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Authors: Chris Wiltz

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

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BOOK: The Last Madam: A Life in the New Orleans Underworld
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The house Norma found at 1026 Conti shared a parking lot with the next-door neighbor, the Holzer Sheet Metal Company. Cars could drive up the driveway to the lot, or they could enter from Rampart Street. At the time Norma said that from the Rampart side the
back of the house was not visible, which meant that she could do what she couldn’t at 410 Dauphine—keep the heat away from the front. The visibility factor changed through the years, until she finally erected a twelve-foot concrete wall.

The interior of the sixteen-room, green-stucco, 1830s classical-style town house offered great possibilities. One entered a long foyer, more like a vestibule, with a stairway to the second floor. Near the front door was a shuttered window where Norma and her girls could keep an eye on the customers coming up the driveway as well as on the constabulary. To the left of the hall were three rooms that Norma could turn into her private apartment, a luxury she didn’t have on Dauphine Street. Past those rooms the hall went out to a courtyard on the side of the building, a long rectangle covered with blue Mexican tile. On one end was a sunroom, connected to Norma’s apartment. On the opposite side was a door to the room Norma would use as her main parlor. It had an entrance from the back yard. Across the courtyard on the right was another large room, a second parlor or a show room. Next to it was the back stairway, which led to a balcony overlooking the courtyard. The balcony fronted numerous bedrooms, then led to a hall where the front stairway continued to the third floor, which consisted of a few large, airy rooms with casement windows and creamy white-marble fireplaces. An ideal house with an appropriate history: It had once belonged to Ernest Bellocq, the famed photographer of the Storyville prostitutes. The very best feature of it, though, was a secret space behind the main parlor—the perfect hideout!

It could be very nice, except, “The condition of this house—Oh Lord!” Norma said. “Colored people were living in it, and it took trucks and trucks from the city to move the stuff out of the community parking lot, where they had been dumping for years. They had painted over the beautiful black-marble mantels with green paint. And the place had to be fumigated. But I got it cheap, forty-five hundred dollars.”

Some of Norma’s friends say that Sam Hunt paid for the house. Norma didn’t divulge that information, though it’s likely that he did, since she bought her mother a house at 3830 Piedmont Drive in
Gentilly, a suburb with California-style bungalows set on grassy terraces, along with the lot next door, which she had fenced for her mother’s three dogs. In her memoirs she said she had only enough money for those lots, yet the transactions for Conti Street and her mother’s property took place together. She did mention, however, that Sam gave her a lot of jewelry, furs, and clothes, and he helped her decorate and furnish Conti Street. “As always,” Norma said, “Sam was generous.” By the new year she was in the house.

Sam wanted Norma to go out with him on New Year’s Eve, a big night in New Orleans, the night before the Sugar Bowl and another excuse to line Bourbon Street with wall-to-wall party animals. Cabdrivers were picking up men and women all over the Quarter and taking them to the shows at 1026 Conti. Norma had a full house. She couldn’t afford to leave at a time like that. “I was there to keep down any kind of beef; even with my love life and other problems, I never neglected my business. That’s one reason I lasted as long as I did.”

She told Sam she couldn’t go out. He took her car and went to Louie’s bar on University Place, where he drank B & B’s until two in the morning. Loaded and belligerent, he let himself into the back parlor.

The first thing he saw was Norma sitting in a man’s lap. Someone she’d passed had pulled her down, and she’d stayed to talk for a minute. Sam strode straight up and cursed her out.

Norma didn’t scare easily. “I would cry at a bird’s death and faint at the sight of blood, but when it came to things like this, I was made out of iron.”

She defied him—stood up and stared him down. He threw the key to her house at her and left. But he didn’t go far, only back to Louie’s.

With a few more B & B’s in him, Sam decided to wreck the house. When he returned the first thing he did was beat up Slim Williams and Johnny Packer, two cabdrivers who were waiting for their vidalias. He ran them both into the alley, then into the street. Norma said, “He had a bad habit of kicking people, which I detest.”

The girls, frightened, began to leave, one telling a cabdriver, “Just go anywhere. He’s crazy,

Sam wanted to whip everybody. A couple lounged in the front parlor, drinking champagne after Jackie had danced for them. Sam
barged in, threatening, “If you know what’s good for you, you’ll get out of here right now.” People in the rooms upstairs had no clothes on; he ran up to the balcony shouting that they’d better get dressed and get out—and fast.

Norma knew then that she couldn’t go on with Sam. Her one absolute: Don’t fool with my business. She could take anything but that.

Sam headed back to Louie’s and put down more B & B’s. When he left he told Louie, “I’m going back to finish her off.” Alarmed, Louie called Norma and suggested she call the law. But Norma knew better than to call the law on someone like Sam Hunt.

