“This is where she operated, the famous Norma Wallace” our tour guide announced. A three story building in the iconic New Orleans building stood before me on an unpopulated street. At the time, I had no idea who Norma Wallace might be, but I snapped a photo anyway. Chills ran down my spine, and I got the spooky feeling that something of importance probably happened there. I wasn’t sure what and to be honest, I wasn’t even sure I cared.
In a trance, I considered how wild the decades past in New Orleans must have been. In my mind, sex work in New Orleans was something that stopped just about everywhere in the 20’s. To know a brothel operated all the way into the 1960’s was shocking information. My tour guide seemingly read my mind. “If anyone wants to know more about her, get a copy of The Last Madam.” Two months later, I purchased the book and finished it in one evening. It is one of the single greatest pieces I have ever read.
What are you waiting for? Purchase your copy here.
Norma Wallace was a high profile madam, five times married, an alleged criminal, and above all – a national treasure. We’ll revisit her later on.
A Paradigm Shift
Feminism can be really tricky. For the longest time, I felt that women who participated in sex work were the enemy. The prospects and possibilities of the type of career women can pursue has never been higher in our country. Yet, some women choose sex work. This is a career which in my mind only reaffirmed the male perspective that women are good for one thing. I felt for most of my life that women whose only job was to bare their naked bodies and lay on their back reinforced the notion that a woman with a brain was an oddity. To me, they upheld the idea that a woman’s real calling is to please men. I experienced one of the most profound paradigm shifts of my life after visiting New Orleans. First, a history:
Having been ruled by the French before the establishment of the United States, New Orleans in some ways dodges the bullet on the Puritan Prudism that plagues the east coast and thus most of the country. New Orleans was swamp land in its conception. Dirty, bug infested, stinky swamp land. Thus, France has a tough time populating and building up the area. No one in their right mind would have left the sanctity of France to move there. France’s answer?
Well, find people who maybe weren’t in their right mind to move there. Enter – a deal. Criminals and the criminally insane held behind bars were given the opportunity for freedom. This was by way of moving to New Orleans and leaving France. The catch was they had to do the dirty work of building up the city. The men did, and in addition took it upon themselves to build places to drink, places to gamble, and…wait a minute! They needed a place for sex! They needed women for sex, primarly though.
French prostitutes were next emptied out of the country’s jails and sent to New Orleans. So you see, New Orleans was a city built on vice. The first prostitutes sent over were actually more like pioneers coming to an unknown world. Beyond opening their legs, they sailed the great distance and foraged a path facing insurmountable dangers the entire time.
These is Bloody Shoes
I can only assume that being a prostitute in the 17 and 1800s could not have been dreamy. Often times from film, when we see prostitutes of the past picture we are met with images of lace, chandeliers, and sexy lingerie. Through my travels I’ve learned that this was definitely not the case during this time period in New Orleans. Most prostituion took place near the old French Market. The area was disgusting and smelly. Trash, dead bodies, and decaying seafood littered the ground. The blood from animals being slain from meat ran into the streets. It would often stain the bottoms of the high heel shoes of the prostitutes working there. Therefore, according to my tour guide, Quinn LaRoux, when Cardi B sings, “these is red bottoms, these is bloody shoes” she damn well knows her history.
For more on my time with Quinn LaRoux, check this out
The area was unbelievably violent – so much so that the police would not even enter. Sex workers had to learn to survive this climate and soon themselves became some of the most vicious and violent perpetrators themselves including stabbing, shooting, and robbing to survive their hard environment.
A New Place for Sex Work in New Orleans
New Orleans knew this could not continue for much longer, and so pushed sex work into Storyville – the city’s red light district. Storyville was a more “elevated” means of prostitution. Well – elevated in the sense that women weren’t giving out blowies in broad daylight on the street and people weren’t getting stabbed and raped in public. Prostitutes operated out of actual houses. Men visiting New Orleans would often be handed “blue books” which listed the names and telephone numbers of the prostitutes as well as which madams house to find the women at. Clients received more than sex here, it was an experience. Drinks were often served and accompanied by live jazz music played by legends such as Pops Foster and Jelly Roll Morton.
Keep in mind, we are talking about the early 20th century here. Also, I’m not trying to paint an image of Storyville being an Eden. Storyville has its fair share of questionable morality even beyond traditional sex work. If you dig deep into the far corners of the internet, you will definitely find that sexual acts with animals (and oyster shells apparently) were a thing for sure. However, let’s return to my thesis. These women of Storyville didn’t have the means to go to college and become white collar professionals. Even if they did, how far would their male counterparts let them go? I’m damn proud to say that out of nothing many of these women grew something.
Many of these women became business owners – madams of prostitutes and grew their own fortunes. These women handled the accounts, set the prices, negotiated terms, leases, and pricing. In many times, they were their own security detail as well. In Storyville, many women banded together and formed deep friendships. One woman might watch the kids of the prostitutes on her off day. By doing so, their mothers could earn a living. Those women would return the favor on their off day.
For those women that found themselves accidentally pregnant and unable to have a baby there was some help. There would often be one woman who would give abortions. Women could then continue on with their trade without worrying about being pregnant and losing business. This is not female comradery as we see today. Rather, this is an early example of women helping women. This, given the circumstances that they were made to face.
