|Dudley LeBlanc and the Hadacol Boogie
Thirty-five years after his death, Dudley J. LeBlanc and his magical elixir remain larger than life.
By Jeremy Alford | 12/13/2006
Photo courtesy of Lafayette Parish Clerk of Court Louis Perret
Gov. Earl K. Long offers a toast at the wedding of Dudley LeBlanc’s daughter.
Photo courtesy of Lafayette Parish Clerk of Court Louis Perret
The Hadacol Caravan makes its way down Jefferson Street in 1950.
Photo courtesy of Lafayette Parish Clerk of Court Louis Perret
“Two months ago I couldn’t read nor write. I took four bottles of Hadacol, and now I’m teaching school.”
— A 1949 radio testimonial for Louisiana’s famous cure-all medicine.
A clown dressed in a police uniform stumbles around on stage and makes his way into the audience. A spotlight follows the ensuing folly as every time the clown takes an energetic step, an oversized bottle of Hadacol nearly jumps out of his pocket. He reaches quickly for the tonic and helps himself to a healthy swig. His massive glasses glow in the evening shade with each pull on the bottle. It’s obvious that this is one drunken clown, and he’s soon joined by another inebriated fellow whose nose lights up when he takes sips. The crowd — children and adults — loves it and screams into the night air.
In the shadows, carnival workers adjust the floodlights, and the public address system is loudly tested while another dozen or so clowns make their way into the audience. Some perform daring stunts, others magic tricks. In his book, Coozan Dudley LeBlanc: From Huey Long to Hadacol, author Floyd Martin Clay describes it as the last — and greatest — traveling medicine show. Mickey Rooney would typically serve as emcee, alongside comic relief from that flirty tart Minnie Pearl, and the evening would offer up everything from midgets and giant men to slapstick acts and political pitches (usually benefiting LeBlanc, Hadacol’s creator). When he was sober enough, Hank Williams often closed the show.
Aside from being a monstrous tax write-off, LeBlanc turned to the caravan as a way to invest more money in advertising — he was already spending millions annually in more than 700 U.S. daily newspapers and 500 broadcast outlets. The Hadacol Caravan was LeBlanc’s Super Bowl commercial, and it translated into record profits. The B-vitamin tonic became a national phenomenon virtually overnight and, by 1950, was making more money than Bayer aspirin. Sales eventually peaked at around $20 million when LeBlanc’s product was being distributed in 22 states, making the wily Cajun and his boozed-up recipe pharmaceutical legends. When Groucho Marx asked LeBlanc during a radio program what Hadacol was good for, LeBlanc’s response was humorous and revealing: “It was good for $5.5 million for me last year,” he told Marx.
So what exactly was Hadacol? Newsweek took a swing at it in 1951: “Well, basically, it’s a patent medicine — a little honey, a little of this and that, and a stiff shot of alcohol hyped up with vitamin B. Actually it’s a great deal more. It’s a craze. It’s a culture. It’s a political movement.” If you refer to the bottle’s label, however, it was the key to good health and promised to cure arthritis, asthma, diabetes, epilepsy, heart conditions, gallstones, tuberculosis and much more. Of course, Hadacol’s 12 percent alcohol content was the real selling point. No wonder its legions of fans never blinked at plopping down $3.50 for a “family size” 24-ounce bottle, even though poverty was among the most persistent ailments of the day.
More than anything else, Hadacol’s time in the sun was defined by LeBlanc and his antics. Today, 35 years after his death, he remains an icon of Louisiana politics and culture. LeBlanc was hard to miss at his financial peak, dressed sharply in Italian double-breasted suits and matching Flamenco hats. From behind a set of wire-rimmed eyeglasses, with his distinctive haircut cropped short around the ears, LeBlanc was a natural promoter and salesman his entire life — and was his own best product.
LeBlanc dabbled in broadcasting and book-writing, but he was also a born politician. He served four consecutive terms in the state Senate and, by slamming Huey P. Long and campaigning in French, came closer than most to being governor. Former state Sen. Edgar “Sonny” Mouton, a Lafayette Democrat, served in the Legislature with LeBlanc during the late 1960s and remembers that LeBlanc had a block of rural voters — rumored to be in excess of 40,000 — he could always count on. Even toward the end of his life, LeBlanc was playing king-maker with governors. “There were homes all over Louisiana you could have gone into in the ’50s and ’60s, and you would have seen only two pictures on the mantelpiece,” Mouton says during an interview earlier this month, “and that would be Dudley LeBlanc and Jesus Christ side by side.”
