1978- The Landlord of Royal Street by Luba Glade
Figaro / December 6, 1978 / Volume 7, Number 48
There Are People In New Orleans Art, Music And Real Estate Who Choke With Rage At The Very Mention Of Larry Borenstein’s Name...But He Couldn’t Care Less
“There are two ways to get people to say you’re wonderful.
“One way - you pay them.
“Another is to BE wonderful.”
Larry Borenstein, whose movings and doings in the French Quarter for over a quarter of a century have changed the face of one of the most important pieces of real estate in the country, thinks he IS wonderful and doesn’t mind talking about it.
In the major areas of art, music and real estate, a lot of the changes in the Quarter, both physically and in attitude, are due to his personal ideas and maneuverings.
There are people in New Orleans vitally concerned with these three subjects who choked with rage at the very mention of his name. They accuse him of exploitation, chicanery, and worse. None of them would talk about it out loud and for the record. They felt that they couldn’t change what Larry did, anyway - and they’re right.
The rotund little man with his black t-shirt pulled tautly over his paunch, who waddles up Royal Street where he now owns a number of the most important buildings, his head thrust forward as he peers through his thick glasses, has long ago thrown down the gauntlet to what he calls “the greedy New Orleans establishment” and gone his own way.
He will be 60 years old in March. In the past two years he has “talked to the angels” several times. A massive heart attack, a serious blood complication, and pneumonia would have at least mellowed and humbled most men. But Borenstein is still as acerbic as ever.
“I sense that everyone I know can get along without me, but I’ll continue to disappoint them by staying alive,” he says with a rueful smirk. All of his talk is heavily laced with that kind of irony and humorous mix - most of it directed at his own set of local villians.
Although he considers himself primarily an art dealer bucking the local art establishment, it is in his real estate activities that he has succeeded in most visibly changing the Quarter.
More than two decades ago Borenstein began “paying tomorrow’s prices today,” as another owner of large French Quarter holdings puts it. “He didn’t mind putting himself on the line and paying way more in many instances than the current going price. He also charged much higher rents and that’s how the spiral really began long, long before general economic events caused many to think like he did.”
Borenstein himself describes it this way: “I acquired real estate exactly the way I acquired art. I only bought what I liked. In 1956 I borrowed $2,000 and bought 732 St. Peter St. because I really liked the place and wanted to own it. I paid $31,000 for it. It was a whole lot of money at the time, but today any modest estimate of its value would have to be placed at 10 times the amount I paid for it.
“And anyway, I didn’t start the ballooning prices in French Quarter real estate - Sam Recile did. Now, I surely deplore some of the things Recile did, but people in the French Quarter should raise a statue to him somewhere, a sort of Saint Sam, for recognizing the intrinsic value of the places others were letting go to wrack and ruin,” he states emphatically.
But doesn’t he have some regrets when he sees some of the shoddy businesses that high real estate prices and resulting high rents have brought to Royal Street, long known for its quaint shops?
“Those buildings would have fallen down and disappeared before the owners and tenants of those quaint little shops would have done anything about them,” he answers.
“Take the building next door (in the 500 block of Royal). Of course I liked it better when Nash Roberts was in there. But I paid $450,000 for that building. A pancake house chain has taken it over and put half a million dollars into renovating it. They also pay a lovely rent. These uses at high rents require that they keep up the building. And so another structure is maintained that would otherwise deteriorate.”
Scorn for Shopkeepers
Borenstein has nothing but scorn for the “lady shopkeepers and gallery owners” who are fast disappearing from the French Quarter. “The low rent shops were never true businesses. They were manned by dilettante women who were selling crocheted dolls and were down here many times to meet their lovers.
“I don’t feel a bit responsible for some of the shops doing business in buildings I own. In many instances I have leased the entire building to someone who has in turn subleased to a number of others, It’s impossible to control that.”
As for the art galleries, he says, the only one that was “for real” was the one he owned and ran. “They were all ego trips pure and simple. (Maybe that fellow at the Bienville Gallery is the single exception.) The one across the street was begun by a dilettante uptown lady who died and now it is being financed as a sort of memorial to her by some of her friends. That’s not the way art businesses are run.”
