Updated: Nov 14, 2022
The red door on the side of the house at 1026 Conti- the home where Norma Wallace.was a madam for over 40 years.
Gretchen and the interior shot of Gretchen and friends at1026 Conti are by Arthur Severio
Gretchen is the original pioneer woman of the Bywater, a New Orleans neighbourhood. She saw the neighbourhood for what it has become before anyone else. After Katrina, most of the houses were abandoned and used as havens for squatters and junkies. The houses were located in the now very sought after neighbourhoods of the Bywater, St. Roch, Treme, Upper 9th and Lower 9th Wards. Gretchen had no fear driving around these neighbourhoods at dusk or later, shining her headlights into darkened cave-like houses to see what they were like inside. I was a little freaked out not knowing who or what would be waiting for us in these houses but not Gretchen.
Gretchen and I both share a love for New Orleans, it's people, it's architecture and the history of the city. We love Storyville with the tales of the splendour of the bordellos that are now long gone . We were in love the way the ladies dressed. We particularly love stories about the madams Josie Arlington and Lulu White, two of the most famous. Storyville employed ladies, custodial workers and musicians of all colors in a time when no one else would. Some of the houses employed up to 40 women each. Jazz was played by musicians like Jelly Roll Martin, Biddy Boldemn, and even Louis Armstrong was rumored to have played. Storyville, the red light district ran from 1897 to 1917 was located behind wthe Saengar Theatre and where the Iberville Housing Development stand now. .
The book "Storyville: Néw Orleans" by Al Rose was our go to for reference material at this time. This book is whee I learned about E.J. Bellocq. E.J. Bellocq, the renowned photographer who captured the ladies of Storyville in photographs. The movie Pretty Baby is based on his life.
After reading "The Last Madam" by Chris Wiltz, the biography of Norma Wallace, the last madam of New Orleans’ French Quarter, I wanted to live in her house. This book tells about New Orleans when the mafia ran the French Quarter. Norma's house was located at 1026 Conti.
Bellocq's studio at 1026 Conti
Norma's house is still there today. It stands next to the parking lot on the corner of Rampart Street across from St. Jude's Church. Close by is the New Orleans Athletic Club, where I've heard tales of boys climbing on the roof trying to catch a glimpse of Norma's girls.
Gretchen and I would make our bi-weekly spiritual quests to visit the former property of Norma and E.J. We had stars in our eyes as she parked her car in the lot and we would look in the windows to get a view inside the house. The house was for sale and in disrepair but we saw what it once was and what we wanted it to be. Norma‘s 1026 Conti was both of our dream homes. We dreamed of opening our very own "speakeasy" serving all the genders and all the sexualities. We wanted a pianist to entertain the guests in the downstairs parlour while our glamourous courtesans seduced their johns out of their hard earned money by listening to their tales of woe of their everyday lives. Later they would take the courtesans out for an evening in the French Quarter and bringing back our sixty percent take.
Walk on the wild side
After seeing the film, A Walk on the Wild Side starring Capucine, Jane Fonda, Laurence Harvey and Barbara Stanwyck, I am convinced Norma Wallace had some sort of influence on Barbara Stanwyck's approach to playing her character. Stanwyck plays Jo Courtney a madam of a French Quarter brothel who's at her most glamourous. Barbara wears pencil knee length skirts and furs while having lunch at Galatoire's. The movie is set in the 1950's New Orleans French Quarter. Capucine is one of my favorite exotic beauties. She plays Hallie whom Jo is in love with. This is one of the first times in Hollywood history that two women were suggested to be in a relationship.
Norma Wallace liked three things-money, power, and control. She always told "her" version of events the way she wanted them told -especially when it came to her age. She always took years off of it. Even her obituary was wrong. Norma Badon was born in Mississippi. Shortly thereafter, her family moved to Louisiana. Her father disappeared under unknown circumstance and her mother worked as a prostitute. Norma's mother eventually abandoned her and her brother.
Norma was a smart girl and started working at a young age. Norma "Wallace" took her professional last name from a bootlegger she met at the age of 15 and later called him the love of her life. He was a man whom she never married and who shot her in the ankle. According to reports, Norma shrugged off the shooting because she got a seven-carat diamond ring out of the affair that she kept. Norma was a street worker for a while but knew she wanted to be a madam. Once she turned 20, she went to work in a house for a friend on South Rampart. While there, the madam of the house took ill and had to go to the hospital leaving Norma in charge of the daily goings on of her business. She was not only in charge of the daily transactions but had to police the madam's boyfriend from stealing the money. The police raided the joint and Norma was left to keep the girls from going to jail. Once she realised she was handling all of the day to day tasks of running a whore house, she made the decision to finally open her own house.
Norma loved the glamour of the French Quarter and New Orleans in general. She met a boxer, Pete Herman and they seduced each other on the dance floor deciding that they were in love. Norma with all of her sophisticated beauty and Pete with his rugged Italian good looks had people turning their heads. Pete had made a lot of money boxing and bought himself a club on the corners of Burgundy and Conti, He rented Norma the apartment above it and let her open her first whorehouse. It wasn't long before Norma outgrew the apartment so Pete loaned her the money to buy 1026 Conti. Norma had to renovate and clean up the property to its original splendour. Norma believed in running a classy and a "clean" business.
