The Original New Orleans Diva

With sequins on her arms and a cocktail stirrer hanging from her neck, the most vibrant and vivacious member of NOLA’s preeminent restaurant family made the city her personal playground.

The Original New Orleans Diva

New Orleans is a city of folklore. In a contemporary sense, it’s the grand mythos of an inebriated Lundi Gras evening, elevated by booze, that bleeds into Mardi Gras morning. We tell these stories with the type of wonderment reserved for tall tales gleaned from a fishing trip. Each experience is a redfish growing larger, hanging just within grasp, taking the bait only to a point. We never know what happens to the one that gets away, so we color the spaces with elevated memories of what was and what might have been. The story of the Brennans, the city’s best-known restaurant owners, is established history to New Orleanians, the stuff of local legend – as routinely told as the story of the Kerns, the famous Mardi Gras family whose patriarch turned his craftsmanship into a multi-million-dollar float design industry. And perhaps the greatest Brennan legend of all is that of the family jewel personified – Adelaide Brennan.

Mere years before Blaine Kern founded Blaine Kern Artists in 1947, Brennan patriarch Owen Brennan purchased the Old Absinthe House on Bourbon Street in 1943. He then leased a building across the street and opened his first restaurant in 1946, which he fittingly dubbed Owen Brennan’s Vieux Carre, after the original name for the city’s famed French Quarter.

His sister, Adelaide, much younger than Owen, had grand aspirations of her own, though they’d yet to enter the realm of restaurants. As a girl Adelaide attended Catholic school at the famous Our Mother of Perpetual Help Chapel, a now-deconsecrated residence better known today as the former home of other larger-than-life New Orleanians, including Nicolas Cage and Anne Rice. During Adelaide’s walks home from school, it wasn’t the church building that she was eying but the house next door — just one of two buildings on the block at that time, located on the corner of Prytania and Third Street in the Garden District. Its Grecian ionic columns beckoned Adelaide like the Parthenon, she felt such a spiritual longing for the home. Enclosed by a classic wrought iron fence, such a mansion never once looked imposing to Adelaide, but more an invitation as a place to house her very dreams. She didn’t have the means yet, but she knew she wanted it. And as was Adelaide’s way, that’s exactly what she got.

Owen hired his younger sister, Ella, after she heavily complained about Vieux Carre’s menu limitations. She thought the food wasn’t up to snuff and that the restaurant could surely use an update. Just out of high school, Ella soon found herself running the place as it reopened at 417 Royal Street. Dubbed Brennan’s, the new restaurant debuted in 1946, though Owen would not live to see its latest incarnation — he died quite suddenly from a heart attack the year before the opening. Owen willed his restaurant to his wife and three sons. Ella, despite not having a legal stake in the business, continued working with them as a mastermind of sorts, overseeing the Royal Street location. According to the New Orleans Times-Picayune, none of Owen’s five siblings technically had any ownership of the business after he died, though they nearly all had a hand in its success. It was not until shortly after their father and mother passed a few years later that Owen’s siblings bought in, including the oft-celebrated bon vivant Adelaide, then just coming into her own.

Adelaide was a striking redhead, widely lauded as one of the most beautiful women in New Orleans. It’s been said that her idea of casual wear was an outfit without sequins. Constantly dressed to the nines, her hair coiffed ever so gently, Adelaide’s deep, emerald green eyes shone like the glinting reflections of the sun passing through the wispy current of the sea. To quote Adelaide herself, they surely “sparkled plenty.” She was the subject of constant compliments, to which she’d simply smile, wink and playfully thank the person for noticing.

Adelaide Brennan (Photos courtesy of Commander's Palace)
Adelaide Brennan (Photos courtesy Commander’s Palace)

Adelaide had a constant stream of suitors trying their hand at winning her heart, yet she was married only once, to a lucky lad named Jack whom she’d met on a cruise. Adelaide did love cruises. It didn’t matter the destination — so long as it sailed out of the Port of New Orleans, she gracefully boarded the ship and bid bon voyage for a while. Jack and Adelaide’s courtship was swift. When she informed two of her closest friends that she and Jack were to be wed, they simply replied, “Who?” Oh, how men had done elaborate things to catch the glint of those green eyes, but somehow, some way, Jack had gained her attention.

