1973 Profile- Larry Borenstein by Tom Bethell
Vieux Carre Courier / February 9-15, 1973 / page 5
Most days of the week, E. Lorenz Borenstein may be found sitting behind his desk in his art gallery at 730 Royal St., a building he bought a year ago (in association with Allan Jaffe, the manager of Preservation Hall) for $200,000. A rotund figure in his early 50s, Borenstein is nearly always to be seen wearing one of his large collection of T-shirts and a grotesquely crumpled pork-pie hat. “It’s a non-kosher hat,” Borenstein admits, but he hangs onto it mainly because it has a signed ink drawing by Noel Rockmore on the inside of the crown; not that that qualifies it for the Louvre, Borenstein allows, but he’ll consider an offer all the same.
On the afternoon I went to see Larry Borenstein, he was behind his desk as usual, watching the half dozen or so customers browsing through the pre-Columbian figurines and other artifacts on display in his gallery. The walls of the gallery are paneled with heavy poplar planks rescued from old Mississippi river barges - a typical and tasteful decor which bears the familiar Borenstein stamp. (It is seen also in Vaucresson’s Café Creole on Bourbon Street): recycled rococo, perhaps, or Borenstein baroque. Hanging from the walls are paintings by Noel Rockmore, Charles Richards, and Sister Gertrude Morgan, a New Orleans primitive.
“I regard myself partially as a collector,” said Borenstein, who may also be defined as an investor, property-owner, salesman, entrepreneur, as well as a one-time philatelist, illusionist, rare-book dealer, and currency speculator, “and the buildings I own are a part of my collection. Each one I regard as an irreplaceable work of art in its own right.” Larry, who was wearing a blue-green suit of recent vintage and a faded salmon T-shirt, began to describe his property holdings in the French Quarter, more than once alluding to his “portfolio” of buildings.
“Frequently I’ve turned down buildings the I don’t want to add to my portfolio for purely aesthetic reasons,” he explained. “When that happens I frequently refer the vendor to someone else I know who may want to purchase the property if it’s a good potential investment - Jules Cahn, for instance, or Allan Jaffe.
“I am an investor, and yet they attempt to attribute to me the motives of a speculator,” Larry Borenstein went on. In conversation, one soon notices, he quite frequently responds to the unspoken criticism of an anonymous plurality of detractors who persist in misconstruing his motives and intentions despite his best efforts to set them straight. “In a speculation you have a completely different set of criteria: minimum equity and a short hold. There have been some fairly successful French Quarter speculators, Peter Ricca, for instance, or Bill Copping or Sam Miceli. But speculation is not my objective.”
He nudged his horn rims up his nose and hooked one ankle over a knee before continuing. “I have always paid the asking price for the properties I own,” he said. “I either pay the asking price or I don’t buy at all. If the building is worth having, the price doesn’t make much difference. Look at it this way: in the whole world there are only 12 Royal Street blocks, therefore 48 Royal Street corners. Of these, approximately half will never come on the market, and the remainder only occasionally, say once every five years. If one has the opportunity to buy a Royal Street corner - and there may be only twelve such opportunities between now and the end of the century - what difference does it make if you pay $150,000 or $200,000?”
This philosophy has worked quite well for Borenstein. He bought 624 Bourbon Street (Vaucresson’s Café Creole) in 1965 for the asking price, $110,000, while the nearby competition, who also wanted the building for expansion of their facilities, lost out by bidding only $80,000. Today Borenstein reckons the building is worth double what he paid. He is also convinced the price of French Quarter property will continue to increase.
“I think it’s still considerably underpriced,” he said. “When you think that prime Bourbon Street footage sells for about $5,000 a front foot and Canal Street for $10,000 a front foot, you can see why. You can project that Canal Street values will definitely drop because of the Poydras Street development, and that Bourbon Street will go higher. At $40 per square foot at present, prime Bourbon Street property is probably valued less than a shopping center. Bourbon Street property was built to last, while modern structures are built with planned obsolescence. Add to that on Bourbon you have a whole new clientele of tourists coming in waves every two weeks or so.”