If he is absorbed in real estate, the art business can be said to be his passion. He’d rather talk about it than anything else and it has been his primary concern since he arrived in New Orleans the day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941.
(Borenstein came to New Orleans from Milwaukee where his parents, Russian Jews, immigrated in the earlier part of the century. When asked, he admits that he has a family connection with Trotsky but he regards this is “completely irrelevant” to his life as an adult in New Orleans.)
Borenstein, who was primarily interested in coins, stamps, maps, old documents and books, soon opened a shop at 706 Royal Street. When the old Arts and Crafts Club, where most of the local artists gathered, closed its doors, he also began adding a few paintings to his stock.
“In a few years I had a real art gallery. I bought art and I sold it. I always followed my instincts in acquiring things I didn’t mind owning. I never bought stuff because I thought it would sell. I didn’t mind keeping it, if it didn’t sell. And I’ve never been easy to buy from,” he explains.
It is from these beginnings that Borenstein launched some of the innovations in the art world which even his enemies say are to his credit. He was the first to bring pre-Columbian artifacts to the city. He was the first to show work by black artists. He was a local pioneer in recognizing the value of photography as an art form.
From the beginning, Borenstein felt “consignment selling was a cop-out for both the artist and the gallery.” Painters whose work he showed got a monthly stipend - usually a monthly allowance and a place to live. In exchange for this, he would take their product.
“In the fifties, I soon became the major vendor of art in the French Quarter. I showed true artists - not hacks who were grinding out work for the tourists. There were Noel Rockmore, Charles Richards, Xavier de Callatay, the late Andrew Lang - who was probably the best water-colorist in this part of the country - and two black painters, Sam Middleton and Walter Williams, whom I met when I started going to Mexico in the fifties,” he relates. “All of these artists were not from New Orleans, but wherever they were from, all of them had a New Orleans period in their work.”
His trips to Mexico also led him to dealing in pre-Columbian artifacts. Borenstein simply shrugs when he’s confronted with some of the stories about his pre-Columbian artifacts making the rounds locally for years. Or rumors that he had a “factory” in Mexico which made his pieces, and that he paid huge sums to Mexican authorities in order to smuggle artifacts out of the country. He is quick to point out that these two stories contradict each other. If they were fakes why would he have to pay somebody to smuggle them out of the country?
“When I started going to Mexico in the fifties, I met several families who lived near the major archaeological sites. I put them on my payroll. They found the artifacts and I made regular trips down there to pick them up. This was legal at the time and there were no problems either in this country or in Mexico.
“Paying off officials is nothing new in Mexico or in any country for that matter. The trick was always to give the right amount to the right official and that sometimes caused trouble. The system worked for me until the United States began to pass laws making import of these artifacts illegal. When it became illegal, I stopped doing it. It was that simple.”
But were they fakes? No, they were authentic pre-Columbian pieces, he insists, and the proof of that lies in the fact that “I sold pieces to art dealers and art collectors all over the country and still do. When the local art establishment ignored my art gallery, it forced me to go national. It turned out for the best.”
It is when Borenstein begins to talk about what he calls “the local ‘pseudo-culturists,’ the spoilers who tried to dominate the art scene, the sycophants that surrounded the one or two local art patrons,” that he becomes his most venomous. But who is the local establishment?
“They are the people in this town who think their shit don’t stink,” he answers unhesitatingly.
The voice of all of these art establishment types was the long-time art columnist for the Times-Picayune, he says. Early on, she decided to make Borenstein a sort of non-person in the art work and for more than three decades never mentioned him or his gallery in her weekly reports on the local arts scene. Since her coverage was the only coverage at the time, it amounted to a total blackout.
“But my art business continued to thrive anyway.” In 1960 the Associated Artists Studio on St. Peter Street became the E. Lorenz Borenstein Gallery on Bourbon Street in what was then the poshest of the new hotels, the Royal Sonesta.
“The complete opposition I got from the local art establishment forced me to look to a market outside New Orleans. In the sixties Vincent Price, who was then buying on an international basis for the famous Sears art collection which traveled throughout the country, made contact with me and I did a lot of work for him here, acquainting him with the work of rising local artists like Rolland Golden, whether they were with my gallery or not.”
