It has been said that the state of Louisiana is comprised of three parts: North Louisiana, Cajun Louisiana and New Orleans. That’s actually an oversimplification – there’s also what are called the Florida parishes – stretching from Baton Rouge eastward to Mississippi and north of Lake Pontchartain.
My mother was born and raised in New Orleans, down in the Ninth Ward that became famous during Hurricane Katrina. I was born and raised in New Orleans, growing up in the Jefferson parish suburb of Metairie. My father was from Shreveport, in north Louisiana.
After he was discharged from the Navy at the end of World War II, my father moved to New Orleans to work. His parents weren’t exactly pleased. New Orleans had a reputation, a well deserved reputation, one that today’s Bourbon Street is only a very pale remnant of. And then he married someone from New Orleans. My grandmother got over that, but she never got over his decision to raise her grandson in the fetid swamp of iniquity called the Big Easy.
I survived. My upbringing was pretty standard Baby Boomer American Suburban.
New Orleans had a reputation for political corruption (more like a Central or South American city than a U.S. city). And it had a reputation for, well, the loosest of morals. That came from primarily from a section of town called Storyville, a legally constituted district where prostitution was allowed. There were other parts of the city where prostitution flourished, but Storyville was the epicenter. It lasted for 20 years, from 1897 to 1917, when it was closed down at the demand of the general commanding a nearby Army base after four soldiers were killed.
Very little of Storyville physically remains. It encompassed 24 square blocks west of the French Quarter and north of Canal Street. Popular legend says jazz was born there, but actually it was born all over the city.
Last fall, we were visiting New Orleans, and in a French Quarter shop near the Café Du Monde (coffee au lait and beignets!) I found two mysteries by a writer named David Fulmer. Both are set in New Orleans, and both are largely about Storyville.
I just finished reading the first one, Chasing the Devil’s Tail, published in 2003. A private detective, Valentin St. Cyr, is trying to find a serial killer who’s murdering the denizens of the brothels. It is graphic, with some rough language, and I hesitate it recommend it for those reasons. It is also a riveting story, and historical figures walk through its pages, like photographer E.J. Bellocq, jazz piano player Jelly Roll Morton, Miss Lulu (a madam), Tom Anderson, a state senator who “governed” Storyville, and Buddy Bolden, the cornet player who was instrumental in the birth of jazz.
It is extraordinarily well researched. Fulmer drew from the archives of Tulane University and scholarly historical works from LSU and the University of Alabama. He places the reader right in the middle of New Orleans history at the turn of the 20th century, and it’s a portrayal that’s both gripping and accurate. It is also gritty and, as I said, graphic.
Part of what Fulmer does is to describe the intricate and complex racial situation. New Orleans society was highly structured, and that included the descendant of slaves and the offspring of slaveowners and slaves. The story’s detective, Valentin St. Cyr, has an Italian father and a mixed white-black mother. One thing I learned by reading this story is the level of discrimination immigrant Italians faced in New Orleans society at the time (that had largely disappeared by the time I was born, although there were vestiges).
Reading this story reminded me of some of the more sordid aspects of the culture I came from. It wasn’t all great food and Mardi Grad parades. It also reminded me of my Southern Baptist grandmother in Shreveport, who would have been a young wife with three young children living in central Louisiana when Storyville was at its height. I understand why she was concerned.