by Jon Newlin
How did we get this way in
Toujours Gai Old New Orleans? It all goes back to France, the seat of reason and higher thought-at least the French certainly think so (though they were capable of one of the least reasonable and most low-down events in history, the French Revolution, which literally changed the course of Western Civilization forever-but that's another story and you have to ask the surviving eye-witnesses like Stewart Butler-pronounced boot'lair-who escaped from the Place de La Guillotine disguised as an old crone with nothing but the Phrygian bonnet on his head and a cask or two of vin ordinaire under his belt); why even the publishers of this distinguished and delightful journal have-you guessed it-French surnames, among the most celebrated of the ancien regime, simply awash in patents of nobility and titles dating back to the Capetian fine! (While the publisher of that Other Paper has an Eye-talian monicker, a much later and lower class of immigrants, and although sometimes very attractive in a vain and short-lived way, known for their musical abilities and their treachery of character when they bother to have any. "Italians. All musical. All treacherous," says Flaubert who ought to know. But I digress, if not regress.)
Anyway, Louisiana was settled by the French-but you knew that, as Betty Guillaud would say and we're not going to repeat any of those hoary old canards about Bienville and Marquette and Joliet and the rest of them; it must have been a snug fit on those rafts and in those canoes, just drifting down the river without a map or a ukelele, and so who knows what sort of situational shenanigans went on when things got boring or too hot to handle or both? Come back to the raft ag'in, P'ere Marquette, honey! But if things did happen among the fearless French explorers of the New World, well, they certainly wouldn't have been much of a shock to anyone back in France.
The French courts from the Renaissance onwards seem to have been rife-don't you just adore that word?-with illustrious sissies of panache and 'eclat. Scratch a king and you just might find a queen. No doubt some of the other European courts were as well, but for some reason they haven't fessed up about it in the way the French have, being naturally more worldly, less priestridden, and more given to extravagant clothes than, say, the English or the Spanish.
We can begin with Henri III-largely detested as nothing but a silly poof by historians until recently when a bit of rethinking has taken place-who was the son of Catherine de Medici and was much given to shrieking and flouncing around with a group of boyfriends called les Mignons. The "normal" French turned up their large collective noses at les Mignons-most of whom seem to have been cute in that pointy-chinned and rosy-cheeked style familiar from portraits of the time and most of whom also seem to have been extraordinarily brave-and were described as "frises, fraise's, poudres, parfume's"-curled, ruffled, powdered, perfumed-with this latter seeming to be the worst charge in those days when personal hygiene was, to put it mildly, not much prized.
Although Henri enjoyed the company of women and even may have had a girlfriend or two, he wasn't able to consummate his marriage and provide an heir and so ... the crown went to the straight and Protestant Henri IV-but that again, is another story, for which you must really ask Ray Ruiz who was spending the warm months in Navarre that year. Henri was knocked off at the not-exactly-old age of thirty-eight but in the meantime, A.L. Rowse tells us, Henri-who loved to dress up and camp around, particularly in religious drag, even founding his own religious orders to do so-was "a complex, subtle, and fascinating character." Well, he was queer, after all.
Then there's Louis XIII, who was a rather butch type, loved hunting and carousing and fighting and all that, and simply hated his wife-Anne of Austria. Anne consoled herself with Cardinal Mazarin, who may have been the father of Louis' two sons, of whom more in a moment. Like so many butch types, Louis XIII was under the thumb of an older and wiser man, in this case Cardinal Richelieu who, although straight, was a lot more interested in painting, music, poetry, cats, etc. The Cardinal, an extremely tough old macaroon, went to the trouble to play Henry Higgins to the Eliza Doolittles who were Louis' boyfriends, instructing them in such nuances of court behavior as which fingernail to use when you scratched on the door, which goblet to use when, and which pots de chambres were for royal use alone. (We've often seen this same phenomenon, if you can dignify it that way, when some sister gets her hand on a piece of nice trade and decides to bring him up in the world socially-never a good idea, such types always end up drinking out of the finger bowls.)
Richelieu had such power over Louis that he convinced him to banish his own mother from court and, worse, to execute his Greatest Love, the Marquis de Cinq-Mars (the subject of a famous novel by Alfred de Vigny which need not concern us here)-now that's power, ragazzi! Cinq-Mars had been cutting some secret diplomatic capers, not sexual ones, with Louis' younger brother. Such sorrows probably brought about Louis' early end-a 'natural' one-at forty-two.
So the French were a good bit more nonchalant about these things-at least at the courtly level, since you were probably headed for the galleys or the stake if you tried similar things and were merely a middle-class Parisian or provincial. So nonchalant were they that Louis XIII's two sons were rather cleverly handled. Since there had been all this trouble with Gaston, Louis' younger brother, Anne of Austria and Cardinal Mazarin decided not to let this happen again and thus the future Louis XIV was raised more or less as a boy-despite those high heeled shoes and overwhelming perukes-while his younger brother, Philip, the Duc d'Orleans, was deliberately raised to be a big sissy. (This is a pretty startling solution to dynastic struggle and it throws a nice peau de soie monkey wrench into all that genetics-vs.-behaviorist argument that constantly rages about how Queers Get That Way. Many of us didn't have such a deliberate sentimental education but it happened anyway; so who's right? But that's a discussion for some snowy night in front of the fire, as Bette Davis tells Anne Baxter in All About Eve.) Anyway, Philip grew up into a man described by W.H. Lewis, one of the most elegantly readable writers about this period, as follows: "He was a homosexual of a not uncommon [ahem!] type, gregarious, with a keen enjoyment of female society; sympathetic, subtly [!!] alive to all feminine instincts, he liked nothing better than an afternoon spent amidst mirrors, sweets, and toys in a cosily unventilated room, exchanging malicious gossip with two or three young women as witty and spiteful as himself."
Now, I don't know about you but this sounds like the proverbial life of Riley to me! Except, perhaps, for that unventilated part-given what the odorifereous quality of Versailles must have been, I'd want those casements thrown wide open. Now here's the peculiar part. Philip, also known as Monsieur, married several times, was the father of the future Regent of France-who gave a number of dandy suppers and wrote music and spent much of his time in a deliciously debauched state and under whose regency Louisiana was basically settled, under conditions of great peculiarity (but would you have it any other way?).
Not only did Philip manage to produce children-when he wasn't flouncing about in drag and swapping dish with various Mistresses of the Robes-he was also a great military hero. He was in fact so valorous and had such a good track record on the field of battle-whereas Louis the Sun King hated to stick around and couldn't wait to get back to his ladyfriends-that eventually his brother got jealous and they fell out, over a trivial breach of etiquette when Monsieur's wife-called Madame, bien sur-fell ill, and Philip was no longer allowed to lead the troops. No doubt, army life-the proximity of all those well-favored and well-set-up peasant louts in tight breeches-must have agreed with him. (Certainly more than it would with any self-respecting drag queen in this benighted day and age; the late, lamented Sergeant Perry Watkins was an exception in Uncle Sam's Army at the end of the century.) He probably enjoyed it at least as much as those afternoons fussing over the ribbons on his cuffs and the exact placement of the fringes and passementerie on his gown while gobbling bon-bons and trashing the rest of the court with his pals...
What does all this have to do with New Orleans gay history, you might well ask? Darling, when anyone asks why we (misbehave the way we do here, just look them straight [sic] in the eye and tell them, pernt-blank, "It's a French town, you know."
Next: Early Louisiana and the Trashiness of Port Cities, as well as a Few Thoughts and Facts on What Happened In (and To) Storyville