It was about this time that he began to show more black artists like Bruce Brice and Sister Gertrude Morgan. Artists were still complaining that they were being exploited by the Borenstein system of buying their work outright - for very little. But Bruce Brice, the only one who would talk about it, doesn’t think so.
“I never actually had a formal show with Larry, but I think what he did was good for the artists at the time. I don’t think anyone was ever exploited. Business is business and these artists were not children, but grown men. I also think he did right by Sister Gertrude Morgan. He saw that she was taken care of and that was important.
“I worked for Larry after school when I was just a kid. I think it was very helpful to me. I learned a lot about the art field by just watching him do business,” Brice adds.
What has proven to be one of Borenstein’s most innovative break-throughs occurred in the field of photography. He somehow included photographs into his all-encompassing interest in old documents and that’s how he came to buy the entire collection of photographs by E.J. Bellocq. Bellocq was the photographer who preserved the images of New Orleans prostitutes of the famed Storyville section which subsequently formed the basis for the recent movie “Pretty Baby.”
“I bought those photographs from another dealer in the Quarter. They had been kicking around for years because everybody thought they were only dirty pictures. After I bought them, then I had to wait until somebody came along who liked them more than I did and was willing to pay me more than I had paid for them.”
“I’m in the taste business,” he explains. “I have absolute confidence in my taste and it’s always proven profitable. A couple of years later Lee Friedlander (the well-known American photographer) visited me and saw the Bellocq photographs. He bought all of them and then put them in book form which has been very successful for him,” Borenstein said.
Another local photographer in whom Borenstein was interested was “Pops” Whitesell. “‘Pops’ was a fine fellow and a wonderful photographer who happened to live off the courtyard of the St. Peter Street building where Preservation Hall is located. For decades, almost all of the important people in town found his way to his studio. When he died, Allan Jaffe, and I bought his entire output from his estate.”
Recently Jaffe and Borenstein gave most of the collection of some 2,000 photographs and negatives to Tulane University “because I thought that’s where they really belonged. Now those Newcomb girls and Tulane boys can just go to the library if they want to see pictures of their forbears,” he laughs.
As profitable as he has found real estate and art to be, Borenstein insists “I have never made a nickel out of Preservation Hall.”
If there’s one thing he has done purely for love, preserving traditional New Orleans jazz (not the Dixieland variety) is it. “I’ve always been interested in that special kind of music. In the Fifties, when I had to keep the gallery open at night on St. Peter Street, I used to ask the old black musicians to come play for me because I couldn’t go to hear them. I moved a piano into the gallery, bought a tub of beer and urged the passersby who came to listen to give their nickels and dimes to the musicians. That’s how Preservation Hall got started.
“The old black musicians sometimes found work in the black bars but they never got to play on Bourbon Street because the proprietors didn’t want blacks looking at their white strippers,” he recalls.
“The success that Preservation Hall is today is due to the hard work of Allan and Sandra Jaffe,” he points out. “Other Jazz emporiums in the Quarter have failed because they were not run by people like Jaffe who is himself a musician and makes no attempt to pander to people’s tastes.
“Preservation Hall has never spent a dollar on advertising. But it has managed for years to have four or five bands playing traditional New Orleans Jazz touring various parts of the world where they cause a lot of excitement. The people in the orient love them and I spent last summer traveling with one band through South America and it was just great.
“In this respect, preservation of traditional jazz, I was also ignored by local people who should have been my supporters. Instead they tried to sabotage me, but it didn’t work,” he smiles.
And what does Borenstein see in the future for the French Quarter? Then he uses some of the words which have so very often been flung at him. “I’m upset at so many attempts to exploit the Quarter, all the efforts to make it into a kind of Disneyland,” he says.
“But there’s an important force at work to counteract all of this - it’s called the McDonough 15 school. This school has become a rallying place for French Quarter residents who insist on keeping it a viable place to live. Nothing else has ever united the efforts of bar owners on Decatur Street, nightclub owners on Bourbon Street, and Royal Street merchants. My own kids went there and I know it’s a great place that could be even better with the proper help. If the Quarter makes it as a place to live, it will be because of that school.”
Maybe Larry Borenstein has mellowed a bit after all.
Photo caption: Borenstein: “I’m wonderful!”