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glbt new orleans history

Volume 15/Issue 18

Madame John Dodt's Legacy #16

by Jon Newlin, NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana

It might seem churlish, like the heat and all that hair dye have finally caught up with me but, darling, it was a mary chase and rendered me (zut alors! sacre bleu!) a bit grumpy and contrary and peevish and perverse when I tell you that I think Southern Decadence is just old-hat nonsense, a crashing bore, and the rest of it. I'd have long ago shouted this from the housetops, but then there would have been all those sussurations issuing like swamp gas from certain passels of queens she's just a jealous old cow, she looks horrible in a dress have you seen that thing she wears as an excuse for drag, she has no figure, no sense of glamour, she's just a jealous old cow, she'll never be Grand Marshal, she doesn't have a friend in the world, etc. etc. like being locked in the snake house overnight, all that hissing and those Lena Horne sibilants!

As an oooold and dear friend of mine once remarked when I told him my two female dachshunds weren't hitting it off too well, "They don't call them bitches for nothing, darling." But I digress. What began as a perfectly reasonable little summer rout by some drunken sissies at Matassa's Bar though here, for sheer scholarship, blistering candor, and sparkling wit, I must make my lowest curtsey to Old Lady Shannon since I could never compete with her definitive account of this "festival" and its sordid origins Myopia, the Muse of New Orleans Gay History, that's her anyway, what began in such humble circumstances has gradually become swole up with self-importance and Macy's-Parade-float-sized puffery and skittering-twittering egos into an Earl Carroll's Vanities of pretension. Like just about everything that begins as gay satire and burlesque and then woodies into tradition, Decadence takes itself very seriously indeed ...but we'll discuss its gradual degeneracy from being the virtual property of the Demented Women and a number of other Lantern women who treated the whole thing like Freemasons who had sniffed too much hair-spray or nail-polish remover, that is, with a combination of giddiness and secrecy.

First that name. Southern, really! Now the original gang who 'invented' the celebration were I presume emigres here in New Orleans, and like those older, aristocratic emigres who gathered during the French Revolution at Coblenz to escape the guillotine, and who danced to French music and sat around fluffing their wigs and scooping their panniers and wondering what on earth was going back in Paris or Lyons or Nantes, the original Decadence queens no doubt started to feel nostalgic at the end of a long, moist, uh, New Orleans summer (yeah, that's it, the long and moist part had the old ticker bumping for a minute) and no doubt wondered that the old folks at home back in Ittabena or Valdosta or Anniston or Paragould were doing. Gosh, how they missed the magical perfume of turnips and moonshine in the they christened it Southern Decadence.

Now this is completely fallacious because, in the first place, New Orleans isn't the South. It isn't even really in America though they're trying harder than ever except by a sort of bizarre geographical caprice. In the second place, decadence is one of those words no one really knows the meaning of, that gets kicked around till it's black and blue and always for the wrong reason. People think it can refer to everything from Flavian and Claudian Rome to a certain variety of insufferable art and poetry produced at the end of the last century to the sauce that comes on profiteroles. I assume that when these presumptuous idiots talk about Southern Decadence they mean the old cliches of magnolias-and-madness-wisterias-and-wickedness, aberrant behavior with a drawl. Now this latter could mean anything from mammy songs to Judy Canova movies, from the Snuffy Smith comic strip to the novels of Erskine Caldwell which feature albinos and harelips and religious fanatics as sex objects. None of this has the faintest thing to do with Gay Old New Orleans where people have always intrinsically known how to behave themselves, and where it's primarily the tourists who give the place the bad name it gets for shit and vomit in the streets, inordinate amounts of public drunkenness and inordinate amounts of bad drag and bad manners. Here we are, perhaps the most dignified, cultivated and refined spot on the face of the earth outside of Addis Ababa or Teheran and we have to put up with this; but no one can say we don't treat all these uninvited guests graciously.

