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Photo Credit: published in a book by Spratling and Wiliam Faulkner
Elizebeth Werlein, the wife of a prominent New Orleans businessman and a juggernaut of a political and social reformer in her own right, held a key role as Public Relations Director, supervising more than 200 of its Southern theaters, in the expansion and community acceptance of the Saenger Theatre chain.  Historically notable for both the force of her personality and the scope of her ambitions, given constraints on womens’ lives in the early 20th century, Werlein’s passions included aviation, film, Womens Suffrage, French Quarter restoration projects, and the anti-state-censorship efforts she undertook while in the employment of Saenger.
The daughter of Mary Louise Smith and Henry Thomas, a prosperous dynamite factory owner, Werlein was born Elizebeth Thomas in Bay City, Michigan during the mid 1880s. Smith and Thomas had two children, Werlein and a brother James, and the household was, according to later interviews with Werlein, a hotbed of international discussion, thanks to the expanding role of dynamite in national and international conflicts. This international mindset led Werlein, who was afforded every educational advantage during her childhood, to travel to Paris at the age of fifteen to put a worldly cap on her education. During the eight years Werlein spent on the continent, she abandoned her inherited Episcopalianism in favor of a Buddist-style Theosophism, developed a penchant for opera, cultivated an interest in aviation – earning a pilots’ license and, according to her, the distinction of being the first women to go up in an airship- and rubbed shoulders with the upper echelon of wealthy, and sometimes even royal, European society. In the course of her travels, Werlein came upon New Orleans, where she fell in love with both the charm of both the city and her future husband, music publisher Philip Werlein.
Philip and Elizebeth Werlein met through a mutual friend in 1908, and formed a immediate mutual attraction, culminating in their marriage six months later. Philip was a notable member of the local business community, as owner and operator of a music store best known for having publicized and published the Confederate anthem “Dixie” during the mid 1800’s. During the course of their marriage, they produced four children: three daughters, including Betty Carter, the source of much information concerning Werlein, and one son, Philip.
One anecdote attesting to Werlein’s tenacity and formidable personality alleges that after the birth of her first child, a daughter, Werlein, previously a cigarette smoker, quit the habit on doctor’s orders in the interests of having a son. Through the course of her next two pregnancies, both of which resulted in daughters, Werlein maintained her resolve. Just after the birth of her first child, upon learning the infant was male, Werlein responded by saying, “Give me a cigarette.”
In 1917, Philip Werlein died, leaving Werlein as a single mother tasked with raising her four children, all under ten years of age at the time.
Werlein’s daughter Betty married a fiery young journalist named Hodding Carter, to whose defense Werlein came on one occasion when one of Carter’s articles critiquing the legislature came under fire.
In 1945, cancer began to drain Werlein of her vitality, and, after a brief and futile sojourn to Maine to regain her health, Werlein insisted upon being returned to her St. Ann Street home to live out her last days. Elizebeth Werlein passed away on April 24, 1946.
Activism and Community Involvement
In his role as influential business leader, member of the Progressive Union, and chairman of the state’s Democratic Central Committee Philip Werlein became involved in many of the social and political issues of the city. As an intelligent, engaged woman in a position to contribute her time, Elizebeth Werlein became a player in the city’s political scene: first backstage to her husband, and then later, particularly after his death, on her own terms.
Early Years of Marriage (1909-1914)
Around the year 1910, there rose in New Orleans an opposition movement to the Red Light brothel policy, an opposition movement largely marshaled and mobilized by Philip Werlein. Although the campaign failed, Elizebeth whet her appetite for the world of activism, having often undertaken research for her husband’s speeches.
In the early years of her marriage, Werlein volunteered as a sewing instructor at the Kingsley House, a settlement school serving an area beleaguered by poverty, going so far as to undergo private sewing lessons on her own time to mold herself into a more competent teacher.
Beyond helping the poor, Werlein was passionately invested in the preservation and protection of New Orleans high culture, a passion which manifested itself in writing short stories and magazine articles, organizing the city’s Philharmonic Society, and contributing regularly to the city’s symphony.
World War I (1914-1919)
When war broke out, Werlein responded by volunteering as state chairwoman for the National League for Women’s Service and Women’s Committee for Liberty Loans, and as financial chairwoman for the Women’s Committee of the Council for National Defense in Louisiana. She was instrumental in organizing the Red Cross Canteen Service in New Orleans, a group that would far outlive its World War I inception. These organizations, as a whole, were engaged in leveraging the varied talents and capabilities of women and applying them to the war effort as a parallel to the more obvious contributions being made by the male Armed Services.
Beyond the spate of women’s groups in which Werlein was active, Louisiana Governor Ruffin Pleasant coordinated with Werlein, in recognition of her aviation expertise, in helping the Army identify appropriate landing fields throughout Louisiana, an accomplishment for which the New York Aero Club awarded her a set of commendatory wings.
Suffrage Work (1916-1920)
After the Great War came to a close, Werlein shifted her civic attention towards women’s voting rights, serving as legislative chair for the Woman Suffrage Party of Louisiana, which worked in conjunction with the National American Woman Suffrage Association in their shared quest for a suffrage amendment. This marked her activism, confident as it was in the necessity of a federal constitutional mandate, as distinct from that of other Louisiana organizations, who wanted voting rights enacted on a state level, keeping the interests of states rights at the forefront. Despite this philosophical divide, these organizations often coordinated their activism, in recognition that, whatever their personal preferences, their eventual goal was paramount.
Despite an initial failure of a statewide approval of suffrage, Werlein threw her heart back into supporting the Federal amendment. When the Nineteenth Amendment passed in 1920, the New Orleans chapter of the League of Women Voters was formed, with Werlein elected to serve as the group’s inaugural president.
