Madam: A Novel of New Orleans
Guest post by Cari Lynn, author of a new book about New Orleans Storyville district.
We have one copy of this book to giveaway! Scroll down for details.
I must confess up front, I’ve never lived in the Deep South. But my curiosity, my latest book, and much of my last decade has been steeped in New Orleans history.
After stumbling upon the story of Madam Josie Arlington, I became obsessed with Storyville, New Orleans’s legal red-light district that existed from 1898-1917.
Storyville was singular at the time for its scope, but even still, it achieved much more than the original goal of simply containing the widespread prostitution that was corrupting neighborhoods of New Orleans. Within Storyville, prostitutes could work legally, so long as they remained in the district boundaries — which meant they had to live within these boundaries too. As a result, large bordellos sprang up, and some of them — specifically the ones along Basin Street— vied with each other for how lavish and state-of-the art they could get. We’re talking everything from rooms decorated floor to ceiling with mirrors, to the latest in indoor plumbing.
But what I found so extraordinary was that poor, abandoned women who had few options at the time could rise to unprecedented wealth and power within Storyville. One woman in particular achieve such status — some would call it notoriety — that now, 100 years after her death, her tomb in Metairie Cemetery is still a tourist attraction. She was Madam Josie Arlington, and she’s the main character in Madam: A Novel of New Orleans, which hits shelves this week.
But, to me, what made researching this story so fascinating were the rich resources that seem unique to New Orleans. Let me explain. I was trained as a journalist and have previously written several books of nonfiction. I’ve always loved historical research and would comb through archives looking for long-forgotten but compelling stories. At first look, it seemed many of the records of Storyville had been lost or destroyed. The city of New Orleans had an odd love-hate relationship with their red-light district. It was the ugly stepchild who happened to bring in a ton of money. In the original design of Storyville, the district was tucked out of sight in the “back o’ town.” But, ironically, when the Basin Street train depot was built, the back o’ town suddenly became the city’s welcome mat.
Like it or not, Storyville was a staple of New Orleans, and it attracted politicians, celebrities and the wealthy who’s-who from around the world. But on the brink of World War I, with Navy base camps precariously close to Storyville, the Navy demanded its closure. The mayor and other politicians of New Orleans did their best to protest the demise of Storyville, but to no avail.
Once the district was officially shuttered, the money train came to a screeching halt. New Orleans promptly shifted its stance, and Storyville was viewed as a blight. The bordellos were torn down, and the street names were changed. In the district, the dance halls that had been responsible for the birth of jazz and hosted such greats at Buddy Bolden, Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong, closed down and the musicians migrated to Chicago or New York.
But in between this time, a handful of extraordinary photos were created, and they are filled with enough personality to make up for the lack of official documentation. A primary example is the photographer E.J. Bellocq (who’s also a character in Madam). Bellocq is the only known person to have photographed the prostitutes within Storyville. These photos are at once beautiful, bizarre, illuminating, and some are so oddly composed (one with a naked woman wearing a lampshade over her head comes to mind), that that’s what makes them uniquely compelling.
As a young Jelly Roll Morton says in Madam about the jambalaya of people and cultures and classes, “It’s what gives this place the flavor.”
GIVEAWAY: To enter to win a copy of MADAM, comment on this post through Tuesday. We’ll choose one winner at random on Wednesday. Must live in the U.S. to enter.
Cari Lynn is the author of several books, including Madam: A Novel of New Orleans, The Whistleblower, and Leg the Spread. Find out more on her website.