Read The Last Madam: A Life in the New Orleans Underworld Online
Authors: Chris Wiltz
Tags: #Biography & Autobiography, #Historical, #Nonfiction, #Retail
Norma and Sam were so much in love that every time they had to part they fought. Then they’d meet again and make up. This went on for some time, until they finally became jealous and distrustful of each other.
One Sunday afternoon Norma put Sam on a plane for Chicago. As she was leaving the airport, she stopped to talk to a pilot she knew, someone she’d had a brief affair with who was now a friend. Norma never fell out with lovers, even the ones she married. She always kept them as friends. Sam didn’t understand friendships like that—with other men.
Norma drove to Pearl River to spend the night, to get a little peace and quiet and solitude before beginning another week. She was in bed when she heard a car roll up to the house. The engine was cut and the headlights were off. She got her robe and crept into the living room.
Before she could get a fix on what was happening, someone had a shoulder to the door, ready to break it down. Norma edged over to a window and looked out. Standing next to the car was Philip, who regularly chauffeured Sam when he was in town.
“Sam Hunt,” she yelled, “is that you?” She sprang the door open so that he nearly fell into the living room. “What the hell are you doing?” she demanded.
“I want to know if anyone is here with you,” he said, as cold and mean as she’d ever seen him.
He’d seen her talking to the pilot at the airport. It had been too late to get off the plane, so he’d gone on to Memphis, disembarked, then taken the first flight back to New Orleans. She tried to explain that the pilot was an old friend and going off with him was the last thing on her mind; she told Sam she knew he wasn’t a man to play those kinds of games with, but he was primed for a fight and turned a deaf ear. Before it got too ugly, he left, and Philip drove him back to the airport.
Four days passed, and neither of them called, the worst lovers’ quarrel they’d had. Norma was in love with a lunatic gangster. She needed someone to talk to. She went around the corner to see her closest, most trusted friend and business partner, Pete Herman.
They went to Pete’s apartment over the nightclub. He had living quarters on the Conti Street side, with the adjacent building on
Burgundy walled off for business as it had been when Norma opened her operation there. Since Norma had moved to 410 Dauphine, a block away, Pete had married, been widowed, and been left with two daughters. He listened to Norma’s troubles with Sam Hunt, and at once he knew the solution.
Pete saw his opportunity; he proposed to Norma. He seemed to think Sam would leave her alone once they were married.
Norma looked at him. He was completely blind; she knew he could no longer see her. She recalled the night soon after she’d moved above his lounge that he’d taken her up to the roof over his club to teach her some self-defense moves. He still had a little sight then, but he hadn’t seen her right hook coming, and she’d decked him. She smiled. She felt great affection for him. They had been lovers off and on for so many years, and now they were the best of friends. She loved Pete, no doubt about that.
But Norma was not “in love” with Pete. Jumping into marriage with him reflected her emotional upset over Sam Hunt, a man she was deeply in love with but could never marry, not only because of his marriage and devotion to his child or his mob affiliations and criminal acts but because he wanted more of her than she would ever be willing to give. He wanted Norma to be
woman, and Norma was nobody’s woman but her own.
Because Sam Hunt was a hot-blooded lover and a cold-blooded killer, Norma’s decision to marry Pete proved to be one of the most dangerous things she could have done. It almost cost them their lives.
Pete and Norma were married on July 28, 1936. That night they listened to news of the Duke of Windsor, who would abdicate the English throne in order to marry his American lover, Wallis Simpson. It all seemed so romantic. Phil Harris sent a telegram from Dallas:
I HEARD I LOST OUT AGAIN.
Pete’s apartment was already beautiful, and now it was filled with all the wedding presents people had given them. Norma made just a few changes when she moved in, bringing only her clothes and personal possessions. She was happy; she thought she and Pete could make a go
of it. It made her sad, though, to see Pete, a devout Catholic, leave for church every Tuesday to make a novena because he was having trouble facing his blindness. But Pete’s failed eyesight didn’t prevent his riding with Norma in Pearl River. They went nearly every Sunday after they’d closed their respective places and returned at noon on Monday. He rode Mike, the old mule, which he felt safe on, and he and Norma seemed not to have a care in the world.
