NEW ORLEANS —
In the 19th century two young Jewish men, Leon Godchaux and Julius Wolf, migrated from Europe to New Orleans where they both found work as itinerant peddlers. They prospered in the new world and in time became owners of cotton plantations, sugar refineries and retail stores.
Eventually, their families would become intertwined through a series of marriages and the author Peter M. Wolf tells us about the world of affluence and civic engagement that their descendants lived in his recently published memoir, “My New Orleans, Gone Away.”
Wolf, who is a lineal heir of both men, grew up in Metairie, La., an affluent suburb of New Orleans in the early 1940s and he details how the legacy of his forefathers was part of everyday life in his youth with trips to Godchaux’s department store on the main New Orleans thoroughfare of Canal Street.
Wolf purchased suits and ties made by other related families, the Haspels and Pulitzers. He saw the legacy of his family’s philanthropy in plaques in parks, local hospitals and the prestigious Newman School in uptown New Orleans that also was founded by one of his ancestors.
But Wolf laments the fact that he and his relatives were not admitted to the parties and balls sponsored by the New Orleans social elite during Mardi Gras because they were not Christians. He tells how some members of the Jewish community would vacation outside the state during the Mardi Gras season in New Orleans as a result.
After graduating from Yale University, where his father had been educated as well, Wolf returned to New Orleans and joined his father’s cotton brokerage business which was located in the New Orleans Cotton Exchange Building. He tells us how his father took him to cotton growing states — including Oklahoma — where he met with some of the cotton growers that his father represented.
On almost every Friday, we are told, Wolf, his father and grandfather would go to lunch at Galatoire’s in the French Quarter of New Orleans in keeping with a family tradition that went back several generations. Like many regular patrons of that eatery, they had their own table and the senior Wolf would be greeted as “Monsieur” when they entered.
The author writes of how they would often lunch with several of their kinsmen who would lament the fact that some of the businesses that bore their families name were not prospering in the post-war American economy.
But in time Wolf began to feel confined in New Orleans and he eventually went to Paris and New York City to pursue a life apart from his family.
While living in the French Quarter during his tenure at is father’s firm, Wolf developed an interest in art and architecture and he went on to earn a PHD in art history from New York University.
After Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, Wolf and his sister, who still lives there, decided to rebuild a pavilion that was part of Audubon Park in that city’s uptown area. Wolf and several members of his extended family attended the dedication of that part of the park and he writes of how he was moved when he saw his family name and the names of some of his cousins on the plaque.
But he was also saddened by the fact that most of his family, including his children and grandchildren, do not live in New Orleans. But by writing his memoir, Wolf has left a legacy that will detail for future generations the life that he led in New Orleans.
William F. O’Brien is an Oklahoma City attorney.