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Two on One: The Last Madam: A Life in the New Orleans Underworld

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Two on One    

Memoir of a Happy Hooker

by Rob Walker and Jennifer Howze



THE SETUP: The Last Madam: A Life in the New Orleans Underworld, written by Christine Wiltz, is more or less a biography of one Norma Wallace, a woman who ran (as the title suggests) the last certain kind of house of prostitution. Wiltz has based the book largely on Wallace’s own lengthy, taped reminiscences, which the legend recorded before she died in 1974.




HOWZE: This book has big problems in structure and tone — it probably would have benefited from a thematic rather than a chronological structure, and the writing could have been a lot more sophisticated. Wiltz doesn’t say this in so many words, but Norma is presented as the ultimate feminist — she owns her own business, makes her own money, can take men or leave them (and does, with no fewer than five husbands). The way Norma sees it — and thus the way Wiltz sees it — turning tricks can be a good honest job: hookers can take pride in their work and do it well. Forget any moral concerns about the traffic in female flesh. The assumption here is that it’s all just good clean fun, even if the playground is dirty (what with the crooked cops, the sexually transmitted diseases, the blackmail and the violence). For Norma, selling yourself to several guys a night for cash or selling yourself to a spouse for security are the same thing. At the end of the book Norma says she hated feminists. It’s no wonder — she thinks like the men they’re rebelling against.





WALKER: A tedious book about sex and New Orleans: sad but true. It struck me as odd that Wiltz accepts Wallace’s reminiscences at face value. All she adds are overheated, thinly sourced and very bad sentences about “naked girls lying in the windows of brothels, gambling behind every door and incidents of people being mugged and robbed on the streets while that hot jazz played all night long.” Oof.


    

Norma, rambling into a tape recorder at the end of her life, clearly saw her younger self as powerful and glamourous, and I guess Wiltz just plain buys it. “Norma,” Wiltz informs us at one point, “was nobody’s woman but her own.” She is also matter of fact about Norma’s “glamour,” enhanced by “her dark glasses, which added a touch of intrigue.” Too bad, because any book that includes a donkey-sex scene oughtta be fun to read, at least.




HOWZE: Yes, even the glamourous details that are interesting in a Dynasty sort of way — the well-appointed rooms, the visits from the most powerful men in New Orleans, not to mention John Wayne (who stayed chastely downstairs) — come across as fibs. You can’t tell what’s been confirmed by another source and what Norma might just have made up — she definitely thought her life was pretty swell, or wants us to think that.




WALKER: Why is it that madams and hookers can be portrayed as spunky, admirable quasi-feminists, but only those who are safely part of the past? Apparently, Norma was even given the key to the city of New Orleans late in life. Meanwhile, I didn’t notice anyone throwing dinners in honor of Heidi Fleiss. But Norma seems to be saying her colleagues should be celebrated — and that all women secretly want to be like her, à la Catherine Deneuve in La Belle Jour — free and powerful in a way that is unique to selling sex. What do you, as a 21st-century cosmopolitan liberated chick with no sex hangups at all, not even one, think of that?




HOWZE: Of course, deep down every woman wants to be treated like a whore. Like the dirty-birdy sleep-around she is. Like the streetwalking, money-grubbing, slutty — you get the idea. (The corollary is that a woman with a strong, aggressive sex drive is in some ways deviant and must find outlets outside of her norm-abiding world to satisfy them.)


    

That Belle de Jour fantasy taps into the intoxication of controlling another person through desire, but it’s mostly about the good girl/bad girl divide. You’re under the impression that your desires or actions are bad (so bad that you might deserve a spanking!). To act on them, you have to become bad (and turn tricks during teatime). As a hooker, the fantasy goes, you can take the part of yourself that makes you feel vulnerable and preyed upon and bring the hunters to their knees.


    

As for the reason dance-hall girls or 1920s-era madams or any of the other previous incarnations seem more glamorous, I’m convinced it’s the clothes. Oh, how I once wanted to go trick-or-treating as a saloon girl in a daring off-the-shoulder, red dress with a frilly skirt and feathers! But seriously: it’s easy to look at those times with sepia-tinted vision. Norma definitely tried to paint the scene with that brush. These days, the details are too vivid. Everything seemed cleaner then — even politicians’ affairs, probably because we know less about them (and there was no chance of DNA-testing a blue dress).


    

On the other hand — nice cars, expensive clothes and good champagne are glamorous. Perhaps we shouldn’t compare Norma to Heidi, who, celebrities aside, seemed to run a kinda low-rent outfit. Shouldn’t we compare her to the Mayflower Madam, who had the same focus on, y’know, “class”?




WALKER: I suppose that’s one of the best things about the past — it’s sort of vague, and that may be particularly true regarding sex, commercial and otherwise. Our memories can edit out the less appealing details, and there are fewer of those details documented in the first place. One of the essays in the New York Times Magazine’s obituary issue this year (disclosure: I worked on that issue) was about Lili St. Cyr, a stripper from the glory days of burlesque. As it described her place in the pantheon of great performers, the piece made the point that there was a glory period in burlesque, which is sort of hard to believe if your only experience with strip joints is the modern version in Times Square.


    

My one trip to a strip joint was in Dallas — where they’re typically referred to as “Gentlemen’s Clubs” — and as it happens I was in the company of a couple of Dallas police officers who knew the bouncer and several of the girls. So in a sense it was a scene right out of The Last Madam: the wise-cracking copper giving the old nudge-and-wink to the sassy broads. But, you know, it wasn’t like a charming Dashiell Hammett novel; it was kind of creepy. Anyway, if there really was a heyday of burlesque, might there have been one for prostitution?


