Gary Esolen, the founding editor and publisher of Gambit whose passion for New Orleans led him to found the weekly paper in 1980 and later serve as the city’s chief tourism promoter, died Monday. He was 75.
His wife and business partner, Valeri LeBlanc, said Esolen died at East Jefferson General Hospital after a short illness.
Esolen, a former college dean, journalist and civic activist from upstate New York, came to New Orleans in 1978. He said he had visited the city only once before deciding to live here. He found work as a writer and editor at Figaro, the now-defunct weekly newspaper.
By the time that paper had ceased publication in 1981, a new venture spearheaded by Esolen and journalist Philip Carter was ready to fill the void as an alternative weekly with coverage of politics, culture and the arts. That weekly newspaper, Gambit, produced its first issue in February 1981 with Esolen as its editor and publisher.
“We knew it would be focused partly on entertainment, on what to do tonight or tomorrow night or next weekend,” Esolen wrote in a piece to commemorate the paper’s 25th anniversary. “But because we were in New Orleans, entertainment was not what it is in other places -- it was, and is, the deep culture of the city, its music and its food and its arts and its spirit. We intended to mirror that culture to itself. And finally, we intended to be a positive voice in the public conversation about our city, to help shape the future.”
In those early years, Gambit hired several established writers, editors and artists for its pages, including Errol Laborde, who was named editor in 1986. Laborde recalled Wednesday that Esolen, a rotund, bearded figure with a booming voice and personality to match, helped set in place the nuts and bolts of the paper’s operation, from production schedules to sales operations and, most important of all, its journalistic product.
“This was when the alternative weeklies were coming into their own, having come onto the scene in the 1960s and 1970s but then redefining themselves in the 1980s. Gary helped establish Gambit as an important local voice and news source at an important time for the city,” Laborde said.
Another early hire was Clancy DuBos, who came on board in late 1981 to write a weekly political column. DuBos, who remains Gambit’s political editor and columnist as well as WWL-TV's political analyst, would later become co-owner of the paper. His wife Margo, who joined the staff as a sales executive in its second year, became publisher when the couple purchased the newspaper in 1991.
“Gary was one of those rare people who was truly a renaissance man, a great conversationalist who was interested in all things and loved to learn about everything he could,” said Clancy DuBos. “He also taught me how to be an editor, not just in how you handle copy, but how you handle writers, which he did very well.”
During Esolen’s time, the paper introduced regular columns and features that remain popular today, including a Scuttlebutt column for political gossip and news, the Mardi Gras parade critic Rex Duke and Jazz Fest critic Count Basin. Early on, the paper also began honoring a New Orleanian of the Year each January.
Esolen was also a frequent editorial writer, tackling issues of importance to the city, from the troubled finances of the 1984 World’s Fair to utility rates and the demise of NOPSI and city regulation of Entergy in the mid-1980s. In Gambit’s first issue, Esolen penned an editorial about the city’s crime problem. As Gambit commented when it reprinted the editorial in its entirety for its 30th anniversary issue, the piece sadly reads as though it were written today.
“The city of New Orleans is in a near-panic over crime. Something has gone wrong. Crimes which people can almost dismiss from their minds when they happen in housing projects, or even in the French Quarter, are now happening in quiet Uptown neighborhoods, and it is terrifying,” Esolen wrote. He went on to analyze the factors he said contributed to the problem, including poverty, inequality and racial divisions. “In the long run, to save this city from terrible trials, we must do something about the problems of poverty and unemployment. If we don’t, the consequences will be as inevitable as a relentless column of figures in an actuarial table. To fail would be more than a failure of caring, more than a failure of imagination. It would be a failure of plain self-interest and common sense.”
Laborde remembered that when the paper began issuing endorsements in political races, the job of writing those columns also fell to Esolen. “When the decision was made to start giving political endorsements, Gambit became a serious voice. In the early days, Gary wrote lengthy and profound endorsement editorials unlike anything published locally,” Laborde said.
Gambit president & CEO Margo DuBos remembered Esolen as a bold thinker who could communicate ideas with passion and intelligence.
"In the 1980s New Orleans needed an alternative voice. His many civic discussions in Gambit and in the public arena on race, the economy, tourism and urban planning shaped so much of the positive progress we see in the city today."
According to The Times-Picayune, a 1985 article by Esolen about the city’s hospitality industry, titled "Can Tourism Be Saved?," prompted a phone call from Hans Wandfluh, the then-general manager of the Royal Sonesta Hotel and a leader of the city's tourism marketing efforts. "Do you ever do anything or just pontificate?" Wandfluh was quoted as asking Esolen. That led to his next career move.
Esolen left Gambit in 1987 and took a position as co-chairman of the Greater New Orleans Marketing Committee, which was touted as the city's first major effort to market itself as a leisure tourist destination. In 1991, Esolen was named executive vice president of the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation, which was formed that year. The public-private partnership between the city and tourism industry is tasked with promoting the city and leading tourism marketing efforts. Esolen worked there for a decade.
"In 1985, only a small group of us saw tourism's potential to help pull the city out of a depression," Esolen told reporter Bruce Eggler in 1991 as he took the tourism post. "Now, that belief is widely shared. I'm very optimistic about the possibility of a strong economic future for the city, provided we complete the (racial) integration begun in the '60s by extending it to the economic sphere."
Esolen was a graduate of LeMoyne College in Syracuse, New York. He explained that his early interest in New Orleans grew out of conversations with students from the city who attended the small Jesuit school. Also there doing graduate work was Rudy Lombard, the noted New Orleans civil rights leader. “Rudy was one of my heroes,” Esolen said in 1991. “I used to go sit at his feet and listen to his stories.”
Esolen earned a master’s degree in English at Syracuse University. He later became an assistant dean at Cornell and then a writer and teacher in upstate New York before moving to New Orleans.
“He was a big man with big vision, great understanding and a huge heart and New Orleans was a place that matched that. It has all those characteristics that fit him perfectly,” LeBlanc said. The two married in 1992.
In addition to his work in journalism, Esolen was also an actor, playwright and poet.
Most recently, he worked as a consultant. His online biography for the firm PLACES Consulting, which he developed with his wife, incorporates most of the traits he had honed here in New Orleans. “Gary Esolen’s central interest is in enabling richer lives in better communities through placemaking, economic development and tourism, and the arts. He has pursued those goals through business, journalism and other writing, and community service. His core strengths, honed over four decades, are strategic thinking, writing, and persuasive speech.”
Esolen and LeBlanc most recently took their expertise in tourism and communications nationwide, working on a "Visit Philadelphia" tourism initiative.
In addition to his wife, survivors include two stepsons and three granddaughters.
Funeral arrangements have not been announced but plans will include a celebration of life at a later date, his wife said.
- Editor's note: Gambit and WWL-TV maintain a content-sharing partnership.