by Jon Newlin, NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana
Just as Rome is supposed to be The Eternal City and Paris is called, presumably
by songwriters and other romantics fortunate enough to have been there in
decent weather, The City of Light, and as Bogota, Colombia is known for obvious reasons as The City of Thieves, so our lovely little home town ought surely to be The City of Whores, which catches something essential about its character that escapes its normal nicknames, The Crescent City (merely topographical) or The City That Care Forgot (no longer true). I suggest this because it has always seemed to me, long before these torpid days of a bear market in the local Financial District, a place where everybody is for sale for one reason for another at prices that are, to put it mildly, fluid.
It sometimes seems like this isn't just the demimonde, either, but the whole damned monde; why New Orleans should be guiltier on this count than other big cities is difficult to say, except there is some kind of sexual miasma in the air that a) makes people hornier and b) makes them more willing to put out in return for something, whether it's a sack of Popeye's or a bit of rock or a couple of sawbucks or the family silver, depending on how ambitious they are. This is nowhere better demonstrated than in the curious history of Storyville, New Orleans' legalized red-light district, which was as Herbert Hoover once remarked of Prohibition, "an experiment noble in purpose," even if Storyville was, like Prohibition, the basest and most calculated kind of big government control.
The way it all happened was this: By the 1880's or so, New Orleans was positively overrun with whorehouses-you just couldn't move anywhere, it seems, without a brothel or a sporting house or a bunch of crib girls down the street if not next door; with these maisons de rendezvous came all the attendant paraphemaha-loud music, saloons and drunks, fights and arguments and altercations and knifings and shootings and robberies at all hours, sort of the way it is today but with bustles and whalebone corsets and picture hats. Since whores were crashing every respectable neighborhood, the City Council decided, in an unprecedented step, to do something. One of its members, Sidney Story, proposed restricting whoring to a district bounded by (more or less) Iberville, Basin, Robertson and St Louis Streets. (Story, who seems to have been a harmless enough character, lived in eternal shame about the way in which his name had been used.) Storyville was conveniently located next to the main railroad passenger terminal and when the suckers got off the trains, they were handed little "Blue Books" which advertised the whores and their specialties. (If only they'd retained this delightful custom and handed out Blue Books at Wanda's or the Midship or the old Safari or the original Mom's Society Page on Iberville in my youth as a guide to sporting boys. A lot of blacked eyes, pinched wallets, and sore feelings and other parts of the anatomy would have been avoided.)
Some of the houses like Lulu White's Mahogany Hall and Josie Arlington's Chateau Lobrano d'Arlington, Josie is buried in Metairie Cemetery and the statue on her tomb travels around famously, but that's another story, were apparently on the grandest scale with overdone parlors in the Turkish style, thick carpets, huge vases filled with pampas grass, immense crystal chandeliers, overstuffed horsehair sofas, Meissen and Dresden porcelains, etc.
Around the Quarter and across Canal Street and outside the District were the cheaper whores. The ranking of the houses was once explained unimprovably by the late guitar player and raconteur Danny Barker as follows: Whore house: Managed by a larceny-hearted landlady, STRICTLY business. Brothel: Juice joint with rooms, and a bunk or a cot near. Sporting House: Lots of stimulants, women, music. An old queer or cripple serves. Crib: Two or three stars venture for themselves, future landladies. House of Assignation: Women pull shifts and report where they are needed. Clip Joint: While one jives you, another creeps or crawls in and rifles your pockets.
Among the two thousand women working the joy-jerking tete-a-tete circuit in the District at any one time were such characters, in the old sense of the word, as Countess Willie Piazza, Kidneyfoot Rella, Flamin' Mamie, Bucktown Bessie, Bird Leg Nora, Cold Blooded Carrie, Naked Mouf Mattie, Big Bull Cora, Mary Meathouse, Miss Josephine Icebox, America Williams, Bridget Fury, and Coke Eye Laura, hey, didn't we see all of them in the Decadence drag show?, and Storyville even had its own official court photographer in the shy, crippled dwarf E.J. Bellocq, whose life was gussied up a bit in Louis Malle's movie "Pretty Baby" with Brooke Shields as a child strumpet and the late and luscious Frances Faye, showbiz's most beloved old dyke, as the Madame.
Storyville had its own newspaper, The Mascot, a scandal sheet that made Ambush look like something published by vacation Bible school, its own Carnival ball-The Ball of the Two Gentleman, where all sorts of racy stuff went on, and Storyville reputedly was where jazz was, if not born, at least licked into shape.
By 1917 when the United States had entered World War 1, the town was filled not just with prosperous thrill-seeking tourists and Creole sports, but also with (hmmm) zillions of sailors and soldiers and the Secretary of the Navy and the Secretary of War banned prostitution within five miles of any Army installation.
Storyville was not just off limits, it was to be closed and while Mayor Behrman (who used to hold hands with my grandmother during long carriage rides through the no-longer-especially-romantic Fellman Tract back when the century and I were young), pretty furious about this federal high handedness, it appears to be nothing new, went to Washington to protest. But within two months, Storyville was history, and Mayor Behrman went on to other achievements like requiring drivers in New Orleans to have licenses and having a distinguished citadel of learning on the West Bank named for him. The whores dispersed, many to the other side of Canal Street (they don't call it the CBD for nothing, honey), and jazz moved up the river to Chicago. The great experiment in social/sexual control was finis.