She opened the door; his hand shot out, hitting her in the face. “I know it’s hard to believe, given everything else he did that night,” Norma said, without a thought to what he’d done
that night, “but he wasn’t the kind of man to hit a woman. He was mortally wounded by his own act. We went into the parlor. He was a hurt man, and I felt sorry and cried.”

About that time the doorbell rang. It was the police. Somebody, either one of the cabdrivers or Louie, had called them. They asked Norma if there was any trouble. She told them no.

She went back to the parlor. Sam, ever the romantic, said, “Darling, you didn’t have me arrested. Why?”

He spent the night with her, and they talked most of the next day. They decided that they weren’t meant for each other, that if they tried to go on, something serious would happen.

“It must have been hard for him to look around ten twenty-six and see all the beautiful things he had given me, how much he’d helped me fix up the building. Also, it’s a big thing to have the madam of the house. If I had been willing just to be his woman, we could have had a good life together. In a way, I’d shown him up quite a bit, and amongst his kind of people, a woman never does that to a man without getting her neck broke. I suppose I was just lucky. Sam and I never saw each other again. But it was a good love affair for me, never a dull moment—exciting, that’s the word.”

Sam Hunt died some years later in a shoot-out in Chicago.


Squaring Up

The war years came, and for Norma the money kept rolling in, largely because of the influx of servicemen on leave and the convenient proximity of her house to the bus station where they arrived. Sometimes the line of soldiers waiting for their turn with a girl stretched around the block. Norma had as many as thirty girls working for her then, and each would turn five or six tricks a day. And she had her regular customers too. Her gross of the proceeds was at least a hundred thousand dollars a year, but Norma had given up on banks after losing her money during the Depression. She stashed her savings behind a loose brick somewhere on Conti Street, either in the fireplace in her apartment or within the deep recess of the hideout—she never divulged the location. Before she tried to “square up” in 1946 and live the straight life with her fourth husband, Charles McCoy, she had accumulated over eighty thousand dollars, almost as much as she’d lost in 1933.

During the first half of the 1940s, most of Norma’s money went into her property. She put full bathrooms in each of the rooms, and in her private bath she added a bidet of black marble, which she chose because it most closely matched the Italian marble of the fireplaces. After a lot of labor and money, the green paint had been stripped from
them; now Norma had their ornate carvings edged with gold leaf. The back parlor, where the dates entered, was a low-ceilinged room, an addition to the early-nineteenth-century house. She made it cozy, with pecky cypress paneling on the walls, deep red Oriental carpets over the hardwood floor, a small crystal chandelier, easy chairs, a comfortable sofa, and an adjoining bar. The courtyard became a tropical paradise, with large trees and flowering plants, a glass-topped table with chairs, and eventually a toucan and a couple of parrots with foul mouths. She turned the sunroom into her office. To shelter the balcony and courtyard, she installed a translucent green corrugated cover that bathed the area in light like an aquarium. Then she commissioned a romantic mural of azaleas blooming in Mobile, Alabama, on the wall upstairs from which the balcony hung.

Norma also commissioned some nude paintings, one of Jackie dancing and others of a few of her most beautiful girls, and she bought some nudes by the Hungarian painter Pâl Fried. These she hung throughout her bordello, which she furnished with antiques, adding a few stunning pieces of Chinese ebony furniture as accents. She acquired one exceptional conversation piece—a bed that was supposed to have been in the Storyville madam Josie Arlington’s house. At least that’s what Bertha Anderson, once Josie’s protégée, had told her when she sold Norma the bed.

Made of brass and exquisitely draped in red silk, the bed had a mirror in its canopy. Norma put it in her bedroom, but its first night there was also its last. “I looked up into it,” Norma said, “and thought, Oh Christ, this is thirty years too late.” So she put electric lights in it and moved the bed to her show room upstairs, and put it on a revolving dais. It proved to be a terrific gimmick. Some people came to the shows to see the bed, or so they said.

For the first time since the twenties, Norma was arrested in 1944, but not for prostitution. She was picked up for being drunk and disorderly, and for fighting and disturbing the peace on St. Louis Street between Chartres and Royal. For the record, she gave Pete Herman’s address at 328 Burgundy, where she’d operated her first bordello and where Pete continued a prostitution operation, with Norma supplying some of the girls. Even after their divorce Pete and Norma remained
business partners, and every night they cut the proceeds, Norma or Jackie bringing bank bags to Pete’s to collect the night’s take.

