Chronicles of Recent History: To Jim — from his Wife

By Liz Scott Monaghan

“Jim Monaghan . . . died young, but he lived a long life. He packed over 100 years of laughter, playfulness, sarcasm, friendship, hospitality, marketing savvy, charm and curmudgeoness into 63 years.”

–Mark Duffy

Well, Jim, I hope you enjoyed your parade.

After years of St. Patrick’s Day parades and Halloween parades and even a couple of Bastille Day parades, you’ve taken your final bow. Most people would live their whole lives happily if they could look forward to an exit like yours.

The Storyville Stompers and the Olympia Brass Band played; Charbonnet Labat Funeral Home produced its fine glass hearse, draped in flowers and pulled by four white horses (“No extra charge – hear that, Jim?” Louis Charbonnet said, looking skyward). The two drivers, the two men leading the horses and four of your friends marching alongside were decked out in tails and high silk hats from Meyer The Hatter.

It was a misty night, and the men at the horses’ heads held up old fashioned lanterns against the dark – a dramatic touch you would have relished. The parade rolled along the usual route your parades took through the French Quarter, starting and ending at Molly’s at the Market, the media hangout and your flagship bar.

There were a few problems, of course. You wanted a jazz funeral – your way.

“No bagpipers . . . no prayers . . . And I don’t want a lot of people running around weeping and carrying on. Have a good day.” Those were your final instructions.

You’d always hated bagpipes, but you couldn’t admit it, being Irish and having to hire them for all those Irish parades. But bagpipes don’t belong at a jazz funeral, so that wasn’t a problem. There was weeping, but there was also enough laughing to balance it, so that didn’t count as a problem, either.

But the “no prayers” presented a problem. You were absolutely serious about that, militant atheist that you were. You had no patience for religion, and you refused to entertain the thought of an afterlife. I didn’t agree, but as your wife, I had to respect the fierceness of your convictions.

The thing is, there aren’t any funeral dirges that aren’t essentially prayers. Wesley Schmidt, the grand marshal of the Storyville Stompers, the band you managed years ago, said they had no choice but to play “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” at some point.

“ ‘Thee’ could mean anything,” he insisted. “Make up your own lyrics. Could be a closer walk with hookers.” But they led off with “When Irish Eyes are Smiling” in a slow cadence.

The rest of us walked behind the hearse. Beside me were your three children – Jim Jr., Kelly Beth and Jon Jason. Two had been raised in Kansas City and one in Denver, and they barely knew each other. Your four grandchildren were there, too. They all looked like Monaghans. “Strong genes,” you would have said, taking full credit.

And there was your third wife, Carol Monaghan, co-founder of the Monaghan empire. During your 32 years here, you owned 30 different bars, sometimes as many as eight at one time. Carol was there during the early, hard-drinking years, when you stayed up all night, meeting and greeting, charming politicos and celebrities, and even became a drinking (though not drug-doing) buddy of John Belushi. She was the detail person, the crosser of t’s and the dotter of i’s. She was the one who thought to jump on her bicycle and pedal to the post office with the insurance premium when Molly’s was actually on fire in 1975. She’d tired of it all in 1984, split the empire with you, married someone else and moved to Hawaii.

But you kept it running, even after your heart attack in 1991, which slowed you down and curtailed your drinking, and even after you and I met and married, which slowed you down some more.

There were lots of former girlfriends in the crowd, too. Some I knew, some I didn’t. I was the last girlfriend, so it didn’t matter.

And there were cameramen from the major TV stations, and Alex Brandon, The Times-Picayune photographer. There was City Councilman Troy Carter, death-penalty activist Sister Helen Prejean, the rowdy song group called the Kazoozie Floozies, doctors, lawyers, members of the media, bartenders, college professors, various denizens of the French Quarter – a full four blocks of celebrating mourners.

My own children came, too, including Katy, the youngest. You insisted on sending her to the University of Missouri because she wanted to go there, although I wanted her to stay close to home. You were right. She loved the place, was an honor student, and earned her degree in three and a half years.

You always talked about the necessity of education, and you put your money where your mouth was. Quite a few people can thank you for the money for school. Others can thank you for the down payment on their houses. You did that more than once and kept more or less quiet about it. Didn’t suit your image. “Don’t let people mistake your kindness for weakness,” you always said.

As Andrei Codrescu wrote, with his poet’s insight, “Crusty old Irish anarchist, who trusted nobody, loved almost everybody, was most certainly loved by a great many, he took the world for what it was, but was no man’s fool.”

