Black Mercedes: A Story of Flashing, Humor and Unintended Consequences


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Eight Days | The New Yorker

Their hope for the city underscored what he already thought and what he'd told Benson. In a recent phone interview, Tagliabue recounted the conversation.

The first, his granddaughter Rita Benson LeBlanc, made him finally seem in tune with the city. Rita's rise to power in the organization was primarily about repairing relationships between the family and New Orleans. She grew up in Texas, spending summers running around the Saints' practices, until she went to college and spent her summers interning at the NFL office in New York.

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Tom Benson, whom she called Paw-Paw, adored her and saw in her his best chance to turn the Saints into a family dynasty. With each year, he gave her more responsibility and the titles to go with it. Between and , when the Saints were still building toward something, the now year-old Rita became the public face of a youthful, modern corporation, fully in tune with the city it represented. Actors and celebrities watched the games in her suite, everyone's place arranged according to a seating chart she closely managed. The art museum wanted her for its board, and she found herself at the nerve center of the city, drinking whiskey and talking politics in James Carville's living room.

Better than anyone else at the Saints' facility on Airline Drive, Rita saw the connections between the town and the team in the years after Katrina, and talked about them in ways that weren't ham-fisted and trite. At a meeting as the team prepared for its first season back in the Superdome, she listened as marketing people pitched pop-culture slogans and themes that ignored the drowning elephant in the room. She said the team's slogan needed to be something that reflected the goals of a football team and, subtly, of New Orleans itself.

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They hung a banner on the Superdome that said, "Our home. Our team. Be a Saint. Over the years, in the news stories leaked to local reporters by the Saints, a counter-narrative has emerged. Rita has been described as a tyrant, burning through dozens of personal assistants. Even in the run toward the Super Bowl, she showed signs of the strain that would come out in later years; after one big victory in , she got agitated when a guest in her suite, a famous painter from New York, opened the bottle of Perrier-Jouet Fleur de Champagne that had been icing down during the game.

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The bottle was hers to open. The night of the Super Bowl, she reveled in her glory, holding court at the team's victory party inside Miami's InterContinental Hotel, dancing with her friends by the stage to New Orleans frat-rock band Better Than Ezra. She'd protected and resurrected her family's name in the community, especially with Uptown businessmen who never trusted her 7th Ward grandfather. The party raged all night. Jimmy Buffett laughed with Carville out in the hall, and Sean Payton cradled the silver Vince Lombardi Trophy, now covered with smudges and fingerprints.

He took a picture with anyone who wanted one. That victory party was the end of the Saints as the standing army of the Rebirth of New Orleans, less a pro sports franchise and more the Olympic hockey team, a vessel for hopes and dreams. The team had served as a life-support system, nearly as essential as the one strapped to Steve Gleason's wheelchair, keeping the city breathing until it could breathe on its own.

Rita danced and Payton raised a glass, and in the city of New Orleans, and everywhere its sons and daughters had been scattered, people remembered their journey away from the flood. As photographer Akasha Rabut finds, the musicians at Edna Karr High in New Orleans, the marching band is a way of life, a road to college and a point of pride. They married a year before the storm, and in the decade since, she's made him into one of New Orleans' most generous philanthropists, giving away the millions he worked so hard to make.

Tens of millions have gone to hospitals, churches, high schools and universities. He cried when the team unveiled a statue of him outside the Dome, and in all the photos, Gayle was by his side, wiping away the tears. The years between spray-painted refrigerators and a big bronze statue of Tom Benson were dominated by Gayle. She herself is a character in a supermarket novel; married twice before, nearing financial peril and without prospects, and suddenly pulled into a world of privilege and luxury.

She shares with Tom a deep Catholic faith; both clearly nurse the wounds and insecurities all poor kids carry with them through life. She grew up in Old Algiers, directly across the river from the French Quarter, her father a janitor at a local store. They lived in a small shotgun house in a working-class neighborhood, where generation after generation tried to inch out of the mosquito bogs and sugarcane plantations.

The money spent on the big Uptown mansions is made down here. The air smells like sugar or sulfur, depending on the wind and the century, and the flare stacks of the refineries throw shadows onto the fields and levees. You can always see the skyline of the French Quarter, and in the other direction you can see the cities of pipe and smoke out in the marsh, stretching mile after mile, bracketed by where you're going and where you've been.

Brenda LaJaunie says her sister always wanted a better life than the one they had growing up. Gayle barely appears in her high school yearbook, one of those nowhere girls who don't find a place with any group. Gayle Benson says, through a Saints spokesman: "Mrs. Benson has provided for her family for years and now she continues to give and offer her time and focus to charities throughout our city. She has no comment about what others may say about her. Her focus remains taking care of her husband and doing what she can to help our city grow and prosper.


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Rita Benson LeBlanc and Gayle Benson, it is fair to say, have never gotten along -- Rita, by many reports, was convinced that Gayle was using her grandfather for his money. Last December, during a Saints game versus Atlanta, the contentious relationship finally reached the public. Rita had learned that, for the first time in her life, she would not see Tom Benson on Christmas. Rita and her mother, Renee Benson, blamed Gayle for splitting the family apart.

