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glbt new orleans history

V o l u m e 1 5 I s s u e 2

Madame John Dodt's Legacy #10

by Jon Newlin, NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana

While the glamorous figure of John Dodt teeters and totters to and fro in back of these articles as a shadow muse to inspire what few flints of inspiration still get rubbed together, other spectres and revenants pass in front of my eyes, queans who function, for me at any rate, as continual sources of spiritual sustenance and refreshment, and chief among them are the Three E's-Elmo Avet, Earl Larre, and Eloi Bordelon.

I thought I'd set down a few words about each of them because in their various ways they've had something to do with local Gay History, my history, the-rest-is-hysterectomy-history.

I'll begin with Elmo, because he's been gone the longest, I knew him least of the three, and because his local influence is perhaps the most direct.

Elmo, who's been dead a quarter of a century now (if a day), owned an antique store called The Flea Market at the uptown river comer of Toulouse and Royal. He was, to put it as mildly and exactly as possible, a Highly Theatrical personality (a stone drag queen, in other words and one of the founders of Petronius back in those distant aeons when the skies were black with pterodactyls and archeopteryx and dinosaurs battled it out on the neutral ground in front of Congo Square), and one of the great, crusty French Quarter shop-keepers.

A friend of mine who once described Elmo as the only elderly man he'd ever entertain as a paramour, also suggested that a committee give an award every year to the most entertainingly disagreeable shop owner in the Quarter; the statuette would be called the Elmo and could be modeled on Elmo's signature portrait-in costume as Mary Queen Of Scots (one of Elmo's idols, Sarah Bernhardt was the other) in the 1930 Mummer's Parade. (Those interested can take a gander at Elmo in this get-up in some of the pictures in Patrick Dennis' Little Me in which Cris Alexander, the musical comedy dancer-singer manque and society photographer who took the great photos for the book, spliced Elmo into the cast of a musical in which the heroine appears entitled "Goodie Godiva"-about the Lady not the chocolates.)

Elmo was from Plaquemines Parish, and was Portuguese. He showed us a picture once of his father, a dapper and diminutive rooster of a man, with the remark, "Campy little bastard, wasn't he?" The "campy" was a high-maybe the pinnacle-accolade indeed from Elmo.

Elmo claimed to have worked for Ringling Brothers and at MGM in the Art Direction Department under the divine Cedric Gibbons, who almost single-handedly invented what everyone thinks of as the Art Deco Look.

I've also heard stories that the astonishing inventory of his store (and two warehouses full besides) derived from his traveling around the South in a horse and wagon in the early days of the Depression and buying cool old stuff from the distressed and dispossessed. His shop contained everything from Bernhardt ephemerae to Neoclassical sculpture to ancient Chinese vases to wall candle sconces made out of trombones; in the great tradition, Elmo didn't bother himself with exactitude or connoisseurship. Asked about the date of something in the store, he'd pause-his nobly fat face, often rouged and mascara'd, his mouth might be full of jaw-breakers sounding like a bowling alley as the candies hit his china choppers, perhaps a cup of Orange Julius ("Made from a secret formula, you know") on his desk-and say, "How old is it? Oh, VERY old." That was about as historic as it got.

Elmo might indeed have worked for the circus. One year he sent out a Christmas card that consisted of an old photograph he'd found of a rubberman contortionist twisted into knots and blowing himself with the message underneath, "Don't you wish you could do this? Merry Christmas!"

And he probably worked in Hollywood-George Cukor, Rosalind Russell, etc. were all friends of his. I once saw Kaye Ballard in his shop and they seemed to be old pals-he gave her an exquisite walking stick and she told him she'd work it into her Blue Room act. He was less pleasant to other customers; one Uptown matron bugged the piss out of Elmo about a pair of Chinese vases that he obviously didn't want to sell. She'd come back week after week and inquire. Finally he could stand it no longer. When she came in and began, "Mr. Avet, about that pair of Chinese vases..." Elmo hoisted himself from behind his desk, grabbed one of them and hurled it to the floor. "I don't HAVE a pair of Chinese vases. Now, good day, lady!" At least that was how he told it.

As with so many people of interest, Elmo combined mysterious kindness and generosity with equally unfathomable antipathies and meannesses.

Elmo lived on Bourbon Street in the 800 block in the grand house that sits between the Pub and the Washing Well, a truly swank maison that reputedly was-I never went inside-very much like Mae West's boudoir when s he played Diamond Lil, maybe even to the gilded swan bed. It was always on the Spring Fiesta tour until one year when the ladies were passing through, Elmo proudly opened a pair of pocket doors and there was a young man stretched out in all his buck-nekkid glory on some fabulous lit de repos; the ladies retired in confusion and misgiving. The next year, the house was bumped from the tour, and Emo was livid: "Those bitches! A little thing [sic] like that and they take me off! The best private house in the Quarter!"

Like so many of the major cultural figures of the 20th Century-Picasso, Chekhov, John Wayne, Andy Warhol, Mildred Bailey, me, William Randolph Hearst, Joan Crawford, Noel Coward, Judith Anderson, Mstislav Rostropovich-Elmo owned Dachshunds, many of them-though the chief was named Le Fevre-and he spoke to them in the only language they understand, apparently, a loud mix of profanity, threats, insults laced with a little bit of baby-talk. Elmo's other companion, though not by this late date any kind of love interest, was Mister Billy Livingston. Billy, who dressed and talked and comported himself as though the days of bathtub gin and raccoon coats and Pat Hobby and the Great Gatsby had never ended, had been the costume designer for all the big ice-capades-type shows in the Forties (Howdy Mister Ice, Hats Off To Ice, etc.) and this skill must have come in handy when Elmo prepared his costumes-his final Petronius appearance was as "A Floral Tribute To America's Youth" (the ball's theme was Glorifying The American Girl) in which he was literally encrusted with floribunda as he made his Ziegfeldesque walk about the ILA Hall.

This was one of Elmo's last appearances-he had been a founding member of Petronius and (to hear him tell it), he was the scourge of the meetings, lecturing his sister-members at every opportunity about their propensity to grandeur, "Just act like what you are," he'd say he told them, "which is a bunch of cocksuckers!"

The last time I saw him was the Mardi Gras before he died-he was dressed as a mermaid and had a splendidly muscled young man carrying him about (he could barely walk even without a fish tail).

A friend of mine who was moving to New York went by to see Elmo at The Flea Market to make his farewell, and Elmo insisted he go see a play that had just opened in New York entitled A Patriot For Me by John Osborne which had a lengthy drag ball sequence. Elmo wanted a full report. My friend went to the play but by that time, Elmo had already gone to heaven. "Death Takes Quarter Antique Dealer" was the headline on the short obit Elmo rated, and the only person in the local press who gave out with any sort of eulogistic sentiment in print was Tommy Griffin (who certainly rates a place in this history).

Otherwise, like so many characters in our community who have led interesting and amazing lives, have been possessed of exraordinary style and wit and panache, have touched many others in many ways from the Biblical to the most transcendental, Elmo lives on in memories and anecdotes rather than in any documented, archival fashion. It may be as well. I'd prefer to remember one of my favorite beatific visions of Elmo: leaning against the wall of his shop, with a few touches of make-up, leering as some sensational hustler-or-not walked by, poking him with his cane, and saying, "HelLO, honey!"

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