The Last Madam: A Life in the New Orleans Underworld

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9780571199549: The Last Madam: A Life in the New Orleans Underworld
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The forty-year reign of New Orleans "madam" Norma Wallace is chronicled here, with plentiful accounts from the prostitutes, "johns," local celebrities, and cops who were part of this colorful drama set in the city's notorious Red Light District.

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Review:

Actually, they called themselves "landladies" in New Orleans, though that didn't change the nature of their business: running houses of prostitution in the city's wide-open French Quarter. Beginning in 1920, when she was still in her teens, Norma Wallace managed a high-class bordello for an affluent and influential clientele, evading the police and asserting her sexual freedom "like a man" despite the nominal confines of several rickety marriages. Obsessive love for a man 39 years her junior and her first-ever jail term finally put Wallace out of the business in the mid-1960s, but her memories were still vivid and raunchy when she tape-recorded material for an autobiography in the two years before her suicide in 1974. Novelist Christine Wiltz makes good use of those recordings in an earthy narrative filled with great anecdotes, from how the name of Wallace's dog became local slang for an out-of-town customer to the time an undertaker's premises served as her temporary place of business. Wiltz also interviewed many of Wallace's lovers and associates; she draws on popular journalism and scholarly monographs with equal acuity to flesh out Norma's story. Her perceptive biography of a colorful and complex woman is equally satisfying as a social history of 20th-century New Orleans. --Wendy Smith

From the Author:

Writing The Last Madam: A Life in the New Orleans Underworld began with a call from Norma Wallace's fifth husband's wife.  Jean Bernard had decided it was time to do something with all the papers Norma had left that were stuffed into a tall secretary in her living room.  Norma had begun taping her life, and Jean invited me over to review those tapes.  That was the beginning of a five year journey for me.  Even though Norma's house was the last of the wide-open French Quarter parlor houses and everyone from the mayor down knew she operated (she had an opening in a wall of the room she called the Music Room where she slipped the police their "take"), Norma lived a life of discretion in deference to her customers.  Her "tell-all" tapes left a lot out, and so over five years I interviewed people she'd mentioned, politicos from as far back as the fifties (she operated for over forty years), a former Chief of Police, and all the while trying to find men who had gone to the house who would talk and locating one of her girls.  I finally found both.  The "girl" was one of the most amazing women I've ever met, Rose Mary Miorana, who Norma called the worst hooker in the world but who was her life-long friend.  Rose Mary had a child with severe cerebral palsy whom she'd kept alive for over thirty years, and who was as charming as she was.  I shaped the story out of interviews with her and over 100 others to tell the story of a woman who was way ahead of her time--powerful, wealthy, and who married five times, each husband younger than the one before, until she met Wayne Bernard who was 39 years younger.

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