Under Robert Maestri’s regime, gambling thrived along with prostitution throughout the war years, but Police Superintendent Reyer seemed reluctant to answer specific requests to clamp down on clear violators of the law, and his men were lax in their duties to crack down on slot machines and handbook (bookmaking) operations as well as prostitution. The mayor, after an easy victory in the 1942 election, seemed to lose touch with the public; city services deteriorated while he paid more attention to the management of the Old Regular coalition and responded only to friends. Favoritism flourished; vice and corruption were on public display as never before.

By 1945, when it was time to campaign again, Maestri and the Old Regulars were overconfident. Even a rift between Maestri and a city assessor, which resulted in two slates of Old Regular candidates, seemed not to worry him. He made fewer public appearances. He was ill at ease around other candidates. One of those candidates was deLesseps “Chep” Morrison.

Morrison was a handsome man of thirty-three, in superb physical condition, quite attractive in his military uniform. A lawyer from Uptown New Orleans, he became a state legislator at twenty-eight. Nearly his opposite, Maestri was swarthy, middle-aged, and out of shape; his formal education had stopped at the third grade. For him public speaking was difficult; even one-on-one his speech could be shockingly uncouth. One story recounts President Franklin Roosevelt’s visit to the city. Dining at Antoine’s, the President and his son Elliott had begun eating the restaurant’s famed oysters Rockefeller when Maestri, at a loss for words, suddenly blurted across an otherwise silent table, “How ya like dem ersters?”

Aside from such obvious differences between Morrison and Maestri, the dynamic younger man was being groomed as the candidate of reform. Some of his strongest support came from the wealthy and social Uptown women, the “silk stockings,” who considered Morrison one of their own, a “debutante’s delight.” They organized a citywide grassroots effort to promote him. Not only did they go door to door, hold rallies and receptions, and work the phones, but they underscored their candidate’s promise for sweeping reforms with
dramatic visuals. “A Clean Sweep for Morrison” was their theme. On the freezing Saturday night before the election, hundreds of Women for Morrison from across the city lined up in rank and file on Canal Street, shouldering their household brooms. Down Canal to St. Charles Avenue at Lee Circle, the March of Brooms swept the city clean of corruption as they swept their candidate to victory. The efforts of the women’s “Broom Brigade,” along with the veterans who nightly placed Elect Morrison signs all over town, made the difference: Morrison defeated Maestri and the Old Regulars’ machine by four thousand votes.

Morrison’s election in 1946 was a major event in the lives of the French Quarter landladies. “Everybody was scared to death that Morrison was going to eat them alive,” Norma said. “His own lawyer, Henry somebody or another [she probably meant Henry Muller, who was not Morrison’s lawyer but the owner of a restaurant supply company as well as proprietor of several houses], had a house, and he’d gotten all his girls out to vote, really plugged for Morrison. But when Morrison got in, Henry had to close the doors down. Morrison was going to reform the city, clean it all up. Big deal.”

Henry Muller was one of Morrison’s biggest campaign contributors, forty thousand dollars in 1946. According to Morrison’s chauffeur, the money ensured that Muller could operate freely; he may have ceased operations for a short while as part of the show.

And to scare the other madams. But he was not the source of Norma’s concern. “A man named Cody Morris was running a house [809 Baronne Street, in the Central Business District], and that was supposed to be okay with Morrison. Morris said as soon as Chep took office he was going to run all the other operators out of business, particularly me. Morris and I were bucking each other for quite a while there. I knew the town was about to go down, and I believed what he was telling me. I could have stayed and cheated, because I had a few spots and a couple of my girls had very nice apartments, but when this message came back to me, I said, To hell with it.”

The other reason she said “to hell with it” was Charles McCoy.

McCoy was a Washington, D.C., policeman on shore patrol in New Orleans when he found his way to 1026 Conti Street. He was young, ten years younger than Norma (who was now forty-five), and
heart-stoppingly handsome. He had a family and a job waiting back in Washington, but he was willing to leave all that behind. Norma was still married to Bill Carver, but she put her lawyer to work, and he somehow finagled McCoy out of the service while arranging Norma’s divorce. She got the house on Governor Nicholls Street in the settlement and put it up for sale. With close to a hundred thousand dollars in cash and Morrison promising the crackdown Reyer and Maestri wouldn’t deliver, Norma said, “I had been looking for an excuse to go live on my farm, so I shut down the shop and moved to Pearl River.” The house there was beautiful, overlooking the water, with a guesthouse and a mile of woods behind it.

But Norma had put too much of her time and money into 1026 Conti Street—and too much of herself—to give it up. She listed it under the name Norma Lindsley; then her mother moved in and supposedly ran it as a rooming house while Norma and McCoy “went domestic,” as she liked to say, at Shady Pond.