The Times-Picayune reported that Archie Casbarian, the restaurateur and owner of Arnaud’s — one of the French Quarter’s other most celebrated and longstanding restaurants — once sent a live turkey with a diamond necklace draped around it to Adelaide as a Thanksgiving present, at the urging of one of her suitors. Jack vied for her affections in a similarly fantastical manner, even after they were married. He knew he had a grand dame and acted as though his fairytale bride should be courted with only the most elaborate gestures, superlative acts that fall less on the spectrum of love and cross deep into the absurd. Adelaide’s nieces say that once Jack drained the couple’s pond and filled it with glimmering Champagne for his jewel of a wife, dipping one of her shoes ever so slightly into the bubbly pool and drinking straight from it. For Adelaide, such affections were too much — he simply had to go. Their relationship, unlike her beauty, was awfully fleeting.

The Brennan clan in their heyday, including Ella, facing forward.
The Brennan clan in their heyday, including Ella, facing forward.

Adelaide was more than just looks, of course, even though in all that has been penned, discussed and commemorated of Adelaide’s spirit, little has been said about her professional self. In addition to keeping track of the restaurant’s numbers, Adelaide’s vivacious personality led her to the necessary business skill of networking. She masterfully connected others, helping to facilitate partnerships both romantic and professional. Her Garden District mansion, the home that she had eyed in awe as a child, played host to New Orleans royalty as well as the world-famous. She often received the kings of Bacchus, one of the top-tier Mardi Gras krewes, those social aid and pleasure clubs known for their elaborate balls, parades and acts of philanthropy.

Adelaide’s organizational skills and handling of logistics when planning a grand fête prepared her not just for aesthetics but further factored into her accounting acumen. It fell to Adelaide to keep the numbers straight as the Brennans expanded their burgeoning eatery empire to include their second restaurant, Commander’s Palace, a now classic fine-dining establishment that helped launch the careers of such iconic chefs as Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse.

The Brennans acquired Commander’s Palace in 1969, eighty-nine years after it had originally opened as a saloon. The original founder, Emile Commander, had turned his successful business into a world-class restaurant, and it went through three more owners before the Brennans took it on, deigning to redesign its interior first. Commander’s Palace was to be divided amongst the family equally, at the encouragement of Ella, who took a very egalitarian approach to the family business. But Owen’s wife and three sons couldn’t agree less. By the mid-’70s, they seized control of Brennan’s completely, leaving Ella and her siblings to run Commander’s Palace, then a still-burgeoning haute hub just seeing the finishing touches of their elaborate remodel.

Adelaide’s eye for design continued to inform the family business despite the split and it was she who had a definitive say in the décor of the restaurant, as well as its supplies, according to family members interviewed for this story. Perhaps her most famous design decision was repainting the exterior of Commander’s Palace. Its original color was what many growing up in the Garden District at the time were accustomed to: none of the vibrant hues you’d expect from such an aesthetic city, but rather safe beiges and browns, the latter of which overtook Commander’s Palace like an unflattering dress hemmed at all the wrong spots. Adelaide was as savvy as she was frugal, explaining her rationale with the simple fact that all paint costs the same, whether it’s brown or aqua. Aqua, of course, won out. As Adelaide predicted, it also faded beautifully.

Adelaide dancing with William E. Bergman, an architect who designed the City Hall in New Orleans.
Adelaide dancing with William E. Bergman, an architect who designed the City Hall in New Orleans.

All the while, Adelaide somehow tried to transcend the conflict. She kept her spirits just as elevated as her Mallard beds: regal, four-post Victorians that dotted every bedroom in the house. If those spirits were to ever falter, it was the pendent around her neck that would keep things lively. Adelaide frequently wore a swizzle-stick medallion, with which she stirred her drinks in as elegant a fashion as could be expected when such an object is dangling from one’s neck. She still tended the books for quite some time, but as the family business continued its upward swing, a new accountant was hired, and Adelaide briefly dated him. Once their courtship ended their post-breakup malaise briefly included a period of silence that certainly made it all the more difficult to gather necessary financial information. How could Adelaide go through the books if their keeper was someone with whom she no longer talked? Luckily, that period didn’t last for long.

Never one to be silenced in celebration, she kept up her grand parties and active social calendar, stretching from the most fantastical to the calmest. Everything about her aura, the house and its atmosphere was celebratory, though not always necessarily a black-tie affair. Phyllis Diller was a recurring guest at the house, once giving Adelaide voice lessons. At one party, while the famous jazz conductor Phil Harris entertained a rapt audience of guests, Bob Hope himself seized the first available opportunity to steal the proverbial spotlight away from Harris and held court in Adelaide’s ballroom teaching dance lessons. Entertainer Carol Burnett was a familiar face as well. It was Ella who furthered the famous attendees’ profiles in New Orleans by helping recruit them as celebrity royalty for Bacchus. Everyone from “Perry Mason” star Raymond Burr to Jim Nabors of “The Andy Griffith Show” celebrated the spirit of the city in Adelaide’s Garden District abode and let that ebullience overflow to Mardi Gras parades, when they’d regally sit atop floats rolling down St. Charles Ave.

