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Lesbian Gay New Orleans History

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Madame John Dodt's Legacy #3

by Jon Newlin, NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana

Now that we have escaped France for the moment-and realize, s'il vous plait, that La Belle Louisiane like so many of its Anglo spinster sisters to the North was settled largely by crimi- nals, misfits, religio-socio-sexual dissenters of every conceivable stripe, con-artists on the lam (still a flourishing local breed like that other exotic import, the nutria, and every bit as difficult to extirpate), and what have you-perhaps the most indicative moment in early Louisiana history was that when the Sieur d'Iberville and his merry men (Mary) hit land, virtually the first thing they did was dress up and have Mardi Gras-one can just see those silly-billies doing the hucklebuck and the Suzy-Q and the gavotte through the swamps, tearing off a swatch of Span- ish moss to make an impromptu boa.

Those sailing ships were itty-bitty in those days but no doubt there was room in the cargo hold for a cask or two of sequins and plumes (though we assume if they ran short of feathers they might have knocked off a couple pelicans with their blunderbusses), a few bolts of tulle, taffeta, and organza, and whatever the rococo equivalent of a hot glue gun might have been. But in our last installment, I gave my solemn promise that I wouldn't bore you with such trifles.

Because Louisiana was famously isolated-and still is, in a way-there is a different outlook here which amounts to the sort of siege mentality one encounters in certain island or peninsula na- tions (England, Spain, Cuba, Japan, Sicily, Argentina): proud to the point of madness, full of theatrical self-love, disdainful of outsiders who-can't-possibly-understand, etc.

In New Orleans which could only be reached by either dangerous cruises down the Mississippi or dangerous voyages into the Gulf or suicidal overland expedition, this defensive psychology-especially in a little French colony where malaria, smallpox, bad liquor, the perils of walking in heels on cobble-stones, and cholesterol claimed large portions of the population at regular intervals-led to an insistence on-what else?-Glamour with a capital G.

The normally sober and understated chronicler of Carnival, Perry Young, whose 1931 The Mistick Krewe is still thus far the defini- tive history of Mardi Gras, notes that early New Orleans "had a gay name, and had earned it." Sing it, sister!

Mr. Young also refers to the city being, at a later date, "the abomination of re- formers" who just couldn't do anything with the population-and this phrase accounts for the rather late arrival of any sort of political consciousness among our queer and lesbian brethren and sisteren. The general attitude was more or less like that of Ruby Keeler in Dames when she tells her shocked-and-dismayed parents who don't want her to go on the stage, "I'm free, white, and twenty-one and I'll dance if I want to!"

By the middle of the Eighteenth Century, visitors to Louisiana were grousing (in a way that liberals still do today when they Have Our Best Interests At Heart) that the poor spent all their money on drink and the rich spent all their money on drag, dancing, and dizzy extravaganzas. New Orleans was already Sin Town USA, except that, while there was no USA, there was plenty of sin-or vice, as it was more picturesquely and agreeably known.

One English visitor commented in 1806 of the locals-a masterpiece of disguised verbiage, this-that "Their [locals'] persons are eminently lovely, and their movements indescribably graceful, far superior to any- thing I ever witnessed in Europe." What kind of movements he witnessed in Europe, be it the turkey-trot or the hootchy-koo or the hokey-pokey, he fails to specify but we can guess.

It wasn't all dancing and masquerades around here, though, there was time to plan the Haitian revolution in the cafes and coffee-houses, and of course there were pirates, including Jean Lafitte after whom the city's oldest-and-longest-running gay bar is named. There's been a cer- tain amount of scholarly/pornographic debate in the last twenty years about pirates and whether they represent some sort of utopian all-male communities in which, inevitably, somebody was going to get cornholed as inevitably as somebody would sooner or later get keel-hauled. While you won't find any of this speculation in, say, standard contemporary works like Exquemlin's The Buccaneers of America or in Maureen O'Hara pirate movies, we did run across it in an academic work by a guy named Burg-not Gene Burg, the quondam T-P editorial writer and gourmand-for-hire, that's Bourg anyway-called something like Sodomy and the Pirate Tradi- tion. (How well we recall that balmy afternoon decades ago, at Faubourg Marigny Books, leaf- ing through the book, griping about the cost and hearing Tom Horner, then the owner of the place, tell us in his paper-thin, insinuating voice, "Well, m'dear, it's a scholarly press book, you know, and you know how dear they are..." But we digress.)

Mr. Burg relied largely on hearsay and the most shameless variety of speculation, and his book had considerably less action than S. Clay Wilson's "underground" comic strip, "Captain Piss-Gums and His Pervert Pirates," which was the first place we saw queer pirates, other than in our dreams after seeing Yul Brynner play Jean Lafitte in The Buccaneer when we were just a tiny little thing.

So speaking of Jean Lafitte, who must have been a dashing sort-earrings, slit leg-of-mutton sleeves on his blouson, cutlass between his teeth, bandanna at a rakish angle, bristling mustaches, boots with immense gold buckles, you know the type, surely-we can't really out him here in a family newspaper, other than to record the significant fact already noted above that he gave his name to a most distingue' gay watering hole.

