I am back in New Orleans for a night after my three days in Mississippi to celebrate my sister’s 60th birthday. Here is an excerpt from another story I did for Travel+Leisure about New Orleans – this one in 2009 – when I talked to Lauren Hutton and Richard Ford, among others.
“I got my education on Bourbon Street, not at Sophie Newcomb,” says model and adventuress Lauren Hutton recalling her first year at the two best-known New Orleans finishing schools. “I lived on Bourbon, baby, in a great apartment across from the Court of Two Sisters restaurant. Had a big brass bed that cost me twenty-five dollars. I was eighteen and waiting tables at Al Hirt’s place,” she says, invoking the name of one of the city’s most beloved jazz legends. “I’d work from seven p.m. till three-thirty a.m. I’d sleep four hours, hop on my Vespa, and head up to the Garden District for my classes at Newcomb. I loved working at Al’s. Dizzy Gillespie made a pass at me there. Believe me, that’s something a girl doesn’t forget. Al’s was the first to integrate Bourbon. I’d sit at the bar doing my homework. Field all the calls. And listen to the bomb threats we were getting.”
“I went back recently for the first time in over twenty years and was appalled by what’s happened to Bourbon Street. It was always trashy, but wonderful trashy; now it’s devolved into the lowest of the low. The city government must be criminal to let that happen. All those damn T-shirt shops. It broke my heart. Don’t they know what they’ve got? New Orleans is a national treasure. No, it’s a world treasure. It’s America’s only European city. I know it must still have its charms, but I didn’t find any. So I’m heading back to do some more exploring. I’m going to bag me some of that city’s damn charm. I’m determined to. Determined.”
Calm down, Miss Hutton. Calm down. And listen to that sultriest of siren calls: a New Orleans resident reeling off the reasons why “the weather don’t matter and the neighbors don’t mind.”
New Orleanians twiddle their thumbs all through Christmas, their minds racing forward a dozen days to Twelfth Night, when Carnival can officially begin. No one throws a better Twelfth Night party than Henri Schindler, the Carnival historian who has written the most essential of the town’s coffee-table tomes, Mardi Gras New Orleans. He also designed the Mardi Gras floats that adorn the floor of Harrah’s new casino on Canal Street, and has a book coming out soon about the elaborate invitations of past Carnivals. Schindler rents out the ballrooms above the bar and restaurant, the Napoleon House—built in 1814 by Nicholas Girod and offered in 1821 to Emperor Napoleon as an alternative to his exile on Elba—and fills them with an assortment of revelers. It’s hard to tell the uptown socialites from the denizens of the Vieux Carré, for anyone not masked or costumed is barred from entering.
“The night of Epiphany is for those of us truly serious about Carnival,” says Schindler, using the term that Catholics, in this most Catholic of American cities, prefer for Twelfth Night. Schindler himself is dressed as a Chinese mandarin. His authentic persimmon-colored robes are elaborately brocaded, and a peacock feather bobs from behind his broad-brimmed hat. A feral little half-mask sits atop his delighted face. The jazz combo he has hired cranks out a peppy rendition of “St. Louis Blues.” Booze is downed. The tempo is upped. Couples are actually doing the Charleston. Décolleté costumes are loudly admired. Two males break into a tango. Jim Smiley, owner of his namesake vintage clothing store on Magazine, is wearing floor-length vestments used in an Order of Odd Fellows initiation at the turn of the last century. “Fun, it would seem, is serious business,” he dryly remarks, his voice muffled behind his long-nosed mask.
Draped in a club chair in the ballroom’s vestibule is a girl wearing a slightly frayed ball gown to its very best advantage. Her mask is made from the same beige silk and shimmering beads as the rest of her ensemble. When told how lovely she looks, she says with the sweetest of slurs, “This was my great-grandmother’s Epiphany costume. It’s my first time to wear it. Family tradition. I turned eighteen last year. They made me put it on. I’m just—I don’t know—a little overwhelmed. I waltzed earlier uptown with a masked man who wouldn’t tell me his name. The men all insist on disguising their voices. I could have been dancing with my daddy for all I know.” She lifts her mask to wipe away a tear. She lights her own cigarette. She sighs. “It’s all so silly and wonderful and too, too much.”
It has been raining all Sunday afternoon in the French Quarter and finally the clouds begin to part, allowing the remaining light to lap at this hue-addled part of town. It is a gentle light, tender, really—too tender, in fact, to test the hangover-subsiding determination of those emerging from their walled gardens to set off on their weekly strolls toward the top of Bourbon. They’re all headed for yet another early Sunday supper at Galatoire’s, which is one of this city’s more preciously held traditions, along with “making” one’s uptown groceries at Langenstein’s, and suffering through another New Orleans Saints season.
Just a few blocks down from Galatoire’s, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Richard Ford graciously receives a visitor in the parlor of his 1840’s town house. Tourists—a covey of warbling Germans—flutter by outside as Ford settles into a blood-red taffeta sofa situated perfectly between the parlor’s lavishly sashed front windows. Above him is a silk screen of an old Paris Review cover. Books, of course, are all about, including an opened edition of Middlemarch, his current reading, left atop a sturdy little writing desk just big enough for a man’s laboring elbows. On the walls are several original WPA-sponsored photographs by Eudora Welty, who has named Ford the executor of her estate.
