City of dangerous dreams, city of darkness, city of dirty money and dirty deeds – New Orleans needs a rainy downpour from time to time just to wash away her sins into the filthy, muddy mouth of the Mississippi. Below her blouse or bloomers, passed pretty pantalets, and around the clasp of a garter belt, New Orleans is a seductress. Pale, raw oysters, euphoric spices of potent cuisine, and a nightly buffet of debauchery on a street called Bourbon are only small morsels nibbled from betwixt the heaving bosom of New Orleans’ naughty history.
Tucked away in a selective part of the Old Town, there once stood a district where fantasies came to play. The laws were lax, and the lewdest acts were acceptable. Lusty and lascivious, in the District – also known as Storyville (1898 to 1917) which was named after Alderman Sydney Story, a distinguished citizen who proposed the area’s ordinance for legal prostitution – brothels became the mighty reign. Scarlet lanterns that hung on hovel doorways created a red-light district, offering a variety of entertainment, narcotics, and ladies of pleasure at the tip of Vieux Carré.
While Texas had its Chicken Ranch and Chicago had its Everleigh Club, New Orleans had Storyville with numerous houses of ill repute along Basin Street. The hush-hush, narrow dens of speakeasies, the low-down dives of gambling joints lining Rampart, and the dime-a-trick cribs in the slums of old Storyville invited deviates and rogues to enter with discretion. The more upscale bordellos were complete with lavish tapestries, gilded mirrors, oil paintings, fine wines, painted and perfumed ladies, and piano players playing newly-invented ragtime while the madams served a menu of caviar, lobster, and bonbons.
Ill-gotten gains flourished from these “sporting palaces” and Storyville parlours. But between each dank bordello and dark alleyway was a haven for drug addicts and alcoholics, offering inspiration for artists such as William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams whose literature expressed the hopelessness of an atmosphere doomed to pervasive vices. These decadences of New Orleans, ample in activity and fortified by lawful influence, fell from grace after a short-lived life of debauchery, but during its brief reign, Storyville was known as a wicked kingdom.
As in these brothels of the District, the world’s oldest profession has, through the centuries, satisfied the human appetite for pleasure and entertainment in more than just one manner. Madams employed musicians in New Orleans to play for tips while the working girls enticed their gentlemen callers, and soon the early age of jazz was born through ragged and syncopated music that now defines the Crescent City. Meanwhile, an Argentinean dance called the Tango was being invented by prostitutes and their suitors in balmy Buenos Aires, poets and authors penned works based on their experiences in brothels such as Thomas Hardy’s “The Ruined Maid,” and the French were busy kicking up skirts burlesque-style on the stage of Moulin Rouge where the can-can was captured in the artwork of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. These inventive, innovated inspirations of culture have helped mold the voluptuous body of modern music, dance, literature and art.
Through the incredible jumble of cheap dance halls, brothels, saloons, opium dens and gambling houses, masterpieces have been made such as E.J. Bellocq’s Storyville, Picasso’s Demoiselle’s of Avignon, Manet’s Nana, and Goya’s Majas. In each photograph or painting, the artist and the subject rendezvous in the shadows of unorthodox anti-society, creating the significant beauty of a cultural pillar which would otherwise be lost to the modern world. Although the District did not survive, the legend and lascivious nature of Storyville still flourishes through the sweet seductress of streetlife in New Orleans.