The Carpet Bagger's Journal — moving from NYC to Mississippi

June 3, 2016

The Official Guidebook to Whoredom — New Orleans’ Storyville Blue Book and the Women it Commodified

New Orleans has plenty of prostitutes today, but about a hundred years ago, sex work in this city was legal, zoned, taxed, sponsored and cataloged.  Yes, I said “cataloged,” by which I mean approximately what Land’s End and Fingerhut mean when they say “catalog,” only it’s not snow boots that are for sale but the bodies of women, complete with Zagat-like ratings for the services of each.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, New Orleans planned Storyville, a community of whore houses, segregated officially between octoroon “cribs,” where women of color or of mixed racial background sold their bodies, and all-white Maisons de Joie, perhaps the most famous of which was Mahogany Hall, memorialized by Louis Armstrong’s “Mahogany Hall Stomp.” Storyville was named for the legislator who suggested its legal codification, reform-minded Alderman Sidney Story.  Women of ill repute were supposed to be confined to a sixteen-block ghetto in the Treme section of town, and the implication of their zoning was not only to restrict the work of prostitutes but also their lives, as women who worked there were supposed to stay within the boundaries set up by the city government for almost any imaginable activity.  It was as if they were under house arrest, only they were expected to continue to work as whores to the benefit of the madams, pimps, and Tom Anderson, mobbed-up cabaret owner and the putative “mayor of Storyville,” who seems to have taken a cut of everybody else’s ill-gotten gains in this district.

storyville whorehouse bedroom

This is where clients could expect to have sex for money, — no visible sign of venereal diseases on those throw pillows.

The city itself of course turned a profit, as it could tax these very lucrative businesses that were kept under a watchful eye.  As one government official remarked about sex-for-hire in New Orleans — “You can make prostitution illegal in New Orleans, but you can’t make it unpopular.”  The city, too, was reaping benefits from the legalized trafficking of women’s bodies, and some men’s bodies, too (there are some references to “fairies” in Storyville, though they are not cataloged like women are), it seems. The only initial concern expressed about Storyville by many city officials was that it should not encourage men of color to sleep with white women, though white men were free to roam the district and purchase anybody’s body at will.

Before the establishment of an official tourist bureau, New Orleans businesses compiled something it called Blue Book, too racy to mail according to federal law, but the City of New Orleans determined could be given out to tourists and thrill-seekers of any kind.  In it, potential whorehouse customers could see a list of women for sale in Storyville, divided between white and black women, and inside, one could see photos and read about the various charms and talents of the women for sale, like they were seat cushions on display at Pottery Barn.

The purported purpose of the sixteen-block ghetto designated for whores was, according to the prose of Blue Book, was first, “to put the stranger on the proper and safe path … free from ‘hold-ups’ and other games,” and perhaps more atrociously, “it regulates the women,” keeping the rest of the city free from women who make a living selling their bodies. The purported purpose was therefore to pen in and legalize the transaction of the prostitute and Jon for the Jon, especially if he were white, but it made the woman a prisoner of a mobbed-up prostitution district.  If the sex worker entered Storyville freely to start work there as a prostitute, the law henceforth could hold her hostage even if she wanted to quit the oldest profession for something new.  It made her subject to pimps like Tom Anderson, madams who might tolerate brutality or cheat women of their wages, and with a smile in Blue Book, she was trapped night after night, day after day, in a Mahogany prison.

blue book prostitute mademoiselle rita walker

Mademoiselle Rita Walker’s Blue Book listing exoticizes her, and the combination of her barefoot dancing and expensive wardrobe make her a spicy commodity.

I do not assume for a minute that all the women in Storyville were there against their will.  Surely some of them, whom men at least called by names of royalty or aristocracy — there was “Queen Gertie” and “Countess Willie” — might have found work in a brothel preferable to other forms of menial labor open to working-class women, and perhaps the work itself was less exploitative than some “legitimate” jobs.  In a world where sexual harassment was frequent and legal, maybe getting paid for sex was better than being used for sex while officially being a washerwoman, nanny, or store clerk.  But the fact that these women couldn’t leave if the city didn’t let them slip by, if the mayor of Storyville did not wink — that made Storyville into a gilded form of convict prostitution.  It was not unlike the situation of sharecroppers just outside of town who might have been menaced by the Klan if they threatened to board a train for New York City in the middle of the sugar cane harvest.  In Storyville and the plantation, just like at the Hotel California, you could check out any time you liked, but you could never leave.