“I hear the tourists walking down Bourbon all the time,” he says. “I’ll be sitting here reading, and one of them will say, ‘Oh, I wish I knew what it looked like in there.’ If I ever hear that, I go right out and bring ’em inside and say, ‘You want to see what it looks like?Come on in and look!’ I assume they all think there’s a room in here full of pictures of popes, and the ashes of a Pekingese dog on the mantel. When, in fact, it’s just me, reading and watching a football game on TV. Not anything exotic. It’s certainly not George Dureau’s place,” he says, citing the city’s most infamous artist and photographer.
“The important thing to me about New Orleans is not all the gingerbread on the houses and how everybody has that accent that makes them sound as if they live in Brooklyn,” Ford continues in his own slightly nasal, no-nonsense voice. “What’s important to me is how New Orleans is like any other big city, except nicer. It’s a more graceful city, a more slowly paced one.” He pauses. “When I used to hang out down here in the seventies, they were into the life that I think people expect New Orleanians to be into: slightly decadent perhaps, slightly grubby. It felt like ‘live and let live,’ as Kristina would describe it,” he says, mentioning his wife of 32 years, who was until recently the executive director of the city’s planning commission. “It all felt . . . boozy. But I think the big drinking in a societal way has finally gone out of vogue. Eating is much more of a vice in this town,” he insists, noting that his current project is the introduction to a history of Galatoire’s.
“Walker Percy warned writers to be careful about living in the Quarter,” Ford is reminded. “He said that ‘the occupational hazard of the writer in New Orleans is a variety of the French flu, which also may be called Vieux Carré syndrome. One is apt to turn fey, potter about a patio. . . .’ “
“When I came here in the seventies, I’d stay at the Olivier House on Toulouse—a place I still love—and I’d call up Walker. I was looking for a place to buy or rent. And Walker would always say: ‘Richard, don’t buy in the French Quarter. You’ll be preoccupied with taking a stroll every morning, and going off to get coffee, and chattin’ with your friends at the Napoleon House.’ It was specifically because of Walker Percy that I have not let that happen,” he says, twisting about atop his red silk taffeta.
George Dureau is in a tizzy. There are two minutes left before the year 2000 commences, his guests have gathered on the balcony of his 6,000-square-foot loft to view an imminent display of fireworks, and he still hasn’t decided which music should accompany the close of the century. At the stroke of midnight, the fireworks burst above the city. Suddenly from his little boom box blare the opening chords of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” “This is the sound of the twentieth century! This!” Dureau happily proclaims as he joins his guests on his rickety terrace and leads them all in song, the Beatles’ British voices blending with the baritones that even the women seem to employ down here.
Hovering inside, another display of New Orleans characters bears silent witness to the watershed revel. Dureau’s giant charcoal renderings of naked men grouped in rather innocent romps are hung haphazardly all about the loft’s walls, as is a portrait of Kristina Ford posed as Diana the huntress. His photographs of more starkly rendered male nudes—godlike African-Americans, amiable dwarfs, and precisely posed amputees—are scattered on all available surfaces. Dureau served as early inspiration to both Robert Mapplethorpe and Joel Peter Witkin, who eventually developed an appreciation for the beauty to be found in the macabre. For Dureau, born 69 years ago over in New Orleans’s Bayou St. John neighborhood, such an appreciation is as indigenous as his craving a bit of chicory in his morning cup of coffee.
“Who is that handsome woman over there in the corner?” he is asked when the fireworks have subsided.
“The Honorable Ginger Berrigan,” says Dureau. “All Southern women are honorable, of course, but that one’s more honorable than most. She’s a federal judge, honey. Before that, she was the head of the local chapter of the ACLU. I’ve had a soft spot for the ACLU ever since they saved me from jail back in ’63 for havin’ Negroes on my porch. The word got out that I was gonna have an integrated soirée, and the paddy wagons were lined up all the way down Esplanade. They arrested seventy-two people that night. I was thrown down the stairs three times.” Dureau indignantly smooths his chignon and fiddles with the braid he has somehow devised at the bottom of his beard so that it tightly frames his jawline in a kind of follicular face-lift. “It was so scary,” he insists, recalling the legendary night that people still talk about down here. Nothing explains New Orleans better—a turning point in its local civil rights struggle was a rowdy party.
A few days later, Dureau leads a lone guest on a tour of his loft. A tattered old World War I American flag has been slung atop the bed. The surface of his Saarinen dining table is as pocked with paint as a discarded Pollock. A giant wooden Pegasus has landed at the far end of the room; it wears a leather Mardi Gras mask and evidence of its original gold paint. “B.J. the Legless took off all the gold for me,” says Dureau, rubbing a flank, then a wing, his mind obviously wandering toward thoughts of B.J., who has posed for many of the photographs still scattered about the loft.
“Why such a fascination with amputees, George?”
“Sugar, New Orleans has always had amputees galore,” he says, a bit perturbed by such a question. “Two reasons. We had one billion miles of streetcar tracks runnin’ through the city when I was a child. We had streetcars like you’ve never seen! And also the regular train tracks were everywhere ’cause property was hard for the railroad to buy, so they bought bits of property all over the city just to find a way outta here. People lost their legs like crazy around here from, you know, passin’ out on all those tracks. . . .”
Dureau’s voice trails off on a track all its own. Taking his hand from the Pegasus, he runs his fingers along the one table in the whole place free of any debris. “You notice anything different about this table?” he asks. “When I cleaned off all the food and wine from the other night, it just looked too white to my eyes. So I took some day-old chicory coffee and brushed it on there. Gives it a nice patina, huh?Smell it,” he commands. He is, of course, obeyed, and it appears that Dureau has captured New Orleans with just a few of his deft and effortless strokes: even the furniture is aromatic in this damn town.