But news of their marriage found its way to Chicago. Sam was furious. He knew Pete; he’d spent quite a lot of time and money in his nightclub, both with Norma and on his own. He felt betrayed. He called Norma and in his fury threatened her, and Norma understood that he was unleashing his anger and frustration. She assumed he would forget about it. She was upset and hurt—she didn’t want to lose Sam, but he was married and now she was too. And she promised herself she would do her best to stay married.
On a beautiful Sunday in the fall, Pete and Norma went riding in Pearl River, enjoying the weather and the farmhouse, which Norma had been improving steadily since her father had died. It was a beautiful place, far off the highway. She’d had a good road built to it along with other improvements. But with all the expense Norma had never bothered to have a telephone installed.
That afternoon, as she and Pete relaxed after their ride, an urgent intuition seized Norma. She needed to call her house. She and Pete left immediately, driving ten miles to the town of Slidell, where Norma could find a pay phone. She called Jackie.
“Sam Hunt is here,” Jackie told her, keeping her voice low. “He’s been drinking B & B all day. He’s so furious he’s gone crazy, Norma. He built a fire under the couch in the living room. When I put it out, he built another one. He’s being quiet right now, but I don’t dare take my eyes off him. I’ve had no rest at all, trying to keep him from burning us up. Every time I try to talk to him, he tells me to mind my own business. He says he’s going to wreck the house, and he’s got a gun on him, Norma. He is really performing.”
This wasn’t the first time Norma was grateful for Jackie’s cool head. Unsure what to do, she finally decided to let Jackie handle it, and she and Pete went on with their plan to spend Sunday night in the country.
It seemed she’d made the right decision. Sam left during the night, and Norma figured that once he sobered up he wouldn’t cause any more trouble. He had good friends in town who would make him see the futility of all his commotion.
Monday went by, and Norma heard nothing. About one in the morning she left 410 Dauphine. She went down the concrete box steps, and as soon as she hit the sidewalk, a car engine roared and headlights blinded her. She leapt back on the steps as the car jumped the curb. Had she not moved so quickly, she would have been crushed against the front wall of the house. The concrete steps saved her. Through the windshield she saw Sam’s cold and determined expression, and she managed to unlock the door and get inside before he could back off and come at her again.
She called Pete at the club. “We’re in for trouble,” she told him. “Sam’s on the warpath.” Pete said he would call Richie, a friend who could nail a half-dollar from a hundred yards. Meantime, Norma called Philip, who told her he was on his way to meet Sam at Pete’s place.
Before Philip could get there, though, Sam arrived. He got out of the car with his gun and fired directly into the club, missing Pete by inches. Richie entered the club through an alley door on Conti Street. When Sam saw him with his gun drawn, he crossed Burgundy, and the two had a shoot-out. Philip heard all the gunfire, drove down Burgundy to Conti, and persuaded Sam to get in his car before anyone was killed.
Philip got Sam on a plane to Chicago. Norma thought it was over forever, she’d never see Sam again. But she’d have her memories of their torrid nights together, and she’d never take off the diamond ring he’d given her, a five-and-a-half-carat rock to help balance the memory of Andy Wallace on her other hand. The bullets in the green door on Burgundy Street would remind her of him for years. He was out of her life, and just as well. He was too volatile, too possessive, too dangerous. She accepted that he was gone forever; nevertheless, it hurt her to think so.
Once again, she was almost dead wrong.
Norma’s marriage to Pete lasted less than a year. She explained the breakup this way: “We had reached the point where we didn’t have fun anymore. Instead, we mostly tried to buck each other—we were antagonistic toward each other. The problem was jealousy. When I got a phone call, he would put his ear to the phone.
“Italians can really be something. They want a wife that’s a madam and a nun and all of the saints combined, and I don’t think I was capable of it.”
She admitted that she was jealous of Pete too. “Because I’m selfish,” she said. “When I love, I want to be all of it.” What it came down to was this: “I can dish it out but I can’t take it.”
Though Norma gave no details about the breakup of the marriage, she was honest about her feelings upon entering it. “I guess Pete was married and I wasn’t because my heart wasn’t in the marriage. I think,” she added, “I’m the sort of person who never should have married in the first place. I’m a lot like a man; I like freedom. I liked the freedom of love affairs.”
But Norma still cared a great deal about Pete, and she had sympathy for his handicap. “When a person is handicapped like he is,” she said, “there’s more sympathy in your love. I would do more for him than anybody else because of that and because he is a fine little man, no doubt about it. I would do anything for him except stay married.”
