Photos by Terry Kennedy. Wayne Keller found this vintage photo of Nordlicht in a Bogalusa antiques store. Keller and business partner Jinny Johns own Build A Better Racehorse, a pedigree consulting service.
Alex V. Cook & Terry Kennedy
I believe the truth is fundamentally elusive. It is a slippery thing that sits unnoticed right in front of you, begging to be lassoed, all while your rope gets caught on the facts. The difference between the facts and the truth is a metaphysical question. Fortunately, Louisiana is a deeply metaphysical place and I have found metaphysical people like Terry Kennedy with which to explore it. A couple months ago during one of our many conversations about the greater weirdness of Louisiana, he mentioned, “You know, one of these days, we should go out and visit the grave of Hitler’s horse and see what comes of it.”
The wine had been flowing during that conversation and I wasn’t sure what Terry was talking about, but a quick web search revealed that Nordlicht, a racehorse that once belonged to Adolph Hitler, was supposedly buried in St. Rose at La Branche, a plantation just down River Road from Destrehan. The Pedigree Online Thoroughbred Database shows that Nordlight won both the Osterreicheisches (Austrian) and Deutches (German) Derbies in 1944. It does not require a stretch of the imagination to see why thoroughbred horses were of particular interest to the Nazis, a group clearly enchanted with the horrific potential of genetic engineering, so this prize-winning horse belonging to Hitler at the peak of the Nazi regime was a symbol of great significance.
At the end of World War II, Nordlicht (“northern light”) was claimed as a prize of war by the US Army, and purchased for stud by C. Walter Mattingly, a New Orleans surgeon and horse breeder. Mattingly brought Nordlicht to La Branche Plantation in 1948, where the steed spent the next couple of decades siring horses right there on what is known as Louisiana’s German Coast.
So one weekend, we were contemplating the meaning of “La Branche,” whether it referred to genealogy, lineage and through that, the genetic purity that is central to both the Nazis and racehorses as we pulled onto the gravel road of the former dependency house or garconniere, a separate building used to house the male children of the plantation. Terry found the marker for Nordlicht’s grave in short order, under a crepe myrtle, marked with a stone and brass plaque.
DOUBLE DERBY WINNER
AND CLASSIC SIRE
DOUBLE DERBY WINNER
AND CLASSIC SIRE
The visitors’ office was closed and the doors to the garconniere, the last significant original building on the grounds, were padlocked. Parked outside it was a gorgeous carriage. “I wonder if Nordlicht ever pulled this beauty around, “ Terry remarked as he snapped some photos. We were about to walk back and head home, when up drove Sal Lentini, former police chief, plantation enthusiast, raconteur, and veteran of the invasion at Normandy.
Sal explains that previous owners were named Zweig, meaning “branch” in German and they gave the place the French name, La Branche. “I got this place because of my daughter.”
“It’s funny. One day I took her up here because I’d been trying to get the place from Dr. Mattingly. I come up to talk to him, I knew him and his wife good, she was a doctor too. I told them, ‘One day, you are gonna sell me this place.’ I took my daughter up here several years after that, and we walked up to the gate. A horse walked up to the gate with an eyeball hanging out. My daughter went berserk, she cried and everything else. She was so upset she didn’t say a damn word to me, my own daughter. She’s got more nerve than Carters’ got liver pills.
“You know she called Dr. Mattingly, and went to see him and fussed him up and down about that horse. Dr. Mattingly called me and said, “Sal, I’m not going to sell you the place. I know who I’m going to sell it to—your daughter.”
Sal pointed to the plantation’s original carriage lane of oaks, long feral, on the edge of his property “See those oak trees over there? Right here under those trees, I remember people out there at night, digging for gold, looking for where Jean Lafitte hid some of his treasure.”
“See that big pecan tree back there? It is twenty-four feet in circumference. A county agent came here to measure it, and they found a little box down in the roots of that tree. It’s gotta be a casket. Somebody that used to live on the plantation used to come by here , and had a little sister that died, and back then they buried them on the grounds.”
On our way to the garconniere, Sal pointed out a ring of oak trees. “There was a Houmas Indian chief that was buried out here. You ever heard of tree huggers? The tree huggers would come out, and have come out many times. “ Later, I could find no reference to tree-hugging or tree ceremonies particular to the Houmas tribe.
It seems our entire metaphysical mission, chasing a horse to its grave, was trumped by Sal’s infinitely more detailed, and perhaps embellished, version of the plantation’s history.
“That’s why I like plantations, they have so much history to them. “
Sal found the keys to the garconniere and took us into the lovingly decorated building. Period antiques he had collected over the years glowed against the robin’s-egg-blue walls. In the last room he took us through, we were met by a magnificent burled walnut bed whose origins Sal guarded coyly.
Sal: I’m not going to tell you who this bed used to belong to.
Terry: it looks like one of Huey Long’s beds
Sal: You are close. It’s a real coincidence on how it got here. You wouldn’t believe it.
Alex: OK, so how’d it get here?
Sal: (laughing) Oh, people would get the wrong impression. I won’t say. If that bed could talk … lots of people would take a picture with it, I know that.
Alex: Come on, whose bed is this?
Sal: (laughs again) Sorry, I’ve never told and I can’t say now.
Terry: That’s alright, I like a mystery better than knowing. It’s a beautiful bed.
Alex V. Cook is writer and critic from Baton Rouge, and a frequent contributor to Country Roads. Terry Kennedy is a photographer, world-traveler, and associate professor of Mass Communications at Southern University. Together, they like to drink and talk a lot.