Read The Last Madam: A Life in the New Orleans Underworld Online
Authors: Chris Wiltz
Tags: #Biography & Autobiography, #Historical, #Nonfiction, #Retail
As soon as the men left, one of the girls called her. “I don’t feel right in this place, Norma,” she said. “There’s something spooky here. It’s just not normal. Maybe you’d better come over.”
When Norma got there another girl said she had something to show her. “We didn’t have enough bedrooms with three men here,” she said. She opened the closet and pointed. “So, look, I turned a trick on the ironing board.”
“That’s no ironing board,” Norma told her, “that’s one of those boards they lay you out on when you’re dead.”
The apartment, it turned out, belonged to an undertaker. “You should have seen those whores running out of that building, down to Chartres Street,” Norma said. “They never got over it. Every time I wanted to put them in another apartment, they had to investigate first.”
By 1932 Long and Turkey Head had called a truce, and Norma was fully operational at 410 Dauphine again. “The police still had raids occasionally, but they were token raids. Next door to me was a colored lady, Mary. Over my alley was a balcony that looked right into her bedrooms. Whenever I had these token raids, we’d put planks from my balcony to her windows. The girls would walk the planks to Mary’s and pull the boards in behind them. Then I would open the door and let the police go through the house.”
The war between the two politicians was ended only when Long was assassinated in 1935, after which his successor made a deal with Walmsley, who agreed to resign two years before the end of his mayoral term in return for restoration of financial self-control to the city. But the city’s political and financial travails didn’t seem to hamper Norma’s operation after 1932. One reason for this was that George Reyer became chief of police (subsequently called Police Superintendent) in 1931. As Norma told Howard Jacobs (for his
profile), “Reyer had a peculiar notion that real crime consisted of strong-arm plug-uglies preying on the public. He didn’t have much time for the minor vices that menaced nobody.”
Another factor was that New Orleans was feeling the full force of the Great Depression. The French Quarter especially had deteriorated to the point that people called it a slum, and there were murmurs of a
plan to tear the old buildings down on a number of square blocks and erect a vast housing project in their place. But, savvy businessperson that she was, Norma found opportunity in the very worst of times. In fact, she made her first fortune.
Not only movie stars found their way to 410 Dauphine; so did bootleggers who carried cigar boxes full of gold coins. Norma bought more furniture for the house—antique tester beds, cheval mirrors, and upholstered Victorian boudoir chairs, along with the new furniture she purchased at Maestri’s store on Rampart Street. What a relief it must have been to enter Norma’s well-appointed, comfortable house after a night out on the town in the risqué but decaying French Quarter.
As she continued to refine her parlor house, Norma, in her early thirties now, also found her personal style. She began buying expensive tailored suits, the kind she wore for the rest of her life—when she wasn’t wearing a smashing skintight cocktail or evening dress. Soon she would own luxury cars, usually Cadillacs, along with the odd Jaguar or Corvette. As fast as she could spend money, Norma made more. For while the Good Men were feeling the Depression, Norma had found another clientele: patrons of the seemingly endless stream of conventions that came to New Orleans even during the Depression.
The undertakers came to town. One came to the house, and the girl he went with claimed it was the easiest money she’d ever made. All she had to do was lie there—like she was dead. Norma and the other girls made sure they knew where he was from—they didn’t want to get screwed
When a convention of Baptists was in town, a nice-looking man came to the house. He went upstairs but was back down almost immediately, spluttering and enraged. Norma asked him what was wrong.
“Your girl won’t take me,” he told her, “says I have a dose.”
“Well, if my girl says you have a dose, then you have a dose.”
“I’m a preacher,” he said, nearly shaking with outrage. “I’ve never been in a house before.”
“Okay,” Norma said, “I’ll have my housekeeper take a look. She’s a real expert in these matters.”
Jackie took him to the next room. In less than two minutes, she was back. “Norma, that man’s got the biggest dose I’ve ever seen!”
Norma said. “Sorry, no action,” and the man raged around, insisting, “But I’ve never been with a hooker before!”
“Then, Reverend,” Norma said, “you better go home and have a good talk with your wife. You sure as hell didn’t get that on a toilet seat.”
