The Axe Woman of Bourbon Street. Jane Delacour. Gonzo Publications, 2020.
In a fascinating new book, local historian Jane Delacour recalls the glory days of Bourbon Street and recounts the story of one the street’s legendary performers, Kitty West, also known as Evangeline the Oyster Girl. Along the way, Delacour provides not only some amazing insights into Bourbon Street’s mid-20th Century culture, but also an enticing history of burlesque.
The Axe Woman of Bourbon Street is at once both concise and expansive, both informative and entertaining. This book is solidly researched, well-written, and appropriately alluring. And the ending is riveting. For anyone who loves the French Quarter and its history of eccentric characters, this book is for you. I recently had a chance to interview Delacour about the book, her research, and working in New Orleans.
FP: Your degree is in Medieval Military History. How and when did you fall in love with history and why the Middle Ages? JD: My love of the medieval and early Middle Ages started early when I was in middle school when my Auntie Barbara gave me a book about castles in France. That era was when humanity changed so much, we went from mud and thatch to castles and cathedrals. I studied extensively the Mongolian Empire as Genghis Khan broke the “3 Unbreakable Rules of Warfare” and won. The Great Khan is a fascinating person. He went from an unlettered “barbarian” to his grandson Kublai Khan having one of the most cultured courts of the East. Plus his DNA contribution to the world, gotta respect that.
FP: You’ve researched history and worked as a tour guide in several states, including Florida and Kentucky. How does working in New Orleans compare to some of those other places? What makes New Orleans different? JD: New Orleans is obviously unique due to the condensed nature of the city and how deep the history runs here. New Orleans has over 300 years of diverse history, with much of that history accessible in “bite size” neighborhoods. Our walkability is another factor, as well as the diversity that has always been New Orleans. Researching here is also fantastic, we have different archives that are all accessible. So few places have such a rich tapestry of people who, regardless of their station, had to come together just to make living in New Orleans possible. The ability to easily walk and see buildings, many of which are still serving their original purpose is unique in America. Fort Lauderdale, for example, is exceedingly spread out along with a cavalier attitude towards preservation. South Florida is forever chasing newer/bigger/better which is a big reason the city doesn’t have a walking tour industry. In Kentucky, I was at the Kentucky Horse Park, where I gave tours by horseback/carriages of the State Park. I drove teams of drafts and “light” horses while explaining and pointing out the barns, show grounds, and famous horses who reside there. That was a great experience. Being a guide in the Quarter is unlike any other tour guide job I have had. The Quarter is a living entity, with the “characters” being as much a part of the tour as the buildings. Being a tour guide in New Orleans is more than just knowing your history; it is also about dealing with the constant distractions that make the Quarter what it is. New Orleans is live/street theater and the ability to improvise on the spot is a critical skill. I’ve yet to have two tours be the exact same because there is always something or someone happening in the Quarter.
FP: How did you become interested in Evangeline the Oyster Girl and burlesque in New Orleans? JD: I have had a love of burlesque and cabaret for many years now. New Orleans has a long history of burlesque and, in many ways, burlesque put Bourbon St on the path to adult Disney. Once I started learning the history of many of the dancers, Kitty West aka Evangeline the Oyster Girl resonated with me. Kitty’s rise from picking cotton in Mississippi to being one of the top stars of burlesque was inspiring. She used her brains and body to make an incredible life for herself.
FP: How did you conduct the research for the book? JD: Because of COVID, I did most of my research online, starting with The Historic New Orleans Collection and NOLA.com archives. Jeffrey and I have a large burlesque collection including tourist brochures from the 1950s to the late ‘60s. Using the ads to narrow down the bars to concentrate on also helped. The Burlesque Hall of Fame has a robust archive about the dancers and their acts, which I am excited to visit in Las Vegas. I also have a large library of books about New Orleans, which makes researching enjoyable.
FP: You do a lot of myth-busting in the book. What would you say are some of the biggest misconceptions of Bourbon Street’s burlesque era? JD: Some of the biggest misconceptions about Bourbon during the burlesque era would be how creative the performances were. These were not “strippers”, but they were elaborate routines that were backed by live music. Their costumes would be considered tame by today’s standards but, in the 1950s, pasties and panties would be shocking. Also, 1950s Bourbon was upscale in many ways. Tourists and locals alike would dress up in their best outfits to go take in the shows. The shows were attended by women and couples as much as by solo men.
FP: The pictures in the book are amazing. Where did you find them? JD: The pictures in the book come from Jeffrey and my collection including the postcards and Memorabilia that are featured. We also have several tourist brochures that featured the bars and dancers from the 1950s to the 1960s.
FP: One of the recurring themes in the book is women’s agency. Why was that important to you? JD: As a woman, I find it crucial that we tell the stories of women’s struggles and successes. It is inspiring to learn how many women took control of their lives in an era that did not see women as anything more than “wife/mother”. The women of that era had limited options, and being poor or uneducated would limit those options even more.
FP: In addition to a history of sex work in New Orleans, you also provide a general history of burlesque. Do you consider burlesque sex work? JD: Burlesque may fall under sex work as the women use their bodies/sexuality to make their living or to express themselves. I feel that burlesque does stand unique in that it is more cerebral erotica as burlesque stimulates both the intellect as well as the senses.
FP: Did you interview Kitty West before she passed away? Or any other performers? JD: Unfortunately, Kitty West had already passed when I became inspired to tell her story to a new generation. I have interviewed burlesque performers such as Indigo Blue and Trixie Minx, which I hope will be part of a future project on the Golden Age of Burlesque on Bourbon.
FP: What do you hope readers take away from the book? JD: My goal for this book was two parts. First was to bring a bit of New Orleans history to those who may be intimidated by a longer read. A short story about an event that not many people are aware of or how important that event was to tourism. My second goal was for other tour guides to be able to have an easily digestible book that they can use to craft their own stories for their tours. Not to compare myself to the incredible Buddy Stalls, but I did use him as inspiration to write a book in this format.
FP: Will there be another book? If so, what can we expect? JD: There will definitely be a follow up. I am working on a couple of projects; one is a companion to Evangeline. It will be about “The Golden Era of Burlesque” on Bourbon, as well as how burlesque has grown post-Katrina.