June 12, 2015New Orleans Historical Figures
When I first came across the name E. J. Bellocq, I was reading a book about New Orleans history, which casually skimmed over his name, as if the book itself was in the process of forgetting him. Having an interest in photography and women of this time, I was immediately intrigued and eager to learn more, so I fumbled over the pronunciation of his name a few times before looking up this semi-famous, fully illusory Storyville “director of photography” (as I like to call him). I was somewhat disappointed and intrigued to find, however, that his life is as much of a wonder to most historians today as he was to his neighbors when he was still alive. He appeared in few newspapers of the time, kept away from the public eye, and confided in only a few close friends. So who was this mysterious man? First, it’s important to talk about the era he is now famous for documenting: the loud, shimmering, and fantastically unpredictable, red-light district of New Orleans.
Storyville is better known today here in New Orleans as a local oriented T-shirt printer off Magazine Street. This name is a nod to New Orleans’ red-light district which glittered, swooned, and jazzed from 1897 until 1917. Named after Sidney Story, who sought to regulate prostitution, Storyville was the only legal red-light district in the United States. Patrons came from all over the country to the “unofficial American capital of vice” to see the sassy and beautiful ladies of New Orleans. Like so many of Storyville’s patrons, it’s said that jazz matured from adolescence into adulthood in the brothels and taverns that lined these streets. However, in 1918, the music ended and Storyville became history, even making international headlines. After the doors closed to the infamous red-light district and before the glitter could comfortably settle comfortably on the shelves, the site was scrubbed clean and cleared out for the Iberville Housing Project. Today, there are few material remains from this provocative industry still lingering. At least that’s what we believed until some dusty glass negative plates were dug up in the 1960’s.
Bellocq got his start in the French Quarter, where he was born to a privileged French Creole family. While his beginnings were hardly humble, he was frequently spotted darting around the quarter with his camera as an amateur photographer. He soon picked up work commercially. Between 1895 and 1940 he made his living documenting landmarks, statues, ships, and machinery for local companies, and the Louisiana State Museum. Not surprisingly, with his skill and eye for photography, he likely got bored with static objects and began searching for more challenging and rewarding subjects such as the opium dens in Chinatown. Once the largest in the Southern United States, New Orleans’ Chinatown disappeared in the mid-1900s and so did Bellocq’s photographs of the dealings that happened behind closed curtains there.
While Bellocq’s photos may have been lost there, his ventures into documentary photography didn’t end in Chinatown. His most famous work today is his once secret stash of negatives portraying the women of Storyville. Bellocq was a frequent visitor of the brothels on Basin Street, though not for reasons most would suspect. He was an artist, and perhaps one of the only ones ever allowed to take pictures inside these institutions. Bellocq gives us a rare glimpse into these fascinating ladies of history, and the intimate spaces they occupied. His photos show women of varying figures, styles of dress, and levels of comfort. I highly encourage you to spend the time looking through all his beautiful portraits.
You’ll notice as you look through his portraits that the faces have been violently scratched away from some of the nude images. There are many speculations as to why so many of these exist. Some suspect it was Bellocq’s own brother, a Jesuit priest, “defaced” these portraits when he found the stash among his deceased brother’s possessions. While the reason behind the intentional damage is uncertain, one thing is nearly for sure: the images were damaged in the emulsion process, leading many to believe Bellocq, himself, is the one responsible.
