The Ladies of Storyville

003

Fo’ plain fuckin’ on a weekday night twenny-fi’ cen’ ten cen’ in d’ daytime fify cen for suckin off an sevenny-fi cen fo lettin’ d’ prick come in our ass

(Brooke Bergan, Storyville: A Hidden Mirror)

The Swamp was aptly named.

Poorly drained, and stinking still, it was little more than an accumulation of shabby wooden hovels, clustered together for just one purpose, to cater to the needs of the rivermen and sailors who were washed with every tide into the city’s streets, and who in turn needed to wash the cares of their livelihoods away.

Brothels and bars, taverns and flophouses, gambling dens and boxing rings, if there was a law against something, it was a virtue in the Swamp, and we must pause here and wonder why it is that the pastimes that people seem to find the most pleasurable are the ones that the authorities crack down on the hardest.

You want to pay (or be paid) for sex, while flushing your earnings away on a bet, and filling your bladder with the cheapest crap imaginable?  Go right ahead.  Seriously, doesn’t government have far more pressing things to worry about than what you do with your spare time and money?

Apparently not; but the Swamp seems to have slithered beneath its attention.  The act of actually selling sex for money was not considered a crime in early America; it was the activities that went hand-in-hand with the exchange, the lewdness, the violence, the harassment, the sheer disruption to “respectable” life in general, that aroused the law’s ire.

At the same time, though, the Swamp developed such a lawless reputation that it is said, and probably not without some accuracy, that the authorities were simply too scared to go in there because they knew they wouldn’t come out again.  According to some estimates, for one twenty-year moment around the end of the 18th century, there was at least one murder every day in the Swamp, and there probably wasn’t more than a handful of arrests because, seriously, the police never set foot in there.

Other cities had their equivalent neighborhoods—watch Gangs Of New York or read some Charles Dickens, and you’ll get a glimpse into the kind of lives that were lived out in the Swamp, transferred to New York and London.

You want to run a brothel or a gambling den?  Throw up a few boards at the back of the room to act as makeshift cubicles.  Screen off the entrance to allow a little privacy.  Done.

You want to run an hotel?  Find yourself a shack with an attic, lay out some blankets and a mattress or two.  Done.

You want to open a bar?  Take a plank and two barrels, one at each end, and make sure you’ve got enough cheap hooch on hand to stop anybody leaving until you have to throw them out.  With the emphasis on cheap.  According to Herbert Asbury, you could get drunk, laid and a good night’s sleep for as little as six cents in the Swamp—or, about half of the cost of the bucket you just threw up in.

The Swamp flourished for as long as it needed to, and a lot of people lived and died there, including many who had no business doing either.  But that creeping malaise which we now call progress always finds a way in the end, and by the 1830s-or so, a new region had arisen to spearhead the city’s tastes in debauchery, Gallatin Street in the old French Quarter.

A short alley that ran from the French Market to the Mint, between North Peters and Decatur Streets, Gallatin Street was lost to redevelopment during the 1930s, a century after its high water mark.  At its peak, however, it was said that you could find anything you wanted in one of its shacks, including whores of every color and country, and every persuasion as well. It was not a place for the faint of heart.

No matter.  By 1850, New Orleans was more or less the vice capital of America, the Babylon of the South, with the vice trade running second only to the port as the most profitable business in town.  It may or may not be true that, in certain parts of the city, three-fifths of the homes were operating as brothels, but one thing is for certain.  By the mid-1880s, travelers were coming from miles away to sample the New Orleans nightlife and, in 1884, they were going to start arriving from even further afield.

012Gallatin Street had spread far beyond its original confines by now, to envelop ever greater swathes of the city.  Which was when New Orleans was selected to host the 1884 World’s Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition, a gathering of the great producers from all over the American south and beyond.