Definitely no fool. If you could have planned it, you would have died just when you did, two weeks before Christmas. You saw Christmas as a personal insult to your atheist self. Nothing like a lively funeral to distract people from that Other Celebration.

You were entitled to an Air Force honor guard, but to get one, we had to produce your discharge papers. They must have been around somewhere. We looked among the “Monaghan for City Council” stickers left over from your run for office in 1990 (your slogan was “What the French Quarter needs is asses on chairs”), your old bomber jackets, the fur coat from Canada, the parade doubloons and other memorabilia. But we couldn’t find them.

So we sent in the Marines. Molly’s had been a home away from home for Marine brass for years. Reservist Staff Sgt. Vince Heller, also my son-in law, and Sgt. Kevin Walker donned dress blues. At the bar, they removed the flag from the urn, ceremoniously folded it and presented it to me. Larry Talrico, trumpeter for the Storyville Stompers, played taps. A lot of your friends broke the rule about crying.

A lot of your other friends took the opportunity to dash into the bar. You would have approved. The bartender reported $200 worth of business in 10 minutes.

When we got back to Molly’s, the band swung into a rousing “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” As everyone joined in on the “Glory, glory hallelujah . . . ” – the best part of the song – it occurred to me that you would not be pleased. On the other hand, I reasoned, if you were hearing it, it would indicate that you were incorrect about the afterlife.

Still, I asked the band to switch to “Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans?,” which you had requested, noting that you would undoubtedly be missing it. Jim Jr. carried the urn inside.

Your instructions said to place the urn “above the bar.” But when Mark Schleifstein wrote your obituary for The Times-Picayune (and not everyone has a Pulitzer Prize-winner write his obituary) he said the urn would be placed “above the cash register.’” He is an old friend, and he knew where your priorities lay. It was printed in the paper, so everyone believed it. And we put it there.

People crowded inside, belly to back, elbow to elbow. “Clear the middle,” you would have said. You always wanted the middle of the bar clear, so customers could move around and get drinks. No sense standing there taking up space if you weren’t drinking.

You always said a lot of things. Monaghanisms, I called them. There were so many, it was almost a language in itself.

Two of your old friends gave eulogies consisting largely of Monaghanisms.

“This is indeed a Monaghan kind of day – more asses than chairs, tons more asses than chairs . . . ,” said English teacher Keith Veizer.

“Jim Monaghan could charm the chrome off a bumper at the same time he was finagling a golf ball through a garden hose. He could assess the comfort level of a person’s shoes or the lightness of someone’s loafers without looking down and in less time than it took for him to ask, ‘And just where are you from?’

“Very few answers to that question did not elicit a confident smile and a familiar response from Monaghan. For Jim had either lived in the place mentioned, stayed there for a while, been stationed near there, or had sold hardware or otherwise done business there. For Jim Monaghan, if not for Gertrude Stein, ‘there’ was everywhere . . . ”

Retired lawyer Charles Broome delivered the other eulogy: “Perhaps no one can be larger than life, but Jim Monaghan certainly lived his life larger than most people live theirs . . . I know many of you here have vivid recollections of your conversations with Jim, because he lived for the clash of opinions, verbal byplay and the whole civil battleground of human interaction. No man was quicker with a pungent retort or a subtle needle to puncture pretensions. If your responses were persistently unsatisfactory, you might be the recipient of that classic Monaghan phrase, ‘You’re not smart enough to talk to me.’

“Above all, he insisted on telling the truth as he saw it and had no patience with anything else. Occasionally I would tell him he was living proof that truth is indeed stranger than fiction, thus risking another classic Monaghan response: ‘You’ve got farts in your head’ . . . And Monaghan would hate it if I talked so long as to interfere with the buying of drinks, so I’ll just close by saying as Winston Churchill [or someone] said of Rupert Brooke: ‘We shall not see his like again.’ ”

Jim Monaghan Jr. announced that Molly’s at the Market would live on and there’d be a Jim Monaghan parade as usual on St. Patrick’s Day. The crowd cheered. Someone in the front yelled, “The king is dead! Long live the king!”

And then it was over.

After all the other parades, you’d eventually go home, sit back in your recliner, sigh and announce, “I made a lot of people happy today.”

You did it again, Baby.


March 2002 - Vol. 36 - Issue 6 - Page 14 - #366
New Orleans City Lifestyle Magazine