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glbt new orleans history

Volume 15/Issue 26

Madame John Dodt's Legacy #19

by Jon Newlin, NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana

Since it's the holiday season and naturally thoughts turn to such trivial considerations as lovely-weather-for-a-sleigh-ride-together and walking-in-a-wonderland and take-a-cup-of-kindness yet, and depression settles in like the nonexistent (in the tropics) snowmen and reindeer and holiday cheer ("Did I leave anything out?" as Mort Sahl used to say), it's time for another detour down Memory Lane. Frankly, I haven't another story like last year's about getting fired upon in the old Mom's Society Page, and I'd like to shake claws with the sissy who does have an arsenal-pun intended-of such tales ready at the touch of a press-on nail, and who wasn't in the Marines or the WACS or has worked in the Financial District for the past quarter century. Instead, since anyone who Grew Up Queer in New Orleans erroneously gives the impression that life was all a glittering, dizzying whirl of fast wig-changes, hustlers pinning gardenia corsages on their spaghetti straps and hitting a vital organ instead, an endless round of debutante parties and vice squad raids, I'd like to mention the most ignored of all the stops of passage on a young person of same-sex affections in what now passes as The Golden Age.

Before that, let me caution and once again lecture my young readers about the most important and consequential way in which They Don't Know What They Missed, thanks to the scourge of AIDS, which is the intergenerational pedagogy that existed between young and older queers, a situation which flourished until AIDS and age and, in a few cases, too much bad hootch, carried off all these epigones and epitomes of culture and chic. Older gentlemen were, in my youth, most instructive about everything from table manners to what painters to admire and which Louis made that chair or commode to how to fold silk handkerchiefs or pull a bouquet garni out of the pot at the last moment, what books to read and why, which nightclub chanteuses were worthy of pushing the furniture back against the walls for a living-room drag performance, etc. There are, of course, certain things one has to find out for oneself; when, at a tender and vulnerable age, I discovered the records of Billie Holiday and Mildred Bailey, for instance, the discovery was all the more valuable for the fact that no one had guided me to or instructed me about these women. When some older friends validated (to use the cant word for it) the discovery, it was even more meaningful. In the days of which I speak, every old queen was Henry Higgins and every young sissy like me was Eliza Doolittle. AIDS wiped out this middle generation (most of mine and a good bit of the one preceding) and, with this decimation, what was lost was, primarily, cultural. The order of things was violated, sort of like what happened to England in the First World War. What remains paradoxical about this situation is that gay "cultural contributions" to the mainstream, at least open contributions not done under a nom de guerre, are at an all-time peak. And yet, what is offered has never been more trivial-but that is a philosophical matter for some snowy night by the fire, when I'll also tell you about the time I looked into the heart of an artichoke.

As a young thing still not sure about The Way The World Worked, and I'm sure others will second this emotion in Smokey Robinson's immortal phrase, an indispensable way-station along the road to Queerdom was the old Doubleday Book Shop in the 600 block of Canal Street. Just around the corner from the nightmare glamour and raffish milieu of the fabled Iberville Street Strip-Wanda's, the Safari, the Midship, Gene's Hideaway, Harry's Pirate's Den, ad gloriam-Doubleday was part of a chain that (notoriously for those benighted times) employed congeries and flotillas of queens in its shops. The one here was no exception. It was a place where, at thirteen or fourteen, one could hang out, dish, observe older queers' behavior, peruse racy items like Cocteau's Le Livre Blanc or the immortal works of Donald Webster Cory in the remainder shelves, listen to an unlimited assortment of obscure opera arias or sophisticated-cocktail-lounge music (even in that happiest of forgotten amenities, the listening booth, like a telephone booth with a turntable), and generally be inducted into some, if not all, of the ways in which queers conducted their everyday life.

As I say, when you're a young teenager and you can take a (long) bus ride and hop off and, steps away, there is a safe and enclosed environment where homosexuals are acting out and every which way and making no bones about it, you're impressed, especially in the early Sixties which differed in every conceivable way from the late Sixties. The susurrations of sibilant dish that greeted one's ears as one walked in the door at 622 Canal were like going to your aunt's house and smelling a pot of crabs boiling or a roux doing its stuff. In some ineffable and important way, you were At Home.