The Expo was organized, initially, to celebrate the centennial anniversary of the first shipment of cotton from the United States to England, and exhibitors from Mexico, Honduras, Jamaica, British Honduras, Venezuela, Brazil, and Guatemala were all on hand.   However, the event quickly took on a secondary purpose, to broadcast the city’s commercial revitalization following the end of the Reconstruction era, which really should have called for everyone to be on his or her best behavior.

Instead, this is what the city’s illustrious guests were forced to witness, as they stepped out of the exhibition grounds.  Quoted in the 1938 edition of the New Orleans City Guide, an outraged observer tells us:

Brilliantly lighted by a new electric flare system, the street is thronged with men of all classes, who enter or emerge from its many saloons and gambling houses, which throb with the raucous sounds of pleasure-bent men and women. Timid crowds of men stand upon the curbstone to catch a glimpse of female limbs draped in gauze of pink and blue . . . 

Arrayed in scant garments, but gorgeous in combinations of color, are young and middle-aged; youthful and fresh, together with wearied and worn, whited sepulchers; watching among the throng which enters, those whom their judgment dictates have money to spend or throw away upon them in remuneration for a display of their utter unconsciousness of virtue.

Can you even begin to imagine the self-righteous huffing and puffing that would be aroused were such a report to be published today?  Maybe not. But you can certainly picture the red-faced city fathers gathering in grim consultation, to create the most half-assed legislation they could, beneath the now time-honored, and so supremely useless motto of… 

“something must be done.”  

“Well, this is something.  Let’s do it.”

The authorities didn’t think in those terms back then.  Or, rather, some of them did.  But others were genuinely devoted to making things better for their constituents, and making things work not by throwing money or a think tank full of consultants at them, but by actually addressing the problem at its source.  And the problem was—what to do with all the whores?

Easy.

Twenty blocks of prime city real estate, just a little northwest of the French Quarter, were turned over to New Orleans’ sex-for-hire trade, framed by the south side of Customhouse Street, from Basin to Robertson Streets, the east side of Robertson Street from Customhouse to St. Louis Streets, and the south side of St. Louis from Robertson to Basin.

The cautiously worded provisions of City Ordinance 13,032 protected the rest of the city from the temptations and evils (and declining property values) of vice by consolidating every imaginable sin into this one single area.  Step out of the bounds of Storyville and the full weight of the law would come down upon anybody even vaguely suspected of plying a trade in prostitution.  But within, anything and everything was apparently permissible.

Storyville took its name from Alderman Sidney Story, for it was he who pushed through the ordinance in 1897—that is, thirteen years after the Expo, by which time matters had only grown worse.

At first, the area he delineated was known as nothing more fancy than the District, but local wags and satirists were quick to name it for its creator and, though poor Sidney would remain mortified for the remainder of his life by his claim to immortality, he was immortal all the same.

At one point, Storyville was estimated to be worth a million dollars a month to the whores and madams, sportsmen and gamblers, businessmen and barkeeps, and all the other thousands of trades that flourished beneath its red lights, and while we have few concrete records of the names of the people who lived in the district, we do have their faces.  Some of them, anyway.

Compared to either the Swamp or Gallatin Street, Storyville has adopted a luminescence that completely outstrips its sordid reality.  It looms large, for example, in any discussion of American music; it was, after all, the birthplace of jazz.

Here it was that the first musicians came together to play what would become that most quintessential of American musical forms, as a permanent soundtrack to the bars and bordellos; here it was that successive future generations, the young Satchmo (a coal delivery boy) included, either descended or were raised, to learn the music firsthand but, more importantly, to absorb the culture.

For jazz, no matter how cosmopolitan it may quickly have become, was as indigenous to Storyville as any of the sounds being strummed in the swamps beyond, just as Storyville itself was unique to New Orleans.

Perhaps that is what attracted Ernest James Bellocq to its side, just as Bellocq today has attracted so many other artists to his name.  The movies Pretty Baby, with Keith Carradine as the photographer.  Englishman Peter Everett’s novel Bellocq’s Women. And two slim volumes of poetry by Natasha Trethewey, Bellocq’s Ophelia; and Storyville: A Hidden Mirror by Brooke Bergan. Both evoke an age for which we can only wax nostalgic, both find a beauty in a life we’re encouraged to be disgusted by; both find romanticism in the work of this funny little man.