    

Maybe it’s a class issue. You get the distinct impression when you look back at these things that it was all very respectable and middle to upper class at one time. Can that really be true? In The Last Madam, there are these fondly nostalgic descriptions of the boys who get taken by pa to the house of ill repute so they can get their ritual first lay, while pa chats with the madam over a glass of Scotch in the anteroom. (Remember in the Texas governor’s race years ago when Clayton Williams told about getting “serviced” by whores as a young man?) It sort of makes it sound like neighborhood whorehouses are some lost piece of Americana, like the milkman. Now it seems like prostitutes are an option for very high-end people (Hugh Grant, or people who pay for rookie Elite models) or very low end people (think Port TwoOnOneity). Once again, the middle class takes it on the chin! Maybe that’s what Jesse Ventura is ultimately leading up to with his call for legalized prostitution in the famous Playboy interview — he’s pandering to the middle class!


    

All clowning aside though, that brings up another question du jour, belle: What about legalized prostitution? I haven’t exactly researched this, but it seems to me that there will be prostitutes one way or another, so it would probably be better, on the whole, to legalize it and regulate it. Then again, that puts on me on Jesse Ventura’s side of an issue, which feels a little strange. Norma never takes a stand on this one way or the other (nor does Wiltz), but everything about the way she conducts herself suggests that what she and her “girls” do should not be against the law.




HOWZE: When it comes to legalized prostitution, I’m a hypocrite. Women disproportionately suffer from prostitution’s illegal status: they’re arrested and prosecuted more, work without health coverage and don’t have the protection from labor laws. So I see the benefits of legalization. Still, as a society I don’t think we’d necessarily benefit from more acceptance of prostitution. And on a personal level, if a man told me he’d been with a hooker, I couldn’t sleep with him. In the book, most of the men are made to seem cocky, sweet or misunderstood — like the cross-dressing john who was thrilled when he was hustled into the hiding place during a raid with the other “girls.” Above all, it’s portrayed as “normal” that a man would visit a whorehouse. But I don’t imagine that it’s all so sweet for the john’s wife back home. I guess I identify with the women outside the house — part of society — not inside.


    

I went through a period during college when I was obsessed with finding out if friends had visited prostitutes. The popular place for guys in Austin, where we went to school, is Boys Town, just over the border in Mexico near Juarez. At the time, I was shocked at how many said they’d made the trek.


    

Of course, the truth of that place is that the women live in shacks and the front room is the “office” while the back room is where the family lives. It’s separated by a curtain. It’s hard to imagine these places ever being mythologized as a venue for inaugurating manhood or having a sexy romp. But they are.


    

Maybe the reason whorehouses and the like are so dressed up in nostalgia — in our collective pop-cultural consciousness, but also in the memory of individuals — is because without that, there’s nothing there. I’ve never been to a whorehouse, but the strip clubs and sex joints in Ye Olde Times Square I’ve visited have left me with that impression: There’s absolutely nothing sexual or erotic about them — not even in a transgressive, morally bankrupt way. I half-expected the people there to have mysterious portals and prongs for pleasure unknown to the average human. But it was like we were all there waiting for a bus to someplace better. All promise, no delivery. It didn’t have an air of desperation. Just the faint odor of sanitizing fluid.




WALKER: Nasty.

Anyway, wow, I’m honestly stunned that you couldn’t sleep with a guy who’d been with a hooker. (Come on, Jen — Charlie Sheen!) I’m also surprised that a lot of people we knew in school went to Boys Town — how come nobody called me? I never actually have slept with a prostitute (but it occurs to me that my thinking on this subject in the past was at least partly informed by a different strain of Texas swagger, along the lines of, “Hell y’ain’t go’n catch me payin’ fer it”). But I’ve never considered that there might be liberated, cosmopolitan women like you out there who would consider it a firing offense. I suppose I always thought it was a perfectly acceptable thing for a man to have in his past for the same reasons we’ve been discussing — because I associate it with another generation, in a way, something Tom Brokaw’s contemporaries did because they lived before the sexual revolution.


    

In fairness to sex workers everywhere, I’m sure that it’s not always quite so squalid as Times Square, Bourbon Street, Boys Town and Hugh Grant’s car. I’m just flipping through the New Orleans phone book and right here under escorts is a listing where the “girls” are “clean” and “drug free.”


    

But seriously, to answer your question about the Mayflower Madam, I do think one could make a distinction between truly exploitative, pathetic situations like what you’re describing, and another scenario that, while not quite the Glamour Whore scenario that The Last Madam puts forward, is a little closer to … civilized prostitution, I guess is how I’d put it. In the latter case, I don’t think one could really make moral judgments about the individuals on either side of the transaction.


    

Or maybe that’s a too-neat male fantasy.


    

Funny you brought up Boys Town though, because one of the stories I remember hearing from there involved a girl and a donkey, which I thought of when I read this passage in Last Madam: “Word got around about a show with a pony and a girl, but that the girl would only do it if the audience was large enough.” Somehow, believe it or not, I think that this parallel perversion existing in the less-than-credible world of this book and in our actual college-years backgrounds goes right to the heart of the weird distinction we’re talking about. It kind of creeps me out to know that friends of mine might’ve paid to see a woman have sex with a donkey, although that’s not the case when I imagine a guy from, say, Tom Brokaw’s generation, as a young man in some whorehouse in New Orleans, his eyes popping at this crazy sight — somehow that’s funny and charming and harmless, almost like a scene from Neil Simon. Of course, in Neil Simon it would be cleverly edited, and we’d never have to look at the girl and the donkey, whereas in the contemporary version seeing the girl and the donkey is the whole point; it’s unavoidable. Thus the difference between the foggy past and the sharply focused now.


    

So I guess what I’m saying is: If Tom Brokaw had been with a hooker, would that really stop you from sleeping with him?


    

Don’t answer that.





©2000 Rob Walker,