Norma in the Press
Norma was a very private person in her professional life. She ran her house in plain sight but stayed quiet, Once she retired, Norma did an interview for New Orleans magazine and received favourable recognition from the press and journalists. She decided to write her memoirs. Unfortunately, they weren't published before she died. The Historic New Orleans Collection has the tapes that she transcribed for her biography. Norma tells stories of hookers, johns, and police raids. There's a story of a cop who wanted to bust her by catching her in the act. He spyed on her by dating one of Norma’s girls claiming to be in love with her. Norma who was no dumb woman had informants in the police department that took care of her and Norma always protected her girls. Her friend on the police force wanted to bust the fink while in the act with her girl but Norma wouldn't let him bust them together because her girl would be charged. Norma had a black book where she kept a record of customers, the money exchanged, the services provided and if they had unusual body markings. She recorded if their penis was unusually small or large or it didn't work in case if she ever needed it for whatever reason. When they busted him, he had to drop his pants to show the scars on his legs that the girl said he had on him ruining his investigation. His marriage was over as well as his career in law enforcement. Norma uses very colorful language here when describing the smell of a woman driving him crazy.
One of my favorite parts of the tapes is when Norma tells the story of buying Josie Arlington's bed from Storyville for herself. With it's mirror in it's canopy,, it was too much for her but the customers loved it. She put it in her showroom.
Norma's evenings usually ended at daybreak. Nights at Norma's could have her doing anything from counting the money from the night or having to hide it if the police raided the joint. Sone johns would pay with traveller's checks to later claim they were stolen. Norma would make them sign in a certain way to prevent this from happening. She might have had to kick out a customer of they got too rowdy.
One one occasion, she had a regular Saturday night customer who liked to cross dress in women's clothes and sit with the rest of the girls and their johns In the downstairs parlor. When the police came to raid the house that night, she made them all hide in the secret hiding room. Her gentleman customers didn't speak English and thought it was part of the experience. The girls had to try to keep them quiet till the raid was over. They loved it.
One customer wanted one of the girls to cut his penis in half and sew it back together. When Norma saw all of the blood in the room, she had to cut him off because of her fear of where his desires would be leading to next
Norma sometimes took in girls who were disowned by their families taking great care of them. On one of the girl's first day as a professional Norma had to teach her how to inspect customers for STDs with an impromptu "how to" with her custodial worker who was happily taken by surprise.
On one occasion, Marjorie Rambeau, a stage and silent film actress spent a drunken evening at Norma's spending $30,000 in one night. Norma sent a drunken Marjorie in a cab over to the Roosevelt Hotel. After taking two days to recover from her hangover from all the champagne she drank, she came back to accuse Norma of rolling her. Norma told her she had spent the money. When Marjorie threatened to call the police,, Norma told her to go ahead because she would call the Times Picayune and spill the real story for the headlines. After Marjorie calmed down, Norma told her she would have given some of her money back had she not threatened her of stealing.
Jim Garrison became New Orleans District Attorney in 1961 and was an immediate media sensation claiming he was going to clean up the French Quarter of all it's crime and corruption. On a recommendation of a friend, Norma hired Garrison to represent her brother and one of her girls who were being tried on marijuana charges He did nothing to help his clients who wound up having to serve time. Jim Garrison was a hypocrite who owned gay bars and strip clubs on Bourbon Street. His way of cleaning up the crimes was to have his customers and staff arrested on bum charges. He didn't care if they stuck because he got publicity In the press. He got into a battle with the newly appointed police commissioner Joseph Giarusso. Garrison put the pressure on Giarusso to investigate Norma, finally arresting her and having her serve three months in jail. Norma knew Garrison was trouble when she met him. It was only after spending the three months in jail, that she finally closed her business In the Quarter. The year was 1963 and it was the first time Norma had ever done time. She closed the doors of 1026 Conti and put it up for sale.
In 1965, she married her fifth husband, Wayne Bernard (over 30 years her junior), and moved to the country. The relationship was rocky and she felt out of place outside of the city in Wagueman where they opened a restaurant. She also ran a whorehouse there for a period of time but closed it when it got to be too much.
Norma loved to be flashy wearing her expensive jewelry and tell stories of her past. People flocked to the restaurant because of her. Norma loved the "gay boys with their good jobs" who frequented the restaurant saying that she bet she could have turned some good trade had she opened a gay bar. "There are three sexes," Norma would say, "male, female, and others."
In an interview, Wayne said that Norma would say she was never going to get old and hoped to die when her husband caught her in bed with a sixteen-year-old and would shoot her! But it was Norma Wallace, herself, who ultimately pulled the trigger. Norma shot herself in the head.
Gretchen and I finally our wish come true when they had a grand opening of the newly renovated 1026 Conti getting to finally see where the secret hiding room once was and the hiding place lace for her money.
Norma's hiding place for her money. Photography by Arthur Severio
Felicia at the red door where money was passed to the police. Photography by Arthur Severio
Chris Wiltz and Alecia P. Long at 1026 Conti Street
Walk on the Wild Side
The Last Madam by Christine Wiltz
Death by Champagne (podcast)
The Historic New Orleans Collection
Storyville by Al Rose
The Great Southern Babylon: Sex, Race, and Respectability in New 1865-1920
by Alecia P.Long