“I have confidence in the Quarter,” Larry said, “and I demonstrate that confidence by investing in it. I’m willing to pay a fair price or even more for a well-located building which appeals to me aesthetically. Under those circumstances I’ll be glad to add it to my portrfolio.”
“In my case, I’m a fat old man with kids,” Borenstein said, lighting up a Kool with a quiet darting motion of his hand and giving his glasses another thumb-nudge, “and I can’t buy insurance worth having. But I’m in the taste business, I consider I have trained taste, and so I’m not looking for a quick turnover. What I’m interested in is a long term investment. Some people paint their property up and try to make a quick sale; better, I think to repair the roof and make it functional in small units, a bit at a time.”
This remark is in apparent response to some of Borenstien’s critics who complain that he is, at worst, a slum landlord who displays more interest in collecting rent than in making repairs. The rents tend to be high, too, critics say. Not so, Borenstein replies - they were formerly too low. “Many estates with absentee or disinterested owners,” Borenstein explained, “have rentals based on their cost of acquisition. If this property changes hands, then rents must go up.”
Borenstein defends Royal Street rents of $1,000 or so a month with an argument which runs like this: $1,000 a month is $35 a day. A prospering Royal Street business with a good inventory can take in $300 a day, and therefore rent is only 10 per cent of its gross. “Rent is one of the less expensive items in the cash outflow,” Larry believes. Here’s the clincher to the argument: what’s the difference between a $400 a month rent and $1,000 a month? “$7,000 a year, and a business doesn’t belong on Royal Street if an additional $7,000 a year is a financial burden which can’t be borne.”
As Larry has admitted in the past, he’s a good salesman. “I could sell a snowball to an Eskimo,” he once said. A well-dressed couple walked into his gallery, likely-looking prospects, I thought, and I indicated as much to Borenstein. He glanced at them in quick appraisal and shook his head. He guesses right 80 per cent of the time, he reckons. He was right in this instance. They walked out without buying.
Then artist Noel Rockmore came in, accompanied by Jules Cahn’s daughter Micki. Wheels within wheels... Borenstein owns approximately 1,000 of Rockmore’s paintings, drawings, and sketches. He eyed Rockmore and his friend in thoughtful surmise, hooked his other ankle across his other knee, and flicked his Zippo lighter up against the tip of a fresh Kool.
For some reason, I was reminded of a remark Borenstein once made to a young lady (a potential customer) who went into his other gallery at 511 Royal St. on the third floor. There is a small reception space at street level. “Downstairs is the reception,” he told her, “upstairs the deception...”
It may be no coincidence that during one phase of Borenstein’s immensely varied career he worked as an assistant to the well-known illusionist Joe Dunninger. “I received his thought waves,” Larry says with a straight face.
Born in 1919, the son of a Milwaukee merchant and investor, a “chess prodigy” at the age of 10, Borenstein left Milwaukee at the age of 14 and got a job in the “Streets of Paris” sideshow at the Chicago World Fair. Sally Rand did the fan dance that year, and Larry Borenstein, billed as Prince Cairo, worked up a fortune-telling routine. Then came the stint with Dunninger, followed by a period with the Royal American Shows carnival on the road. Borenstein operated a sideshow unofficially called Pickled Punks (officially Mysteries of Life) featuring fetuses in formaldehyde in various stages of development and deformation. The choice exhibit had two heads, one made of latex, Larry concedes, but convincing nonetheless. Borenstein lectured on embryology to the gaping audience. At the end of the season Borenstein turned his hand to the magazine subscription business. Larry did very nicely touring Oklahoma and Texas during the fall and summer of ‘37; he introduced a notable innovation - towing a rack of bikes behind his station wagon. Kids he had hired would ride up on the bikes to suburban front doors soliciting subscriptions, creating the illusion they were hometown kids from next door. Borenstein cleared about $15,000 in 9 months, “phenomenal for the Depression,” he allows. “I’ve made money at almost everything I’ve done,” he candidly admits.
