Comiskey'sWhiskey by Justin Nystrom 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 work- ing 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 Corpo- ration arrives at a neglected and 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 ruledNewOrleans. A camera pans across a sign on the wall
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.
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
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 political machine. Despite such connections, life as a bootlegger did not come without friction. Comiskey was arrested in 1924 and fined $50 for selling liquor,
James E. Comiskey founded his wholesale liquor business in New Orleans in 1933.