Read The Last Madam: A Life in the New Orleans Underworld Online

Authors: Chris Wiltz

Tags: #Biography & Autobiography, #Historical, #Nonfiction, #Retail

The Last Madam: A Life in the New Orleans Underworld (21 page)

BOOK: The Last Madam: A Life in the New Orleans Underworld
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Of all the women who were in jail, for all their different crimes, the alcoholics disturbed Norma the most. She watched them come back over and over again. These women—some of them had children—would get drunk, get picked up; they’d be given ten days, but they’d get out in five. The next evening they’d be right back. The alcoholics roused Norma’s childhood memories from their place of rest far away from the life she had made for herself.

As her personal crusade she adopted one of them. The girl had three children, and Norma nagged the life out of her, telling her what it was like for her children, illustrated with stories and feelings from her own childhood. Even after they were both out of jail, Norma stayed on that girl for three years. “Like gravy on rice,” Norma said. “She wound up on a farm in Bogalusa, back with her family. I believe she was rehabilitated.

“But if anyone was to be rehabilitated, it wouldn’t be in that fleabag joint. If those women libbers are looking for a place to start, there it is. I’d help, but they have this rule that once you’ve been in, you can’t go back to visit. It’s too bad. I would have liked to talk to the girls, because I’ve seen too many of them, beautiful girls too, go down the drain. There’s a way to get through to them, but it’s not with bad food and preachers.”

Norma did her six weeks playing counselor, den mother, and raconteur. When her time was up, she decided not to go back to the business. “I’d told myself many times, the day I do time in jail, unless it’s at the Roosevelt Hotel with bars on the door to a suite, I’m out of the business. Anybody is entitled to one fall, but you can’t fall twice. If I’d been stupid enough to go to Parish Prison twice, I would have been a bum. Three times, you’re a tramp.

“I did my six weeks—an eternity in that hellhole—and it made me see the light. I was rehabilitated. Hell, I was converted.”



Norma’s conversion—her decision to get out of the business—lasted long enough for her to put 1026 Conti Street on the market in the summer of 1962. She listed it, including most of the furniture and a three-thousand-dollar rug in the living room of her apartment, with the real estate agent Frosty Blackshear for fifty thousand dollars. She wanted nothing except out. The agent advertised the house, and many people came to see it, but no one made an offer.

While prospective buyers wandered through the house, tour guides brought sightseers by the busload. From her apartment Norma could hear the guides telling the tourists all about her—over a microphone! She all but ran to Waggaman, moving her official residence to her house across the river. She stayed away from Conti Street. But she didn’t stay away from the business altogether. She worked some of the girls out of motels and hotels in New Orleans, others from two or three apartments. Jackie still answered the phones at 1026, and Norma stayed there occasionally or had Marie stay on the premises. She didn’t like leaving the place unattended. She’d done that once a couple of years earlier, and linens, light fixtures, even some furniture had been stolen.

While Norma was in jail, Mac had started driving a taxi. He had hoped that during her six weeks Norma would really see the light and quit prostitution. But her intentions were clear enough to him now. He got together with a few other drivers, and they started the A Service Cab Company. He told Norma he was leaving her.

Norma’s emotions ran the gamut as Mac prepared to go. She loved him, and she was hurt that he was leaving her. She was also angry at the way he was looting the Waggaman house, taking furnishings as well as his belongings. When Norma did the leaving, she left everything intact, but her pride was such that, even though she was stung badly by Mac’s actions, she wouldn’t let him know for hell and be damned. She hated being the one left, yet she couldn’t see going on with Mac. They had been married for nearly eighteen years, and for many of those years they had battled over desires to live completely different lifestyles. For quite some time Norma had been restless, casting about for something to ease her, and always she had looked for that something in the form of a man. She found that she couldn’t stop thinking about Wayne Bernard. She hadn’t contacted him since she’d been out of jail, but before Mac left he told her, “I know what you’ve been doing, Norma. I know you’ve been fooling around with that young boy.”

During the time in 1962 that Norma disappeared from Wayne’s life, he began spending his time with Betty, a blonde from Marrero, and Betty started to toy with a few ideas about her future. Her plans, however, were abruptly foiled when Mrs. Patterson appeared at the Mist one night. She and Wayne picked up as if they’d just seen each other the night before, and Betty was history.

Norma and Wayne made the rounds of the West Bank honky-tonks, then, for the first time, Norma took Wayne to her favorite haunts in the French Quarter. They had dinner at Dan’s and drinks at Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop. Sometimes they brought Carmen Miranda with them; Wayne would walk behind Norma, carrying the poodle on a royal blue velvet pillow with gold tassels. In Jefferson Parish they stopped in at the Town and Country Motel, where Mrs. Patterson
would tip the piano player twenty dollars. Wayne watched, fascinated, as Mrs. Patterson slipped the maître d’ ten bucks, another ten for the bartenders, never calculated a tip for the waiters, just left a pile of money on the table. Wayne was making thirty-five dollars a week at the shipyards.