There were two genius loci at Doubleday, I guess that makes them genii loci or loco, or whatever, and they were about as alike as piss and perfume. The elder of the two was a gentleman named Paul Rossetter who died not long ago at an incredibly advanced age; the other was George DeVille, aka Dolores del Doubelday. Rossetter, who had known everybody and done everything from his days as a traveling book salesman in the Twenties, had somewhat bulging eyes and a husky voice that could carry across a crowded room, as when he would admonish someone with whom he was bantering, "Oh, Stop It!" Mr. Rossetter (I cannot think of him another way although I visited him at his house a couple times where he showed me his Henry James first editions and played me his Lizzie Miles ten-inchers, both exciting events for a teenaged girl from Metairie) was married and had several standard poodles. He had met his wife, with whom I can only assume he enjoyed what is referred to as a Mariage Blanc, when he was spending an extended season drying out. She had been his nurse; she had also nursed Peter Lorre through the DT's, a fact he never failed to mention. On Carnival, the Rossetters occasionally dressed alike and hit the streets-as standard poodles. Paul Rossetter could regale one for hours and hours with literary and showbiz gossip of bygone days. When I mentioned how much I admired Mildred Bailey, he said, "She stepped on my foot once at the old Edgewater Hotel in Chicago...big woman. You can kiss it if you like." Like many people who have battled the bottle, he was capable of hideous rages and meannesses. When asked about someone's sex life, his response was often that immortal phrase, "Why, he's as gay as a pair of red shoes!" (I've often used this rejoinder myself, but of course, little sisters, we live in times when red shoes don't have the exotic cachet they once did; the deathless Eloi Bordelon once answered a similar query with the enigmatic "My dear, he's as queer as Dick's hat-band!" Some years later I thought to look this up in Dr. Brewer's Reader's Handbook and there it was. The reference is to Richard Cromwell, the son of Oliver Cromwell, the Puritan Lord Protector of England between the Stuart kings-who says you can't learn something from this column?-and Dr. Brewer mentions four different expressions regarding Dick's hat-band, among them of course, "as queer as" since according to the good Doctor, "Few things have been more ridiculous than the exaltation and abdication of the Protector's son.") I might also add about Mr. Rossetter that in general his behavior was much like that of the sublime elderly screen actress Marie Dressler of whom it was said that when she played a duchess there was a touch of the common and when she played common, there was a touch of the duchess.

About George DeVille, a small, slightly built man with prematurely gray hair and a toothsome grin, there's more to say, though I won't. The Plague carried DeVille off some time ago but not before he had left Doubleday and ensconced himself in a swank eponymous bookstore on Carondelet. DeVille used to greet everyone with a poke and referred to everyone as Mary or Bessie or Gussie; from years of practicing on hapless customers and unsuspecting friends, he had perfected the dubious art of embarrassing people to the point of wishing the floor to open up and swallow them. At one time there was a little press called the Peter Pauper Press which published small books of poetry and short stories, nicely designed and bound and selling for about a buck. I saw and heard DeVille say to a young man who approached the counter with a stack of these say, "My, what a lot of peter....Pauper books you've got there!" When my younger sister who is quite a little clothes pony, started dropping in to shop at the Carondelet Street store, I would be greeted invariably by DeVille announcing to the rest of the store, "Oh, it's the badly-dressed Miss Newlin!" At the same time, DeVille was capable of these sillinesses and pettinesses, and the occasional downright meanness or larcenousness, he was capable of incredible kindnesses and generosity. George lived on the edge. He had been busted in so many tea-rooms that he told me when the old Adult City was on Dauphine Street, "Mother's going up the river if she gets nabbed again!" He didn't. He went to heaven instead. My favorite of all DeVille stories was told me by a Doubleday employee who toiled there many years and had ample opportunity for keen observation. One day a woman and her small son were shopping in the store while DeVille was lounging against the counter. For no apparent reason, the little boy started to cry and carry on and finally the mother asked him what was wrong. Pointing to DeVille, the little boy replied, "That little old gray-haired lady, mama, she scares me!" Indeed.

See what you missed, kids? Happy New Year.

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