Gus Weill and George Rodrigue (a couple of local boys)

Why do you do what you do?
Ah sir if we only knew.
But the winds call
And the waves toss
And we follow
And are lost.
Ah sir if we only knew.*
                        -Gus Weill, 1981

(pictured, A Couple of Local Boys, 1981, oil on canvas by George Rodrigue, 48×36 inches; collection the George Rodrigue Foundation of the Arts; click photo to enlarge-)
In 1981 artist George Rodrigue collaborated on a book with Louisiana poet, playwright, and political consultant Gus Weill (b. 1933).  They met in the mid-1960s through Weill’s Lafayette advertising agency, where he gained fame as a mentor to political commentator James Carville, and where he managed gubernatorial campaigns for Jimmie Davis and John McKeithen, and later, in Baton Rouge, for Edwin Edwards and Dave Treen.
In 1965 Rodrigue, home on a summer break from art school in Los Angeles, applied for a temporary job in Weill’s firm.

“He already had an artist, so he didn’t hire me,” recalls Rodrigue, “but we became friends.  Fifteen years later he approached me about a book.  I had just finished a children’s book with Dotsie LeBlanc, Le Petit Cajun:  Conversations with André Rodrigue, and Gus wanted to take it further, writing poems about my paintings.”

(pictured, George Rodrigue and son André in Rodrigue’s home and gallery on Jefferson Street, with featured books (from left) The Cajuns of George Rodrigue, a couple of local boys with Gus Weill, the Encyclopedia of Cajun Cooking, Bayou with Chris Segura (including the first Blue Dog painting), and Family Recipes:  Secrets of Maude Landry’s Kitchen; Rodrigue’s Mamou Mardi Gras hangs on the wall, 1984; click photo to enlarge-)
The book, a couple of local boys, includes paintings by Rodrigue and poems by Weill.  According to the inside cover, the collection…
“…is about the rudiments of human existence:  laughing and crying and victory and defeat and ghosts and sex.”*
Indeed, I struggled to find something quotable for this G-rated blog.
My grandpa said, hold the bat just like that.
He had seen Ty Cobb do it.
But I wanted to write
and he had never seen Thomas Wolfe.
Before he died he forgave me
and left his baseball cards to
my brother
who never misses a game.*
(above:  poem by Gus Weill; Let’s Play Ball, with André Rodrigue and Bud Petro, 1980 by George Rodrigue; click photo to enlarge-)

“Everyone was shocked when they read the book,” says Rodrigue.  “I didn’t read the poems before they were published, and I had a lot of explaining to do around town.”

Like George with the poetry, Gus also received a shock when he saw the book’s cover:

“You painted yourself as a swash-buckling Errol Flynn holding a sword,” he said. “And you painted me as a Rasputin.”

(note:  Rodrigue still uses this Excalibur-like sword, which he found years earlier in the Bayou Teche, as a mahlstick, helping to steady his hand while painting.)

The Lafayette poet and the Lafayette artist sparred in fun and friendship, linked by their mutual respect and a commitment to their craft.  From Weill’s introduction:

“Rodrigue’s people came from Quebec and Canada, and mine came from Alsace Lorraine.  His father was a bricklayer.  Mine sold mules.

“He begins painting at 8:30 at night and finishes at 5 a.m.  I write at 4 a.m.  We do this every day.  We don’t know why.  For the purposes of this book, we tried to come up with an explanation.  The best we could do was, we create because we must.  That’s not a satisfactory explanation for us either.  But we can’t do better.  Call it a compulsion.”

-click photo to enlarge-

In addition to his successful advertising firm and political savvy, Gus Weill taught playwriting at Louisiana State University; he authored novels and award-winning plays; and he served for nineteen years as the host of Louisiana Public Broadcasting’s Louisiana Legends Gala, honoring, among others, the subjects of sixteen Rodrigue portraits.

(pictured, official poster for the Deep South Writers Conference, University of Southwestern Louisiana, Lafayette, 1981; more info here-)

-click photo to enlarge-

Today Weill lives and writes in New York City, and Rodrigue lives and paints in New Orleans and Carmel, California.  Despite fond memories, the two have not seen each other in years.  Rodrigue recalls,

“Gus always talked with questions, and he worked while stretched out on his couch instead of sitting behind his desk.  For years, every time I saw him he’d say, ‘They never paid us for that book, did they?’”

On the book’s back inside cover, Weill includes a portrait not by Rodrigue, but by the artist/illustrator Bernie Fuchs. 

What the….?  I asked.

George shrugged,

“He wanted me to draw him, and I did, but he didn’t like it, so he used Bernie Fuchs’s sketch instead. 

“Eventually I quit hanging out with him because he moved to New York,” he continued, laughing, “and because every Christmas I had to give him fifty prints for his friends!”

I think you misnamed this book, I replied. 

You should have called it  A Couple of Good Ol’ Boys.

*about the poem at the top of this post, Weill wrote, “A few years ago on television, I saw salmon swimming upstream to die. I couldn’t get over it. So I wrote a poem questioning the salmon. The poem also questions George Rodrigue and me.”

*unless otherwise noted, all quotes by Gus Weill from a couple of local boys, Claitor’s Publishing Division, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 1981-

The Other Side of the Painting, a book based on this blog and published by UL Press (October 2013), is now available for pre-order; details here

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4 thoughts on “Gus Weill and George Rodrigue (a couple of local boys)

  1. George and I were amazed several years ago in Alaska at the salmon struggling upstream to lay (or in this case, fertilize) their eggs and die, after swimming around the ocean for a few years, in the very stream where they were born. Millions of them make the journey, crowded on top of each other, decaying along the way, unless they're scooped up early by a bear. The fish leap over rocks against a raging current, and the 1% that make it spend the last moments of their lives fighting over who gets to fertilize the eggs. Is the analogy working better for you now? Ha!

  2. Gus Weill owned many Weill's Department Stores all over Louisiana. My Father,Taylor Leon Williams (Betsy Ross's Grandson), ran three of them, along with Mother,Anne Williams, and myself, then called Betty Williams. I had no idea Gus was so famous. I remember him as a wonderful person.

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