So she moved back to 410 Dauphine, leaving all the wedding presents and things she’d bought for the apartment. “I knew it would hurt him if I took anything. All I took was my dough, my clothes, and an Oriental rug that was very precious to me because it had been a gift from Sam, and back to my whorehouse I went.”
Norma did not tell Pete she was leaving, which shocked and undoubtedly hurt him, yet he remained her friend until he died.
Before long, sometime in 1937, Norma began going with a seaman named Bill Carver. Pete named Bill as corespondent in the divorce, and Norma eventually married him. She summed up her third marriage in a few words: “It was a nice enough marriage, and we had a nice life together for a while.” They were married for six years, during which Norma bought a house at 512 Governor Nicholls Street in the Quarter, and Bill spent a lot of time at sea. Bill Carver was more than an “episode,” as she’d called her marriage to Alex Zolman, but
not much more. Talking to Clint Bolton, she couldn’t remember his name. “Carver, Caron, something like that.” His name appears both ways on legal documents.
“Isn’t it terrible?” she asked Bolton. “I can’t remember my husband’s name.”
Helen Moran remembered Bill Carver’s name and the man. “I liked him,” she said with feeling. “Norma married him about the same time John [J. G. Badon, Norma’s half brother] and I married . She invited us to dinner to announce it.
“He was a sailor, and he was a handsome brute too.” Helen broke into a lilting laugh. “Oh, yes, and he was younger than Norma. Except for Pete Herman, all her husbands were.”
Norma said, “Whores make good wives, but madams don’t. When you’re making money in a whorehouse, that makes you independent and hard to get along with as a wife in the first place.”
She talked about the girls she knew who’d married cabdrivers, policemen, and club owners, men who fell in love with them. Afterwards, these girls were never interested in hustling again. “But madams,” she said, “don’t make good wives because their way of life just doesn’t fit into the domestic scene.” She tested the veracity of this statement during her fourth marriage, to Charles McCoy.
Meanwhile, though, Sam Hunt may have heard about Pete and Norma’s divorce, which was finalized near Christmas. He sent Norma a present, a diamond watch on a gold chain; she rushed out and reciprocated with a gold money clip engraved with his initials. She claimed some reticence, even though her act did not reflect it. “I didn’t want to make up with this man because I knew I wasn’t ready for that kind of settling down to anybody. I wanted to have this freedom I had left Pete for.”
But Sam accepted the present and arrived at the house in short order. The love affair picked up again as if he had never tried to run Norma over in front of 410 Dauphine, as if the shoot-out on Burgundy Street had never happened.
In the late 1930s the French Quarter underwent another change, a result of the threat to demolish the historic buildings and replace them with a low-rent housing development. To prevent such destruction, the Vieux Carré Commission was established in 1937. But even earlier in the decade people interested in historic preservation had begun to restore and renovate the old dwellings. This renovation forced many of the poorer residents to move out of the Quarter. They left and the tourists arrived, courted by the restaurants, hotels, and nightclubs that had been springing up all over the area. Within the shrinking population of residents, a fear rose, as it had in the twenties, that the Quarter was losing its picturesque quality, this time to tourists and developers. Tennessee Williams, who arrived in New Orleans in 1938, was quoted some years later as saying that the French Quarter was in danger of turning into Kansas City. This change in the Quarter, though, marked the beginning of tourism as the number one growth industry in the city, with more job impact than either the port or the oil and gas industry by the end of the century. As merchants, hoteliers, and others catered heavily to tourism, the picturesqueness of the Vieux Carré was often so pronounced as to seem artificial, and rumors floated that Disney wanted to buy it and turn it into another theme park.
Norma in 1938 became part of the push to refurbish the Quarter in her quest for the ideal situation for her parlor house. She said that before she married Pete she had found the perfect location for her establishment at 1026 Conti Street. The Greyhound bus station was across the street, at the corner of Conti and North Rampart, providing plenty of customers, as it had for Juliet Washington, whose house at 1020 Conti flourished. Next door to the bus station, at 1019 Conti, was the New Orleans Transfer Company. At 1006 music and good spirits poured from the convivial Regal Beer Parlor, an outlet for the Regal Brewing Company over on Bourbon Street. A tailor was conveniently located at 935 Conti, and across from him Pete’s nightclub still drew a full house several nights a week.