WHISKEY AND POLITICS: BIG JIM COMISKEY AND HIS BRAND
Disembarking from the Tulane Avenue streetcar under a fading summer sky, just beyond the darkened form of the massive new deco courthouse rising from the mud, you see men crowding through a fenced opening on Broad Street. You join them, dropping 50 cents into a basket, and edge forward through the gate into the open-air arena. A man standing next to you inscribes hopeful propositions into a book, then thrusts it into his pocket while a flurry of last-minute bargains unfold as a loudspeaker crackles to life. A bell rings. Cheering soon drowns out the yellow hum of the sodium vapor lights that shine upon a white canvas square where two lean, shirtless men in high-waisted shorts circle each other, gloved hands raised and ready to strike. Tobacco smoke veils the upturned faces of shouting spectators, hands waving betting cards and cash, teeth clenching cigars, the air thick with the fumes from a thousand pint bottles of bootleg whiskey.
A law unto itself, this 2,000- seat fight club is the domain of one man: James Edward Comiskey, an athletic 33-year-old with coal-black hair and bright blue eyes. With New Orleans more than a decade deep into Prohibition and locked tight in the chokehold of the Great Depression, the hour belongs to men like Comiskey who have found a way to thrive in hard times, even if it means navigating the jagged line between what the law dictates and what the common man wants. However the feds or their wives may perceive the moment, the working stiffs and hard cases crowded around the ring see Comiskey as a hero who keeps his promises. As the fight reaches its climax, you see him smiling, deep in his element.
Forty years later, a film crew from the British Broadcasting Corporation arrives at a purposefully shabby building on Jefferson Davis Parkway. Here, they have been told, they will find the last of a breed of old city political bosses, a holdover from a bygone era when the machine ruled New Orleans. A camera pans across a sign on the wall identifying it as the Branch Office of the long-serving tax assessor for the First Municipal District, James E. Comiskey. People from all walks of life anchor rows of backless benches, each waiting their turn to plead before “Big Jim,” a remedy available every Wednesday to anyone willing to come during the 13 hours between 9am and 10pm. Comiskey listens intently to a supplicant’s problem, though he is completely deaf, while a younger man, his nephew, writes out a note describing the situation. Comiskey reads and nods. Calling out to an attorney waiting in the back of the room, he holds out a folded piece of paper and directs the man to help his constituent. The problem is as good as solved. Though upright and trim for a man over 70, there is no mistaking that he is in his final round.
It is difficult to believe that, not even 50 years after his death, a Google search for a man once as powerful and ubiquitous as James E. Comiskey yields almost nothing of value. One is just as hard-pressed to find an image of his namesake whiskey, “Old Comiskey Brand” bourbon, which for over 40 years was a staple in every corner grocery and neighborhood restaurant in the city. But like those mom-and-pop corner stores and the political machine that dominated civic life throughout much of the 20th century, when Comiskey and his label passed from the scene in the early 1970s, they were replaced by a different set of political, economic and cultural realities. Yet it would be difficult to identify an individual who more fully embodied the way New Orleans once was, a man who built an empire on a foundation of politics and whiskey.
Comiskey’s upbringing welded him into a fusion of boldness, tenacity and loyalty, forged as he was in a home full of strong personalities. They included his maternal aunt, Virginia Casserly, whom Comiskey credited with raising him after his mother died in an accident on Easter Sunday, when he was only nine. An active suffragette who once “chained herself to the White House fence for her cause,” Casserly was also the head of NORD at a time when few women even worked in public service. His uncle, Edward Comiskey, was a state senator who saw that his young nephew found a job in the capitol as a page.
Despite the presence of such moderating influences, who tutored him in the way of politics, it was Comiskey’s father, a deputy sheriff with a habit of landing on the wrong side of the law, who had an inescapably large influence on his son’s style. A scene that unfolded one afternoon in 1915 at the old Kempster Park, once the site of Warren Easton High School’s baseball field where young Jim played first base, was emblematic of this family relationship. Comiskey’s father got into an argument with a younger man named Henry Nagle over a game of dice. The elder Comiskey told Nagle he wouldn’t dare challenge him that way if his son were there. Undeterred, Nagle insisted on fighting the son. “I tried to get them to call off the bet, but father was laying three to one and neither side would stand down” Comiskey later recalled. “A very large crowd gathered, and we walked around looking for a place to fight. Finally, we settled on second base.” A punch from Comiskey in the bare-knuckled fight that ensued left Nagle sprawled unconscious in the dirt.
After a few unsuccessful years as a semi-pro baseball player and journalist, James Comiskey discovered a calling more suited to his personality in 1924, when he opened the Green Onion bar at 2901 Tulane Avenue. “That saloon was an all-night affair,” he told a reporter in 1969. “I met a lot of people, and I began signing bail bonds out of friendship and courtesy. I guess I signed a million dollars’ worth of bonds, and I never made five cents in my life from it. It seemed a natural thing to do, and I made a lot of friends.” Friends that would one day make James Comiskey a valuable operator in the city’s machine politics.
