Max Clevenger

"Raconteur, Quarterite (and former owner of Andy's on Bourbon Street) Max Ray Clevenger died in Touro Hospital in New Orleans on Feb. 10, 2007. He was 80. His death was the result of complications stemming from a heart attack he suffered the week before on Prytania Street across from Touro while on his way to a doctor's appointment.

"He is survived by his former wife, JoAnn Clevenger, owner of the Upperline Restaurant; his two children, Jason Clevenger and Morgan Clevenger; and his great friend, Jim Monaghan Jr.

"He was born Nov. 27, 1926, in Ashland, Ky., the youngest son of Watt Clevenger and Goldie Brainard Clevenger. During the peak of the Great Depression, he went to live with relatives and was exposed to the hard-scrabble life of rural Appalachia. He entered the Army at the tail end of World War II and was on a troop transport in the Pacific when V-J Day was announced. After tours of duty in Germany and Korea he studied anthropology for several years at the University of Kentucky on the GI Bill. He worked at odd jobs in Baltimore for two years, making friends with restaurateur Morris Martick. In 1951, he found his way by train to New Orleans and the French Quarter.

"His first job in New Orleans was as a nightclub photographer at Pat O Brien's. But he was more interested in the challenges of quickly printing photos and soon took over darkroom operations. He parlayed those technical skills and his interest in science into a position as a microscopy technician at the LSU Medical School. A tinkerer and inventor, he developed an inexpensive version of the ultramicrotome, a precision cutting instrument used in the preparation of specimens for the electron microscope. He refused to apply for a patent insisting that it be made available as an affordable research tool to medical students.

"Max was never far from the French Quarter. He witnessed its transition from a rather seedy Italian neighborhood to a condominium-laden land of B&Bs and endured occupations by the Bohemians, the Beats, the Hippies and the Yuppies along the way. His first apartment was on Chartres above Dotty Riegers Cafe (later the Alpine). He was holed up in a shotgun double on Bourbon Street in 1965 when Hurricane Betsy took the roof off. Forty years later he was on duty as an A/V technician at University Hospital when Katrina struck and was trapped for five days before being evacuated.

"Many of the places that defined the Quarter he knew have faded away. He first saw JoAnn at Johnny White's (then on Bourbon). The children went to La Petite Ecole on Esplanade. He loved the exotic smells at Solari's and would stop there to buy fresh flowers on the way home. When Solari's closed he shopped at Puglia's on Rampart. He had breakfast most days at Battistella's. Behind the French Market was a stall where he could buy fresh fish, head-on shrimp or live crabs while in the front he could pick up a roast chicken at Lala's (with the cats out front). Tools and hardware came from LaNasa's on Decatur while drinks and stories were available at the Bourbon House.

"A skilled and ingenious carpenter, Max helped to shape the character of the Quarter in the '60s and '70s. In 1968, he and JoAnn opened Andy's Bar, described by the Harvard Student Guide as the oasis of Bourbon Street. It was a venue for folk musicians, regularly featuring Les Moore, Eddie deVere, Roosevelt Sykes and Babe Stovall. Joni Mitchell and Ritchie Havens would drop in after finishing their New Orleans gigs. In 1972, Max and JoAnn ventured to the other side of the Quarter, opening The Abbey on lower Decatur Street in what was then a down-and-out wino district. With help from then-judge Eddie Sapir and later Jim Monaghan Sr., Max cleaned up the street, thus paving the way for the Decatur renaissance later in the decade. He built the bar himself using stained glass and pews from closed churches. It was the first to offer Guinness Stout on tap and the first to fly in the Sunday New York Times on Sunday. The draw of having the current issue of the Times (along with a free buffet of breads and cheeses from Bill Long Deli) brought in the media, and aspiring politicos soon followed including an up-and-coming Dutch Morial. Max also tried his hand at smaller ventures, building a snowball stand in the French Market and a barbecue outlet in the Flea Market. He renovated the space that became Matilda's vintage clothing store on Decatur and built the first flower carts that JoAnn fought to put onto the streets of the Quarter. They remained good friends after divorcing in 1975 and he helped with several of the renovations at the Upperline Restaurant over the years.

"Max sat and drank, laughed and argued, collaborated and dissented with the generation that created much of the Quarter as we know it: Dick Allen, Andy Lang, Mike Hill, Larry Borenstein, Howard Mitcham, Barbara Reid, Mike Stark and Jim Monaghan. His face was a dramatic combination of jet black curly hair, light blue eyes, high cheekbones, a Semitic nose, with a light olive complexion (all suggestive of Melungeon roots), and he appeared often in the works of Quarter artists: Betsy Burleson, Don Snell, Jan Hinton, Kay Johnson (KaJa), Lee Friedlander and Noel Rockmore. He despised the bigotry of the segregated South and hosted parties that included Lolis Elie, Walter Young and Tom Dent, along with performers from the Free Southern Theater at a time when integrated gatherings were still subject to police harassment.

"In later years he would hold forth at Molly's at the Market, providing a bridge back for a new generation, telling stories and drawing inspiration from his heroes Mark Twain, Will Rodgers, H.L. Mencken and W.C . Fields. The tales were usually short and pointed with a perhaps a simple embellishment for emphasis a wave of the hand, a stomped foot, perhaps a few bars from a seaman's ditty or a brakeman's ballad sung in a lilting baritone.

"Max always had a romantic attachment to the distant and far off. He would walk to the Mississippi River levee, sit on the rip-rap, and watch the freighters carry in coffee and carry out cotton. He loved to listen to the rumble and the roar of box cars going by on the New Orleans Belt Line. He was an avid sailor and had a deep respect for the life of the hobo. An accomplished cook, he would create dishes from around the world. He had made fresh corn tortillas from masa with a hand press before anyone had ever heard of Tex-Mex. But he found everything he wanted in the simple routines of 100 square blocks by the River. And he never left."

- New Orleans Times-Picayune