Written by Ethan Williford
Public philanthropist. Problematic presence. Politician. Prince. Mongo wears more mantles than the studded coat, red blazer or poultry-laced bandolier he has become famed for. If you have lived in Memphis for any amount of time, you have probably at least heard of Prince Mongo. From tattered campaign posters to full-scale murals, the city is thoroughly stamped with his image.
However, while most Memphians have a notion of Mongo’s four-decade political career, few understand the complete story. Thus, for the reader’s enjoyment, Memphis Current has compiled a slightly abridged history. With this intergalactic dossier on the Mongo campaigns, we hope to separate the fact from the folklore and the folklore from the fantasy.
1946 - 1989
Robert “Prince Mongo” Hodges was born December 17, 1946, though he asserts that his birth occurred on the planet Zambodia around the time of the English Restoration. His life and mysterious acquisition of wealth prior to drawing public attention are subject to much conjecture.
One particularly widespread myth alleges that Mongo’s family heavily insured the young prince in case of mental illness. Supposedly, Mongo then crafted his persona in order to take advantage of the financial benefit.
Prince Mongo’s version of his own personal history is somehow more bizarre than urban legends. From his earliest public antics, Mongo has claimed a royal ambassadorship from Zambodia, sent in an effort to connect and commune with the Earth’s population. His wealth is the product of interplanetary per diems. He has 33 wives and 33 children. In a 2000 interview with Rebekah Gleaves, then of the Memphis Flyer, Mongo elaborated on his earthly task:
“I’m here on a mission to save Earthlings, and I will in due time. The Earth is self-destructing and when the time comes I will save a few people and take them with me. People don’t realize how much I’ve already saved them from. I saved them from the earthquake, tornadoes, hurricanes. I’ve used my energies to divert those things.”
The concrete details of Mongo’s early life are few and far between. From court affidavits, it is clear that Mongo has a brother, Bernard, living in Virginia Beach. Nine years older than Mongo, Bernard was involved in the ownership of many of the Prince’s future establishments. Before assuming his regal epithet, a young Robert Hodges owned an imported men’s clothing store on Union Avenue. He was also notorious for touring local schools to exhibit his beloved chimpanzee, Coco.
Mongo first found himself in the Memphis spotlight during the mid-1970s. Drawing the attention of neighbors, city officials and local media, the prince scattered his Central Gardens front yard with avant-garde, garbage-themed lawn art. Mongo used the publicity from subsequent housing lawsuits as the perfect platform to bring his royal way of life to all Memphians. In 1978, Prince Mongo declared his candidacy for mayor of Shelby County.
The 1978 county mayoral election proved to be the most successful of the Prince’s career, at least in voting total. Of the 206,719 citizens who voted in the election, 19,687 cast ballots for Mongo. His monumental performance hemorrhaged the support base of incumbent Roy Nixon, ushering in a new historic era for the county. Winning candidate Bill Morris tightly held the mayoral office for sixteen years. This would not be the only time a Prince Mongo candidacy would change the course of Memphis history.
The following year, Mongo shifted his aspirations toward the city’s municipal government. When compared to the outcome of the previous county election, the 1979 Memphis mayoral race was far less impressive for Mongo’s camp. The prince only accumulated two percent of the popular vote. However, he successfully solidified his perennial candidacy in local elections.
Prince Mongo ran for Memphis mayor twice over the subsequent decade: in 1983 and 1987. In both elections, the Zambodian candidate performed poorly. Memphis citizens seemed to be growing tired of his antics. Nonetheless, the decade produced many of Mongo’s most iconic moments, some of which have been immortalized in public memory.
One such moment occurred in 1983. In response to one of the many housing lawsuits regarding his yard, Prince Mongo notoriously appeared before a Memphis Circuit Court Judge, covered in green body paint and wearing only an animal-skin loincloth. Consequently, the judge held Mongo in contempt of court, triggering a legal battle that would set precedent in the state for years to come. The Tennessee Supreme Court eventually overturned the conviction, submitting that Mongo’s outfit was an exercise of his guaranteed religious freedom.