In the 1920’s in one of Norma Wallace’s homes is one of my most favorite examples of women helping women. There was a system for when the police would knock on Norma’s door. She would put a plank of wood from her window to a neighboring brothel across the street. The place was run by a woman named Josephine. The prostitutes would scurry along the beam and into the safety of the neighboring bordello. The girls would pull the plank of wood in all before the cops were let into the door.
By this point, you’re wondering who Norma Wallace is anyhow.
Norma Wallace began to work as a “street walker” at just 15 years old. This was essentially after her mother abandoned her to pursue a wild life of sex and alcoholism. Eventually, she would go on to own New Orleans’ most infamous and well established brothel. Norma essentially born and died being fiercely independent long before it was in vogue. Throughout the course of decades many men tried to enter into Norma’s life and gain control of her.
Men tried to force her to settle down and turn toward a respectable life of being a housewife and mother. She never buckled or wavered under this pressure. Norma always stayed true to her desire to live life as a fruitful “landlady” as madams preferred to be called. She was tough, elegant, and took no shit from anyone. Norma was a business woman ahead of her time and was respected, loved, and feared by thousands.
She was always dressed luxuriously and was the original bad boss bitch. It became tradition to visit Norma’s whore house for sex. What I found most interested is how many fathers would take their sons there because they had been there as boys. Men would even take their wives to meet Norma and reflect on their wild youth. Norma was notorious among college boys, unsatisfied husbands, business elite, famous movie stars, mafia members, and the authorities.
Beyond sex work in New Orleans, the city has its fair share of “sex-y” work as well. There are many who say that burlesque has its origins steeped within the city. Burlesque is different from what we think of as stripping. It is sensual, artistic, refined, and at times quite “campy.”
Burlesque: Classy Nudity
When one thinks of New Orleans Burlesque, one may think of Kitty West. Her stage name as she was better known was Evangeline – The Oyster Girl. One of her most famous acts involved sitting half naked in a giant oyster shell on the stage at Casino Royale. She would dance scantily clad accompanied by a basketball sized faux-pearl.
Burlesque shows were huge decades ago and many famous venues for the seductive performance art lined the street. Women and men alike would actually dress in their finest for the performance. Patrons would imbibe in strong cocktails while enjoying the artistry. Burlesque belonged to another era entirely – one of jazz lounges and supper clubs, high heels and suits.
Legend has it that Kitty was either jealous of a fellow performer or performer at another lounge. Either way, her rival created an aquatic themed act. Kitty felt this to be a rip off of her performance. When her rival performed in a giant fish tank, Kitty channeled the violence and rage of the women who had come before her. She smashed the tank with a sledge hammer.
Wu-tang clan ain’t nothin’ to fuck with Evangeline and her giant oyster ain’t nothin to fuck with. Unless of course, it was all a publicity stunt. If that’s the case, the two girls were very much in on it. They hearkened back to the business genius of those women who came before them.
You can still find sex performance, but unfortunately its largely confined to the sub par strip joints on Bourbon Street. While the naked bodies are still alive and thriving, the mystique and decorum of the art is lost entirely.
I deeply believe that there can be, and is a beauty, mysticism, and sensual element to women in professions like prostitution and sex performance. For so long I wondered, “Does any woman actually want to be a prostitute or sex performer?” Some women do. Some women enjoy sex, or strip teasing and for them, the career is not only lucrative but enjoyable. In these cases, I support these women. Not only that, I believe that there is power and strength in a woman choosing a profession in sex work. This is so long as it’s a choice and not forced. These women are the living epitome of the notion that many find appalling. The idea that it is OK for females to be sexual and to enjoy sex. It’s enjoyable even enough to earn money from it.
Men only take issue with this type of work because they’ve yet to find a way to control it. Where prostitution is legal, they are not typically proprietors and thus do not profit. This is especially true in the cases of female run establishments. Men can never be comfortable with an entity that they do not own entirely. This is also why there is a heavy stigma of sexually active women. Female sex workers are typically seen as not being suitable wives.
Perhaps as women we sneer at sex workers because we are ignorant. Women, by way of being human deserve to be treated with respect. Women deserve dignity no matter what their chosen profession or sexual history. Many feel that to treat a sex worker, a woman of the underworld, with respect and integrity is indecent. True indecency would be believing that a person’s chosen career, especially one as benign as sex work, makes them deserving of being treated cruelly and as less than human.
Hopefully, you’re reading this somewhere with a glass of something alcoholic in hand as I am. If so, it is only proper to toast. I’d like to remember and thank the women in this article, even the hundreds not mentioned by name.
I’d like to give respect and kudos to the women of the sex industry. Particularly, I’d like to give respect to those who have been a part of the history of sex work in New Orleans. Many of whom who endured the harshest and most unforgiving conditions on the streets of New Orleans. These women have faced some of the worst that humanity can bestow.
Many of these women took what was handed to them. They made not just lemonade, but a lemonade empire out of lemons. Others, we must never forget, were undoubtedly physically and sexually brutalized and perhaps utterly broken both in spirit and body. Although most will remain nameless for all of eternity, you are not forgotten.
Looking to book the Drag Queen Walking Tour where I learned a lot of this? Click here