Howard P. Smith. University Press of Mississippi. ISBN: 9781496814012. 2017. 346 pages. $50.00.
At long last, a book on the history of Gay Carnival has been published. And what a book it is. Simply put, this book is a triumph!
Traditional Carnival has been well documented with a vast array of books published on the subject. However, few of them, if any, mention gay Carnival krewes or the role of gay Carnival within the larger context of the season. Howard Philips Smith corrects this oversight with a beautiful, vibrant, and exciting account of gay Carnival.
Gay krewes were first formed in the late 1950s, growing out of costume parties held by members of the gay community. Their tableau balls were often held in clandestine locations to avoid harassment. Even by the new millennium, gay Carnival remained a hidden and almost lost history. Much of the history and the krewes themselves were devastated by the AIDS crisis. Whether facing police raids in the 1960s or AIDS in the 1980s, the Carnival krewes always came back each season. A culmination of two decades of research, Unveiling the Muse positions this incredible story within its proper place as an amazing and important facet of traditional Carnival.
Unveiling the Muse contains entire chapters devoted to current krewes as wells as those long since gone: Yuga, Petronius, Amon-Ra, Ganymede, Armeinius, Apollo, Olympus, Celestial Knights, Ishtar, Polyphemus, Lords of Leather, Mwindo, Satyricon, and other, lesser-known krewes. Each chapter is chock-full of color photographs and easy to read charts listing each krewe’s Captains, Queens, Kings, and Ball themes.
The pictures alone, over 600 of them, are worth the price of the book. In addition to photographs from balls, including a rare snapshot from the 1961 Yuga Ball, there are dozens of candid street scenes featuring revelers on Mardi Gras, some dating back to the 1950s.
The reproductions of ball invitations, posters, and costume sketches are fascinating and the chapter on the artists who designed and created them constitute a priceless record of the
amazingly creative talent that makes this history so incomparable. Especially noteworthy is the chapter on Elmo Avet, an early pioneer, and perhaps the Patron Saint of Gay Carnival, is incredibly insightful.
Of particular interest is a chapter called “Rue de L’Amour: Gay Café Society and the Once Brilliant Lights of Rampart Street,” which offers an intimate glimpse into gay life in the Quarter in the 1980s. Recalling the glory years of N. Rampart Street, Smith takes us to a birthday party at Jonathan’s and for cocktails at Marti’s, where Tennessee Williams broods in a corner. Brief sketches are also provided of legendary bars: Club My-O-My, Travis’s, Dixie’s, Café Lafitte, The Post Office, and Flamingo’s.
There are also a plethora of bar advertisements from watering holes such as Finale II, Brady’s, Ms. Kitty’s, Charlene’s, Diane’s Cocktail Lounge, Pino’s Club 621, Lucille’s, TT’s West, Menefee’s, Mississippi River Bottom Saloon, The Mint, Jewel’s Tavern, and Phoenix.
Based on years of detailed interviews, each of the major gay krewes is represented by an in-depth historical sketch, outlining the founders, moments of brilliance on stage, and a list of all the balls, themes, and royalty. Of critical importance to this history are the colorful ephemera associated with the gay tableau balls. Reproductions of never-before-published brilliantly designed invitations, large-scale commemorative posters, admit cards, and programs add dimension and life to this history. Sketches of elaborate stage sets and costumes as well as photographs of ball costumes and rare memorabilia further enhance descriptions of these tableau balls.
Gay Carnival is one of the features that makes New Orleans gay history distinctive. By expertly chronicling that history, Unveiling the Muse has not only added to that history but also made history in its own right. A triumph of scholarly research and accessible writing, this book will be the definitive history of Gay Carnival for decades to come.
Smith can rightfully share in artist Daniel de Beau-Maltbie’s sentiments. De Beau-Maltbie, who designed especially memorable invitations for several Amon-Ra balls, once observed, “I have always been in awe of gay Carnival. I sat in the audience at many balls simply mesmerized by the beauty and magic of it all. What an honor to have contributed to it all!”
Howard Philips Smith grew up on a farm in rural Mississippi and attended the University of Southern Mississippi and the Université de Bourgogne, Dijon. He began writing about pre-AIDS New Orleans and the gay ball scene during the early 1980s, the so-called Golden Age of Gay Carnival. He lives in Los Angeles with his husband and three cats. His forthcoming book, Southern Decadence in New Orleans (co-author Frank Perez) will be published by the LSU Press this summer.