When Madame Meant Queen in New Orleans: Taped Confessions of Power, Politics, and Sex
“Making no secret of her relation to the exchange of capital, the ‘out’ prostitute makes a scene (and possibly lands in jail). The political whore, the object who doesn’t wait to be ‘invested’ in order to look back, is a trouble-making whore. The whore who does not sit silently in the sales bin but, in a flash of insight of her own, talks back to her positioning is an unruly commodity.”
—Rebecca Schneider, The Explicit Body in Performance
Before committing suicide in 1974, Norma Wallace began to record her memories. From the 1920s to the 1960s, Wallace ran a bordello in the French Quarter, and she is both famous and infamous in New Orleans for the long run of her enterprise, a city record, and for the men and women with whom she made history.
A fiction writer by trade, author Christine Wiltz, whose promotion of this work included an NPR interview and several university speaking engagements, took two years worth of tape recordings left by Wallace and combined them with her own notable research to produce The Last Madam: A Life in the New Orleans Underworld. Encouraged by Jean Bernard, the wife of Wallace’s fifth and final husband, Wayne Bernard, who was thirty-nine years younger than Wallace, Wiltz wrote the story of the life and legacy of Norma Wallace.
In The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation, Hayden White writes that “. . . narrativity, certainly in factual storytelling and probably in fictional storytelling as well, is intimately related to, if not a function of, the impulse to moralize reality, that is, to identify it with the social system that is the source of any morality that we can imagine.” In The Last Madam, Christine Wiltz struggles to present Norma Wallace as a strong female character in America’s pop culture history. The book’s inscription “To the girls” may have been written at Norma Wallace’s taped insistence, but to label Wallace an “underworld queen” (publisher’s jacket note) and present her as a role model of sorts for independent women, as such an inscription seems to suggest, is problematic. Norma Wallace may have used the sexual secrets of mobsters, politicians, and officers of the law to keep her capital flowing, but her power, and so her long-running entrepreneurial success, came from the sexual labor of impoverished women’s bodies. If Wiltz had examined the life of Norma Wallace from this perspective, the text would be a valuable contribution to the study of power, desire, and labor in American history. Instead, The Last Madam is a shape-shifting narrative. It is sometimes a fascinating historical account. At other times, it is a fine work of fiction. At worst, it turns into a romance novel.
At best, Norma Wallace and her operations are presented as a historical force that fused crime and punishment, high culture and low culture together during a period of New Orleans history when below the belt was above the law. Wiltz’s presentation of the changing shape of New Orleans, its architecture and popular culture, is a fascinating aspect of this book. JFK aficionados will enjoy Jim Garrison’s role in Wallace’s memoirs. Classic film fans will enjoy Marjorie Rambeau’s visit to Norma Wallace’s house on 410 Dauphine Street. Mobster and mafia buffs will be interested in Wallace’s contact with Carlos Marcello and Golfbag Sam.
Unfortunately, however, there are also times within the text when the storytelling seems to fall into a tired run of exploits, one right after the other, all seeming the same: the police try to bust Norma Wallace; Norma Wallace hides the prostitutes who work for her; the police, finding no evidence, leave defeated. To the other extreme, though, there are moments around this listing of exploits that are anything but tired. In fact, they may have been copied directly from Wallace’s tapes. In the following scene, for example, Wallace is seducing Wayne while serving him breakfast: “What Mrs. Patterson [Norma Wallace] served up he’d never had a taste of before, and he wasn’t sure he could ever get enough of it.” Here, Mrs. Patterson rivals Jackie Collins’ famous character Lucky in the art of seduction.
Fortunately, there are also places in the text where Wiltz fuses fact and fiction to produce fine creative writing. Within these spaces, she tells a story of one woman’s struggle out of dire poverty and into a world where desire produces not only power but a specter of feminine beauty, one that ultimately ruins Norma Wallace. Christine Wiltz’s The Last Madam: A Life in the New Orleans Underworld is a fragmented text, but such moments of valuable prose, along with several well-constructed pictures of New Orleans, make it a text worth reading.
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