Now I'll make a shameless attempt to retail to you just why the above is significant in Queer New Orleans History. First of all, we have to assume that a good many of the sporting women working Storyville were lesbians; the most famous and most-often-reproduced cover of The Mascot, the official flamboyant adult tabloid of the District, shows a parlor scene-sofa, embroidered pillows, crystal gas lamp, and two women, one on the sofa, one kneeling in front of her. Their hands are entwined, they gaze adoringly at one another. The headline screeches: Good God! The Crimes of Sodom and Gomorrah Discounted. (Whether this means they were on sale that week is conjectural.)
Second, Storyville, of necessity, as a sexual souk, catered to every type of behavior that might laughably have been called perverse in simpler times. Certainly, there were lesbian exhibitions, this being a perennial fantasy of supposedly well-adjusted heterosexual men, shows put on for customers. One page of the Blue Book, reproduced in Al Rose's Storyville, New Orleans (still the best book on the subject) has as its head SAPHO [sic] with the following copy: "Why visit the play houses to see the famous parisian [sic] model postcard, when one can see the French damsel at the 'Cosmopolitan' which name was selected because everything goes as it will, and those that can not be satisfied there must surely be of a queer nature. Don't fail to see these French models in their many poses." And the address: 1510 Iberville Street.
But there were other kinds of shows. The most notorious show-woman was Emma Johnson, whose persona and performances are described in understated fashion by Rose this way: "[P]robably the most wanton of Storyville's sinners. Caring nothing for life or human emotions, a hard, mascu-line type who was possibly the closest approach to pure evil the Crescent City ever harbored, [I like her more with every word.] sadistic and unprincipled, this virago was selling children of both sexes into slavery years before Storyville came into being. She then became its most sensational and unprincipled impresario, offering unbelievably lewd shows every night in her notorious studio on Basin Street. Born before the Civil War .. in the Louisiana bayou country, this wench started life as one singularly unattractive to men.
Early drawn to lesbianism, Emma exercised a strange power over many of her sex [!!] and took great pride in the fact. [And why not?] Long before abnormal psychology had stature as a science, Emma [found] a host of ways to exploit sadomas-ochism, fetishism, and voyeurism (among other things) for monetary gain .... Savage and full of gate, [Emma made] up for a lack of beauty with fierce energy and a daredevil willingness to engage in any form of erotic misconduct the mind of man or woman could dream up.
Combined with a psychotic tendency for exhibitionism, these characteristics were so overwhelming that Emma became notorious even among the lowest class of strumpets. She soon found that it was more profitable to perform her misdeeds in full view of an audience than merely for the fees available from individual clients. In 1880, in her house in Gasquet Street (now Cleveland Street), she frequently put on these productions with herself as the central character." Later Emma moved to 331 Basin Street and fled the District when it was closed down, wealthy apparently, disappearing perhaps to St. Louis. Like I said, my kind of gal.
Third, the times of Storyville had to offer something for everyone. Across Canal Street, a queen named Miss Carol of Baronne Street ran a house with boy whores on Lafayette Street (no wonder the old Picayune offices used to be nearby); among those from whom the discerning customers could choose were Lady Fresh, Chicago Belle, Lady Beulah Toto, Mammy George, La Sylvester, and the madam, Miss Big Nellie. Miss Carol's boy house was known, says Al Rose, "for large scale, noisy, interracial social functions that frequently attracted the attention and wrath of neighbors and police." What was that address again?
Fourth, one of the great Storyville characters, the piano playing professor Toney "Dago" Jackson, was a sissy. Even Jelly Roll Morton, the Baron Munchausen of jazz who claimed to have written every tune and invented every musical idiom and given every musician his start, was in awe of Jackson's abilities as an entertainer. Jackson, a homely African-American gentleman, "real dark and not a bit good-looking" was Morton's descrip-tion, while the trumpeter Bunk Johnson said Jackson was "dicty", meaning a swell or a dapper dude. Morton said all the piano players stopped and got off the stool when Jackson entered a room, "If he [the piano player] didn't, somebody was liable to say, 'Get up from that piano. You're hurting its feelings. Let Toney play."'
Clarence Williams, the composer of innumerable risque blues, pianist and bandleader, said, "He was on the order of how King Cole is now, only much better. About Tony, you know he was an effeminate man, you know." Born in 1876 in a little house on Amelia Street uptown, Jackson was a sickly child, an epileptic as a matter of fact, and spent a sheltered childhood fussed over by his mother and four sisters, learning piano by himself at thirteen. Two years later, at fifteen, he was the king of New Orleans sporting house piano players, the man who knew a million songs, accompanied Antonia Gonzales, the female cornetist who played naked for her customers, composed the song "Pretty Baby" supposedly for a boyfriend. (He was also noted for the obscene variations on and parodies of popular songs he could improvise at the keyboard.)
Most of his songs he sold off for a few dollars; when Storyville was closed down, he went to Chicago where he died in 1921, having never recorded. In Al Rose's book, one old-time trumpet player described Toney Jackson as "Happy go lucky! Not a care in the world!" Rose, grumpy as usual, glosses this remark thus: "Oh, to be an epileptic, alcoholic, homosexual Negro genius in the Deep South of the United States of America! How could you have a care? Anyone would be happy, naturally, being among the piano virtuosi of his era, permitted to play only in saloons and whorehouses, for pimps and prostitutes and their customers. How could he be anything but 'happy go lucky'?"
So that's it for Storyville, but not all for the New Orleans tenderloin, we'll return to the subject of male prostitution, hustling, and joy-jerking, at some pernt in future. As Ray Bourbon once put it so well, the rest is hysterec-tomy.