Tulane student to write biography under acclaimed journalist Walter Isaacson

Sanjali De Silva, Senior Staff Reporter

Sophomore Henry Walther was sitting in a meeting with distinguished journalist and acclaimed businessman Walter Isaacson Professor Isaacson, to Walther discussing his assignment.

“Maybe you could turn it into a 300-page book,” Henry remembers Isaacson saying to him. He laughed in response.

On the first day of fall semester, Isaacson asked his students to name a prolific New Orleans or Louisiana figure. When Walther declared Moon Landrieu as his individual, he did not know it would be the beginning of something monumental.

“I am very excited about Henry being able to do this biography,” Isaacson said. “Moon Landrieu is one of the most important figures in the history of 20th century New Orleans, and Henry has been working with him very closely, and I think it will make a spectacular biography.”

With a keen interest in Southern political history and the civil rights movement, Walther considered Landrieu the obvious choice. Landrieu served as mayor during a transitional period in New Orleans between white and black governing coalitions. After Landrieu’s term, there was not another white mayor for more than 30 years until his son Mitch Landrieu was elected.

“I think the themes of white allyship of Southerners is incredibly fascinating and outside of the racial politics, he just had a huge impact on the city economically and spatially,” Walther said.

Landrieu led efforts to renovate the city’s infrastructure. His projects included the Moon Walk promenade in the French Quarter, the Mercedes-Benz Superdome and renovations to the French Market and Jackson Square.

To Walther’s surprise, he was set up to the meet 88-year-old Landrieu at his house on Napoleon Avenue thanks to Isaacson’s local connections.

“Professor Isaacson told me ahead of time that the problem won’t be to get him to start talking, it will be getting him to shut up,” Walther said. “He’s incredibly gregarious, a great storyteller.”

Walther spent hours at the Landrieu house hearing countless stories and discovering boxes of untouched newspaper clippings, speeches and other relics. It was during this visit Walther realized this was not just a fun project, but a necessary one.

“I probably read almost everything written about him on the internet in about three or four hours,” Walther said. “There just isn’t a lot about him online. And so there are all these stories that he’s telling me that haven’t seen the light of day in a few decades that I am really excited to share with people.”

By the end of the semester, Walther wrote a 40-page biography of Landrieu, detailing his life from birth to age 30. After Walther showed the Landrieu family his work, a bigger conversation began. He proposed the idea of a book a month ago and got approval on Monday.

Walther is enrolled in an independent study with Isaacson this spring and has cleared his schedule to allow for interviewing and traveling. He plans on spending the summer in New Orleans to focus on the project and dive into the writing.

“Since I don’t have experience with this, I am just going to take it one step at a time and see where I am at,” Walther said.

Walther also recognized that he is writing about a time that he was not alive for and on the topic of racial politics as a white man.

“I plan on being as cognizant of how my identity interacts with how I tell the story and recognizing that there are limitations that I am going to have, but using that as a way to humble myself while still doing the best that I think I can do,” Walther said.

From Walther’s perspective, this section of history is known by New Orleanians but is not fully understood in its nuances. He wants to bring light to the positive things Landrieu accomplished in his time, but also the struggles he encountered.

“I think in today’s day and age when everything in politics is so nationalized, it’s really good to be reminded that local politics is where change happens and it wasn’t just in the ‘60s and ‘70s where it mattered, it matters even more today,” Walther said.

Leave a Comment