Bellocq’s been called a lot of things: a visionary, an artist, a dandy; and also some not so nice things: eccentric, senile, crazy. Many people, reporting on his life today, describe him as insane, hunched back, grotesque, dwarfish, and even hydrocephalic. I personally don’t believe these reports. Introvert artists are habitually pigeonholed and typecast into characterizations such as these due to wives tales, speculation, and sometimes jealousy. I do believe Bellocq may have been a little eccentric, as many artists, like myself, are. However, I also believe he had close relationships with many of the girls he photographed. Women in these photographs look comfortable, playful even. Many don masks and flirty poses, showing how comfortable they are with his presence. These women could’ve easily been his friends and confidants, as they were likely sociable, friendly and charismatic due to their profession. If the stories of his antisocial and neurotic behavior have any glimmer of truth, the ladies’ charisma and people skills would’ve put him effortlessly at ease. He likely felt comfortable in their presence, and felt a sense of responsibility to protect these women’s identity to some degree, and so censored their faces. Or perhaps some of the girls demanded this concession before allowing Storyville’s only “director of photography” access. Some believe he scratched out the faces out of some extreme neurotic fetishism, in an attempt to depersonalize the image. I don’t quite believe this either. As frequently as he visited the brothels, there’s never been a report of him doing anything but taking pictures, and there’s never been any record or evidence of him selling these images for profit in “blue books”.
Rumors of Bellocq’s odd demeanor increased near the end of his life and after his death. It’s said that he became more and more eccentric and unfriendly. Only his closest friends knew of these illicit photos in his possession. One of his doctors pondered his senility not long before his death. Many report, that in the final years of his life, he showed interest in nothing but photography, and spent his days drifting in and out of camera stores, and sometimes even falling asleep in them, which lent credence to his doctors’ claims and concerns.
Bellocq was born, raised and died here in New Orleans, and in 1949 he was buried in Saint Louis Cemetery No. 3. Stories say that Bellocq stashed the memories of the women of Storyville under his couch and were later discovered by his brother. Hurricane Betsy destroyed most of these negatives in 1965. A few years later, however, another photographer by the name of Lee Friedlander acquired the negatives, some say from a junk shop, and gave a new life to Bellocq’s photography. In 1970 Bellocq’s photos were printed and hung in the Museum of Modern Art in New York and conjointly published in Storyville Portraits. In 1996 he was also published in Bellocq: Photographs from Storyville, once again breathing new life into his well-deserving work.
Since his posthumous fame, Bellocq’s hand-printed commercial and professional studio prints, have begun to resurface. While there are no Storyville prints by the photographer himself, this work, in particular, is what gives life to his name in and outside of New Orleans today. He is the namesake for Louisiana Tech University’s E. J. Bellocq Gallery of Photography, and is the subject of many books and films. Perhaps most notably, he lives on in the controversial box office movie: Pretty Baby (1978), starring a young Brooke Shields, Susan Sarandon, and Keith Carradine as Bellocq.
Here in New Orleans, we still have a speakeasy where at any moment you feel Bellocq could materialize. I imagine voices would dull to a purr as people watched him shuffle in to sit in the corner to nurse a drink and fumble awkwardly with a camera. On the skirt of Lee Circle there is a bar that dons his name, plush with velvet armchairs, soft curtains, and candles at every table. When I was there, on a Thursday night, it was an intimate tête-à-tête with the expert mixologist barkeep, who really helped set the atmosphere for my friend and me. In allegiance with the age, I ordered a Sazerac (a New Orleans invention I’ve always resented, but for the first time ever: thoroughly enjoyed) and the colonial punch of the day, handcrafted by our bartender, Matt. He combined cognac, and two kinds of rum, cinnamon, apricots and citrus for a punch that was reminiscent of this epoch of New Orleans history, and, perhaps more importantly, delicious to drink. He was eager to explain the drinks and their historical origins, show us a book about Bellocq, and swap cocktail recipes. While enjoying my drink, and surveying the elegance of the room, but was surprised when I noticed on the ceiling in the corner what looked like an ugly water stain from a distance, which seemed like a horrible oversight in the otherwise posh bar. However, when you get a closer look (which is exactly what our bartender Matt recommended), you’re struck with a sense of surprise. Here, I’ll admit, I’m a bit cruel. I won’t tell you what’s up there. I want to encourage everyone to check out this truly enchanting lounge for yourselves, sazerac in hand, and enjoy the whimsy of being transported back to a time of booze, illicit activity, and free flowing entertainment. Perhaps you can pay it a visit this July 6th, to celebrate (because here in New Orleans we’ll look for any excuse to do so) the start of Storyville, way back in 1987.
