Ray Nagin, at the time a New Orleans mayorial candidate, brings a round of drinks to the bar as he works celebrity-bartender night at Molly's at the Market in New Orleans, 2002. Photo courtesy of Times-Picayune /Landov
At first glance, Molly’s at the Market, an unassuming bar in the French Quarter of New Orleans, doesn’t look like a renowned media hub. But sit under the bar’s lights drinking long enough and you start to notice, beneath the layer of dust in the rafters, a wood carving of the local news station WWL4TV’s logo, along with a CBS News plaque from 1984, an autographed photo of Diane Sawyer, and a New Orleans Times-Picayune plaque promising, “We publish come hell or high water.”
Sometime in the mid 80s, Molly’s, which opened in 1974, began hosting a “Media Night” every Thursday, where journalists both local and national came to mingle, discuss everything under the sun, grouse to each other, and get their second drink for free. (Never underestimate the powerful appeal free alcohol has to journalists.) Media Night also features a monthly guest bartender, and in the past three decades nearly every notable reporter, editor, author, and politician who's washed up in New Orleans has served drinks to the press. Marc Morial, who was mayor of the city from 1994 to 2002, was a guest bartender in the 90s, though a Times-Picayune article on Molly’s wall notes that slinging drinks was “not his cup of tea.” More recently, City Council member Stacy Head took her place behind the bar in the run-up to local elections.
“My favorite guest bartender was always [legendary corrupt Louisiana politician] Edwin Edwards,” said 32-year-old Jim “Trey” Monaghan III, heir to the superb chain of Monaghan family bars, of which Molly’s is a part. “Edwards is obviously a convicted felon, but also one of the most charismatic people I have ever met. Great bartender.”
Andrei Codrescu, the author and NPR voice, remembers the night Edwards bartended, sort of. “I barely noticed him,” Codrescu told me via email. “I was hanging out with some really bad people. I do remember (dimly) that I was the celebrity bartender one night. I remember Monaghan Sr. looking disapproving as I gave away his whiskey to my friends. Anything other than whiskey straight, the regular bartender took care of.”
Molly's is one of the few bars that to have served drinks all through Hurricane Katrina, and during the flooding it became the home away from home for visiting members of the press while the power was down everywhere else. “We had an operating phone in the bar somehow, which was great,” remembers Trey Monaghan. “People from the media—I remember some reporter from Ireland—they were behind the bar calling in to wherever their stations were, filing their stories.”
After the flood, however, the Monaghans halted the tradition of guest bartending because the family felt that both the media and the city government had done New Orleans a disservice. “My family didn’t want anyone coming down to bartend because of how things were handled from the politicians’ side and from the media side,” Monaghan explained. “Right after the storm, a lot of the coverage was just disaster porn. There was bitterness in our mouths about everything. Sometimes certain people come in and bartend and we feel honored, but elected officials who weren’t doing anything to push the city in a positive direction? And people from the media who were pushing out propaganda? I didn’t have time for that.”
That disgruntlement has faded with time, however, and the relationship between Molly’s and the media is on the mend. On the day in 2012 when the Times-Picayune announced it would cut back to publishing an edition only three days a week (the precursor to massive newsroom layoffs), Molly’s gave away free drinks all night to anyone with a Picayune press pass. More recently, Lens reporter Tyler Bridges restarted the tradition of guest bartenders.
On a recent Media Night I turned up to watch former Newsday and current New Orleans Advocate cartoonist Walt Handelsman mix cocktails with his son James (who is an actual bartender). Molly’s slowly grew packed with members of the fourth estate. Gordon Russell of the Advocate and Rich Rainey of the Times-Picayune, reporters at competing papers, shared drinks and stories about stories. American Zombie blogger Jason Brad Berry, whose writing helped bring down the corrupt mayor Ray Nagin, bought me a drink. I met a couple folks I’d worked for but had never even shaken hands with, like the Advocate’s owner, John Georges. And at the far end of the bar, making fun of it all, sat satirist Chris Champagne (himself a former Media Night bartender) and local writer and know-it-all Ronnie Virgets, husband to former Times-Picayune editor and current Advocate columnist Lynne Jensen, who was (of course) also at Molly’s that night.
When Handelsman came out from behind the bar for a break, he told me how he first moved to New Orleans in 1989 and “came to Molly’s and fell in love with the place.” With a Pulitzer to his to his name for his Times-Picayune work, Handelsman moved away from New Orleans and won a second Pulitzer at Newsday. “But the more I was in New York, the more I wanted to be in New Orleans,” Handelsman said. “And then to top it all off, my beloved Saints—who I weathered many a bad year with as a season ticket holder when they were not good—started playing really well… I had to come back.” In 2013, he finally relocated his family back to New Orleans and himself back to Molly’s.
The unassuming media sanctuary has provided the cartoonist with a lot of inspiration over the years, not all of it useful. “I’d have to do two cartoons on Friday back in the day: a comic strip called Picayune Toons, then also the Sunday cartoon,” Handelsman recalled. “My now-editor Mike Pearlstein and a few other of my media friends were at Molly’s, and I told them I had to go because I had two cartoons due. Then we started talking politics. We’re riffing on the news, killing each other with funny stories. And I was getting these awesome ideas, great ideas, and I’m grabbing bar napkins and writing them down and cramming them in my pockets. I’m writing down punchlines, and I am high-fiving my coworkers, telling them, ‘I’m golden!’ So I get up the next day, grab my pile of napkins, and go to work. And inevitably I’d end up at Pearlstein’s desk wondering, ‘What are these ideas?’ Not even one of them is suitable for the newspaper. I can’t even understand half of them. So there I was at work, stuck at 10:30 on a Friday with nothing. That happened a lot.”
Handelsman then told an inappropriate story of a long-past wild Media Night to Times-Picayune environment reporter Mark Schleifstein, then made me promise not to quote him (trust me, it was great). Schleifstein himself is a somewhat famous figure, having won three Pulitzers and cowritten a 2002 Picayune story package titled “Washing Away,” wherein he described in eerily correct detail the exact ways in which a massive hurricane could devastate vulnerable New Orleans, three years before Katrina hit.
Schleifstein has been a Media Night regular since the 80s. “I remember when longtime Jefferson Parish sheriff Harry Lee was bartending,” he said. “Lee was in the middle of the battle with Times-Picayune columnist James Gill, and so one of the reporters found a picture of Gill and made facemasks. A bunch of people walked into the bar with these James Gill masks on—and then Gill himself came into the bar. Harry Lee drew bullet holes on one of the masks.” The couple of times Schleifstein himself bartended on Media Night, his tween daughter—who’s now a producer for Anderson Cooper 360—sat outside the bar’s entrance selling Girl Scout cookies.
Media Night has been a tradition long enough to accumulate some history like that behind it. But it’s also been an unquestionably great PR stunt. Surveying the scads of positive reviews of the bar on its walls, from local rags to GQ, Trey Mognahan recounted to me a lesson his grandfather Jim Mognahan taught him long ago: “Never pay for advertising.”
Michael Patrick Welch is a New Orleans musician, journalist, and author of books including The Donkey Show and New Orleans: The Underground Guide. His work has appeared at McSweeney's, Oxford American, Newsweek, Salon, and many other publications. Follow him on Twitter, here.