Sometime around 1930, when he was nineteen, maybe twenty years old, John Schwegmann and his best friend, Wilfred Meyer, took a stroll over to Macarty Park to attend a rock concert. Well, it wasn’t exactly a rock concert, of course, as rock n’ roll hadn’t been invented yet. But it was just as exciting, as this event, a political rally, featured the electrifying oratory of none other than Huey Long, the Kingfish, then at the peak of his speechifying powers. This experience—like seeing Hendrix or Zeppelin—must have been exhilarating, and memorable. For around fifteen years later, John and Wilfred would set out to create a unique discount enterprise, crowned by two colossal consumer cathedrals, dedicated to the proposition of “Every Man a King.”
In 2015, I attended my first Louisiana Book Fair, held at the Capitol building in Baton Rouge. While wandering the grounds I came upon the magnificent statue of Huey Long, placed prominently in front of the building and newly decorated with fragrant bouquets. My gosh, I wondered, what is this glorious homage to the demonic demagogue doing here? I decided then and there to look deeper into the myth of this supposed political devil.
So far, though, I confess I have yet to investigate the Huey Long phenomenon, neglecting to read any of several biographies on the man. By default, then, I am left with little in my imagination beyond the terribly damning portrayal offered up by the movie version of Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, in which Huey is presented in stark, expressionistic black and white as a two-faced populist swindler, a diabolical political con man, a demagogic succubus draining the life blood of the rural rubes for the sake of raw power and self-glory.
With curiosity continuing to nag at me—Could he really have been that bad when he was apparently so beloved?—I recently decided to take the lazy way of gaining greater insight into Huey Long. So instead of reading a book, I turned to YouTube. Here I came across a remarkable series of interviews with Huey’s great-granddaughter, Audra Snider, who is on a mission to set the record straight. Admittedly biased in favor of her notorious great-grandfather, Snider’s interviews offer up startling, indeed stunning, evidence that Long was more a saint than a sinner, more noble hero than evil reprobate.
Rather than being cast as some sort of dictator or vampire, Huey Long comes across in Audra’s interviews as a genuine champion of the “dirt poor” against the “filthy rich,” the latter of whom at the time were conspiring to keep the people of Louisiana in the pre-industrial dark ages. Huey the radical firebrand committed himself to upending this benighted situation, taxing the wealthy to build roads and bridges, schools and universities, and a social safety net. His tremendous accomplishments, combined with his unsurpassed rhetorical skills, propelled him into national political prominence. According to Snider, by the mid-1930s Huey was becoming so popular throughout the country—via a nationally syndicated radio show—that even President Franklin Roosevelt felt threatened by his powerful charisma and “Share Our Wealth” populist program.
Whatever the truth of Audra Snider’s radically revised take on what respectable consensus presents as the demagogue of legend, it is a fact that Huey Long’s neo-populist message resonated profoundly with John Schwegmann. Huey fought against the stunted socioeconomic, almost neo-feudal, effects resulting from a gross maldistribution of wealth and power, and so did John Schwegmann. Long was rabidly against chain stores, which he felt ruined communities, and so was John, who never expanded beyond metro New Orleans. Finally, Huey favored giant building schemes as a means to remedy inequality. And so did John, who pioneered the modern big box—the gigantic discount palaces that favor consumers, not manufacturers, and thus dominate retailing today.