I’ve always had a sincere interest in how people of past generations lived, looked, and conducted themselves, especially when it came to the stories they weren’t allowed to tell us in history class. While Bellocq’s lovely ladies may not be history book approved, I think it’s a fascinating glimpse into this neglected and quickly forgotten time in New Orleans’ past. These portraits give us a cursory glimpse into the life of women that live behind curtains, veiled in mystery and sensuality. His pictures are touchstones, records of the time, and perhaps some of the only pictures inside this elusive and enigmatic industry.
June 10, 2015New Orleans Cultural History
Throughout history, New Orleanians have been known for finagling our way around the rules when they’re obstructing our endgame. In fact, “bending the rules” might be an understatement, especially in reference to our early founders and politicians. In Louisiana, in addition to being rule breakers, we love a good story. Needless to say, stories of the arrival of Jewish immigrants to the Louisiana colony range from the fantastic and comical to the ordinary and severe. Being a native, I too love a good anecdote and want to cover a few of these stories I came across before covering what, I believe, is the most credible origin story of Jewish immigrants in Louisiana.
My favorite story about the first arrival of a Jewish immigrants in New Orleans is one I came across in A Beautiful Crescent. While I believe it fictitious, it’s my favorite story because it epitomizes what I think was the spirit of early settlers. I imagine them as rebels and rule breakers that were haughty, genial, and had a sly sense of humor. The authors of this book believe a Jamaican Jew by the name of David Dias Arias was the first to arrive in the colony. In 1759 he came to our New Orleans port on his ship, Le Texel, carrying desperately needed food (such as flour), ammunition, and trade goods, but was quickly denied docking by Vincent de Rochemore. When our governor, Louis Belcourt, Chevalier de Kerlerec, heard the low prices being offered on these much-needed goods in the colony, he demanded Rochemore let the ship dock. Subsequent to this, and his many other transgressions against France, Kerlerec was expelled home and spent some time imprisoned in the Bastille. Though I love this story, I do not believe Kerlerec can be awarded credit for granting the first Jewish citizen entry to New Orleans.
Before continuing, it would be helpful to note the political climate at this time. Code Noir, or “black code,” was enacted in 1724, and governed the treatment of African American slaves in the French-owned colony of Louisiana. Though still cruel, they were considered lenient when compared to other codes of conduct for slaves, especially when compared to the Jim Crowe laws of the 1880’s and forward. However, what was particularly odd about Code Noir, is that it also called for the expulsion of Jewish citizens in the colony, which, up until that point, had never even recorded the presence of a Jew.
Another story I enjoyed was from the Folklife of Louisiana website, which contrary to the rest of my findings, states the arrival of Jewish immigrants can be dated back to the early 1700’s. Their essay included interviews of Louisiana natives, some of which reflected putative tales, which were likely passed down from their ancestors. The story goes that there was an unidentified Jewish peddler whose horse died in one of the small towns of Louisiana. I like to presume here that he got a whiff of something delicious wafting out of a nearby window, stopped to ask for help and perhaps a bowl of homemade gumbo. Then, like so many of the “never left’s” here in New Orleans, made a home for himself amongst the good people and food he stumbled upon. However, in their recollection of this unnamed man, they merely say he just decided to stay after the death of his horse.
It’s difficult to identify when exactly the first Jewish settlers found themselves in the colony of Louisiana. Most publications have conflicting ideas about when exactly this happened, but most trace it back to 1757 with the arrival of another trader, of Dutch Sephardic heritage, named Isaac Rodrigues Monsanto. In usual French laissez-faire fashion, the government more or less ignored the legal transgression. Over the years, the Monsanto family enjoyed prosperity and power, and their Jewish heritage was widely ignored. However, when Louisiana was seceded to Spain “Bloody” O’Reily stripped the family of their possessions and power before expelling them from the Spanish territory. They reportedly fled to Pensacola (which was owned by the British at the time) until returning some years later. Unfortunately, they were not given back their property or political powers.