He put himself through Marquette University with the proceeds, majoring in philosophy, worked for the Milwaukee Sentinel at the same time, and after that he was a reporter for the Toledo Blade. Borenstein was working for the American Vacation Association and was heading for Florida when he first arrived in New Orleans. The Association was employing him to help stimulate winter tourism in the South. On the night Borenstein arrived in New Orleans, Dec. 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor was attacked. His boss advised the war wouldn’t last more than 2 or 3 months and to stick around and make some contacts in New Orleans. Borenstein stayed for more than 30 years. “The war knocked hell out of the travel business anyway,” he commented.
For a few months Borenstein worked as a salesman for Uncle Joe Rittenbing, “a famous pawnbroker on South Rampart Street,” Larry added with a touch of awe. Larry opened his first shop at 814 Royal, selling stamps while an associate, Al Williamson, sold coins. Rent in ‘42 was $20 a month; the same space fetches $600 today, Borenstein says, “and I don’t own it.” In ‘43 he moved to 706 Royal ($30 a month them $500 now, he says).
Borenstein continued in the stamp business until about 1950, eventually becoming an editor of Weekly Philatelic (published in Kansas). His Old Quarter Stamp Shop and Jolly Roger Book Shop in Pirates’ Alley did thriving business. Borenstein also was editor of the Old French Quarter News (precursor to the Courier) in its final months. Outside his shop, artists were encouraged to set up in the open air.
“It’s on my conscience that that tradition, which later spread to Jackson Square, started with me,” said Larry, who takes a dim view of the quality of what passes for art on the Square today. The Jackson Square development started when Borenstein sued St. Louis Cathedral “because it seemed that painters weren’t allowed to hang on the Cathedral railings without political help.” The suit stopped the use of the Cathedral railings entirely, and artists moved to the Square. Larry recalls: “I told the pastor, Father Burns, that I wasn’t the first Jewish boy to try to drive the money changers from the temple walls.” Today Borenstein estimates the Jackson Square sales and services (framing, etc.) add up to about $1.5 million a year.
As the stamp business progressed, Borenstein become more and more involved in changing money himself, usually for foreign sailors who found themselves in port who were willing to accept dollars at less-than-favorable rates. Borenstein traveled to Surinam, Curacao, Guatemala, and such ports where he would buy up substantial portions of the latest stamp issues, in hopes that local governments would not reprint them. This worked fine in Guatemala especially, where Larry happened to have a relative who was friendly with the current dictator, General Jorge Ubico. He would inform Larry as to the quantity printed of each issue, and most of the denomination least likely to be used for postage would end up in Borenstein’s collection. “Collectors who wanted a complete set would eventually have to buy them from me,” Larry said, adding with a sidelong glance, “at a premium...”
Speculating in foreign currencies led to one of the occasional financial disasters in Borenstein’s career. When the pound was drastically devalued (to $2.80) in the early ‘50s, Borenstein was caught short with a large quantity of sterling bought on margin. As a result, he found himself broke, even after selling off his entire stamp collection for a 6-figure sum. Gradually he climbed back into solvency; by ‘54 his bank balance stood at $500.
Art dealing, his next venture, recommended itself because it required little capital. Artists, among them Andrew Lang, Nestor Fruje, Charles Richards, and Richard Hoffman, left their work with Borenstein on consignment at Associated Artists Studios, 726 St. Peter St., now Preservation Hall. He had obtained a long-term lease from the owner of the building. Later artists represented by Borenstein included Xavier de Callatay, Sidney Kittinger, and Noel Rockmore, each of whom was commissioned to paint a series of portraits of old jazz musicians. Despite, or perhaps because of, the persistent refusal of the Times-Picayune art establishment to recognize his activities, Borenstein believes he has represented the best artists in New Orleans, whose national reputations have nearly always exceeded their local reputations.