Or, as writer Janet Malcolm put it,

Bellocq’s mysterious photographs pass the test of good attitude so triumphantly that they seem anachronistic.

Born in 1873, John Joseph (or possibly Joseph John) Ernest Bellocq hailed from a wealthy background.  His father Paul was a bookkeeper at a wholesale company and rose to become Treasurer; his mother Marie was the daughter of a wealthy French merchant.  A nurse named Lucille was in attendance on Ernest and his brother Leo, and the boys were schooled at the College of the Immaculate Conception.

0019Out of school,  Bellocq worked briefly alongside his father at the whole-salers, but his heart was in photography.  By the turn of the century, he had already established something of a name for himself as a commercial photographer.

He drew his clientele primarily from the many shipping companies that were based in town.

Ships and machinery were his specialty and, once a year, the same flurry of Mardi Gras carnival floats and scenes that occupied every other local photographer of the day.  It seems to have been a profitable operation, but scarcely one that would mark him out as anything other than a jobbing photographer.

Nevertheless, by 1902 (the year his mother died) he had branched out on his own, and was soon working out of his own studio on Canal Street. Later, he set up another at his home at 840 Conti.  And around 1912, now firmly in the thrall of his late 30s, Bellocq started taking the photographs for which he is cherished and remembered today.

Touring Storyville with his camera, he began photographing the girls who worked there.  There could be, and probably were, any number of reasons why he did this.

It has been suggested that it was a commercial assignment, the girls themselves hiring a profess-ional photographer to take their picture so that it might be used to further their career—a keepsake for a favorite customer, an advertisement for their services, or even a job application.

As in every other walk of life, there was a distinct social hierarchy that existed among the brothels, from the lowest of the low, that catered to the rough ends of a port town’s populace, to the high class cat houses where the politicians and businessmen turned out.  The notorious Blue Book is our most reliable guide to the trades being plied.

Published annually from 1902 (earlier titles, the Red Book and, before that, the Green Book, dated back to 1895), the Blue Book set itself up as a directory of every brothel in Storyville, a forty-to-fifty page blue paper booklet that sold for a quarter around the saloons, hotels, railroad stations and steamboat landings.

It was not wholly concerned with prostitution.  Cabarets, saloons,  cigar stores, restaurants, liquor stores and, perhaps appropriately lawyers all advertised between its covers.  But it was the last few pages that many men turned to, where the brothel owners and madams made their pitches.

Who could resist their call?

“wine and beer house full of jolly and pretty ladies.”

“Able to entertain the most fastidious of mankind”

“Any person out for fun among a host of pretty Creole damsels, here is the place to have it”

“An array of beautiful women and good times reign supreme”

Few of the girls at these establishments could have been content remaining at the lowest scale.

A photograph (and a few enthusiastically declared letters of reference) might well have helped them begin climbing up the scale.

One of Natasha Trethaway’s beautiful stanzas begins, and ends thus:

There are indeed all sorts of men who visit here…

…And then there are those, of course, whose desires I cannot commit to paper.

The recommendations of one of those customers would have gone a long way in the annals of the trade.

Chrissie Bentley, in one of several short stories she has written around Storyville, is more explicit:

We made the deal in darkness, but I could tell from the weight of the coins in my hand precisely what he was paying for.  

Kneeling, I lowered his trousers with a single tug and took him into my mouth.  He tasted of sweat but the whisky I’d buy with the money he paid me would soon wash it away, and I closed my mind to it.  He was a sailor, or someone who worked at sea anyway, the salt on his clothes and the brine on his flesh told me he’d not been on dry land for very long, and who knew how soon he’d be whisked away again?  I made up my mind to give him his full three bits worth; and when he came and I’d wiped my fist with a hanky, the kiss he gave me bled gratitude into my mouth.

