with readers. I mean Michael Bennett who created A Chorus Line had dropped from sight. He was in Arizona I think, with AIDS, and the Times tracked him down, and was going to publish that Michael, this celebrated choreographer, who created A Chorus Line, had AIDS. And someone said, “But his own mother doesn’t even know” and the Times reporter said, “We are not responsible for bad communication within families”.

RODRIGUEZ: Did anyone in your personal life affect your desire to write obits for the LGBT community and AIDS?

POPE: My own news sense affected me. I just . . . I did one story around Memorial Day in ’85 about a service that was being held for to honor people who had died of AIDS and I came back from [?] and told my editor, “There’s a beat here that we need to develop.” She said, “Go to it, Pope.” So, I did. And that was my [?] into medical reporting. So, my own news sense told me that when someone important died I should follow Wendell Lowman’s ad Attention Must Be Paid. There, I have a book Getting Off at Elysian Fields an anthology of my obituaries and one of the people in there, Ted Wisniewski set up the state’s AIDS infrastructure. He died of AIDS when he was only 37. That broke my heart. His sister put a pall on his casket at the funeral reading “God is love”, the Gay Men’s Chorus sang “My Buddy” and I went one night to visit three friends [chuckles] in adjoining rooms in the same hall at Baptist Hospital, all of whom had AIDS. Wrote all their obits. But no, it was . . . people needed to know and I’m there you are . . . it’s news it’s just news judgement and my editor my editors supported me because they knew that we needed to reach out and be inclusive.

RODRIGUEZ: And did you interview the people that you, the people with AIDS when you were writing their obits? Or did you do just do research?

POPE: [0:41:26] Well, the research. I will go right down the middle on that one. The research consists . . . a lot of time consists on the stories I had written with these people so I was quoting my I was quoting my stories. I didn’t, well there were a few that I did in advance I think. It’s been a while. In my book John Ognibene was one, Ted Wisniewski was another. I mean I had them ready, but I did relied on . . . John Ognibene would have me over for lunch of pesto and guilt to tell me stuff I should be doing so I built on those sessions and Ted I . . . just on his work and watching him. But when I could quote them from times I’d spent with them for stories or just hanging out, I did. This was, this was not some hands-off approach. Oh no no no no no no no no.

RODRIGUEZ: What was the longest obit you sat on, as in, that you wrote before it was published?

POPE: [laughs] Paul Prudhomme’s. The Cajun chef who was, you may recall, a man of size, and in 1988 my line editor said, “Pope, you’d better get cracking because Prudhomme could be [air quotes around launched to glory] launched to glory at any moment. So, I went all out. I even called Craig Clayborne, for heaven’s sake. The dean of American food writers and I had the obit . . . I had the obit ready. Well, Craig Clayborne died in 2000. Prudhomme soldiered on until 2015. That’s 27 years. And I was at a meeting in Denver when this man sidled up, “I guess you heard Prudhomme died”. I admitted the most unholy oath and ran out to call the desk and say, “Don’t use wire copy. I have written an obit.” And then our food editor then had written appreciation of Prudhomme’s contributions to cuisine. But 27 years. What?

RODRIGUEZ: I think that is amazing and also funny.

POPE: [43:45] Oh, You want amazing. I’ll tell you amazing. A dear friend Margie Belarie had founded the preservation resource center here, she was a co-founder. Wonderful woman. She was dying of Alzheimer’s. So, her husband, her secretary, and her best friend asked me to interview them for Margie’s obit in March of 2019. Sure. And so, I filed the obit and in January 2020, before the world shut down, I went south for the winter. Way south. To Antarctica on a ship that, thank goodness, had WIFI because I got a message that Margie had died but no one in the office could find the obituary. It was in my phone. So, I found it, pushed send, and crossed my fingers. From the birds to the bayou, it landed. Of course, the editors had questions so back it came with more questions. It was my first, and I hope my only, intercontinental edit. I’m not making any of this up. I couldn’t.

RODRIGUEZ: And how did you become friends with Mark Gonzales, one of the founding members of the LGBT+ Archives?

POPE: He was a rabble-rousing lawyer, whom I just couldn’t help cover him. I mean he was creating news. I’m glad to know he’s still around.

RODRIGUEZ: And have you interacted with Stewart Butler or Otis Fennel, the other two members, founding members?

