A few years ago, after reading Voodoo Queen: The Spirited Lives of Marie Laveau (Martha Ward, 2004), we devoted a weekend exploring New Orleans area burial grounds. With the promise of brunch at Bywater Bar-B-Que, I convinced my husband to visit Laveau’s tomb in St. Louis #1. The day, however, quickly expanded to include other graveyards and grottos.
By Sunday afternoon we explored Metairie Cemetery like experts, pausing the self-guided tour to photograph and snoop at the final resting places of New Orleans’ finest, or at least wealthiest, tiptoeing around the well-manicured grassy plots as though worried we didn’t belong and might cause offense.
On the road I describe New Orleans as unique, because even the locals are tourists in our town. We do it all — Mardi Gras, Jazz Fest, Second Line Parades, and palm readings. We “went on up to the Audubon Zoo,” and we “take a streetcar named Desire and then transfer to one called Cemetery and ride six blocks and get off at Elysian Fields.”* Even the non-religious are spiritual, attending Mass at St. Louis Cathedral, burning voodoo candles and honoring the afterlife.
A few months later I called home from my cell phone: “I’m standing in a parking lot at the corner of North Rampart and Conti. Come see!”
Within ten minutes, George and I, giddy and trespassing, poked around a deserted French Quarter building, its windows broken, roof caved, and an outside wall near collapsing.
“This is it,” I whispered. “Norma Wallace!”
During the previous three days I barely pulled my nose from Christine Wiltz’s The Last Madam: A Life in the New Orleans Underworld (2001). The story chronicles the rise and fall of both Wallace and her famous brothel.
“If only we could buy it,” I mused, as we maneuvered into the alley, navigating debris of all kinds. “We could open a Storyville museum!”
I imagined red velvet walls, deep sofas, and Bellocq photographs.
Although little is known of E.J. Bellocq (1873-1949), it is said that he lived for a time in this same house, capturing “the beauty and forthright presence of many of the women, photographed in homely circumstances that affirm both sensuality and domestic case, and the tangibleness of their vanished world.”**
I wasn’t looking for a monument to prostitution, but rather another slice of a New Orleans curiosity, complete with infamous city leaders, undo influence, and raids.
“That’s a recipe for divorce….” mumbled George, referring to the renovation, not the prostitution, as he stared at the crumbling Rampart Street wall. And I knew he was right.
(Note: It seems I wasn’t alone in this thinking, however. The house at 1026 Conti Street was recently restored, and at least one tenant references the building’s past with her décor. Story and photographs here.)
Intimate Enemies: The Two Worlds of the Baroness de Pontalba (1997, Christina Vella) transformed forever my impression of the famous apartments bordering Jackson Square. And yesterday I passed through Lakeview while thinking of James Nolan’s Higher Ground, a book that promises location-hunts citywide.
Finally, David Lummis’s Coffee Shop Chronicles of New Orleans sends our imaginations (or persons) not only to coffee shops, but also into neighborhoods and relationships, all within the shadow of history and place:
“… the bucolic chorale of birds, the quiet clacking of railroad cars behind the floodwall, the harmonica-like foghorn bursts of vessels bound for the sea.” (B. Sammy Singleton experiences for the first time the sounds of the Faubourg Marigny)
In short, through their books these authors share more than plot. The slightest reference might pique our mind’s eye or send us searching. Along with others I have yet to share and/or discover, these writers make clear that New Orleans promises novel settings and inspiration. Just as the tourists roam our city according to guidebooks and the internet, we natives, in part thanks to clues from local authors, use our time and geographical understanding to explore history, architecture, and culture on a whim.
Wendy Rodrigue (a.k.a. Dolores Pepper)
—Also this week: “Blue Wendy,” for ‘Musings of an Artist’s Wife’
*The Meters; Tennessee Williams
**”How touching, good natured, and respectful these pictures are,” continued Susan Sontag, in her introduction to photographer Lee Friedlander’s compilation, Bellocq: Photographs from Storyville, the Red-Light District of New Orleans (1996)