I smiled, though I normally avoided such niceties, and turned back to Rampart Street.  The night was still young and I reckoned on making at least five dollars before I turned back for home.

Perhaps Bellocq was fascinated by what polite society of the day might have termed “low-life” – he also photographed New Orleans’ Chinatown, its buildings, its denizens and its secrets, the opium dens that lured many a gentleman into a life of dissolution.

001At the same time, though, Storyville was “his” neighborhood, the place where he lived and worked.  Maybe he recorded it for his own satisfaction, capturing the faces that he saw every day as he and they went about their business.

Or perhaps Bellocq simply enjoyed photographing the girls.  He would not have been alone in that, after all; among the many artistic treasures produced in 20th century France, there exists a cache of erotic photographs created by a gentleman whom posterity has named Monsieur X.

According to French writer Alexandre Dupuoy, who cataloged the collection following its sale to a Parisian bookseller in the mid-1970s, Mr X pursued his photographic interests exclusively in the Parisian brothels, where the girls would be paid their usual going rate simply to pose for his camera.

Occasionally, Mr X would be accompanied by a male friend, but neither man took part in the action that followed.  The girls—whose names were frequently noted on the back of the photographs… FanFan, Gypsi, Nénette, Suzy and so on—were the sum of Mr X’s interest,

…nude or scantily clad, in either academic or very licentious poses.  There are no men…

No men, that is, beyond the odd occasion when Mr X’s companion strayed into camera shot, or once, when the photographer himself is caught in a mirror’s reflection.

His subjects appreciated his visits.  Listen to what one of the girls wrote in her diary:

What’s nice is that with Mr X, we never have to do any of the oddish stuff we sometimes have to do with some of the others. All he wants is to take pictures of us.  Marie, FanFan and I think maybe he’s impotent, and it makes us laugh, but never in a mean way.

We do not know the names of Bellocq’s subjects.  One, we assume from a card pinned to her wall in one of the photographs, was called Marguerite; another, according to one of his fellow photographers, was Adele.  But still, maybe Bellocq was the same as Mr X, taking a satisfaction that we simply cannot imagine (or we can, but are too polite to speak it aloud) from watching the girls as they arranged themselves, clicking his shutter while they watched the birdie, and then developing his handiwork once he got back to his home.

Maybe.

In the years following his eventual emergence into the modern consciousness, all manner of wild rumors flew about the nature of this mysterious man, that he was a hunchback or a dwarf, disfigured by hydrocephaly, warped and twisted by disease.

But the few photographs that capture his early adulthood show a man who was really quite handsome, well-dressed and smartly groomed, fashionably bejeweled, prone to wearing red scarves.  A bit of a dandy, in fact.  If he was hiding any sickness, he hid it well.

Whatever the man’s intentions, however, he created a storehouse of imagery that remains one of the most captivating of its age, as Susan Sontag reflected following photographer/artist Lee Friedlander’s rediscovery of Bellocq’s raison d’etre in a New Orleans junk shop in 1966.

The pictures are unforgettable—photography’s ultimate standard of value.  And it’s not hard to see why the trove of glass negatives by a hitherto unknown photographer working in New Orleans in the early years of this century became one of the most admired recoveries in photography’s widening, ever incomplete history.

Bellocq’s photographs remain the visual, visceral and in many ways enigmatic accompaniment to any exploration of Storyville.  The beauty of his subjects is both physical and spiritual and, although many of the photographs could clearly be described as erotic, it is so much easier to imagine many of the women, both the young and the older ones, simply posing for the joy of doing so, than with any of the predatory (or otherwise) intent with which prostitutes are traditionally displayed.

For all that, Bellocq only rarely, if ever, incorporated artfulness into his art.  In later years, his photo-graphs would be compared to the exquisite nymphs of Alfred Cheney Johnston, masterful chronicler of the Ziegfeld girls, and to Andre de Diennes, whose camera we can safely say was the young Marilyn Monroe’s first true lover.