POPE: [0:45:27] I knew Stewart well. I in fact, I wrote his obit. But Stewart, bless his heart, was just toward the end he was not well. But, anyway, I wrote his obit. I did not know Otis. I did not write Otis’s obit. No Stewart . . . when Stewart was in his prime he was good.

RODRIGUEZ: Do you have any fun stories?

POPE: [exhales]

RODRIGUREZ: About Stewart.

POPE: Right. I know. I’m thinking. Well, he and his lover put big Valentine’s hearts on their front shutters along Esplanade Avenue and I think they. I don’t know. No I cannot say for sure. I don’t have anything. Sorry. Stewart was, at least around me, not one given to [?] and wisecracks. He was a good guy, he just, Robert Benchley he wasn’t. So.

RODRIGUEZ: And I know that you have written the book, Getting Off at Elysian Fields.

POPE: Yup.

RODRIGUEZ: What prompted you to put the obits in here that you put in, in the book?

POPE: [0:46:50] I was limited to ninety thousand words which sounds like a lot. It isn’t. So, I actually did a list of Pope’s Greatest Hits then I started culling. And they’re all Louisiana, except for Eudora Welty. I put hers in there because the University Press of Mississippi was publishing the book. And A, it was an obit I was proud of because I’d worked a year on it. Because I was getting people to talk. It turned into sort of an analysis of Welty’s work and her contributions. But anyway, I wanted that in because it was one of my five favorites. But I thought it would be good politics to put a Mississippi writer and with the book being published in Mississippi. But what other others. I tried to get a fairly good assortment of folks. I . . . I left out some that I feel bad about but the stories were too good in the ones I had. And then I had some space at the end, and I thought, “Hey, I covered some pretty cool funerals” and Lindy Boggs, our former congresswoman. The mayor sang “Ava Maria” in St. Louis Cathedral. John Lewis and Nancy Pelosi spoke. It was a great service. Oh yeah. And her coffin was wheeled out to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” with just with trumpet fanfare between each verse. Warren McDaniels who was the first black fire chief and there was this parade from Gallier Hall, the former city hall, down into the French Quarter to the fire department headquarters. Oh, there was dancing. It was . . . oh it was great. And Revius Ortique, who was the first black judge elected to the state supreme court and it was a lot of good auditory[?] at the funeral. And then Ortique was a stickler for discipline and acting properly. And on the way, oh right out, I was in the cortege going to the cemetery. It’s great to be in a cortege. You get to blow through stop lights. It’s wonderful. With police protection. But we were taking this proper, perennially proper man, to his last rest. We passed this rag-tag man in a torn T-shirt and shorts who saw the procession. Took off his baseball cap and put it over his heart. I thought, “yeah” [gives thumbs up]. The fourth funeral was Al Copeland’s the popular fried chicken magnate. Who, let it be said for the record, did not take his name from Popeye the Sailor Man, But from Popeye Doyle in The French Connection. He quipped that there was no apostrophe in Popeyes because when he started, he [0:49:48] was too poor to afford an apostrophe. I mean he was just the quip . . . he was the quote machine that kept on giving [snapping fingers for emphasis]. And he lived large. He had . . . he was married four times, two spectacular divorces and his first wife died. And I mean [laughing] it was, to quote a former sportscaster, it was Manana from Heaven. It was just great stuff. He died on New Year’s . . . on Easter when my wife and I were having Easter brunch at Commander’s Palace. Well, oddly enough, this man who whose life depended on his sense of taste died of cancer of the taste buds. Who knew? Oh, the obit was one of my five favorites. But his funeral . . . there were 24 white Bentley’s lined up outside the church and, at the cemetery it was like a funeral of the Pharaohs. All of his Al’s toys were out there. The Lamborghini, the jet ski, the motorcycle. And . . . and jazz funeral protocol you, it’s a slow, somber march to the grave, and Al was in a, lest anybody miss him, his bronze casket was in a glass-walled, horse-drawn hearse followed by a band playing “Just a Closer Walk With Thee” and what must have been Al’s favorite song “My Way”. We got to the grave. Doves were released. Balloons were released. And then when you put the casket in the tomb it’s time to party down. The man’s been cut loose. What did the band [0:51:31] launch into? “Love That Chicken From Popeyes”. And I was doing a lecture at a college and I was going to go in and the audience roared. I’m stopping here. I cannot top that. Ok, Al, Al Copeland, Eudora Welty. The other three faves were Fats Domino, Ella Brenan who was the matriarch of the Commander’s Palace and Leah Chase one of my very special people who was the restauranter and chef who fed the civil rights movement. Magnificently humble. And she was just . . . she was ,. . . she knew people. As she would say, James Baldwin just loved my gumbo and she was the model for Tiana, the first African American princess in a Disney movie and in the ’88, ’98, ooh 2008 campaign Barack Obama came for lunch. There is a picture of him putting a napkin in [mimics putting a napkin in his shirt collar] his shirt collar. Just before he reached for a bottle of hot sauce Leah Chase said, “Mr. Obama, you do not put hot sauce in my gumbo” [chuckles]. I loved her to pieces.