The rollercoaster success ride didn’t last forever. There was a steep fall from fame for LeBlanc during the ’50s, marked largely by his questionable sale of Hadacol. The national media pounced on LeBlanc after the deal, virtually ruining his lifelong dream of becoming governor. Complaints from the Federal Trade Commission and an indictment continued to tarnish LeBlanc’s name. The final chapter of Hadacol’s history could be considered karma, since it started with LeBlanc stealing the elixir’s recipe from another man.
In Clay’s 1973 biography, former Gov. Edwin Edwards writes an even-handed foreword about LeBlanc, praising him for remaining on the political scene long after “most of his contemporaries were retired or dead and buried,” and chastising him for his more questionable undertakings. “LeBlanc’s lifestyle was uniquely his own,” Edwards writes. “It was not one that many would care to emulate, but somehow it suited him perfectly.”
Born to Numa and Noemie LeBlanc Aug. 16, 1894, in Youngsville, LeBlanc grew up in an agricultural community but was able to see past the cane fields of his youth. He started a pressing business as a teenager and graduated from Southwestern Louisiana Institute (now UL Lafayette) at only 18, paying the entire tab himself. LeBlanc even paid for his cousins’ degrees as well. He went on to become a salesman of many trades, from tobacco and shoes to oil and, of course, patent medicines. He served as an Army sergeant during World War I, sending pay back home for his brothers’ education.
That kind of generosity was quite common with LeBlanc, says Wilmer “Shorty” Baudoin, LeBlanc’s first cousin and personal assistant of more than 20 years. “He put a lot of kids through college like that,” Baudoin says. “Whenever he had money, he would just dish it out to whoever needed it.”
LeBlanc was fond of taking as well as giving. If you believe the lore repeated in countless newspapers and books, LeBlanc visited his doctor in New Orleans about a foot injury and was given a multivitamin mix for his pain. Impressed, LeBlanc asked the doctor to let him market the liquid venture to the masses. When the doctor refused, LeBlanc stole a few samples on a return visit when the nurse wasn’t watching.
Far from the reach of the modern-day Food and Drug Administration and all its pesky regulations, LeBlanc launched his new start-up business by stirring together the recipe with boat oars behind his barn in Abbeville. The label recommended mixing 1 tablespoon in a glass of water following a meal, and repeating four times daily, but some pharmacies sold doses by the shot-glass. In Chicago, officials limited sales to liquor stores. LeBlanc would often laughingly say the alcohol was a “preservative,” but he rarely said anything about Hadacol’s hydrochloric wash, which helps the body absorb things like vitamins — and alcohol — more quickly. LeBlanc concocted the name Hadacol from the beginning letters of his former medical business, the Happy Day Company, which manufactured headache powder. “Well, I hadda call [read: Hadacol] it something!” LeBlanc enjoyed telling reporters. Testimonials for the brown tonic swamped the country and became part of the fad, as did the “Hadacol Boogie” jingle, which has its own place in music history with versions by artists like Jerry Lee Lewis. LeBlanc even marketed the alcohol mixture to children, offering “Captain Hadacol” comic books, squirt pistols and cowboy holsters.
But it was the Hadacol Caravan that truly cemented LeBlanc’s national notoriety. Planes, buses, cars and parade floats were used to help the caravan move from one town to another, with major Hollywood celebrities along for the ride, such as Milton Berle, Lucille Ball, Bob Hope, George Burns, Judy Garland and Jimmy Cagney. Admission was only two Hadacol box-tops — one for children — which cost $2.50 for a couple of 8-ounce bottles. A separate jazz and blues show was held for African-American customers, and sales of Hadacol were brisk during the shows. It was heady times for LeBlanc and Hadacol.
The Hadacol crash started when the company was sold in a curious manner that today resembles Enron, with debt being slid off the books and not reported to the buyer. A 1951 Business Week article pegs a purchase price of $8.2 million, of which a quarter was paid in cash by the New York-based Tobey-Maltz Foundation. LeBlanc, however, had sold the company without disclosing more than $4 million in debt. He had reached a point where he was spending more money on the caravan and advertising than he was making. Furthermore, not only did LeBlanc promise the Tobey-Maltz Foundation that revenues would top $75 million the following year, he also attempted to stay on the company payroll and earn $100,000 annually as a sales manager. The new owners were forced into bankruptcy while LeBlanc managed to break free from any fiduciary responsibility. “If you sell a cow,” he told Time magazine in his defense, “and the cow dies, you can’t do anything to a man for that.”