Norma had said she was quitting the business for McCoy’s sake. He believed her, and she believed it herself, for a while. McCoy wanted to run a dairy farm, so Norma took her cash and bought five hundred cows. While he was being Farmer McCoy, Mrs. McCoy was into canning—orange preserves, blackberry jam, corn confit, tomato chutney, pickled green beans and okra. She also became a sharpshooter and killed a wild boar in the woods one day.

But she kept in touch with her friends in the French Quarter too, talking regularly with Pete and his brother, Gaspar Gulotta, who had the inside track with the politicos and the police. Was she waiting for the all-clear sign from Gaspar? If so, she didn’t get it; meanwhile, the years were passing and canning was beginning to get old.

Back in the city, Amanda may have been playing it straight and operating a rooming house, but during that time Elmo got married to a shy, sweet, and very young woman named Sarah Gentilly. Norma had met Sarah the Christmas before she left Conti Street, when Elmo dropped by to give his sister a present. He left Sarah in the car, but Norma insisted that he invite her in. Sarah was too naïve to understand the action at 1026 Conti Street; she thought Elmo’s sister had a lot of pretty friends.

After she and Elmo married they moved into the house with Amanda. Sarah, a half century later, curled her lip and wrinkled her nose at the mention of Conti Street or, for that matter, anything having to do with the French Quarter. “I hated it,” she said, “everything about it.” But she didn’t know if Amanda may have been playing madam in Norma’s absence. She said that families lived in the house, yet she also said she never saw them.

She and Elmo weren’t there long, though. Sarah told her new husband that if he didn’t move her out, she was going home to her mother. Elmo bought her a house in Lakeview, a family-oriented section of town and a far cry from the Quarter in the late forties. But as long as Sarah was married to Elmo, which she was until he died in 1968, she couldn’t get away from the part of the city she found so distasteful, because she kept the books for Elmo’s various nightclubs in the French Quarter and across Canal in the Central Business District.

While Norma was in Pearl River, she developed a small cyst on one of her eyes. Her sister-in-law Helen took her into the city one day to have it removed. Norma talked more that day to Helen than she had to anyone since the move to the farm. Things were not good at Shady Pond. Everything was going wrong: The livestock was dwindling as cows seemed to be dropping dead overnight; some beautiful young heifers were under a tree during a thunderstorm when lightning struck and killed them all—"There went the future of our dairy!” Norma told Helen.

Also, McCoy’s management was poor. “What does Mac know about running a dairy?” Norma said. “He’s an ex-policeman. But you can’t tell any city person there’s no money to be made in the country. They don’t believe it.”

As they drove to New Orleans, Norma told Helen, “Your life is so different from mine. I’d trade shoes with you any day.”

But at that time Norma’s life was not very different from Helen’s. Helen knew what she meant, though—that their backgrounds were different. “For Norma,” Helen said in retrospect, “it was already too late.”

Nearly five years after Norma and McCoy moved to Pearl River, Norma decided she’d had it with being domestic. In the kitchen were
shelves and shelves of canned fruit and vegetables. She couldn’t stand the sight. She went to her next-door neighbor’s house, a mile away, and said, “Bring up your wagon,” and she unloaded every last jar of corn and beans and preserves. Then she told McCoy she was selling the farm.

He was shocked. “Living with you is like sitting on a keg of dynamite!” he told Norma.

Norma didn’t care. She wanted to get back to her old life, the one she’d grown accustomed to and understood, the life of danger, excitement, and action. She had begun to think she could actually die of boredom in the country. She called another dairy farmer she knew, Louie Ballaminte, who happened to be Carlos Marcello’s brother-in-law. Marcello was reputedly the mob kingpin in New Orleans, though he had a number of vegetable trucks all over town and claimed to be nothing other than a lowly tomato salesman. Norma didn’t know Marcello at the time; she didn’t care who Louie Ballaminte’s brother-in-law was anyway. She just wanted him to buy the farm. ("He stole it from me,” she said after she let it go for a lot less than she thought it was worth in her hurry to leave Pearl River.)

McCoy went along with Norma’s decision; he didn’t have much of a choice since the farm belonged to her. But it was in his nature to be acquiescent; not only that, he loved Norma more than he loved any cows or land or dairy business. He loved her so much that he made a dire threat before they left Pearl River for good. “If you ever get in trouble,” he told her, “if you ever go to jail, I’ll leave you.” Poor Mac. Money wasn’t important to him. He didn’t mind working; he always said he could make enough for them to live on.

Norma brushed off his threat. “I guess he figured this old girl was squared up and we were gonna get into canned goods,” she said. “But all I could think about was what I was missing.”

BOOK: The Last Madam: A Life in the New Orleans Underworld
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