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In the suite this past December, witnesses say Rita shook Gayle and screamed at her. Rita denies this, calling it a fabrication of the Saints' spin machine. She says she merely begged Gayle to let them see Tom during the holidays. Six days after that game, Tom Benson sent a memo to his daughter and grandchildren saying he never wanted to see them again because of, among other things, their disrespectful behavior toward Gayle. He also said he wanted to take the shares of the team out of the trust he'd set up for them and give the Saints to Gayle.

The childhood home of Saints owner Tom Benson, who grew up in the 7th Ward before clawing his way to riches. Benson has placed shares in the Saints in an irrevocable trust, which means he'll need to replace them with assets or cash of an equal value. And before fighting over that amount, his daughter is taking him to court, challenging his mental capacity to make such a draconian decision. The battle, when whittled to its essence, pits Gayle Benson against Rita Benson LeBlanc, fighting over money, over love and out of spite.


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It's the first day of hurricane season, and in another courtroom in the same building, a lawsuit over the 22 Katrina-related deaths at the Lafon nursing home begins. Family members of the dead believe the nuns and nurses who ran the facility effectively killed their patients by refusing to evacuate ahead of the hurricane. Nurses had stood in the streets and tried to flag down the passing National Guard.

No one had stopped. A nun still wearing her habit had found a New Orleans police officer who'd promised to help but never actually did. Now, in the courthouse, nuns and priests walk through the lobby, some quietly waiting by the vending machines for their turn to testify. They carry rosaries. The crowd of television cameras and newspaper photographers isn't there, though, for the nuns -- the 22 awful deaths holding none of the fascination of an intrafamily battle over billions, the whole scene feeling like a piece of performance art about the state of America.

Reporters wait on the first day to finish, everyone turning to the elevators at the far end of the long hall whenever they open, waiting to hurl questions at a Benson. A black Mercedes pulls into the sally port and parks by the curb, and Tom Benson's driver, Jay, comes inside to wait on his boss. Upstairs, family members face one another, the first time they've all been in a room together since everything collapsed in January.

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Beyond The Breach

Renee Benson, Tom's last living child and Rita's mom, clutches religious medals and photographs of their family, before money and time tore it apart. OUTSIDE, people smoke on the steps of Loyola Avenue, two blocks from the corner where an year-old Louis Armstrong fired a pistol and got arrested, learning to play the horn while incarcerated. He first performed in jazz clubs that were torn down to build this courthouse. Perdido Street was flooded during Katrina, and if you'd been here 10 years ago, you'd have ducked and covered from the noise and toxic spray of fan boats cutting through the water.

Their turbines threw a mix of human waste and chemicals into the air. The survivors from Charity Hospital a few blocks away were headed toward safety, finally.

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The staff had been abandoned for three days after the storm, watching helicopters land at every nearby medical facility where the patients paid for their care, the rescuers leaving behind those at the hospital where care was free. Holly, as his friends called him, worked the Desire and Florida projects.

The people in the community respected him and thought he was fair. His fellow officers still talk in hushed tones about the morning, years ago, when they responded to a shootout in the Florida project. They arrived to find total chaos, people bleeding and screaming. One of the gunmen's young sons had been hit in the crossfire and died. The boy's mother wailed over his body as the cops tried to figure out what had happened. They sent Holloway into the apartment of the dead boy to see whether anyone else was armed. Holloway saw four or five kids inside, looked around at the empty cupboards and fridge.

He walked back outside, and everyone stopped for a moment to see him go into a corner store, buy cereal, eggs and milk, then walk back through the active crime scene to feed the hungry kids stuck in an apartment with no food. In the days after Katrina, he and Charity staffers went out in a boat to find survivors.

They passed a man sitting on his porch with his dog, drinking a bottle of Jack Daniel's.

Black Mercedes: A Story of Flashing, Humor and Unintended Consequences Black Mercedes: A Story of Flashing, Humor and Unintended Consequences
Black Mercedes: A Story of Flashing, Humor and Unintended Consequences Black Mercedes: A Story of Flashing, Humor and Unintended Consequences
Black Mercedes: A Story of Flashing, Humor and Unintended Consequences Black Mercedes: A Story of Flashing, Humor and Unintended Consequences
Black Mercedes: A Story of Flashing, Humor and Unintended Consequences Black Mercedes: A Story of Flashing, Humor and Unintended Consequences
Black Mercedes: A Story of Flashing, Humor and Unintended Consequences Black Mercedes: A Story of Flashing, Humor and Unintended Consequences
Black Mercedes: A Story of Flashing, Humor and Unintended Consequences Black Mercedes: A Story of Flashing, Humor and Unintended Consequences
Black Mercedes: A Story of Flashing, Humor and Unintended Consequences Black Mercedes: A Story of Flashing, Humor and Unintended Consequences
Black Mercedes: A Story of Flashing, Humor and Unintended Consequences Black Mercedes: A Story of Flashing, Humor and Unintended Consequences
Black Mercedes: A Story of Flashing, Humor and Unintended Consequences

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