Fortunately, things took a turn for hopeful Jewish immigrants when Code Noir was dissolved following the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. The doors of New Orleans were officially opened to the many talented and savvy Jewish merchants and businessmen. Of the just over forty Jewish people living in New Orleans in the early 1800’s, one of the most prominent was Judah Touro, a philanthropist, and businessman. As a Rhode Island native, he had connections in New England that gave him the support he needed to conduct a lucrative trade business with Europe. Though he was personally somewhat ambivalent about his Jewish heritage, he left a significant impression that can still be seen in New Orleans today. His name likely rings a familiar bell for New Orleanians due to the well-known infirmary est. 1854 which dons his name, along with the first synagogue in New Orleans, an almshouse, and Jewish cemetery.
Touro Synagogue on St Charles Avenue
Another notable early Jewish inhabitant of Louisiana included Isaac Delgado, a philanthropist and businessman. Most know him as the namesake for our Community College, the land of which, was bequeathed by Delgado to the City of New Orleans. He also founded the New Orleans Museum of Art, which was formerly called the Isaac Delgado Museum.
A lot of the early settlers only hoped to “fit in” and not be met with resistance in New Orleans. Some of which were more successful than others. One urban legend, tells of a Jewish merchant so liked by his community that the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), which was notoriously antisemitic, approached him with membership, unknowing of his Jewish heritage. He respectfully declined. It is a great story, whether or not it’s true.
Despite their unwelcome presence in early colonization, Jewish citizens were eager to defend their new home. In the Battle of New Orleans, Judah Touro, as well as a handful of other Jewish citizens, fought alongside Andrew Jackson and other New Orleanians to victory. There was also a considerable Jewish presence in the Civil War, particularly on the side of the Confederates, as they were trying to defend their newly awarded political positions, power, and homeland.
Many Jews in the early colony found themselves somewhat disconnected with their religions due to the difficulties involved in practicing its traditions and customs, such as dietary restrictions. However, today you’ll find a much more prominent Jewish presence in the Greater New Orleans Area, including four synagogues, two community centers, and several Hebrew branches offering support and spiritual guidance. However, when it comes to kosher eating, many tourists find themselves hungry, which is best said by Dahliaadler of Yeahthat’skosher.com:
“New Orleans is a fantastic city for tourism; it’s fascinating, inexpensive, and has a culture unlike any other. However, walking the streets of the city as a Kosher Jew can be a challenge—New Orleans is a seriously food-centric city, and Cajun food is seriously treif.”
A quick trip to UrbanSpoon.com yielded a whopping… five results for Kosher options in New Orleans. So while life for our Jewish neighbors has legally seen dramatic changes in the last 300 years, there are still apparently struggles of a devout follower today. If you’re interested in learning more about Jewish life here in New Orleans, The Jewish Community Center (JCC) is a great resource for New Orleanians, but if you’re interested in hands-on opportunities to learn about Jewish heritage, you do have a few. In October there will the be 9th annual Jewish Film Festival. Additionally, JCC offers a Jewish book festival sporadically (the last one being in 2012).
There’s obviously a lot more to the history of the plight and successes of early Jewish settlers of New Orleans. These early settlers have come a long way from being ambivalent or even hiding their culture and religion, to what they are today. New Orleans ranks 66 in Jewish population by metro area in the world (for those that record ethnic/ religious backgrounds). This is great news when you consider that original awkward exchange between Kerlerec, Rochemore and Arias on the docks in 1759, or the 43 people that saw New Orleans to victory in the Battle of New Orleans. While there’s conflicting stories about when exactly the first Jewish settlers came here, as a New Orleanian I definitely enjoy a good story, and the history of Jewish colonization in New Orleans was definitely an intriguing one.