In another showing of eccentric behavior, Mongo’s announcement for candidacy in the 1983 city mayoral election made local headlines. Following a traditional Zambodian war dance in front of City Hall, the prince then read from a telegram allegedly sent by President Ronald Reagan:
“Prince Mongo, congratulations on your candidacy for mayor. Mongo, you have my solid support. From Bonzo to Mongo!”
According to a tongue-in-cheek Commercial Appeal article covering the event, the White House denied any knowledge of Prince Mongo, his mayoral candidacy and the telegram. Despite this “presidential endorsement,” the prince only secured two percent of the popular vote in the 1983 election.
In 1984, Mongo opened a nightclub that would live in Memphis infamy for years to come. Decorated with graffiti, nude paintings, planetary diagrams and spaceships, Prince Mongo’s Planet was undoubtedly the most distinct building on historic South Front Street. The club drew a young crowd with representation from every corner of the Memphis alternative scenes. It also drew the ire of its neighbors. Over an eleven-year history, Prince Mongo’s Planet faced endless complaints, lawsuits and cease-and-desist letters.
By 1987, the once vibrant allure of Prince Mongo had seemingly withered away. In the mayoral election of that year, Mongo registered the worst performance of his already lengthy campaign career. The prince failed to tally a single vote after all ballots were counted. At the time, the results supposedly signaled an end to the bizarre political presence of Prince Mongo. However, Mongo had yet to complete his mission on Earth.
1990 - 1999
Mongo entered the new decade with an invigorated drive. In 1990, he shifted his focus away from the city and back toward the county. By declaring his candidacy for county mayor, Mongo hoped to recapture the success of his first run for elected office. Recognizing the prince as his most dangerous competition, incumbent Bill Morris chose to abstain from active campaigning. Meanwhile, Mongo’s platform was simple, straightforward and destructive of the status quo:
1. “When elected, I will get rid of all pit bulls and the city council.
Taxes will be optional.”
2. “My education policy is simple: Don’t fool around with the ladies. You’ll lose respect.”
3. “As for industry, it will come in droves, lured from all over the world and Bulgaria. It would have been here sooner if I’d told ‘em to come.”
On multiple occasions throughout the campaign, Prince Mongo extended challenges of debate to Morris, all of which were rejected. Quoted by Larry Williams of the Commercial Appeal, he voiced apparent frustration about the struggle of earning legitimacy during the election:
“I am the only sane candidate in the race, Mayor Morris will not debate me because he is scared. For some odd reason, (the Memphis power structure) does not want me to be mayor.”
The election yielded admirable results for Mongo, placing second to Bill Morris with over 10 percent of the popular vote. Despite the mathematical loss, Mongo claimed victory on election night. The prince contacted Morris, urging the incumbent to concede the election, but to no avail.
“I don’t know what’s wrong with that guy,” declared the prince. Mongo even invoked the spirit of a former Memphis leader to substantiate his claim: “In my meditations this afternoon I reached the spirit of Ed Crump and asked his advice in leading this county. Crump, who gave to the people and led by inspiration and goodwill rather than by the self-interest of our present-day crowd, told me that I was mandated to take over from the Zeroes, the Nothings.”
Even a paranormal encounter with Mayor Crump proved incapable of changing the already-tallied results of the county election. However, Prince Mongo was now ready for his ultimate electoral achievement: the spoiling of the city’s next mayoral race.
Then, 1991 proved a pivotal year for the city of Memphis. Mayor Richard “Dick” Hackett had tightly held the office for nearly a decade, but rapidly changing demographics now left the incumbent vulnerable to defeat. In response to pending lawsuits regarding the city’s election practices, a federal judge ruled in 1991 that all runoffs in Memphis elections would be suspended. In addition to these political issues, the costly downtown construction of the “Great American Pyramid” only added more pressure to an already strained local economy. When Memphis City Schools superintendent Willie Herenton announced his candidacy, the race quickly became a hotly contested forum for differing visions of Memphis.
Both Hackett and Herenton spent well over of $300,000 on the campaign. While Hackett hoped to cultivate his favorable image and avoid controversial statements, Herenton struck out at the mayor, invoking biblical and racial imagery. In his early speeches, Herenton referred to the municipal government as “an evil in the land” and compared himself to Moses, eager to defeat the “modern-day Pharaohs.”