So the name is just prepostrous, as Ethel Barrymore used to say, but if you're a bunch of transplanted would-be Moonbeam McSwines dreaming of that rutabaga patch you left somewhere in Issaqueena County, it must sound as impossibly glamorous as Evening In Paris perfume on the rack at the local Piggly Wiggly.

One of the more depressing aspects of gay culture-I hate to use the word, but what else will do? See for details, Daniel Harris' The Rise and Fall Of Gay Culture, the one must-read for the summer for thinking queers, provided that's not a complete oxymoron these days has been the tortuous transition, seen on Decadence day for those with the stomach for it, in full resplendent horror, from comic drag to glamour drag. Recently, I was sitting around flapping my jaws with a good sister who spent the best years of her life working the honky-tonks and chicken-shacks of Memphis in the fullest of full drags she's a big girl and we both agreed that this transition was as tragic a down-turn and tail-spin for Modern Civilization as the black day decades ago when the New Orleans Saints traded the adorably nasty Conrad Dobler to the Buffalo Bills. Actually, that was not the metaphor we used; I'm showing off, but if I can't do it for you, who can I do it for?

As a young thing coming up, of course there were young men who aspired to look like Jane Russell or Lana Turner or even Virginia Mayo or Sheree North, but who remembers them? The young men, that is. The great drags from the days of Julian Eltinge and Little Tich to T.C. Jones and Charles Pierce were all comic. Why else is it that Travis' on Rampart always used to be packed to the rafters with a devoted stage-door-canteen-swigging audience that would scream and yell when Rowena or Mister Boobie or Donnie Jay did their stuff and then when the would-be Julie Londons or Diana Rosses took the stage, rush off to order drinks to have a full head of steam when Rowena, Mister Boobie, Donnie Jay, et. al. came back on? I know, I know, we're supposed to be open-minded and inclusive and all that minnie-mouse stuff, and there's room for everyone, but slowly-and-surely the glamourpusses have had their way, thinking wigs are a substitute for talent. (There are exceptions, natch; Lisa Beaumann comes to mind and thus to flying fingers.) On any Decadence day, one sees a lot of great one-joke costumes and one sees creatures like, say, Olive for whom terms like glamour, magic, mystery, and enchantment might have been invented at least as I define them (Olive can't take a bad picture but then neither could Alice B. Toklas, whom she often resembles, or Edith Sitwell or Elsa Maxwell). But then there's all that slinky stuff with too much eye-make-up, wearing the pelts of thousands upon thousands of needlessly-slaughtered Eluras and Dynels upon their heads...far too much of it, acting like it owns the place. Glamour drag, which yearns to be beautiful and appealing and, dammitall, realistic is basically assimilationist (it's like wanting to join the army or get married to prove that we're just like them rather than for the right reason which is that it's a simple right and a simple legal matter and shouldn't be complicated by theocratic nonsense); comic drag with all that extra oomph or scare drag as Miss Fury once unimprovably called it, asserts our outlaw status, and regardless of what those bleeding-heart PC types tell you, that's what Makes Us Us.

Finally, to wrap up this incoherent screed, it's just too darn hot for drag (of course, the pros would say it's never too hot, as well they ought, just as I refrained from saying that Decadence was a great excuse for a good drag show because since when do you need one?) at the cusp of August and September. Unless like my deliriously modish little granddaughter, Canucky-nookie and Roman-shade-maker-to-the-stars Miss Alain, you carry a huge parasol. After her reign of terror, at least on Decadence Day, was over, I bumped into Miss Alain when we were both trying to bite into the same Sausage Croissant at the Croissant d'Or and she told me her mother was coming down from the Frozen North and I said, Now look, here's your chance. Keep the old dame around, and next Bastille Day or whenever, announce that you're forming a Decadence dynasty and f--k you all very much and you're making your mother Grand Marshall, and then the next year your mother makes you Grand Marshall, and so on and so on. She thought it was such a great idea, she just cackled and cackled and ran off with the rest of my croissant in her mouth. I'm sure it ended up as a shoulder-duster.

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