January 28, 2015New Orleans Cemetery Tours
Yesterday, the Archdiocese of New Orleans announced new rules regarding visiting St. Louis Cemetery #1 which are sure to make a lot of people unhappy. Starting March 1st, visitors to New Orleans will no longer be allowed to visit St. Louis Cemetery #1 without a tour guide. This means that you’ll no longer be able to simply walk into St. Louis Cemetery #1 to explore it on your own. You’ll have to join a New Orleans Cemetery Tour to see St. Louis Cemetery #1. While we understand why the Archdiocese has been forced to make some changes to the way St. Louis Cemetery #1 works, we don’t agree with the way they have chosen to do so.
The main reason that the Archdiocese has been forced to rewrite the rules for visiting St. Louis Cemetery #1 is vandalism. Nobody would even try to argue this point. There is a lot of vandalism inside of St. Louis Cemetery #1, much of it pretty unbelievable. Tombs and graves have been taken apart in an effort to show tourists the bodies that are inside, they have been marked and written on. There have even been instances of people removing parts of the tombs, such as bricks and markers, to take home as souvenirs. This behavior is absolutely unacceptable, and it is time for something to be done to stop it.
The Archdiocese of New Orleans is pledging to revamp the security efforts at St. Louis Cemetery #1 to eliminate vandalism within this historic cemetery. Tour Companies who take their guests into St. Louis Cemetery will now undergo a screening process. Each tour guide will need to be registered with the office at the Archdiocese. Every Tour company will also need to show proof of liability insurance. The new security efforts at St. Louis Cemetery #1 will include round the clock security and a guard at the gate to ensure that only registered tour companies can enter the Cemetery. At a meeting with representatives of the Archdiocese yesterday, we were also told that they plan on installing security cameras to help prevent trespassers at night, which is a big problem. However, all of these new security solutions come with a price, a price they are passing on to the tour companies who bring their guests into St. Louis Cemetery #1. Tour companies will be required to pay $4500 per year to bring our tour groups inside of the Cemetery. This is also the most controversial part of the new plan, aside from eliminating access to the Cemetery for people who are not on tours. It will essentially put a lot of smaller companies out of business, who cannot afford this new fee.
The most controversial aspect of the Archdiocese’s new plan is to not allow anyone to enter St. Louis Cemetery #1 without being accompanied by a tour guide. This essentially eliminates the opportunity to simply enter the Cemetery on your own and explore at your own leisure. And this is a shame. Myself, personally, I love going over to the Cemetery and taking my time to explore this historic Cemetery. Even I will no longer be allowed to do this. The backlash from the public has been pretty severe. At a meeting yesterday we were told by the Archdiocese representative that arrangements will be made to allow family members of those buried inside of St. Louis Cemetery #1 to visit their relatives, calming some of the backlash. However, no exceptions will be made for any tourist, which means that starting in March, if you want to see the sights of St. Louis Cemetery #1, you’ll need to join a tour group.
Here at Discover Historic America, we are exploring some options when it comes to our Cemetery Tours. We understand why the Archdiocese is doing what they’re doing, but we wish they would have asked for input from the tour companies and the public before making their decision. There are numerous other options for provided security for the Cemetery while maintaining flexibility. We know there are a lot of tourists who want to visit St. Louis Cemetery #1. So, in the next 30 days we will be looking at new ways to add tours at St. Louis Cemetery #1. We believe that you’ll appreciate the new options for touring St. Louis Cemetery #1 that we will announce once we have figured out all of the details.
The bottom line is, St. Louis Cemetery does deserve protection. The vandalism that takes place there is unacceptable and needs to be stopped in order to protect this historic landmark. Explore Historic New Orleans is happy to support the Archdiocese when it comes to protecting this historic landmark. It is unfortunate that you will not be allowed to enter St. Louis Cemetery #1 on your own anymore. While this may see us getting an increase in business, we would prefer that this didn’t happen.
We remain committed to showing you the real historic New Orleans on our tours. We will be exploring a few different options that will allow you to visit St. Louis Cemetery #1 in the most convenient manner possible. Added tour times, different tour options..we remain committed to working with you to show you the historical landmark which is St. Louis Cemetery #1.
