From Edwin Edwards to Lee Harvey Oswald, Frenchy Brouillette was a New Orleans mafia man with many connections.
“For generations, if you flew to what is today Louis Armstrong Airport, jumped into a cab, and told your hack that you were in the market for loose women, no-limit gambling, hot jewels, cheap booze, or a premium high, there was a good chance he would take you to see Frenchy, baby. That doesn’t make me evil; that makes me Mr. New Orleans.”
These are the opening lines of “Mr. New Orleans: The Life of a Big Easy Underworld Legend,” co-authored by Matthew Randazzo V and the late Frenchy Brouillette. The memoir — first published in 2010 — has recently been released as an audiobook.
Randazzo treasured the opportunity to work with Brouillette, though they each had different roles to play in the creation of this book about New Orleans’ history with organized crime.
“This is Frenchy’s memoir, and it’s told in the way he communicates,” Randazzo said, “but it was my job to capture it and write it down.”
Documenting a pre-Katrina New Orleans
But why was Randazzo so interested in telling a story about Frenchy and the local mafia in the first place?
He said he began working on the book a few weeks after Hurricane Katrina, when he was just 20 years old. As was the case for many New Orleanians, it was a tough time for him. His family lost their home, and his mother lost most of her business.
Randazzo sensed the city was going to recover, but felt it might look different once it did — that it might lose some of the grit he felt made it special.
“I was passionate about New Orleans and Louisiana history,” he said, “and to cope with what I was feeling post-Katrina, I wanted to capture a story about the New Orleans and the New Orleanians I knew growing up.”
When Randazzo met Frenchy a little later in 2005, he knew he had exactly the protagonist he was looking for.
Mr. New Orleans shares his stories
“Listen, and I mean this in a loving way — but Frenchy was a ridiculous guy,” Randazzo said about his coauthor and eventual friend. “I knew that if I could capture what made him so unique, then we’d have a book New Orleanians would love.”
They began talking about the book in 2005 and finished it five years later. They met often and spent countless hours on the phone.
But at first, Frenchy was just meant to be a source. Randazzo said it didn’t take long to fall in love with Frenchy’s personality, manner of speaking and charisma.
“When I talked to him, I realized there’s no better tour guide to pre-Katrina New Orleans, and that’s exactly what the booked needed,” Randazzo said. “He would say these completely outlandish things — like a local at your favorite NOLA dive bar telling these impossible stories — but then I’d go home and fact check them against police files or in interviews with other people, and I’d learn the stories were true!”
Randazzo said he wanted the book to feel like Frenchy was sitting beside you on a bar stool, telling you his story, and Frenchy has lots of stories to tell.
He came to New Orleans as a 17-year-old runaway on a stolen motorcycle in the early 1950s. He was adopted by the mob soon after. He was cousins with four-term Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards, friends with JFK assassin Lee Harvey Oswald and an associate of New Orleans Mafia godfather Carlos Marcello.
He made tens of millions of dollars during a half-century-long career in crime, and he spent every cent of it on…
“Well, he was a vice rackets operator,” Randazzo explained. “He ran call girl rings, strip clubs, gambling. They called him the Keith Richards of the American Mafia because Frenchy liked to party.”
While most of his work was in the sex trade, he became a political fixer in the 1970s just as his cousin began his first term as governor.
Throw in dozens of indictments, jail sentences, as well as multiple shootings and stabbings, and you’ve got a guy with some pretty interesting stories.
“I think that’s why he agreed to do it,” Randazzo said. “He had stories he wanted to tell before he was gone — stories about how New Orleans was when he first fell in love with her.”
A Cult Classic
Without any sort of help from a publisher back when it was first released in 2010, “Mr. New Orleans” still managed to find a passionate audience.
“I’ve re-released the book since then as different editions, but people have literally spent $1,000 on an autographed hardcover of that first edition,” Randazzo said. “It blows my mind.”
Randazzo said the popularity of the book is in large part due to Frenchy’s popularity.
“A lot of people knew him, and a lot of people still love him,” he said. “They want to hear his stories. He’s a funny guy, and I think that comes across in the book.”
Frenchy’s antics continued long after his role with the New Orleans Mafia came to an end. For example, Randazzo said that the book eventually began making money for its coauthors, and — as was usually the case — Frenchy had creative ways to spend it.
“My wife once made the mistake of telling him she liked Tennessee Walking Horses,” Randazzo remembered. “I found out Frenchy had located a stolen one and was planning on buying it for her, then illegally transporting it across state lines to our house. I had to tell him thanks, but no thanks on that one. I think he was a little disappointed.”
In addition to his co-author’s charisma, Randazzo believes that a lot of readers were interested in the book because Frenchy is the highest-ranking New Orleans Mafioso to ever tell his story.
“People have a thirst for those kinds of stories, and Frenchy shares a lot of them. He said, ‘You can’t rat on a dead guy’ because they’re already dead,’ but he made sure never to give anything on anyone who was still living.”
To fact-check and supplement the information Frenchy provided, Randazzo interviewed more than 100 other people connected to Frenchy or the events covered in the book.
He said there was a lot in the research that surprised him. For one, he couldn’t believe how cozy a relationship the judicial system had with criminals.
“I didn’t expect the degree of affection they had for the Mafia, and it wasn’t just Frenchy,” Randazzo said. “I can’t tell you the number of politicians — including famous ones — who couldn’t wait to tell me their favorite Carlos Marcello stories.”
Anything else that surprised him?
“People really love the JFK chapter,” he said. “Judges, lieutenant governors and governors have all told me how accurate they think we got it.”
Finding the right voice for the audiobook
Randazzo said he’s typically more a fan of holding a book in his hands. He acknowledged, however, that “Mr. New Orleans” might work even better as an audiobook. The reason, he said, is because it was always meant to be presented as if it was coming directly from Frenchy’s mouth — a story told by one of the most outlandish characters in 20th century New Orleans.
He had received offers to turn “Mr. New Orleans” into an audiobook for a decade, but Randazzo was hesitant.
“I needed to find the right guy to do the voice,” he said. “I needed someone who could get Frenchy’s Cajun accent and rhythm right, but I didn’t want it to be a caricature, either. That’s not how Frenchy talked.”
Randazzo finally found his guy in Baton Rouge native and TV star Louis Herthum. Herthum’s best known for roles on “Westworld, Longmire”; “True Blood”; “Murder, She Wrote”; and most recently, “All Rise.”
The author believes Herthum’s charm, wit and charisma is the perfect match to portray the wild, hard-partying Frenchy.
“Watch the pilot of Westworld and check out his scene with Anthony Hopkins,” Randazzo said. “He’s amazing, and to have that kind of talent and brilliance in this project makes it a real joy to listen to.”
That brilliance comes across in the three-minute free sample available on Audible. Once you’ve gotten a taste, consider buying the whole thing. The COVID-19 pandemic has robbed us the opportunity to sit at our favorite bars and listen to quirky local regulars spin jaw-dropping yarns. Mr. New Orleans gives us that chance by connecting us with one of the quirkiest locals ever to grace New Orleans.
Authors: Matthew Randazzo V and Frenchy Brouillette
Interested in the New Orleans mafia?
Many historians believe that New Orleans was the original center of America’s network of mafia families. Check out our story on the local origins of the mafia in New Orleans.