Owen Edward Brennan, Founder
Owen Edward Brennan, the founder of Brennan's Restaurant, was born April 5, 1910, in New Orleans' "Irish Channel" to Owen Patrick Brennan and his wife, Nellie. Over a span of the next twenty-three years, Owen’s younger siblings were born in the following order: Adelaide, John, Ella, Richard (Dick) and Dorothy (Dottie).
Owen was already married when Dick and Dottie were born. Shortly after their births, Owen Edward Brennan, Jr. (Pip) was born to Owen and his wife, Maude. In time, Maude gave birth to two more sons, James (Jimmy) and Theodore (Ted) providing Owen with three male heirs.
Throughout his adult life, Owen Edward Brennan was driven by his devotion and an undaunting sense of responsibility to support not only his own wife and three sons but his parents and siblings as well. His father, Owen Patrick Brennan, was a New Orleans foundry laborer, which had made supporting Nellie and their six children very difficult; and so, his eldest son, Owen Edward Brennan set out to make his fortune.
Owen's undertakings and endeavors included buying an interest in a gas station as well as a drugstore and becoming the bookkeeper for a candy Company. He worked as a liquor salesman and district manager for Schenley Company and, finally, as the temporary manager of the Court of Two Sisters Restaurant.
In September 1943, Owen purchased the business of the Old Absinthe House on Bourbon Street. The Absinthe House had been built in 1798 and was known to be pirate Jean Lafitte's secret hangout. As its most recent proprietor, Owen staged lifelike mannequins of the notorious Lafitte and Andrew Jackson in what he called the "Secret Room" - the very room in which the pact was supposedly made in New Orleans' defense against the British at the Battle of New Orleans.
Owen became one of the city's best known hosts at his colorful Old Absinthe House, "the oldest saloon in America." Pianist Fats Pichon added to its charm with his talented renditions from Bach to boogie.
Owen added another dimension of ambience to the historical and musical atmosphere of the Old Absinthe House by inviting myriads of visitors to attach their business cards to its inside walls. Eventually, thousands of cards and autographed papers hung from its ceiling as well.
Owen's customers could recapture the past with a Pirate's Dream, the specialty drink of the Old Absinthe House. He labeled it "the high brow of all low brow drinks." Owen perpetuated the popularity of the Absinthe Frappe, an original creation of the Absinthe House and a favorite of Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Admiral Earnest King.
Yet the adventuresome drinks and unique atmosphere of the Old Absinthe House were not Owen's essential keys to success. Owen Brennan didn't need frappes but only the flash of his smile and a warm welcome to his many customers. It was once written that Owen would hit his customers over the head with his personality - "a blow from which few tourists, writers, movie celebrities or presidents ever completely recovered." With this innate ability to win friends and customers while committing each and every one of their names to memory, it was no wonder that Owen would become a distinctively successful restaurateur.
Owen's good friend, Count Arnaud, whose restaurant was a popular New Orleans dining spot, allegedly posed a challenge to Owen. Owen would relay complaints overheard at the Absinthe House to offending restaurant owners. To which Count Arnaud replied, "You're forever telling me about the complaints you hear. If you think you can do better, why don't you open a restaurant?"
At the same time Count Arnaud taunted that no Irishman could run a restaurant that was more than a hamburger joint. To which Owen responded, " All right you asked for it! I'll show you and everybody else that an Irishman can run the finest French restaurant in this town!"
In July 1946, Owen Edward Brennan leased the Vieux Carre Restaurant directly across the street from the Old Absinthe House. He named his new restaurant for himself, Owen Brennan's French & Creole Restaurant; and with time, it came to be more commonly known as Owen Brennan's Vieux Carre.
Owen employed his gray-haired father, Owen Patrick Brennan, as he feared injury would befall him in the shipyards. He then gave his father a small percentage of the business. Making his father a minority stockholder was Owen's way of providing and caring for his parents as well as his younger siblings.
The success or failure of this venture rested solely on the shoulders of Owen. Owen Edward Brennan had become the patriarch of the family. Everyone deferred to Owen. Many years his junior, Owen's siblings were either still youngsters in school or just starting out.
At Owen Brennan’s Vieux Carre, Owen's father was found greeting the luncheon customers until a heart attack in the early 50's slowed him down. Eventually, Owen employed two of his younger sisters, Adelaide and Ella, as well as a younger brother, John. Adelaide became the bookkeeper and Ella the kitchen supervisor. John was employed by his brother for a brief time only.
Owen Edward Brennan and his Vieux Carre restaurant attained nationwide fame on an "Irish smile and a kiss of the Blarney Stone." Owen built his restaurant into a famous institution overnight, competing with New Orleans' oldest and best in French and Creole cuisine. Owen's research and knowledge of French food, fine wine and impeccable service made him a master. He was called the "wonder man" of the New Orleans restaurant industry. Owen's Irish stubbornness compelled him to work extremely long and hard hours to put Brennan's on the culinary map - locally and nationwide.
Owen's ready wit, radiant smile and infectious laugh endeared him to locals, Hollywood celebrities and tourists alike. He was so very kind to so many people and was genuinely loved in return. As the famous novelist and syndicated columnist Robert Ruark once wrote about his good friend, "If he had a fault, it was his generosity." Owen was full of energy and possessed an incredible imagination; and all was reflected in Brennan's success.
Owen was known in Hollywood movie circles and entertained some of the brightest stars in his French Quarter restaurant - Vivian Leigh, John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, Barbara Stanwyck, Robert Taylor, Gary Cooper, Jane Russell and Tennessee Williams, to name a few. For national magazine writers and syndicated columnists, such as Earl Wilson, Walter Winchell, Hedda Hopper, Dorothy Kilgallen, Robert Ruark and Lucius Beebe, Brennan's was oftentimes their first stop on assignments to cover New Orleans. As a result, many stories were written of Owen's life and success in the restaurant business in national publications, such as Newsweek, Collier's, Holiday, Life and Gourmet magazines.
The advancement of the New Orleans community was high on Owen's list of priorities. He was especially devoted to the promotion of the New Orleans tourist trade and was labeled a "one man Chamber of Commerce." Appointed by Mayor Chep Morrison, Owen was the founding chairman of the first New Orleans Tourist Commission. He was a driving force as a member of the New Orleans Crime Commission and the city's Chamber of Commerce. As a promoter of the New Orleans tourism industry, Owen arranged a special Mardi Gras ball for visitors during the Carnival season.
As a restaurateur, Owen Edward Brennan was a genius in a business for which he had no formal education. His creative ability was Brennan's crowning glory. After the publication of Frances Parkinson Keyes' Dinner at Antoine's, a new experience was conceived. Owen was convinced that if the concept "Dinner at Antoine's" could so successfully captivate a gastronomic audience, then why not "Breakfast at Brennan's?" And so Owen became the first in his time to promote this epicurean experience anywhere.
Brennan's, as Owen ultimately wanted his restaurant to be called, became such a lucrative venture that when the time came to renew the lease on the Bourbon Street building, the landlord demanded fifty percent of the business. Unwilling to meet these demands, Owen searched for a new location for his restaurant and found its present location on Royal Street.
Owen was under a tremendous amount of stress as a result of his landlord's demands and his decision to move to Royal Street. At that time Royal Street was not the busy thoroughfare it is today. In fact, the Royal Orleans Hotel was not even in existence.