Then there was Mongo. The Zambodian ambassador accepted every speaking invitation presented to him that year, including public engagements at the Memphis Labor Council and Memphis State University. As a candidate, he advocated for the opening all public buildings to the homeless at night, “serving supper and breakfast, including bedside wine at 12:33 a.m.” Mongo also hoped to capitalize on the racial tone of the election. As one supporter explained, “Mongo is not black or white. He’s Zambodian.”
“Mongo is not black or white. He’s Zambodian.” - Mongo Supporter
Prince Mongo’s presence on the ballot pushed an already close race into razor-thin margins. Almost 250,000 cast votes in the 1991 city mayoral election, the largest turnout ever for a municipal election in Memphis. Herenton defeated Hackett by only 142 votes, while Mongo registered a significant 2,923 votes. Once again, Price Mongo’s candidacy altered the course of local history, shepherding in the reign of “King Willie.”
Though he did not run for public office in 1992, Prince Mongo could not avoid making headlines. Comedian Pauly Shore brought his HBO special to the city early that year. He visited the Prince Mongo’s Planet, where Mongo delivered a traditional Zambodian blessing. However, the positive publicity was short-lived.
On September 6, 1992, Jarod Sizemore and Timothy Rodemeyer, two local teenagers, were killed after their motorcycle crashed into an interstate guardrail. The accident occurred after the teens had left Prince Mongo’s Planet, visibly drunk. In a $20 million civil suit, the children’s parents alleged that the nightclub had served the boys beer, resulting in the accident. Mongo denied all allegations and claimed himself as the victim of scapegoating.
Despite these denials, the accident shed a tragic light upon the foolhardy business practices of Mongo’s infamous club. In 1993, the Memphis Alcohol Commission revoked the beer permit of the nightclub after a March investigation into its food sales yielded only one unopened Tombstone pizza and one unopened Red Baron pizza. According to the presiding officer:
“The Tombstone pizza was covered with black mold. And the cash register receipt from Seessel’s for the Red Baron pizza was dated Jan. 28, 1993.”
Recognizing Prince Mongo’s Planet as a slowly sinking spaceship, Mongo set his sights on the Castle, a struggling Central Gardens discotheque located in historic Ashlar Hall. After multiple disagreements and run-ins with the neighborhood association in 1993, owner Steve Dunlap sold the Castle to Bernard Hodges, Mongo’s Virginia Beach-based brother. Upon purchase, Bernard had every intention of turning over management to Paul Matilla, former vice-president of the property. However, the prince had other plans for the property.
On a cold November morning, Mongo and his trusty companions, the Spirit Abo (a skull) and Steuce the “Zambodian mouse” (a dog), stormed the Castle. Hoping to force Matilla into swapping leases for Prince Mongo’s Planet, the Zambodian ambassador placed rows of “combat war bones” around Ashlar Hall’s wrought-iron fence. Though Paul Matilla watched from his window that day and shook his head, by 1995, Mongo had mysteriously solidified his control over the nightclub. The same year, Prince Mongo’s Planet closed its doors.
Soon after the storming of Ashlar Hall, Mongo officially returned to politics. The prince declared for the 1994 county mayoral race. A peculiar election with no incumbent, the field at one point or another included Councilmembers Kenneth Whalum and John Ford, as well as former Memphis Tiger Basketball coach Dana Kirk. Prince Mongo performed poorly, registering less than two percent of the popular vote. County Commissioner Jim Rout won the position.
After two more failed city and county mayoral runs in 1995 and 1998, respectively, Prince Mongo grew tired of the endless fight to secure one of the community’s executive posts. He entered the 1999 race for the Memphis City Council Super District 8 seat. Incumbent Rickey W. Peele, once convicted of selling his City Council vote, provided Mongo’s sole competition. The prince’s confidence soared.
“I have decided that it’s time I win a race,” said Mongo at the time. “I’m running very seriously. I’ll be dressed in a suit, and I perhaps might even put on some sandals.”
