Storyville, New Orleans: Being an Authentic, Illustrated Account of the Notorious Red-Light District
| Al Rose | 1974 | 225 pages
While posting E. J. Bellocq's photographs of Storyville prostitutes
in my Learning to See thread,
I read Al Rose's seminal (and fairly definitive) history of the notorious semi-legal New Orleans
red-light district. Arguably the best known vice district in the US, a rather romantic mythology
has developed around Storyville, painting it as a place of joyful decadence, the birthplace of
jazz, a place more winkingly naughty than seedy. It has been depicted on film several times,
most famously in New Orleans
and Louis Malle's Pretty Baby
(which I intend to rewatch
soon for this thread), and it has been immortalized (and often sanitized) in songs like
Basin Street Blues
(performed here by Louis Armstrong, who grew up around the District when
it was active). This nostalgic vision of Storyville had already set in by the early 70s, when Al
Rose began working on this book, and it still persists in New Orleans today, where you'll hear
about it on tours or see Bellocq's photographs reprinted in advertisements for burlesque shows.
That makes this work that much more vital, because not only is it a comprehensive and carefully
researched history of Storyville, it also thoroughly analyzes and deconstructs the mythology that
was building up around it. For one, it totally discredits the notion that jazz was "born" in the
District. Notable jazz musicians played in Storyville, and Rose dedicates a chapter to them, talking
about bandleaders like Kid Ory and King Oliver (both of whom played with and mentored Louis
Armstrong and other jazz greats), and giving particular attention Jelly Roll Morton and Tony Jackson,
pianists who often played in the actual brothels (by far the most lucrative option for a musician).
But Rose makes it clear that jazz had already existed in some form for nearly a decade before the
zoning of Storyville - largely at bandstands, festivals, and second line parades. He also punctures
the rosily romantic haze that enshrouds the District, pointing out the harsh realities of human
trafficking, child grooming, exploitative pimps and madames, and hucksters peddling bogus VD cures.
However, he goes to great lengths to demonstrate that Storyville was perhaps the most efficient
solution New Orleans ever found in its perennial struggle to control vice. He points out the abundance
of hypocrisy around the District: Uptown landlords sneering at prostitution while owning real estate in
what rapidly became the most profitable part of town; publications like The Mascot
, meant to
condemn vice but positively reveling in all the sordid details of it; the audacity of the Navy's federal
overreach that got the District shut down, an act which promptly redistributed vice throughout the
rest of the city. He demonstrates how the legal control of prostitution and related vice was far more
effective than simply outlawing it - a phenomenon repeated during Prohibition and the War on Drugs.
As Mayor Behrman said when Storyville closed: "You can make it illegal, but you can't make it unpopular."
In addition to these major throughlines and arguments, Rose manages to curate an incredible wealth
of details. This includes tons of illustrations - Bellocq photographs, maps of the District, reprints of
contemporary publications, excerpts from the Blue Books (local publications advertising the District's
attractions), other Storyville ephemera - and appendices packed with newspaper clippings and
legal arguments. He has profiles on major players in the District, like madames Josie Arlington and
Lulu White, and the brothel and saloon owner Tom Anderson, often referred to as the Mayor of
Storyville, who also served on the state legislature. The book is chock full of anecdotes about these
various characters that range from the amusing to the grotesque, but they are always illuminating.
But the book's most unique contribution is found in the interviews Al Rose conducted with former
inhabitants of Storyville, transcripts of seven interviews with prostitutes, madames, pimps, and
johns who shared their memories of Storyville. These interviews are an invaluable act of scholarship
that can't be replicated since anyone who frequented the District is now dead, but beyond that,
they are absolutely riveting: distinctive voices that tell in very frank and candid detail what they
experienced in Storyville, voices utterly free of judgment because they lived those very lives,
discussing child prostitution and profit margins in the same breath and with the same candor.