Anti-Censorship Crusade (1924-1930)
In the wake of her husband’s death in 1917, and after the immediate preoccupation of the war had elapsed, Elizebeth Werlein was put in the position of needing to provide for herself and her four children. The question of her pension was a contested one between Elizebeth and the manager’s of Philip’s estate, and this combined with her ill-timed investment in German marks and with friction between Elizebeth and Philip’s mother -a wealthy but naturally conservative figure who disapproved on Werlein’s political and personal choices – meant that Werlein needed to contrive a method of individual self-sustenance. As a result of this necessity, Werlein leveraged her people skills and societal connections into a post as public relations director for Saenger Theatres southern region – comprising around two hundred theaters in total.
The nucleus of Werlein’s work with Saenger was her crusade against the move to censor the emerging film industry in a state-regulated system, a campaign championed nationally by the Motion Picture Association of America. Taking up again a progressive mantle, Werlein argued that a flexible system of responsible self-censorship on the part of the producers was far preferable to a rigid, inconsistent and repressive state censorship system. Werlein herself became part of Saenger’s self-censorship apparatus, viewing several films daily and contributing editorial advice to Saenger producers. Interestingly, the force of this argument was amplified because, as a woman – part of a group still seen as providing the moral underpinnings of society – Werlein was more credible in her claims to independently ensure social mores would remain unscathed.
On one occasion in 1925, Werlein spoke to a conference of business leaders of the dangers of censoring, arguing that filmmaking, far from being “a plaything” could be a tool in shaping public discourse, and shouldn’t be under the iron control of a wildly unreliable censoring system in which “no two of the censors in the five state with motion picture censorship agree on what is immoral.” She went on further to complain that “in Kansas, films are cut when they show a woman smoking a cigarette. In Pennsylvania, scenes hinting at approaching motherhood were barred, because the children had been taught that the stork brought babies.”
Werlein’s work as Saenger representative and censor came to a close in 1930, with the advent of the Great Depression. Luckily for Werlein, by this time, her children had mostly come into their majority, and her financial burden was lessened in tandem with her income stream.
Vieux CarrÃ© Preservation
During a time when the Vieux CarrÃ© region of New Orleans was looked down on as a ruin of its past decadence and grandeur, the home of the cities worst slums, Werlein was entranced by the mystery, beauty, and grandeur of the Quarter, and devoted substantial time to promoting and preserving the area.
A linchpin of this campaign came in the form of a short booklet, “The Wrought Iron Railings of Le Vieux CarrÃ© New Orleans” that came to press around 1916, at a time when widespread demolition was on the horizon and large-scale preservation efforts still several years in the future. In this pamphlet, Werlein uses the wrought iron as a medium to ruminate over the fascinating intersection of the old fashioned and the progressive that the neighborhood represented to her. “[The] wrought iron railings, overhanging the narrow cobble streets, silhouette like penciled eyebrows the ancient but softly beautiful eyes of the decaying houses”.
Towards this preservation-minded end, Werlein worked to revive the French Quarter’s culture virtuosity, becoming a frequent member of the Petit Theatre du Vieux CarrÃ©‘s cast and founding the Quartier Club, an organization of local woman whose goal was contravening the negative perceptions many held about the neighborhood.
After the toothless Vieux CarrÃ© Commission came into being in 1925, Werlein fought to breath life into the commission, and shepherded to victory a state proposal to give the Commission more direct preservation power, instead of simple oversight. A municipal ordinance echoing the same passed in 1937. Despite these victories, however, the organization remained largely limpid.
In response to what she saw as the anemic puppetry of the Commission , Werlein created a watchdog group called the Vieux CarrÃ© Property Owner’s Association, of which Werlein was first president. Under the auspices of this organization, Werlein called city officials on an almost daily basis, encouraging them to enact stricter preservationist policies. Eventually, Werlein’s campaign to highlight toe inefficiency and the indifference of the VCC paid off, and public opinion turned overwhelmingly towards Werlein’s side. Winning the support of the mayer, Robert Maestri, Werlein was able to effect changes including an inspector charged with supervising the French Quarter, a process for approving restoration projects, and greater police enforcement of litter and vice laws in the area. In recognition of her work, Werlein was awarded an honorary membership by the American Institue of Architects in 1942.
Werlein’s love for the Quarter extended beyond the bounds of her public life, as exemplified by her purchase of a houes at 630 St. Ann Street in 1926, at a time when the reputation of the French Quarter as an artists colony was growing, thanks to the presence of such names as William Faulkner, Lyle Saxon, Sherwood Anderson, and Alberta Kinsley. During the 1930’s, Werlein built upon this atmosphere by volunteering at a Cabildo study, restoring paintings for the Louisiana State Museum.
Campaign Against Huey Long
In the 1930’s, Werlein turned her passion for progressive causes and aimed its counterpart at Huey Long, who she saw as corrupt, demagogical, and a “dictator”.
Despite her commitments to French Quarter restoration, Werlein donated considerable amounts of time and money to the People’s League, an organization founded by Tulane University law students to combat corruption within the Huey Long machine. Her main work consisted of garnering supporters for rallies and petitions arranged by the League.
On a national level of progressive politics, Werlein fought for progressive politics on the board of the Democratic National Victory Fund and the Professional Women’s Committee of the Roosevelt National Campaign Committee.
When Huey Long was assassinated in 1935, Werlein returned her attention to her French Quarter efforts.
World War II
During the second world war, Werlein continued her work with the Red Cross, though with less fervency than during the first war, thanks to her increasing age and decreasing level of financial resources.
- Anthony Stanonis, “‘A Woman of Boundless Energy’: Elizebeth Werlein and Her Times,” Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana History Association 46.1 (2005): 5-26.