908 Esplanade the Clay Shaw Mansion
Updated: Apr 6
I first saw this photograph at a lecture given by my historian friend Alecia Long. The photograph, taken in front of Miss Dixie's on a Mardi Gras day in the mid- 50’s introduced me to one of my now favourite photographers Jack Robinson. Looking at the photograph, you can't help but notice how handsome the man in the toga is. Clay Shaw was not only physically beautiful but his eyes are the focal point of the photograph. The photo emits a certain unspoken subtle sexiness of a connection between two men standing next to each other on the streets of the French Quarter. Clay has those ”bedroom eyes” that look right through you to your soul. Mardi Gras is the one day of the year where one can openly be themselves. It is significantly important here because in this era, if one was gay or suspected of being gay, they could get arrested or harassed in bar raids or even walking on the streets. Some even lost their jobs and some their families by being outed when their names appeared in the newspaper the very next day after being arrested. The French Quarter is a very small village with a radius of 5 blocks by 13 blocks and is no place to hide or keep your sexuality on the down low.
Miss Dixie’s Bar which was located at 700 Bourbon was the one spot in the city that provided a public safe space for gay people. These were the days preceding both the Stonewall riots and the Upstairs Lounge fire and the Anita Bryant protests that was New Orleans version of the Stonewall riots.
I first heard the name Claw Shaw in the Oliver Stone movie JFK. In the film, Clay is played by Tommy Lee Jones. The movie was shot in New Orleans and is based on conspiracy theories of the killing of the 35th President of the United States and is told through Jim Garrison's version of events. Garrison was the New Orleans District Attorney and is played by Kevin Costner. Garrison tried to convict Clay in the killing of Kennedy with no real physical evidence and based his case on hearsay. It is the only trial where someone was charged in the killing. The jury took only 54 minutes to come back with a not guilty verdict for Clay.
After I became friends with Alecia and began attending her lectures in which she spoke about her research of the national archives of the killing of Kennedy and the Clay Shaw/Jim Garrison trial for her soon to be published book, I became more intrigued about the man. Clay was a known homosexual in the city in an era of don't ask/don't tell. He was a local celebrity who was invited to the uptown social gatherings which are famous for being a very closed society. He began the restoration of the French Quarter after the second World War and was the director of the International Trade Mart.
Through Alecia, I met her friend Cynthia, who told me about his 908 Esplanade house which is right down the street from where I live. It is a multi building complex that joins his other property at 1313 Dauphine. Through Cynthia, I met the owners of the house, They asked me if I would photograph the property. I had never done professional photos for a real estate property. I do love New Orleans houses with all of their American Horror Story beauty so I was super excited to see Clay's haunt..
The house adjoins his property at 1313 Dauphine and is now separated by a brick wall. This is the Esplanade entrance. To the left are the three floors of apartments that overlook the pool.
This is the window in the the artist cottage/pool house right behind the pool.
The view from the cottage/pool house that faces the pool and Esplanade.
The house was built in 1836 for Madame Celeste Destrehan by her husband Jean Noel. Jean Noel Destrehan was a creole politician who served as speaker of the House of Representatives right after the Louisiana Purchase. His brother-in-law was Etienne de Boré, who perfected the sugar granulation process and was New Orleans' first mayor. Jean Noel, whose family the town was named after also bought the Destrehan Plantation, He pioneered the Creole slave system on his sugar plantations in which slaves worked long hours during season but during the off-season of the sugar cane fields, the slaves could use the time to grow food, work for themselves, and trade.
I can only imagine the parties that Madame Celeste once held in her huge ballroom for the ladies and the gentlemen in their finery dancing in the grand ballroom with it's Greek Revival touches and marble fireplaces.
Clay had it modernized by making it two rooms by building a partition with a bathroom between for necessity.
The fourth floor Penthouse
This is ,my favourite part of the house-his fourth floor studio. Clay claimed this as his personal private space probably to entertain his special friends. It has views of the skyline to the left (Rampart Street), the city and Esplanade Avenue.