The Last Madam: A Life In The New Orleans Underworld, Christine Wiltz, Faber and Faber Inc, 2000, 228 pp., 18 b/w photographs, $16.00 [DaCapo Press, 2001].
Self-labeled as landladies, brothel keepers in New Orleans became noted for their hospitality and ability to keep secrets in the city's French Quarter. Before Norma Wallace turned 20 she realized that more opportunities and were available to madames that were not available to prostitutes. Using her personnel and patron management skills, she became known for her politically connected customers and her clean prostitutes.
In 1901 Wallace was born into a family with generation poverty; she turned to street walking during her teens. During the 1920s she began to follow her desires for a less risky, more comfortable and profitable career: bordello management. She became a landlady whose tenants were prostitutes discreetly serving policemen, politicans and gangsters in a somewhat lavish house of many floors and rooms.
Personally, Wallace kept the company of sharp-looking gangsters one of which was a killer. Several husbands and lovers passed through her career: a blind bantam weight boxing champion, jazz and Hollywood entertainers, and.a contract hitman, Her longest lasting was with a man who was almost 40 years younger than herself.
Late in her career, her first prison sentence encouraged Wallace to get out of the business during 1960s. Wiltz captured Wallace's memories before Wallace committed suicide in 1974. Police and envelopes of cash, politicians and criminals passing each other in the door way, pet dogs and birds, fast cars loaded with new college graduates, and the knack of interior design are covered in The Last Madame. Vivid details of the personal conduct and health issues of the prostitutes are recalled. Enclosed pathways and hiding places are necessary part of the bordellos' design. Once, she sets up a temporary bordello in a mortuary.
Wiltz interviews several of Wallace's husbands, lovers, professional friends and former clients and thereby broadens her biography in to a New Orleans history. Though the book's central character is an individual, Wiltz widens the focus to include New Orleans political history and downtown development. Wallace is a complex individual who lives her life on many levels, both public levels and private levels in the social milieu of 20th-century New Orleans.
Wiltz' portrait is of a very strong willed woman who for over 40 years ran a successful brothel for the New Orleans gentry. Wiltz's story is of the last madame standing in a city transitioning from the late 19th century and into 20th century burgeoning commercialized tourist industry. Like her clients Norma Wallace was shrewd and ambitious.
Within in the past two years, CWL has visited New Orleans twice and plans to do so again. A city which it would nice to visit once, New Orleans now has become a destination. David Fulmer's late 19th century detective novels set in New Orleans, an antebellum New Orleans slave market history, along with a history book that examines the world that made New Orleans are now on the shelf that is labelled 'To Be Read Soon.'