One of my favorite books about New Orleans is Bruce Gilden’s photographic essay, “Hey Mister, throw me some beads!”
From 1974 to 1982, Gilden came to New Orleans from New York for Mardi Gras and captured the Carnival street scene in the French Quarter. The photographs are raw and poignant and include a cross section of people—old/young, gay/straight, black/white—most of whom are unaware of the camera. There is even a picture of a very young, scantily clad Wally Sherwood (former Ambush columnist and co-founder of the Lords of Leather) being walked down Bourbon Street in chains and a leather g-string. Before he died (and when the word was still in popular usage), Wally was affectionately known as a “leather midget.”
There are also pics of drunken drag queens and lots of guys in ass-less chaps, but the picture that really captivated me was a portrait of Kenneth Toncrey, a notorious French Quarter character better known as Daisy Mae.
Originally from Mississippi, Daisy Mae was forced to leave Biloxi under something of a cloud after his affair with the son of a prominent businessman was exposed. Daisy arrived in New Orleans in the mid-1960s and rented an apartment in the French Quarter. For a while, Daisy Mae owned a gift shop (some would say junk shop) at 830 N. Rampart Street. He was a regular at the legendary The Finale bar on Royal Street and worked as a bouncer at Café Lafitte in Exile.
George Wilson, who managed The Finale, recalls in Howard P. Smith’s book Unveiling the Muse, that once Daisy was working the door at Café Lafitte when a straight guy uttered a homophobic remark and challenged Daisy to a fight. Daisy Mae obliged him and after laying the guy out on the sidewalk said to him, “Now go home and tell your momma a faggot whipped your ass!”
After meeting him, Gilden said Daisy “was not a nice guy.” But he was memorable, and as tough as he was, he still maintained a touch of the feminine. Daisy Mae served as the first Queen of the Krewe of Apollo at their debut ball in 1970. He would also go on to found his own gay Carnival krewe.
La Krewe Mystique de Desime held tableau balls at the St. Bernard Civic Center in Chalmette in 1975 and 1976 and, according to Carnival historian Howard P. Smith, at the Superdome in 1977. Lou Bernard, founder of Olympus and owner of Lucille and Friends bar, is quoted in Smith’s book as saying, “Daisy Mae got into trouble for trying to book the Superdome with a bad check, and the police ran him outta town.”
In addition to gracing the cover of Gilden’s book, Daisy Mae was also the inspiration, at least in part, for William B. Tressner’s 1968 novel, Queens of the Quarter.
A member of Magnum Photos since 1998, Bruce Gilden has taken the genre of street photography and pushed it in new directions, documenting the essence of the people he sees and the social landscape through which they move. His photographs have been widely exhibited in museums and galleries all over the world and are included in many permanent collections, including MoMA and the Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York; the Victoria and Albert Museum, London; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; and the National Gallery of Canada.