Despite such connections, life as a bootlegger did not come without friction. Comiskey was arrested in 1924 and fined $50 for selling liquor, a common occurrence in New Orleans at the time, but a more serious brush with the law unfolded a year later. For reasons lost to time, someone torched a bar near Comiskey’s presciently named “The Quiet Spot.” When the fire marshal came to inspect the scene the next morning, he found Jim Comiskey, his father and a few other men poking around the ashes. Both the marshal and policemen called to assist in clearing the men from the building had to flee when the Comiskeys attacked them. Despite the seeming gravity of their offence, both father and son went free with only a $100 fine.
Comiskey was in his late 20s when he first became a Third Ward precinct captain in the Regular Democratic Organization, or “RDO.” He possessed every quality they could want. Charismatic to a fault, his tavern provided Comiskey with not only disposable income, but also what the current generation would term a “large social network.” And then there was the boxing: In 1928 he started the Third Ward Court House Athletic Club, first with amateurs and, by 1930, professionals. Boxing was more than a sport back then — it was such a part of the cultural fabric of that era that it channeled the very energy of the body politic. When Comiskey promoted a fight sponsored by Mayor Walmsley and held in the Municipal Auditorium for the benefit of the city’s many jobless residents, it was a spectacle that fused machine politics, the visible welding of alliances, favors granted, and promises made.
The end of Prohibition began a new chapter for Comiskey, when the Old Regulars nominated him for tax assessor of the First Municipal District, a job that he would hold from 1934 until his death in 1972. Few political posts came with more power attached. In addition to his ability to fix property assessments, Comiskey had access to a network that could, if it chose to, solve almost any problem. It was also in 1934 that he opened his first “Branch Office” on Broad Street and began holding his famous Wednesday sessions, only a biscuit’s toss from where he once promoted nighttime boxing matches.
Exceeding Comiskey’s legacy as a political boss, however, was his role as liquor magnate. When decades later the newspaper airily noted that Comiskey entered the whiskey business “immediately upon the repeal of Prohibition,” it alluded to the poorly kept secret of how savvier restaurateurs and saloonmen profited handsomely in the untaxed, all-cash bootlegging trade. With the encouragement of a Kentuckian named Harry Scott, in 1933 Comiskey legitimated his enterprise by founding L & J Company and fielded three salesmen to greet the avalanche of demand to come.
His most conspicuous legacy, Old Comiskey Brand bourbon whiskey, hit the shelves in 1936, first bottled at the short-lived K. Taylor Distillery outside of Frankfort, Kentucky. Like all domestic whiskey available then, Old Comiskey was a rather green 2-year-old label, a status reflective of the still-rebuilding American distilling apparatus. The drinking public, thirsty for a steady flow of spirits, were not deterred by the probable burn. And it was all relative — a fancier bourbon that appeared next to Old Comiskey in a 1937 Thanksgiving ad for the fabled Solari’s grocery proudly boasted its ripe age of 30 months. By 1939 Old Comiskey had aged to three years, and by late 1940, the growing company celebrated its “fifth birthday” by announcing that Big Jim’s eponymous whisky was now barrel aged for five years. Old Comiskey, in its final form, became a six-year blended bourbon after World War II. One forgets that, in the immediate post-Prohibition years, good bourbon was difficult to find.
By the time World War II began, Old Comiskey had become the region’s best-selling private label whiskey. Did Big Jim use his political influence to place it in the city’s hotels, restaurants and bars? Former Lieutenant Governor Jimmy Fitzmorris once dismissed the idea with the somewhat shaky defense that if Comiskey used his office to sell booze, he’d be making more money at it. Certainly businesses that sold liquor in his district — which included the commercial Canal Street — were smart to visit the distributorship of James E. Comiskey Company at 100 Common Street.
The reach that Comiskey had with Old Comiskey was impressive. A full-page newspaper ad in 1942 boasting that the label was “seen at more bars, enjoyed by more people” was difficult to deny. In addition to scores of corner taverns, thirsty New Orleanians could find it at landmarks like the St. Charles and Monteleone hotels, as well as at familiar places still around today like Uptown’s Domilise’s or the Vojkovich family’s Sixth Ward Crescent City Steaks. Even the notorious mob boss “Silver Dollar Sam” Carollo was a customer.
A cherished nugget of local lore centers around the fact that the bygone Schwegmann’s grocery stores featured a bar inside, lending a uniquely New Orleans dimension to the weekly family shopping trip. During the Mardi Gras season of 1961, this meant a special Carnival Special of “Hi-Balls” of Old Comiskey whiskey for only 25 cents. Like Comiskey himself, shoppers wheeling their cart unsteadily through the canned goods at Schwegmann’s with an Old-Fashioned in hand belong to a New Orleans that, for better or worse, is long gone.