In a long career, writer Jason Berry turns homeward again in ‘City of a Million Dreams’

By Susan Larson | Special to The Advocate

Jason Berry is one of the great journeyman writers of New Orleans, a virtuoso of genres. He has done it all — straightforward journalism (“Lead Us Not Into Temptation: Catholic Priests and the Sexual Abuse of Children”), cultural history (“Up from the Cradle of Jazz”), spiritual traditions (“The Spirit of Black Hawk: A Mystery of Africans and Indians”), and now, in time for this tricentennial year, he’s published his long-awaited, character-driven history, “City of a Million Dreams: A History of New Orleans at Year 300.”

Reading and writing have shaped Berry’s life from a young age. “My mother, Mary Frances Devine Berry, gave me books and prodded me to write,” he said. She sent his first story, written at age 4, to The Times-Picayune. “An editor sent her a nice letter saying that I showed talent; she used that on me for a while. I kept writing stories in grade school. We had a large library at home. My father was amused when I read ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ at 12; it was on the church’s forbidden list — and my mother was a serious Catholic. … It took me years to appreciate how much her literary sensibility shaped mine.”

His literary aspirations came early and stayed strong. “In my junior year at Georgetown, 1970, I edited a literary journal, wrote movie reviews in a student newspaper and marched against the Vietnam War, all the while anchored in the English department’s great books curriculum — Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Donne, Dickens, Austen, Yeats, Eliot, the usual suspects.

“After graduation in 1971, I went to Mississippi and landed a job as press secretary in Charles Evers campaign for governor. It was a life-dividing experience; the book I wrote in a white heat of 10 months found a publisher, thanks to the kind help of Walker Percy, whom I’d met through a family friend,” he said. “Amazing Grace: With Charles Evers in Mississippi” was published in 1973.

Now 69, Berry can look back on his long and distinguished career with an eye for the enduring threads, the steady struggle.

“’Lead Us Not Into Temptation’ was an ordeal,” he said. “I had just published ‘Up from the Cradle of Jazz’ (1986) when the scope of the church cover-ups, beyond Louisiana, began materializing in my research. I spent years writing articles on a shoestring budget before the 1992 publication, when I got out of debt and into a starter house. At least 30 publishers rejected it; many were afraid of legal action by the church.

“I finally landed with the Doubleday religion editor, Tom Cahill, a former Jesuit seminarian. He saw immediately that it was amply documented. That book had quite an impact for its time. I did a lot of national TV. I still hear from people just discovering it. I never anticipated that abuse survivors would endure like the chorus of a Greek tragedy in my life. People kept contacting me, especially outraged nuns and priests. I went on to do two other books on the Vatican.”

Other works brought pleasure. “I felt the most joy writing the play ‘Earl Long in Purgatory,’ with the novel ‘Last of the Red Hot Poppas,’ a close second,” he recalled. “It’s a comedy about the cover-up of a licentious Cajun governor found poisoned on page 2. I sent it to Edwin Edwards when he was in prison. I got a form letter sent to all of his friends with a handwritten line, ‘Thanks! Interesting!’ I wonder if he ever read it.”

While writing “City of a Million Dreams,” Berry also took time to work with former Mayor Mitch Landrieu on his memoir, “In the Shadow of Statues: A Southerner Looks at Race.” “We’d had a friendly if distant relationship for years, never once ate together before he asked me to help,” Berry recalled. “He’d arrive at my house about 5:20 p.m. on a series of appointed days, drove himself, no driver. He was so scrupulous about not doing work on city time. He’d written several chapter drafts and had a lot on youth homicide when we came to terms. I took that material, along with interviews on a 36-hour turnaround from a transcription service, (I’d) get a draft, he’d make changes and send it back. Mitch has a strong narrative sense; I was an editorial collaborator, not a ghost writer.”

But of all of his works, “City of a Million Dreams” has a special place in his heart. “The city of my birth and the church in which I was raised furnished the major narratives of my career,” Berry said. “They’ve intersected for years. When I think of the agony I felt in six nomadic weeks after (Hurricane) Katrina, the city a muddy hell-hole, I’d have to say ‘City of a Million Dreams’ means the most to me as a resurrection story.”

And for lagniappe, there’s the upcoming documentary, a high point in his personal as well as professional life. “Losing Ariel, my younger daughter, to heart failure 10 years ago was the hardest experience of my life. Now, to be finishing a film based on this new book with my older daughter, Simonette, as co-producer, is quite uplifting.”

“City of a Million Dreams” is populated with great New Orleans characters. Three especially stand out for Berry. First among them is free man of color Pierre Cazenave, a French Quarter furniture dealer who went into the mortuary business and began hiring bands for funerals. Then there was Mother Catherine Seals, a faith healer in the Lower 9th Ward who played the trumpet and had an orchestra. And last but not least, Sister Gertrude Morgan, the artist and mystic. That juxtaposition of the secular and the spiritual has always fascinated Berry.

Berry has created a portrait of “a city of spectacle in conflict with a city of laws,” as he puts it. And what emerges is a beautifully told, exuberant history of his beloved home town.

“I think we are a city apart from the rest of the country — a city that has been formed by so many cultures and strands of ethnic identities, and what makes it so remarkable is the way we all come together,” he said. “To me, this city is a grand mystery, and with each passing year I discover another layer that rivets me.”