But Bellocq had no lushly appointed studio decked with glamorous props and backdrops. His corroded beauties were photographed in situ, as if the reality of their surroundings might somehow mitigate the reality of their profession.

The world seeps around each plate’s edge, dark turned back by the wavering breath of the light you saw – quadroon, shadow, stocking and skin layered over like emulsion on glass: her vision of herself, yours of hers, the printmaker’s of yours, mine of his – light’s archeology. 

(Brooke Bergan)

Here, in her Sunday best finery, a woman glowers against a plain black backdrop while the laundry hangs on a line to her left.  There, a girl, naked bar her black face mask and leggings, reclines on a divan whose look of dirty dilapidation cannot be accounted for merely by the damage that the years have caused to the original plate.

A room hung with pendants could be any room in any city.  The flowered wallpaper could be any wall, anywhere.

A tousle-haired beauty smiles and exhibits her puppy, another scratches a butterfly into the wall plaster of her room, a third smiles from beneath a mass of curls, perched naked on the windowsill of a crib, one of the tiny rooms that rented by the hour to couples who would be requiring more time than that.

021We quickly begin to recognize Bellocq’s favorite sets, the functional white dresser, and matching wooden chair; the flowered rug; the ratty tat of a functional home in a century old working class neighborhood.  Inside and out, the walls appear stained, the brickwork chipped, the paint in need of another coat.  Johnston traded in dreams, styling his subjects for fantasy and finesse.  Bellocq took them as they were, and they are all the more lovely for that.

He had no time for “the line of beauty,” that semi-mythical technique that was taught in art and design schools of the age, the compositional tyranny of smooth curves like waves. Bellocq’s girls pose awkwardly; some not even naturally.

Straight legs, straight arms, rigid forms.  Even those who attempt a movie star pose do so with the self-conscious gracelessness of the untutored.  Faces that a Johnston or de Diennes would have swept with gentle cosmetics and softly lit gauze look hard and unsmiling, as though the camera posed a greater unknown than any of them men they regularly entertained.

Natasha Trethewey captures the stance.

Here, I am to look casual, even frowsy, though still queen of my boudoir. 

A moment caught as if by accident.

There was no sense of occasion.  One girl poses in her fanciest hat and coat while a companion slumbers on the bottom deck of a bunk bed, and it is only after a few moment’s study that one realizes the scene is in a hospital, one woman visiting a sickly friend.

The photographs captivate by their very ordinariness. There are peculiarities to note, of course, but again they require study – the photographer’s  apparent obsession with, or at least fascination with the fittings of privacy.  The couches pushed against the door, an electrical cord tied around a door handle…

His deliberate incorporation of such random, and utterly out of place items as the sawhorses that are press-ganged into a makeshift table, but whose legs are clearly visible in one picture.

The lockets that recur in photograph after photograph, until they become all but a mantra, a talisman to be tightly clasped to the soul.

The scraps of daily life that adorn every room; the pictures and trinkets and there, on a wall behind one reclining lady, a collection of cards whose messages are themselves eloquent in their mundanity:

“Oh bébé please come” 

“Oh dearie I give U much pleasure” 

“Dearie you ask for Marguerite.”

And his insistence that the girls he photographed should likewise appear… one hesitates to say “equally ordinary.” But they do dazzle in their eschewing of any conventional glamor or glitz, so much so that when one does “strike a pose,” the image lingers long after the eye has moved on – the lady who adopts a careless stance with a glass of Raleigh Rye, while her vertically-striped tights disappear beneath a loosely draped shawl.

Some of the girls pose naked, some could be off to church.

Some smile coquettishly, some look positively pained.

Some are beautiful, some are staggeringly so.  Some look merely wretched.

Others could still do a girlie magazine proud.

One, shocking in its opposition to the everyday normalcy of the others, sports a black-eye, the outcome of a fight?  Or the handiwork of a client?

