“The Last Madam: A Life in the New Orleans Underworld” by Christine Wiltz ★★★★

Norma Badon (later Wallace) climbed her way out of a life of poverty and neglect using her body, sharp mind, and good business sense.  She started out hustling in 1916 at age 15 in the Tango Belt of New Orleans, at the time Storyville (the infamous Red-Light District organized to help control the spread of prostitution and drugs) was being shuttered after a shoot-out in the area caused a lot of the cabarets to shut down.  Some think this may have caused the influx of prostitutes into the area as it was a rough crowd with bootleggers, gamblers, organized crime, etc.

She quickly found a house run by an older, well-known madam, and by age 20 was the “landlady” of her own brothel.  As a madam, she wouldn’t have to turn a trick again.  By her mid-30s she was one of the most powerful women in New Orleans.  She ran a high-class and safe business, only choosing the most beautiful women of “high moral fiber”–no drugs, no stealing from clients, frequent medical check-ups, and they had to dress like proper ladies when out in public.  She was the proprietor of the longest continuously-run bordello in the French Quarter. Her run lasted over 42 years.

The Last Madam French Quarter 1920s

New Orleans’ French Quarter, c.1920s

Using audio tapes recorded by Norma herself at the end of her life, as well as miscellaneous interviews, newspaper articles, and personal documents provided by her last husband, the author was able to piece together the story of Norma’s life, as well as provide a very interesting history of the political machinations that went on in New Orleans throughout the majority of the 20th century.  The Last Madam Norma Wallace

There was a continuous battle between those who attempted to eliminate prostitution and “clean up the city”, often for their own political gain depending on the dictates of the public, and those who fought in their own way to save that institution and any others (gambling, drinking, etc.) which served to line their own pockets.  The Last Madam details the political intrigue, graft, and corruption which flourished throughout the city over the years.  I found that part of the book very interesting in itself.

The book was given some flair by including Norma’s stories about things that happened inside her business.  Fun recollections of outwitting local police and FBI sting operations; hiding places where the girls and the johns (or “vidalias”) would go during a raid; her system of spies, look-outs, and payouts to the police, lawyers, judges, the mayor; and interesting clients, including some name-dropping of famous celebrities of the time. Things that make you go “hmmm”.  (I’ll never look at Don Ameche the same way again. Stud.)

This was not done excessively and oftentimes the names mentioned were included to demonstrate that going to “the Queen’s” when you were visiting New Orleans was something not to be missed; and for some young men, it was considered a rite of passage.

The Last Madam 1026 Conti Street

1026 Conti Street, location of Norma’s brothel

Even John Wayne stopped in to visit with Norma, although he was a perfect gentleman.  He stayed downstairs visiting with some of the girls, asking them questions about their lives, talking about his wife the whole time, then left them a huge tip because he “took up so much of their time”.  She was friends with all types of people and was very progressive, especially for her time, not only because of her profession but the way she was accepting of everyone, even if to the mainstream public they might be considered beyond the pale.

She was either married to or long-time companions with a boxing champ, a famous Hollywood entertainer, and one of Al Capone’s henchmen.  She was with her fourth husband for over 20 years.  Her fifth and last husband (whom she was married to over a decade) was nearly 40 years her junior.  She turned heads even into her 60s.  The Last Madam Norma Wallace 2She stayed friends with everyone she had romantic relationships with and seemed to have something special about her because the men never seemed to fall out of love with her. She needed to be loved and be the center of attention, and she also was happiest when she was the one in charge.  She did what she liked but she would get jealous if one of her men even looked at another woman.  Her obsession with her image, her looks, and the loss of her youth were at the heart of her eventual downfall.

Norma was a convoluted mix of every woman.  She was a tough cookie, she had a strong sense of self but still secretly held insecurities, she was bold, courageous, lusty, selfish, generous, open-minded, forgiving, charming, and had moxie.  She was kind of like New Orleans itself.

The Last Madam Norma Baden Wallace

NPR interview of author, Christine Wiltz: http://www.npr.org/2014/06/06/3194151…

The Last Madam

 

 

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