A party in Adelaide's Garden District home.
A party in Adelaide’s Garden District home.

For many of her parties, the forty-by-twenty-two-foot ballroom in which she entertained was sparsely decorated. In Adelaide’s eyes it didn’t need to be decorated; it was meant for dancing. The spacious ballroom was so sparse that when Adelaide’s niece, Ti, once brought a teacher over for a visit, she remarked that the room’s furnishings must be out for cleaning. As unconventional as Adelaide could be, she instilled order in her home and was meticulous about its maintenance. It was within that order that she could entertain hundreds. Multiple table configurations were at the ready to accommodate as many as 200 people for elaborate dinner parties, complete with fine tablecloths and even finer china adorning them. A full room was dedicated as its own bar and if there wasn’t a big band playing the tunes du jour, it was Adelaide’s nieces playing DJ, their stacks of vinyl records strewn about a small section of ballroom. Her parties earned her admirers and friends; a tight-knit circle, ever expanding with her generous spirit.

For someone who was so well-loved, Adelaide’s romantic life paled in comparison. After Jack, her flings were rarely serious and she supplemented her outward romances with friends who functioned as escorts to social events. When on a double date, Adelaide would frequently be accompanied by her sister Ella, whom she’d grown all the more closer with since Ella moved in shortly after her own divorce.

The year was 1969 when Ella moved into Adelaide Brennan’s home with her children, Ti and Alex. The home was just down the street from their previous residence, in the same neighborhood where the elder Brennans had grown up. Ella and Adelaide had found themselves on equal but difficult footing: Both recent divorcées were in need of a little sisterly support and they were happy to provide it. Ti was just nine years old when Adelaide essentially became her second mother. She recalls that Adelaide imparted much wisdom to her and her brother, Alex, teaching them both that no one was forcing them to lead a traditional life. However, this meant that the children did have to deal with the consequences of Adelaide’s late evenings and even later mornings juxtaposed with their school schedules.

Even among New Orleans standards, Adelaide was known as a bon vivant of the highest order. Ti frequently found herself having to ask Adelaide to shush her guests because the studious girl had a test in the morning. On weekday mornings, while Ti and Alex were midway through their day, Adelaide was just waking up, fixing herself something soothing to help with the vapors, which was her covert phrasing for hangovers because the “h” word was simply unbecoming of a woman of her status. Though Adelaide would never leave the house before three o’clock in the afternoon, she was not a lazy woman. She simply kept to her own schedule. No matter the circumstances, every evening before bed, Adelaide would spritz perfume on her pulse points just before she fell asleep. When Ti finally asked her why she continued her olfactory ritual despite sleeping alone, Adelaide simply countered with, “Well, who do you wear it for?”

Adelaide Brennan
Adelaide Brennan

During those years she helped teach Ti and Alex math and English, as well as etiquette and self-worth. Adelaide was a true polymath, as comfortable with numbers as written words, though it was language and vocabulary that captured her spirits best. When she wasn’t planning a party or assessing what was missing in the Brennans’ restaurants, she played tutor to Ti and Alex, helping with homework and hoping her intellectual curiosity would rub off on them. “She was fascinated with finding the right word at the right time. She just loved vocabulary in general. There’d be times when we’d talk where she’d stop mid-conversation and challenge me,” Ti says, imitating Adelaide: “’There has to be a better word for that.‘” Adelaide loved to write letters and had exquisite penmanship. An invitation to one of her parties was just as coveted for its calligraphy as for what it entailed.

As she got older, Ti was frequently tasked with helping Adelaide run errands for the restaurants because Adelaide did not drive, despite being one of the most independent women in New Orleans. Adelaide’s tales of transit are famous, sometimes comical jaunts. With her brother Dick, she once joined the Rolls Royce Club and the two acquired a silver cloud limo that had once been a part of the Queen of England’s fleet of cars. Its retirement certainly made sense given the vehicle’s reliability: The luxury car so frequently broke down that Adelaide would have another limousine tail her just in case the Rolls couldn’t make the trip. Needless to say, the car spent many days parked either in front of her house or in Dick’s garage.