Mrs. Patterson started giving him a couple of hundred dollars before they went out, telling him how to spend it. They ate at the Black Orchid and Masson’s Beach House out by the lake, Antoine’s and Arnaud’s in the Quarter. Wherever they went, they got the best seats; they were ushered in like royalty. Wayne watched Mrs. Patterson closely at the big fancy restaurants so he’d know which fork to use. Sometimes after a meal at those places, he’d still be hungry and he’d say, “Let’s stop and get a hamburger.” Mrs. Patterson would laugh, and he’d pull in at the first fast-food drive-up. Then they’d hit the West Bank and dance at Scorpio’s or the Gay Paree until they couldn’t keep their hands off each other any longer.

Wayne was having too much fun to notice that wherever they went Mrs. Patterson always sat facing out, her eye on the crowd, and she always put Wayne with his back to the room. He was too amazed—here he was, just an old country boy, and suddenly the whole world had opened up to him.

Norma generally stayed on Conti Street after a wild night with Wayne. Once she didn’t get up until almost seven o’clock in the evening. Jackie and Rose Mary were in the office.

“Look at her,” Rose Mary said. “She’s still drunk or she wouldn’t be walking like that.”

Norma, in her nightgown, fussed around in the office. “I hear you talking, don’t think I don’t hear you,” she said.

“We’re talking about you,” Jackie told her.

“Who else would you be talking about?” Norma demanded.

During the next few months, Paul Nazar called her a couple of times. He was friendly, very chatty, but he always refused Norma’s dinner invitation. Freddy Soulé had told him to be careful, that it might not be a good idea to take Norma up on her offer. Nazar knew
that someday he’d wish he’d had the chance to really talk to her, though, a woman of her stature and notoriety. He was officially part of the vice squad now, but he didn’t know how it could get any better than the night they busted Norma. It was his best case; other cops were jealous.

Assuming that Nazar’s calls meant the police were still interested in the house, Norma kept the action off the premises. So it was surprising when one winter evening Rose Mary saw two men in topcoats and hats coming up the alley. She knew they were cops. She threw the buzzer and flew to the back of the house, calling for Norma and getting no response. It irritated her the way Norma ignored the buzzer.

The parlor door was wide open. Rose Mary stepped outside. Nothing. She cautiously peered around the side of the building just in time to see Norma turn the hose on the two detectives. They yelled, “Wait, Norma, wait!” One of them got out of the stream and reached in his pocket. “We have a warrant,” he told Norma, holding out the document. She blasted it right out of his hand.

Sometimes the temptation was just too much. The bell would ring, and Norma began to make exceptions here and there until, by spring of 1963, 1026 Conti was somewhat back in play.

On a warm night in late April, she was at the house with a sick hangover after a night out with Wayne. She called a friend who gave her a quick cure—fresh salted tomatoes to settle her stomach. She told Leon, the porter, to go out and get her a can of tomato juice. She didn’t want to wait for him to try to find a fresh tomato in the French Quarter on a Friday night. “I’m absolutely dying,” she told him so he’d hurry.

The front doorbell rang. She looked out and saw a man by himself. She called to him to go around the side. Through the shuttered window he told her he was from out of town and gave a local reference.

Norma made a quick assessment. She had four girls in the house at the time. She told the man to go to the corner and she’d send one of her girls to pick him up and take him to a motel. She told her girl not to go anywhere with him unless he could produce a plane or train ticket.

She couldn’t wait to get her girdle off and lie down. But just as she started to undress, a car pulled into the alley. She thought it was someone taking advantage of her parking lot in the back, which annoyed her, but she was too tired to deal with it. Three men, however, got out of the car and rang the bell. They were Hispanic, very polite, speaking in broken English. Norma invited them in and called the three girls down. Rose Mary was going to have a fit when Norma told her to go with one of these Latins. She would help out in a pinch, but she didn’t like Latin men, because they always wanted to kiss and they sometimes got angry when they were told they couldn’t.

Sandy, Barbara, and Rose Mary took the men upstairs—Rose Mary shooting Norma a look to kill. They sent down the money, and Norma put it in the desk. Leon arrived with the tomato juice, and Norma took it to her apartment. Before she did anything, though, she wanted to change her clothes. She threw her girdle over a chair and stripped down to her bra and step-ins.

With no warning at all, Norma heard what sounded like sledgehammers on the front and side doors. She threw the buzzer, but the girls upstairs had heard the noise and already grabbed the men, running down to the courtyard and into the hideout. The cops had a hole in the side door by that time. Looking through it, Freddy Soulé saw a flash of red—Rose Mary was wearing a red kimono—and heard the clatter on the stairway. He already knew the men were in the house because he’d been staking the place out for several hours.