In 1957 Borenstein bought his first French Quarter building, 732 St. Peter Street (now occupied by Ciro’s Flamenco Dancers) for $32,000, all of it borrowed, and by this time he was becoming heavily involved in his trips to Mexico to dig up pre-Columbian artifacts. He specializes in West Mexican figurines, some 2,000 years old, none less than 600 years old, he claims. “Most of my inventory I actually took out of the earth myself,” Borenstein said. “That’s what I did for a living. I was a grave robber!”
“What are you laughing at?” he asked, looking at me quizzically through his thick horn rims. “Of course, I don’t do it anymore,” he added. “It’s too dangerous. Law enforcement has rendered that part of my career obsolete. It’s too risky to get them out of Mexico. In the U.S. government’s zeal to stop marijuana coming across the border, they funded check points for the Mexican government, and it became no longer possible to slip the guard a few pesos when he was looking through your car.” Borenstein has been to jail three times in Mexico as a result of pre-Columbian activities. “The last time, in 1969, it cost me a great deal of money to get out. They confiscated my Buick station wagon and its cargo, plus I had to pay a large cash bribe to get out.” As with all reverses, Larry seems philosophical about it.
As well he might be, with one of the largest holdings of West Coast Mexican artifacts in the U.S.A., several thousand pieces which sell at prices ranging form $10 to $2,000. He not only anticipated the collecting trend in this field but helped popularize it with a series of winter showings at Macy’s in New York. A number of collectors started buying at his instigation. Since 1966, the year of the first Macy’s show, pre-Columbian art prices have doubled.
There’s little doubt that Preservation Hall (a name he disliked and would have preferred to change) has been Borenstein’s most successful venture in terms of nationwide, and even international, acclaim. His natural parsimony combined perfectly with the public’s preconceptions as to the authentic ambience of early jazz - shabbiness paid a handsome dividend, in other words - and the early jam sessions featuring Kid Thomas Valentine and Punch Miller supported by kitty donations (with the ever-present danger of police raids up to 1960, if white musicians joined in with the blacks) soon blossomed into the most successful presentation of traditional New Orleans jazz in existence.
Considering Preservation Hall, his huge collections of art and pre-Columbian figures, his holdings of real estate, you might think Borenstein could now sit back and rest, but that is hardly his style. He’s hoping to acquire more buildings for his portfolio soon. He loves New Orleans and is optimistic about its future. “I think it’s the best city in the U.S.,” he said, pulling out another Kool. “If I thought there was one better, I’d be there instead of here. There are a fantastic number of things wrong with New Orleans, of course, but I can cope with them better here than I can elsewhere, and the things that are right about New Orleans don’t exist anywhere else. As for the future, there’s no reason to suppose that any of this escalation in value is going to stop. We have the domed stadium coming, supposedly ‘Light and Sound’ in Jackson Square in ‘74, the pedestrian malls are a great asset, and generally tourism should increase now that Vietnam is over.”
In a couple of hours you can only scratch the surface with Larry. He has so many stories to tell, and there are so many stories about him. There was the Bohemian Art Colony at 912 Toulouse in the 50s, for instance, which he helped start. It had been occupied by the Chinese Merchant Association during the war, members of the On Leong Association, and when they dug up the yard to put in drainage, they found all these Chinese bodies...
And the Mexican gold? I asked Borenstein about that one. Yes, he’d heard that one, too. It started in ‘47 or ‘48 when he noticed a surveillance bug in a light fixture in his office. He told his secretary about it, and they agreed to ad lib fanciful tales for the benefit of listening agents. They talked about secret stashes in the office and hidden gold brought in from Mexico. When they came back after the weekend, the place had been ransacked in a futile search.
“Now, Larry,” I asked, “why was the FBI or whoever interested in what you were doing in ‘48?”
“Well now, that’s another story...”
Photo caption: Larry Borenstein: Painted by Noel Rockmore (1963)