Ti celebrated her sweet sixteen nearly two years after the family had divided themselves. She was not only a licensed driver but had finally ascended to the age where she could attend Adelaide and Ella’s famous Christmas Eve Réveillons along with her cousin and eventual business partner, Lally. The French word for “awakening,” Réveillons are a New Orleans tradition: late-night dinners typically served after a midnight mass. Sixteen was also the age that the two received rooster pennants, the semi-official mascot of the Brennan family and their namesake restaurant. Lally’s fondest memory of Adelaide’s dinners was of one of her many elaborate dresses. “She wore this gorgeous, velvet hostess ensemble with a long shirt that had pockets, and on those pockets were little reindeer. When she put her hands into her pockets and gave a little squeeze, the reindeer’s noses would light up. It wasn’t anything tacky, like an ugly sweater. It was just this very tasteful, velvet garment,” Lally says.

Those dinners were traditionally family parties, primarily attended by the Commander’s Palace Brennans, as Adelaide and Ella’s side of the family became known. The other side of the family that had split — the Royal Street Brennans — spanned just four people: Owen’s wife and three sons. In contrast, Adelaide’s nieces and nephews became her surrogate children. Her family extended far beyond the two factions. Less than a decade later, ovarian cancer would claim the vibrant jewel of the Brennan clan, but somehow unite a family once so conflicted.

Adelaide Brennan’s is a life measured with few calendar years marked for reference. At her best, days passed like the dynamic push-pull of a string orchestra at the peak of a crescendo. Adelaide, the consummate conductor, lived her life in a grand swell that celebrated its sheer existence. Thus, when that crescendo quieted and the swell started to break, Adelaide resounded to tell no one.

According to Ti and Lally, a doctor had called the home asking for Adelaide, and when Ella answered the phone,he told her of Adelaide’s terminal diagnosis. As the months went by and her condition worsened, Adelaide requested fewer and fewer guests. No matter her confidence, she was a lady and felt that no one needed to watch her deteriorate. Sure, there were moments she could still laugh, like when the floors of her old, off-kilter home had her sliding away from her family when they briefly let go of her wheelchair. Until the end, she chose to sparkle plenty, and exited this world with grace. As no one but the Brennans know exactly when their family business spilled over to their personal relationships, turning the clan into a house divided, so it is only the Brennans who know when Adelaide was born and the date and time when she died. Still, they deigned to tell no one. Though it was implied that Adelaide was rather young when she’d passed, Lally and Ti won’t tell me her age. They’ve resounded not to, actually, joking that their aunt’s spirit would forever haunt them if they were to betray her in such a manner. (Public records have her birthdate pegged as November 15, 1915, meaning she was 67 when she died.)

Dear Aunt Adelaide.
Dear Aunt Adelaide.

Instead, they focus on Adelaide and Ella’s shared vision of the afterlife: the Saloon in the Sky. As Ti describes it, the Saloon in the Sky is laid out exactly as Adelaide’s grand home, that legendary estate she had wanted, worked hard for and inhabited to the very end. At the Saloon in the Sky, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong are there, with Fats Pichon on piano. There are no hangovers, certainly no vapors, and not a soul you don’t want to see. Everyone is there together.

Lally and Ti say that Adelaide’s passing — less than a year after her fatal diagnosis — was bittersweet. Their Aunt Dottie had moved into the home and the whole family made a mock hospital for Adelaide so she could live out her days in a place she so deeply adored. A friend, a pastor, said a few words before her passing. “We were all in the room when she died,” says Ti. “We held hands. We were there.”

Since the split, the original Brennan’s has risen, fallen, closed and opened with a different restauranteur at the helm: Lally’s brother, Ralph Brennan, who owns numerous restaurants around New Orleans, as well as Ralph Brennan’s Jazz Kitchen in Disneyland. After Brennan’s was put on the auction block in 2013, Ralph and his business partner Terry White purchased the 200-year-old building for $6.85 million. His renovation and reopening of the iconic space finally prompted Ella to return to 417 Royal Street, the restaurant that had made her famous and vice versa. Until that moment, she hadn’t dined in the establishment in four decades. Owen’s sons, all major partners in Brennan’s Inc., were forced into bankruptcy the year the restaurant closed and was subsequently sold. A sole son of Owen’s, Ted, continues to try his hand at his father’s craft. His Ted Brennan’s Decatur restaurant will open later this year just around the corner from the rejuvenated Brennan’s.

Lally and Ti have since formed a business bond untainted by family conflict. The two are also responsible for outposts of Commander’s Palace and Brennan’s in Houston, along with Ti’s brother, Alex; Lally’s siblings; and additional family members. Ella’s egalitarian distribution of the family’s assets still resonates to this day. The cousins’ successful foray into dining and drinks includes their Cocktail Chicks brand, as well as Cafe Adelaide and its adjoining Swizzle Stick Bar. Both pay homage to the freest woman they’d ever met, Adelaide Brennan.

“She was just so in awe of the time we lived in, that things could change so much,” explains Ti. “She encouraged all that we did.”