Unfortunately for LeBlanc, the bad luck didn’t stop there. The Federal Trade Commission went on to label his marketing tactics as “false, misleading and deceptive” and issued a formal complaint. Then in 1957, the year he sold the company, he was indicted for fraudulently filing his 1951 federal income tax return. Again LeBlanc wiggled off the hook, this time due to records being accidentally destroyed by the federal government. A capsule version of Hadacol was tried, but it didn’t click with the public. Neither did another tonic called “Kary-On.” The controversies placed a pox on his business career, as well as any chances he had at Louisiana’s governorship.
According to Gary E. Theall, treasurer of the Vermilion Parish Historical Society, it was hard to gauge the effects of the events on LeBlanc. “I lived two doors down from [LeBlanc], but I don’t think anybody knew what was going on in his head,” Theall says. “We would love to have some kind of account like that for the archives.”
Baudoin never remembers seeing LeBlanc angry or distraught over the charges. He says LeBlanc didn’t take business or politics personally and had built up a thick skin by the time the dark clouds came around. “Hadacol was a balloon, and he kept it alive until it went down,” Baudoin says. “All of that stuff just rolled off his back. He never took any of it to heart. Nothing could ever discourage that man. He had a lot of willpower.”
In his 1973 foreword, Edwards offers a theory on LeBlanc’s mindset: “Possibly he adopted the pragmatist’s view that victory is worth any price. Certainly he made no apologies for his successes; in fact, he demanded recognition for accomplishments. At the same time, however, he bemoaned and rationalized his occasional failures.”
Despite all the controversy, Mouton says LeBlanc always managed to remain popular with his base in Louisiana by continuing to be “Coozan” (roughly translated as cousin, which LeBlanc insisted everyone call him). Rarely did LeBlanc ever acknowledge the charges, and when he did so, it was often tongue in cheek. “Dudley handled everything very well,” Mouton recalls. “He had a Sunday radio program that helped him appeal directly to the people. He was a very good political chess player. He knew what he was doing. I don’t think he ever tried to truly defend himself against all those negative things.”
It’s no wonder LeBlanc is still referred to as the Cajun Renaissance man. He helped popularize French-speaking radio programs all over the state and continued his Sunday shows well into his old age. Long after the indictment and accusations died down, LeBlanc served as president of the Association of Louisiana Acadians and helped form the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana. LeBlanc also tried to keep his homeland’s joie de vivre alive through his writing projects. As an author, he published many books, including The True Story of the Acadians and The Acadian Miracle. Large parts of both books are considered more creative than factual by scholars and journal reviews, but LeBlanc is a revered figure in the study of Acadian genealogy.
More than anything else, LeBlanc is largely remembered for his politics. He was first elected to the state House of Representatives in 1924, serving only half a term because he won another seat on the Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities. LeBlanc bested the candidate backed by former Gov. Huey P. Long — the first of many skirmishes between the two men. He was also elected to four state Senate terms. It was there that LeBlanc made his policy mark by developing the Louisiana Old Age Pension program, which started as $30 a month for individuals over 65. “He was a good politician in that he knew the needs of the have-nots,” Mouton says. “That’s why he was so well liked by the poor.”
LeBlanc ran for governor numerous times, and his feuds with the Longs are infamous. The Kingfish once referred to LeBlanc as a “crook” who ripped off black clientele through a side funeral business. In return, LeBlanc often called Huey a “slacker” and attacked his administration at every opportunity. But it was with brother Earl, who also served as governor, that LeBlanc had a special relationship. When asked why LeBlanc supported one of his gubernatorial bids, Earl supposedly said, “Hell, you can’t buy LeBlanc. You can only rent him.”
Clay’s biography of LeBlanc confirms that Long wasn’t joking: “It is now openly conceded by many politicians that one had to approach Dudley with cash in hand when a local election was at stake, and he is alleged to have worked out a regular scale of endorsement, ranging from $50 for an insignificant post to $500 for a midrange post, and open-end negotiations for state support.”
On Oct. 19, 1971, LeBlanc was admitted to Abbeville General Hospital for an emergency surgery to address a gastric ulcer. Three days later, at age 77, he died of a massive stroke while in the hospital’s care. At the time, he was mounting a campaign for a fifth term in the state Senate.
Today, many folks still refer to him as “Coozan Dud.” If you spend any time in Vermilion Parish and bring up old Dud, the conversation often progresses as if he were family. Through all the highs and the lows, LeBlanc became a Cajun icon, the smiling pitchman who inspired, infuriated and amused. “He was a special man, a man of the people,” Baudoin says. “There will never be another Dudley LeBlanc.”