December 20, 2014New Orleans Ghost Tours
Here at Explore Historic New Orleans we pride ourselves on providing the highest quality tours to visitors and locals alike, in New Orleans. Ghost Tours have never been our thing. As a matter of fact, we don’t offer ghost tours at all. Our guide staff prefers to spend out time with the strictly historic tours we offer, such as the St. Louis Cemetery Tour, or our Historic Cocktail Tour. That doesn’t mean we do not get a lot of people asking us for ghost tours. They are very popular in New Orleans. So, we decided to partner up with Ghost City Tours in order to offer ghost tours.
When we decided to partner with a Ghost Tour company in New Orleans we didn’t take the decision lightly. After all, there are quite a few ghost tour companies here. We only wanted to partner with the best haunted tour company. And we decided that was Ghost City Tours. While they are one of the newer companies in New Orleans, they have a long track record in cities such as Savannah Georgia, for provided the highest quality, and the most historically accurate tours. And this was very important to us. When we recommend someone to another company we are vouching for that company. We wouldn’t risk our reputation on any company that we didn’t truly believe has our guests’ best interests at heart.
One of the aspects we really love about Ghost City Tours is their dedication to the real history of the locations they visit on their tours. Trust us, if you take a ghost tour in New Orleans there is a very good chance you are going to listen to 2 hours of mostly fictional history. Some of the stories we have heard being told on ghost tours make us cringe.
Ghost City Tours really takes the time to ensure that the history behind the ghost stories they are telling is correct, even if that means leaving out some of the more gory stories and tales. We respect that a lot.
We look forward to working with Ghost City Tours in the future. We know that everyone we recommend to them will have a great time on this haunted New Orleans Tour.
December 18, 2014HIstoric Drinks of New Orleans
The beginning of the United States sugar industry started in New Orleans in 1795, but citizens of New Orleans were drinking its distilled nectar decades before the sugar rush began. Tafia, a low-quality rum using basic French methods, was drank with relish since sugarcane was first brought over from Saint-Domingue in the 1750s. Once new, frost-resistant varieties of sugarcane were introduced to Louisiana, along with the invention of the multiple-effect evaporator, sugar production exploded in the state like never before. The evaporator, invented by a Creole named Norbert Rillieux made sugar production incredibly efficient. So efficient in fact, that there was more sugar and rum than Louisiana knew what to do with. However, the real culprit in the growth of Louisiana sugar was the use of slaves, which were forced to work in appalling conditions that some scholars consider the worst in United States history.
Rum inevitably became the drink of choice for those who could not afford imported brandy, and it was drunk with gusto. Pirates and sailors, of whom there were plenty in the 1800s, found themselves at home in the dive bars they were offered, many of which were familiar with the drink from travels across the Caribbean. Once prohibition crept into the French Quarter, locals and visitors alike, including William Faulkner, bought rum snuck in from Cuba or elsewhere. Rum-runners would often take the rum and doctor it up to resemble all sorts of illegal spirits at the time, from Absinthe to gin. The results as you can imagine were not very palatable for the generations used to quality bourbons and cognacs.
Today many of New Orleans signature cocktails are made using rum. The most famous cocktail, the daiquiri, was imported from Cuba where it found little difficulty finding its way onto every cocktail menu in the city. The original, as opposed the sugar-forward slushy found on Bourbon Street, is simply rum, lime and sugar. Ernest Hemingway, a connoisseur of all things containing alcohol, skipped on the sugar, but doubled the rum and dropped a little maraschino liquor in for good measure. Stop in at Tiki Tolteca on Decatur Street to give one a try, as well as dozens of others rum-based concoctions that bring a little island life to the Isle of Orleans.
On our Historic Cocktail Tour, we spend part of the tour discussing New Orleans’ famous cocktails that are made with rum. The Historic Cocktail Tour is an incredibly interesting, and fun way to explore the history of the cocktail, and rum, in New Orleans.