Society columnist Betty Guillaud, ‘Big Easy’ creator, dies at 79

Advocate staff photo by DANIEL ERATH --  Betty Guillaud
Advocate staff photo by DANIEL ERATH -- Betty Guillaud

Betty Guillaud, who for 20 years entertained New Orleanians as a society and gossip columnist for the city’s daily newspapers, in the process helping to popularize the phrase “The Big Easy” as a nickname for her adopted city, died Saturday night of complications from Alzheimer’s disease.

She was 79.

Ms. Guillaud, whose larger-than-life public persona had more than a touch of Carol Channing to it, mixed news of local and visiting entertainers, society parties, Carnival balls and even politics in her irreverent, name-filled “Lagniappe” column, which ran first in The States-Item from 1978 to 1980, then in The Times-Picayune after the two papers merged.

She retired in 1998.

She delighted in hinting at the identity of future Carnival monarchs, to the dismay of some secrecy-obsessed krewes, and was ready to launch a husky laugh at her own penchant for mixing up the details of many of the stories she recounted in her column.

After telling one of those stories or announcing some bit of news, she would often add, tongue-in-cheek, “But you knew that” or “Who else would tell you these things?”

Although who first called New Orleans “The Big Easy” is uncertain, Ms. Guillaud adopted it as a counterpart to New York’s “Big Apple” designation, and the name quickly gained wide acceptance.

Ms. Guillaud’s name was pronounced “Gil-LAWD,” but she was used to hearing it mangled by strangers and even newspaper colleagues as anything from “Guillot” to “Grillades.”

She was born Betty Jean Kilgore in a small town in central Georgia and grew up in Mobile, Ala., where she wrote a column for fellow teenagers in the local paper.

After studying at the University of Alabama, she went to work for the Montgomery Advertiser, then moved to New Orleans, where she married Andrew Guillaud.

He died in 2003.

She worked as a features writer and assistant women’s editor for The States-Item in the early 1960s, then left to raise her three daughters.

She rejoined the paper a decade later and wrote the society column for a few years until inheriting the wider-ranging “Lagniappe” spot when longtime columnist Tommy Griffin retired in 1978.

In her last column, she summarized the sorts of people she had written about over the years: “kings and queens (yes, lots of the latter), literati and glitterati, fibbers and fribblers, convicts and converts, do-gooders and no-gooders, fabricators and prevaricators, and I learned too often, too late, which was which.”

Many of those she wrote about in fact became good friends, from entertainers such as Chris Owens to the public relations people who supplied her with so much of the material for her columns.

Besides her newspaper career, Ms. Guillaud appeared on television in the 1960s as “Nancy Nation,” an advertising spokeswoman for National Food Stores.

In 1999, the Press Club of New Orleans gave her a Lifetime Achievement Award.

Survivors include three daughters, Barbara Guillaud Canter of Covington, and Elizabeth Kilgore “Lili” Guillaud and Laure Guillaud Starring, both of New Orleans; a brother, James Russell Kilgore Sr. of Point Clear, Ala.; a grandchild; and two stepgrandchildren.

Funeral arrangements are incomplete.