Despite his best efforts to run legitimately and raise suspicion about Peele’s integrity, Prince Mongo was soundly defeated on election night. The Zambodian only secured 13 percent of ballots cast. However, a new millennium peeked on the horizon, and Prince Mongo had no intention of wasting it with political inactivity.
YES! HELL YES!
2000 - 2019
Prince Mongo spent the early 2000s like he spent much of the previous decade, facing a vast array of lawsuits and complaints stemming from his nightclub. Like its downtown counterpart, the Castle exhibited a systemic problem with underage drinking. The prince was forcibly removed from a Memphis Alcohol Commission meeting on September 7, 2000, and later that year he was jailed for criminal littering after dumping the Castle’s garbage into neighboring properties.
Mongo’s first candidacy of the new millennium came in the 2003 city mayoral election. The prince faced a crowded field, including incumbent Willie Herenton, County Commissioner John Willingham and FedEx worker Mary Taylor-Shelby Wright among others. In an election where the most exciting headlines chronicled the vacating of Mongo’s Park Avenue homestead, the prince again performed poorly, barely earning 1 percent of the popular vote.
Following the disappointing mayoral loss in 2003, Prince Mongo decided to give the legislative branch a try. In July 2005, John Ford, a member of the local political dynasty, resigned his state Senate seat after an indictment on federal bribery charges. Governor Phil Bredesen called for a District 29 special election. Though many candidates originally showed interest, only three appeared on the final ballot: sister of the vacating senator Ophelia Ford, Republican Terry Allen Roland, and Prince Mongo.
In the hotly contested election, the prince again proved to be the ultimate spoiler. Ford and Allen split the vote, with Ford logging only twelve more than Allen. Meanwhile, Mongo tallied an unimpressive but impactful eighty-nine votes.
Immediately, the election process drew criticism from the public. Claims of voter fraud floated throughout the county, including an accusation that dead citizens cast ballots on election night. Both the Shelby County Election Commission and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation investigated the election, and the state Senate called for a repeat the following year. Mongo was not included.
Four years passed without a Mongo candidacy, despite a failed attempt to file in 2007. By 2009, the prince seemed hungry to return to the campaign trail. When Mayor Willie Herenton resigned to run for the U.S. House of Representatives, the city found itself embroiled in a bizarre display of political theater, the likes of which have not been seen in the city prior nor since.
The field was crowded and full of character, including County Mayor A.C. Wharton, interim Memphis Mayor Myron Lowery, controversial City Councilmember Carol Chumney, ex-professional wrestler Jerry “the King” Lawler, downtown restaurateur Thomas “Silky” Sullivan, self-described anarchist Leo AwGoWhat and Prince Mongo. Even the out-going Herenton attempted to enter the fray to retake his seat.
The campaign climaxed in an unforgettable debate, broadcasted locally on WMC. During the debate, the prince traded verbal barbs with “the King” and proudly declared that if elected, he would provide all citizens with an Uzi. On election night, sanity won the day as A.C. Wharton secured sixty percent of the vote and the mayorship. Mongo only received 267 votes.
The prince has run unsuccessfully for mayor twice since the historic special election, once in 2011 and again in 2015. His headlines have become scarce. Once a darling of the press, local media now concertedly avoids Mongo. The prince symbolically relinquished control of Ashar Hall in 2014, though the club had long been abandoned. However, the Zambodian ambassador has not left this Earth. Even today, “Mongo 2020” stickers dot the city’s streets.
SAVE US MONGO
Current national politics have shown that even the most ridiculous of characters can ascend to the highest apexes of executive power. The president of the United States demonstrates daily that a calculated statement of idiocy has the ability to preserve an unending place in the spotlight. And Mongo loves him for that. The prince’s social media accounts are riddled with MAGA memes, and it makes sense. Mongo has employed the same Trump methods of attention-seeking bluster and anti-establishment politics for 40 years in Memphis.
Perhaps this is the most unbelievable aspect of the Prince Mongo persona. Not the grass skirts, rubber chickens, or animal skulls. Not the quirkily doomed campaigns or out-of-this-world political promises. Not the infamous lawn art, oft-raided nightclubs, or public controversies. Mongo’s legacy is, and has always been, an incredible ability to captivate our community’s attention for more than four decades.