And the idea that women were for sale like stoves at Sears — how American a way to hurt people! Capitalism is often subtly ugly when it sells clothes made in factories where workers do not make a living wage, but the clothing itself is lovely.  This, though, was not subtle.  The commerce of the female body is here, and adding insult to injury,  the women in this trade were expected to smile for a photo that advertised them like washboards or shoes.  They were reduced to things, rides at the carnival, adventures — not fully human at all.  I wonder if we remain inured to this kind of commodification of women as pornographic websites speak of parts, not people.  What is voluntary in our day troubles me less than the thousands of underage girls advertised for “outcall massage” in legal classified ads, girls kidnapped, brutalized, and peddled for profit by the mob.

I wonder if we continue to live in a society that could sanction the selling of female flesh while male flesh is mercifully off the auction block these days. Joe Francis has made a wholly disreputable bucket of cash from his disgusting Girls Gone Wild series that convinces women to flash their breasts for his profit.  Women in New Orleans, at least some of them, lift shirts for plastic beads once a year.  Again, I am less troubled by girls lifting shirts than I am boys filming and making bank off of it.  I am not really against whores, ghettoed or not, but I am uncharitable in my views toward Jons and am really totally ready to cut a pimp.  New Orleans places no stigma on what the French call louche.  I particularly take exception to bohemian proclivities expressed by one person that others leech and exploit.

Storyville did not end because of any moral sentiment from the city government of New Orleans.  Rather, the United States military insisted, under the aegis of Woodrow Wilson, who was no whoremonger, that it would be morally and physically unhealthy for soldiers and sailors to catch a boat to World War I through a port town where hookers operated legally.  One may be pretty certain that the president did not consult the soldiers in question about this, but he was adamant.  As a result, Storyville’s interests were less lucrative to New Orleans business and government than a military port contract.  The Mahogany Hall and its neighboring buildings were shuttered, but unsurprisingly, the hooking has continued on the DL to this day. It’s not hard to find a prostitute for sale in New Orleans in the twenty-first century, but it is hard to find a published catalog of them, and the city has ceased to sanction anything they do officially.  There are no doubt plenty of cops on the take, plenty of pimps, and plenty of frightened girls who never went wild, who just fell into the hands of abusers. Storyville might be closed, but it is still open in spirit all day and all night in the city that zoned it.

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January 12, 2016

Arrived in New Orleans – and already bucking for Sainthood

saint louis cathedral

This cathedral is named after a crusader king who became a saint. These days, there are multiple New Orleans Saints, and they wear helmets, too.

Dearly beloved, I am sleeping in a rented bed on the West Bank of the Mississippi River in New Orleans while my husband and I wait for the delivery of our belongings into our house by the moving company.  The house we have rented has a narrow front porch, a faux fireplace with a white wrought iron grille. Our dog has already barked at the neighbor dogs and marked his territory in our shallow back yard with an oak tree and a brick patio. The neighbors are busy, multicultural and middle-class.  I see dogs but almost no children. From my front porch, I hear the bell of a church tower, a church named something like “Our Lady of Perpetual Virginity,” that chimes the hours during daylight, and I am charmed.

The neighborhood has many Catholic churches in it and a Catholic college as well.  As televangelist from nearby Destrehan, Jesse DuPlantis, often remarks, “Everyone in Louisiana has been Catholic at one time or another,” and one senses this to be so.  The rhythm of the neighborhood seems to comply with the traditional daily cycle of matins, compline and evensong.

I have no idea whether my neighbors confess sins to a priest (except a middle-aged Vietnamese-American man who lives around the corner with me who has repeatedly invited me and my husband to church with him and who seems baffled I have no children). But the city, like many Catholic communities, is socially permissive of public forms of decadence (which at least at one point were) absolved in small booths in towered buildings smelling of candle wax.  While Mississippi, for instance, a traditionally protestant state, taxes booze and controls its distribution as an unfortunate concession to a baser nature that religion ought to make one rise above, Louisiana has no such scruples. Louisiana allows the sale of liquor at grocery stores and gas stations.  Gambling happens at rest stops along Interstate 10 with no finger-wagging from the State Capitol or the swamps.