RODRIGUEZ: [0:52:46] And what are some surprising facts that you discovered or learned about the people while writing their obits?

POPE: Well, we had one man who had been a nice letter carrier that everybody knew, had been a spy during World War II. That was cool. And there was a woman, and I think her name was Mercedes Tucker Stamps, who, during the Jim Crow years, fought to get instruments for kids in black schools. And, one day a brand-new piano showed up. She was ecstatic for a few minutes until someone said, “Oh it’s the wrong school” and they took it back. And, oh let’s see. Good question. There’s so many. Al, well Al Copeland just a wealth. He lived large. Grew up in public housing, had this waaaay over the top mansion near the lake. Eudora Welty was the war correspondent. She never went to the front. She just did a lot of analyzing maps. I think I mean those are the ones who leap to mind. But you just . . . okay, here’s the thing. I’m like the man in Citizen Kane who is assigned to find out what Rosebud meant, Charles Foster Kane’s last words. In hopes it might provide insight into his personality. So, I’m always looking for Rosebud. I’ll just say what made this person tick and just keep going from there. Oh, and oh, one other thing. There was a pediatrician here. Little patients just loved him. I got ahold of his chatty ex-wife who said her husband her ex-husband had been a gardener and he was having some blood work done at his. His blood parts were being separated and at the end of the procedure there was this bag of blech hanging from an IV pole. He said What are you going to do with that? They said [shrugs shoulders]. Can I take it home with me? Sure. He took it home, put an IV drip into it into the soil where his hibiscuses were. Those flowers flourished.

RODRIGUEZ: I don’t even know what to think about that.

POPE: [0:55:21] [laughs] As I say 85 times a day you can’t make this stuff up. But an obituary. Margalit Fox, one of the best obit writers who ever drew breath, who gave my favorite obit line in the Times for Helen Gurly Brown. Page 1. She was 90 but parts of her were much younger. Margalit said an obit because that’s the reason for the story. But the obit should be about the life.

RODRIGUEZ: And, so kind of along the lines, but more about Journalism in general, do you prefer to write on paper, type on a typewriter, or use a computer?

POPE: Silly question. I’ve not written on paper except in my journal. Typewriter [exhales]. I had to work on one at a news at an American Cancer Society new conference. Why they didn’t have computers I’ll never know. But I go through torment when I can’t find the good lead. I’m no good until I have a lead. So I just [?] ripping the papers out of the typewriter. I had this dispiriting mound of paper at my feet and with a computer it’s just delete delete delete. So to answer your question I have written on computers. I could not imagine doing what I do without the internet. I mean if I’m looking up something . . . the name of an organization I’ll just go to Google. I mean I was . . . Julia was on a few weeks ago on TCM and there was Jane Fonda plugging away and I was thinking I could never write a play with dialogue and character development on a typewriter.

RODRIGUEZ: [0:57:14] Do you still have your inch book, or do you have an inch book?

POPE: Tell me what it is. Not . . . I guess not because I don’t know what you’re talking about.

RODRIGUEZ: The book where you keep all the articles you’ve written.

POPE: Oh, I have bags of my [?] pieces. I have two big bags.

RODRIGUEZ: Are they just thrown in there willy-nilly?

POPE: Pretty much. If I had a staff, I suppose I could categorize them but I don’t.

RODRIGUEZ: And we’re getting close to the end of our time so I have one more question that. Do, is there any obit that stands more than any of the others for you?