He left, fuming. But he wasn’t gone long. About twenty minutes later he was back, meek and mild. He asked Norma what he should do about his problem. She sent him to the same doctor who checked her girls.
Unlike the Reverend, a lot of conventioneers had women with them and wanted to bring them to the house. Jackie had been trained as a classical ballet dancer, and she had a beautiful body. She and Norma came up with a way to promote her natural talent and make a lot of money.
Jackie put on a gorgeous negligee and did what she called interpretive dance. At a strategic moment her negligee would fall from her shoulders and float to the floor. “We had the first strip shows right there at 410 Dauphine,” Norma said. “Jackie didn’t shake it up because she didn’t need to. She could have put any of those Bourbon Street strippers that came after her to shame.”
The shows were such a success that the women got bolder. They came up with the “fake shows.” In these Jackie and some of the other girls would act with men as if they were having sex in front of the audience. The men, though, were gay. “The only way this boy could get a hard-on was with a device known as the wimpus. It was a glass tube with a little pump. He’d go out in the hall before the show and pump that thing until his prick got hard—and he had a big one. Then he’d go in and mount the girls like a big deal was going on, but he never had an orgasm. I saw him put on numerous shows in one night when a big convention was in town, yet he’d never have an orgasm with a girl. It was all fake.”
The fake shows were quite popular with the conventioneers’ ladies. “We’d be booked all night, and it got to be that there were more couples coming to the shows than single men.”
Norma talked to many men who told her that when it came time to vote on where they wanted to have their conventions, they would pick New Orleans because it was a wide open city. “That’s what made New Orleans famous,” Norma said.
Mardi Gras was big in 1933. The banks in the city were still operating; everything seemed fine. “In New Orleans,” Norma said sardonically, “I think they waited until every last cent had been put in the banks,
One day Norma was walking along Carondelet Street in the Central Business District, on the other side of Canal Street from the French Quarter, and a clock in the window of a bank caught her eye. It was the type of clock that would look great sitting on a mantel, Roman numerals on a round face embedded in antique wood. The clock was a premium for opening an account. “I always was sort of freaky for clocks,” Norma admitted. “I went in and looked at it, and I thought, What the hell?”
To open an account, the bank charged a dollar. Norma estimated the cost of the clock to be about fifty cents. “But, oh, what a price I paid for that clock. I put all my money in, the bank went down, and I lost almost everything"—close to $90,000.
Still, Norma counted herself lucky. Many of her friends were not faring nearly as well. Some of the cabdrivers, especially the ones with families, had it rough. She brought syrup from Shady Pond, her Pearl River farm, and gave it to the drivers, along with butter that they could trade for oleo. She freely gave out groceries and clothes, and bought one chauffeur’s children bicycles for Christmas. That cabbie appreciated what she had done for his family so much that when he got on his feet again he presented her with a new Frigidaire for the house.
All through Prohibition Norma had continued cheating with near beer and whiskey at 410 Dauphine. At a dollar a setup each for the men and girls, it had been too good a deal not to take the chance. Then in 1933 the Volstead Act was repealed, ending Prohibition and enabling Norma to open a bar again.
Norma had hoped to buy herself a house as well. She didn’t like the street entrance on Dauphine, the box steps coming right down to the sidewalk, visible to anyone watching, as was the gate to the alley, the only other way to enter the property. She kept her lease at 410 Dauphine, but without the perfect location Norma wasn’t certain that she wanted to stay in the business. She decided to take what money she had left and go to New York.
She arrived by train. At Grand Central Station, she told a cab-driver to take her to the Hotel Monticello on Sixty-fourth Street. He gave her a funny look. “Have you ever been in New York before? Do you know that hotel?”
“Is there any reason I shouldn’t go there?” she countered, assuming that there must be hustling girls at the hotel. In her suit, hat, gloves, matching shoes and purse, she was sure
didn’t look like
kind of girl.
Sure enough, characters—underworld characters—sat all around the lobby. From them she found out why the driver had grinned and squirmed: the gangster Legs Diamond had been shot down in the Monticello by an old friend he’d double-crossed.