Norma handed Rose Mary the black book and watched as Leon, the Latins, Sandy, and Barbara disappeared into the hideout. Rose Mary followed. At the last minute Maggie, one of the poodles, bolted in behind Rose Mary. “Maggie!” Norma called, but it was too late. The door closed. She heard the bolt slide. She rolled two plant boxes in front of the entrance; then she assumed her stance, arms folded, facing the side door. She completely forgot that she wasn’t dressed. She also forgot that she had a hangover. All she could think about was that the men’s car was in her lot and that they were foreigners. In her experience foreigners were hard to handle if they panicked. They might want out of the hideout regardless of the consequences.

Norma heard the front door crash to the floor. Carmen Miranda, who was standing next to her, jumped and let out a yelp. She scurried
into the sunroom. Then the side door came down only a couple of feet from where Norma stood. Not just the door but the iron gate and the entire door frame. Freddy Soulé, with his bow tie and natty little mustache, stepped dapperly through the hole. Norma nearly snorted with disgust. From the front hallway and from behind him enough cops swarmed into the house to start a new precinct, including that good-looking little bastard from the last time. He raked her with his eyes.

Soulé held out a search warrant; when Norma put her hands on her hips, she realized she wasn’t dressed. Nevertheless, arms akimbo, she said coolly, “I understand you’re supposed to try to give me the warrant
you knock down the doors.”

He smiled at her, hitching his pants up with his thumbs. “We asked you to open the door, Norma.”

“I never denied you entrance,” she said heatedly. “I never even heard you until you crashed down my doors. What were you doing out there? Whispering?” Soulé stood smiling like a goon. She said to him, “If you don’t mind I’ll put my clothes on.” He pushed the warrant toward her. She snatched it out of his hand and went into her bedroom.

He followed her, staying so close as she stood in front of the closet that she finally said, “Do you mind?” He stepped back, and she pulled out one of her long, loose, flowy numbers. Then Soulé reached into the closet, pushing back the clothes as if he expected to find bodies in there.

But that was merely the beginning of the search. On and on it went because Soulé and the rest of the goons knew people were hiding, but they couldn’t find them. Soulé kept saying, “I saw a red dress on those stairs.”

Some of the cops went upstairs, where they discovered Terry’s letters from Donald Pryce, salacious enough to keep them enthralled. Norma could hear them reading passages aloud and repeating phrases as they tapped on the walls, looking for the hideout. Not much bound by sentiment or possessions, she considered it silly of Terry to have saved those letters.

She and Soulé stood by her desk. A huge black man entered the office from the courtyard.

“Who’s that?” Norma asked.

“That’s our informer. He was on the corner watching. He saw the car park in the back.”

“People park back there all the time,” Norma said. “They go down to those little honky-tonks around the corner.”

One of the young cops was going through the desk drawers, fooling with everything in a most irritating manner. Norma had taken the phones off the hook; he put them back. He read her personal mail. As a rule she didn’t leave any records or anything that could be considered evidence in her desk. But that night a letter from a woman named Honey Day was in the stack. Norma didn’t know her, but she’d heard of her, an abortionist in the Quarter. She’d written from jail, asking for a job when she was released.

The young cop showed Soulé the letter, making a big deal over it, saying it could be used as evidence against Norma. She said to him, “I don’t even know that broad, and she says in the letter she doesn’t know me. You stick that letter.”

In the hideout Rose Mary heard Soulé talking about the red dress, telling one of his officers to check upstairs, and she heard a different voice ask where the black book was. She could feel sweat dripping down her sides. The three Hispanics thought all this was kicks, part of the program. Maybe they were going to get into a little group sex, three for the price of one.
“Tres muchachas,”
they said, licking their lips and trying to find the girls’ mouths in the dark. The girls poked at them and told them to be quiet, and the boys poked them back and groped whatever their hands found. Maggie the poodle didn’t like the boys, and she was getting nervous. With one hand the girls slapped away the boys, with the other they petted Maggie, whispering, “Quiet, puppy, please be quiet, good puppy.” Rose Mary heard the tapping getting closer, louder. “Ssh, ssh, pleeeze,” she hissed. The taps were right behind her; she thought she could feel them in her spine. She held her breath. They moved on, stopped, and started on the front wall of the hideout. One of the boys giggled; Maggie let out a low growl. “Leon,” Rose Mary whispered, “this dog is going to bite them. Tell them to be still.”

“I can’t tell them anything,” Leon whispered back. “They don’t speak English.”

“Well, do

something?” Leon repeated. “What you want me to do?”

BOOK: The Last Madam: A Life in the New Orleans Underworld
10.66Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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