Someone, writes Brooke Bergan,

Someone she has nearly forgotten gave her pearls, dark as silver or tears, and a gold bracelet cool as a caress, and sadness like a bruise around her eyes

And others, in the words of Natasha Trethaway, seem absolutely preoccupied.

When I see this plate I try to recall what I was thinking— 

how not to be exposed, though naked, how
to wear skin like a garment, seamless. 

One girl bares her body, but hides her face beneath a trailing striped fabric that predicts the drapes that helped make Johnston’s name, but the eeriest presentiment of all is the work of the unknown hand who so violently obliterated the fragile emulsion faces in so many of the negatives, for reasons that we can only guess at.

Some suggest that the damage was perpetrated posthumously, following Bellocq’s death; that a God-fearing relative, possibly his staunchly Jesuit brother Leo, made an attempt to at least render the photographer’s subjects unrecognizable.

But why only some, and why only their faces, when breasts and pubic hair remained untouched?  Why, in one photograph, does one girl, seated on the floor, still smile out at the camera, while beside her in a rocking chair, her companion’s head has been reduced to a mess of scribbles?

Why is another woman photographed, and left untouched, when she is clothed, only to have her head scratched away when she stands naked?

0004As feasible as any zealous Jesuit, and maybe even more so, is the possibility that Bellocq himself committed the vandalism, perhaps as girls left the brothels and moved to new lives and careers, or perhaps even, simply, because he disliked the photograph.  Many of the scratchings were perpetrated while the emulsion was still wet,meaning it was done immediately after the plates were developed in the first place.

But the result catches the eye for reasons beyond the effects of the destruction; catches an effect that Johnston prized and worked so hard to perfect as he posed his own nude portraits to preserve the lady’s anonymity by allowing hair to cascade over their features, hiding their face while revealing their charms.  Bellocq’s blemishes often effects a similar mystery, with equal allure.

Indeed, there are occasions when the destruction looks like hair, as though Bellocq was experimenting with form, sketching out some private imagery for future, or further reference.  Perhaps that is why, on the occasional print, we see the girl’s face remains untouched, and the back of her head alone has been affected.

Storyville was closed down by the US Army in 1917, ironically around the same time as Alfred Cheney Johnston’s career kicked off with the first of his so-distinctive portraits of the society and showgirl beauties of New York City.  It is unlikely that either man was aware of the other; unlikely that either was even remotely conscious of the passing of one era and the dawn of another.  The Jazz Age was coming, ironically stepping out of the same institutions that Bellocq had immortalized, but scarcely looking backwards as it rode into its new, glittering future.

Bellocq, so far as we know, returned to more conventional photographic pursuits, growing old in New Orleans and eventually dying there, following a fall the previous week, on October 3 1949.  The contents of his studio were soon disposed of, bought up by local antique dealers Al Rose (sometimes called Sal Ruiz) and Larry Borenstein.

It was Rose, around 1960, who produced the first gelatin silver prints of Bellocq’s photographs to be made in, we presume, more than fifty years; the earliest, at any rate, that have come to light so far.

This was the cache acquired by Lee Friedlander (by which time poor storage and, apparently, flooding had further damaged the fragile plates) and in 1970, an unknown photographer of unknown women was granted his own exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Today, Bellocq stands proud in the pantheon of America’s greatest photographic pioneers, his work hung in museums and sold in galleries, a champion of life as it was being lived, through the faces of women who lived it in one of its darkest guises.

There is no order or organization to the photos that Bellocq took. They exist today, it seems (although their catalogers and collectors would hotly disagree) in the same state of chaos as they were preserved during his lifetime, a motley mass of eighty-nine 8×10-inch glass negative plates stored away in a trunk at his home at 619 Dumaine.  No conventional beauty, form or technique. To the uninformed eye, the uncaring prude, they could be snapshots, they could be  detritus.

But they offer us a glimpse not only into a long lost world, but into some of its secrets as well.

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