One of the characters befriended Norma. He took her to an opium den in Chinatown where moving contraband for the so-called mayor of Chinatown gained him entrance.
They climbed many steps. Chinese children played on the landings. When they got to the third floor, to Norma’s surprise a big blonde answered the door. Her name was Dolly, and she was distraught. That very day her Chinese boyfriend had been sent up for the tong wars; his sentence was fifteen years.
She welcomed Norma and her friend into a living room. Norma’s eyes could hardly take it in—all around were poodles. Not live dogs. They had died and Dolly had had them stuffed. They were sitting, standing, lying all around the opium den. Norma had never been in such a place. She had never smoked hop—she didn’t even smoke cigarettes.
They were taken into a room with bunks. Her friend bunked with one Chinaman; another took Norma off to another bunk. He rolled the ball, heated it, and let it burn. Then he loaded a pipe and gave her
a big draw. The Chinaman took his draw and sat back with a seventh-heaven smile on his face.
Afterwards Norma’s friend took her to a Chinese restaurant where they were the only Caucasians. The food was incredible; Norma was starving.
She asked her friend, “Did you get sick when you smoked?” He said he hadn’t. “I didn’t either,” she said.
“You’re supposed to get sick the first time you smoke,” he informed her. “It upsets your stomach.”
Norma had seen him lay down a hundred-dollar bill, and she hadn’t seen him get any change. “Well,” she said sympathetically, “you sure wasted a lot of money on me, because I don’t know how to inhale!”
But what an experience she’d had. “I don’t know why I was so amazed, because I knew girls in New Orleans smoking hop over on Tulane Avenue, where Chinatown used to be. But I felt wicked. I thought, Here I am smoking hop in New York City with a bunch of goddamned stuffed poodles!”
Norma returned from New York short on money but with a long lease left on her beautiful house at 410 Dauphine Street. Within a couple of years her business became more solidly established than it had been before the 1933 bank failure. But even better times were ahead.
In 1936 Robert Maestri, who owned Maestri’s furniture store on Rampart Street, as well as a lot of the property that had once been the site of Storyville, became mayor. In a lucrative deal he sold this property to the city, which erected several acres of two-story red-brick, four-family dwellings, the same kind of housing project the city was considering for the land the French Quarter occupied.
Maestri continued to corrupt the city’s political infrastructure during his tenure as mayor. He was party to the graft and scandal that had often infiltrated city politics, and under him the spoils system flourished. He had legitimate civic achievements as well, such as decreasing the city’s debt significantly, and under his leadership New Orleans supported cultural organizations like the ballet and the symphony, restored historically important buildings, and improved garbage collection. But
the inbred practice of graft continued. The price tags at the Maestri furniture store, where all the madams bought their furniture, still included a markup, as they had through the twenties, sometimes more than a hundred percent, that went directly to police protection. With Bob Maestri mayor and George Reyer chief of police, the town was as wide open as at any time in its history.
In the wake of Huey Long’s rule in New Orleans, Maestri didn’t hear much hue and cry from concerned citizens about vice and corruption. Perhaps they were relieved to have money moving again and banks and business functioning normally. To keep up appearances Maestri appointed a respected doctor as commissioner of public safety. But Frank Gomila was not interested in reform. To ensure public safety, he included in his duties a twice-weekly inspection of the girls at Norma Wallace’s house.
Norma bought influence when she bought furniture at Maestri’s store, but as Clint Bolton said in his
magazine article, “Influence is not always a matter of dollars and cents.”
At the top of the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list in 1936 was a hoodlum named Alvin Karpis, who was sought for bank and train robbery, kidnapping, and murder. Karpis fancied the girls at cathouses, and during the spring of that year all the hookers and madams in town seemed to know that a man who fit the FBI’s description of Karpis was on the prowl in the New Orleans area. Circulating with his description was the detail that he sported a huge diamond ring.
J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the FBI, particularly wanted Karpis and had put out the word to every police chief in the country. George Reyer was the one who delivered. Bureau agents arrested Karpis at the corner of Canal and Jefferson Davis Parkway without a shot being fired. Hoover was whisked to New Orleans for a photo opportunity that made it look as if he’d been in on the capture.