The reason New Orleans even had pirates, and why it continues to be more like Cartagena than Cincinnati-no matter what the City Planning Commission and the City Council have up their collective, duplicitous sleeves-is because, again as noted above, it was an isolated port.

Any- where might look good after you'd been on the Mississippi or being blown here and there about the Gulf for six months, but New Orleans surely looked better than most any-old-ports-in-a- storm because of the availability of hootch, women, men, cards and dice, dancing, joy-jerking, and all the rest of those things that Up North inspired nothing but fear and horror in the Cotton Mathers and Jonathan Edwards.

Port cities have always been the bellwethers of queer life, no doubt from the days of Tyre and Alexandria and Piraeus in the ancient world. This is the reason that Shanghai is more interesting than Peking, Marseilles more raffish than Paris, Liverpool more lowdown than London, Rio and Bahia more colorful than Brasilia, and New York, Boston, San Francisco, and naturally New Orleans more culturally and carnally stimulatin' than such landlocked locales as Denver or Atlanta or Minneapolis.

Ports attract the most stylish and exotic merchandise and also the most stylish and exotic flora and fauna; there are plenty of dives and low jernts and scams and shell-games to relieve travelers and sailors of whatever money or other, uh, liquid assets they might have on hand or anywhere else.

This is one of the reasons why so many queers were clustered-like exotic mollusca-in seaside cities: the sheer availability of fresh, and transient, meat and also a wide choice of rackets (or service professions, to use the latest neologism) in which to participate in the fleecing of an inevitable transient population.

This is also the only reason that we have sailors as cornerstones of gay iconography-be it in Tom of Finland drawings or Kenneth Anger's still-startling 1947 short movie, Fireworks, or the erotic watercolors of the painter Charles Demuth (who ordinarily stuck to aubergines and illustrations for Henry James in his work) or Jean Genet's novel Querelle de Brest, about a killingly, literally, beautiful sailor and his crimes, which is still the best of Genet's books, or in those MGM musicals where Gene Kelly and his buddies are on shore leave in tight pants clinging to their watermelon buttocks and they're so glad to be off that boat, honey, they're just dancing all over the place-feminine romantic interest is always inci- dental.

The first boats down the Mississippi were flatboats and perhaps you've seen those George Caleb Bingham paintings of life on the flatboats-an idealized and idyllic version, no doubt, of rosy cheeked, wide-hipped, and dainty-footed young gents dancing with each other around the deck or lounging about passing the idle hours looking at the riverscape-or at each other. Pre- sumably things weren't quite so cozy or civilized-these guys probably smelled to high heaven and had quite a crust on them.

Certainly, once they got down here they could only have been regarded by the swellegant locals as virtual savages from the interior who wouldn't know French opera from a hog jowl. Probably perfectly acceptable for a quickie but not someone you'd take home to gran'm'ere or Na-Nan. (There's still some tradition of this; we had a steady trick once, a sweet thing named Wayne from the West Bank, who used to show up like clock- work and after It was all over, would talk about his wife and children-yawwwn-and then we didn't see Wayne for a while and he turned up one evening and told us he'd been out on a tug- boat.

So? we asked rather jadedly, dabbing a touch or two of Shalimar on our unmentionables. So, indeed! He certainly learned things on that tugboat that we didn't teach him. As a matter of fact, it was a virtual sack race to see who was going to get their legs higher in the air faster. But we digress.)

Oddly enough, the roughest thing on the Mississippi seems to have been a woman-and we realize we've unfairly skipped over the lesbians of early Louisiana who were clever enough not to leave paper, or Valenciennes lace, trails of any kind behind them (unlike Alice Dugas or Frances Benjamin Johnston, both of whom will reappear in the future)-named Annie Christmas.

Annie cross-dressed which was just as well since she was reputedly six foot eight and knocked the scales awry at an eighth of a ton, and also had a most fetching mustache. She would shave this latter occasionally when she entertained men in her equally occasional floating bordello. (Annie was such a popular character that there are two versions of her legend; in one she is white and really rough and tough; in the other, she is a negress, the mother of an enormous set of septuplets, and dies for romance like Queen Dido, her death barge being paddled off into the dark of night by her sons.)

Despite the fact that Annie ran that maritime whorehouse and sported with the rest of the girls, we'll assume for our own purposes that she simply had to have been a dyke, Hothead Paisan as re-imagined by Mark Twain-she's a folkloric creation, after all.

In The French Quarter, his entertaining 1936 compendium of rumor and gossip and trashy anec- dote, Herbert Asbury-a specialist in low-life-Americana-tells us this additional fact about Annie: "She was a great fearless fighter, too; she whipped every bully on the river, and ... she commemorated her exploits in the field of mayhem with a necklace which she wore about her neck on festive occasions, and to which she added one bead for every nose or ear chawed off and two for every eye gouged out.

Legend says that when Annie died, her necklace was thirty feet long. It could have been longer, but she counted only white men."

See you in Storyville next month.

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