POPE: [0:58:04] Which of your children is your favorite? [laughs]. No, OK, OK, there are five that stand out. [counts on fingers] Al Copeland, Eudora Welty, Ella Brennan, Leah Chase, and wait a minute. Al Copeland, Leah Chase. Oh, and Fats Domino. I approached Fats Domino. I was especially proud of that one because I was a history major in grad school and I’d I’ve seen Fats Domino perform so I was combining . . . what I was combining history of his music and his contribution to rock and roll’s development with stuff I would put in an essay in a historical piece [interlaces fingers] in graduate school just so you would have fit into the time. So, yeah, I’m proud of that one. And Welty because of the discussion I got about her literature. Losing Battles evidentially, I’ll say it on the record is one of the finest books I’ve ever read. It has almost no plot. It’s [?]. People who are gathered to await the arrival of this man who is being released from prison. They start telling stories. Believe me I got a year to put that together. Those are two that stand out. [shakes head] Ella Brennan made her way in a man’s world in restaurateuring and she invented Banana’s Foster, which I had last night for dessert and she was just a marvelous woman. Miss Leah, well, Miss Leah fed the Civil Rights movement, and she was just wonderful and Al Al was Al. He was [chuckles] unique. He was flamboyant and, good copy. And those are my five.

RODRIGUEZ: And the last question. Is there anything else that you would like to comment on, or say, or anything, any gaps?

POPE: I was married for 28 years to Diana Pinckley P-I-N-C-K-L-E-Y. She had been director of PR at Tulane. She was my best editor. She did a column about mysteries for 23 years for the paper. It was called “Get a Clue” and she was the love of my life. And she befriended a lot of the people I met on my AIDS beat and Randy Schilts who wrote the book And the Band Played On. He, came to New Orleans to see what was being done for people with AIDS here and the archdiocese they just donated a building to be used for AIDS hospice called Project Lazarus. I set him up so he took Diana and me to dinner and he talked about this book he was doing call And the Band Played On and I thought “Yeah, Randy that’s great”. OK, fast forward to 1995 it was the 100th anniversary of the New York Public Library. We were . . . I had to think of the 100 most significant books published in that time. Randy’s book was on the shelf. No, and my favorite memory of Randy . . . Diana and I were . . . Diana was this country doctor’s daughter. One of her father’s patients was Sergeant York the World War I hero. He died before I came on the scene. I met his widow, Miss Gracie. Anyway, Diana and I were in New York. In San . . . No, she went with me to AIDS Conference because she liked the science. And so Randy took us to breakfast in the Castro, the Gay District, and on the way there we passed my favorite restaurant name ever Hot . . . for hamburgers . . . Hot N Hunky.


POPE: [1:02:03] Randy was a pal. He sent us Christmas cards and he had a dog; I think it was a lab or a setter named Dash. Dash didn’t appear in the card. I said, “Where’s Dash?” Suddenly Dash appeared in People Magazine, he was in Rolling Stone, he was in the jacket book cover Conduct Unbecoming. And then in Christmas of ’92 Randy sent out a card saying “To everything there is a season and a time and purpose under Heaven” and Diana said, “I think he’s trying to tell us something”. Yep. He was HIV positive. He died in Spring of ’94 and I just sat down and wrote an op-ed because I felt I had to. It made the . . . it made the person in the editorial section cry. I didn’t mean to. I mean Fanny Brice once told an aspiring actress, “Honey, if you’re crying, they ain’t.” But, yeah, Randy was special folks. And so, Diana whom I . . . we called each other by our last names Pinckley and Pope, [exhales] she was brilliant and I was just so very lucky. We scattered her ashes. Half of her ashes are in Tennessee where she’s from. Half are in a mausoleum here, except for a Ziploc bag of her ashes that I took to the first Jazz Fest after her death. Jazz Fest was her favorite thing. I invited a bunch of people to meet us, meet me in the infield and we scattered her ashes at Jazz Fest, so she’d never have to leave.

RODRIGUEZ: [1:03:46] I think that is an excellent stopping point. That’s kind of near and dear to my heart right now. So, this does conclude our interview. And I greatly appreciate your time, and your commitment, and all of your wonderful wordage to helping me conduct this oral history. And I’m going to.

[End Session I]