While in Mississippi a great deal of lip service is paid to the way one ought to act, to abstinence, and to fidelity, even the so-called family values gubernatorial candidate in the last election Louisiana held was caught in whore houses.  It’s not that people are less moral in Louisiana; that’s not true at all.  It’s that the State doesn’t see itself traditionally in quite the same role as the morality police that state governments do in surrounding areas. Except for my Irish ancestors and some others from that cold-water island, who hoped their children would have nothing to confess to the priest, Catholicism’s confessional is often a pressure valve for the explosive gases of human experience.  Internalized moral fiber is for Calvinists, not papists, who admit the virtuous among them are exceptional enough to deserve statues and annual processions. Louisiana is marvelous, but it makes no attempt to appear genuinely good.  The beads thrown at Mardi Gras are made of plastic, not gold, and the topless women who dive for them are not perpetual virgins.

I surmise this difference in local Southern cultures has deep Hurricane-Katrina-resistant roots in the Middle Ages. Mikhail Bakhtin, a Russian philosopher, observed that pre-modern societies dominated by the Catholic Church had rigid rules but used what he termed “the carnevalesque” as an inversion of the rigid social order at least a couple of times a year.  The discourse of the church of the Middle Ages could be self-flagellating, but certain works of art in churches depict lewd scenes.  The festival of Ash Wednesday, one where the recipient of ashes to mourn his or her own sinfulness hears, “you are dust, and to dust you will return,” as a call to penitence, is preceded by a hangover-inducing bacchanal the day before.  It’s not that the Church was ever sex-positive.  They to this day consider sex of all kinds, including within marriage, inherently sinful unless the sole desire of the participants is to produce legitimate offspring.  But the Catholic Church has been sex-acknowledging in that it concedes that people mess around on the DL and produced both rigid rules and periodic catharses to let off steam. Louisiana is anti-choice, often teaches abstinence-only sex education, and claims to hold conservative values about all sorts of social issues, but in New Orleans, drag queens have paraded around for at least a century and a half,  vaudou (voodoo) has cursed many for about four hundred years, the greatest genius ever born here – jazz inventor and legend Louis Armstrong – was born in a whorehouse, and the carnevalesque constitutes its greatest tourist attraction.  What happens on Bourbon Street does not stay on Bourbon Street, as one says about debauchery in secularized Vegas, but what happens on Bourbon Street has the potential to be forgiven a few blocks away at any of the churches in the French Quarter.  And to get absolved takes less resolve than a willingness to restitute and conform to ritual.  There is no altar call in the Catholic Church, a protestant tradition where penitence happens in the heart first and one gets saved.  There is an altar at the Catholic church, and one faces it and recites liturgy, stands, kneels, stands again, crosses one’s self, and one admits one was wrong but without a total life commitment for permanent change.  Penitence on the Rue Saint Charles doubtless consists of more regret than permanent resolve in most cases.

As I wait for my furniture to trek through the bayoux down here, I resolve not to give up my Irish primness such as I ever possessed it.  I intend to keep my shirt on no matter who offers to throw plastic beads my way next month. I intend to work out my own salvation in fear and trembling, as Paul admonishes us to do in one epistle, rather than to rely on others to make the sign of the cross in my direction.  It’s not in my own power to act right, of course, but it is my responsibility to seek out forgiveness from God and to avoid purchasing an excess of vodka at the local gas station, to avoid lewdness, even if the engraving in the cathedral shows a tree growing genitalia (yes, that really exists in one European medieval church).  I am going to try to do what God would have me do here, whatever that might look like.

For Protestants like me, the Saints are all those who make it to Heaven, not just those whose coffins smell like roses and where prayers offered for them to intercede are answered by miracles.  Goodness is a personal responsibility for all of us who answer altar calls, though none of us, not even saints with statues, manage to be perfectly good.  I would like to smell like a rose instead of a corpse, but I notice that on a hot day, all of New Orleans smells at once deliciously floral and rather putrefied at once.  I think perhaps this is why I feel so at home here already.

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