Weekly Wire
NewCityNet French Quarter Tickler

By Ellen Fox

FEBRUARY 21, 2000: 

The Last Madam: A Life in the New Orleans Underworld by Christine Wiltz (Faber and Faber), $25, 241 pages

Recently on the Tonight Show, starlet Reese Witherspoon told this less-than-withering joke: Why don't Southern women make good prostitutes?

Because they'd have to write too many thank-you notes.

The notion that a sense of propriety could go hand in hand with sex for money seems ridiculous today (though you'll still see words like "sophisticated" or "elegant" calling out from the escorts' ads in the Yellow Pages). But if "The Last Madam," Christine Wiltz's biography of steely whoremonger Norma Wallace, is to be believed, it wasn't always this way.

Chronicling the forty-year career one of New Orleans' most beloved and well-connected madams (she was given the keys to the city at age 71), Wiltz charts Wallace's rise from teenage hustler to the French Quarter's "maven of the demimonde" to, ultimately, her self-imposed demise as a heartbroken old lady. It's interesting that tragedy only sets in when Norma finally leaves the life after a bust in 1962 and takes up with a brainless, oily beau-hunk forty years her junior, a fact which titillated her as much it crazed her with thoughts of his possible infidelity. But when she was in control, from the 1920s through the 1950s, Norma's place was that sumptuous, gilded haven where politicos, daddy's boys and entertainers could mix with randy, always-ready girls -- the kind of mythical bordello that New Orleans still proudly prostitutes to Bourbon Street tourists as the symbol of its innate sinfulness.

Just don't expect Wiltz to explode that myth; she's not that kind of girl. Wiltz lays the corny prose on thick, especially in stomach-turning passages where she describes 60-year-old Wallace's affair with her young Wayne: "He didn't think of her as being older; he thought of her as being experienced. She knew how to touch, how to moan and groan, how to make a man feel as if he was the greatest son-of-a-bitchin lover in the world."

It's a straightforward, mediocre book, carried along only by the piquancy of its subject matter. But what remains after reading is the understanding of just how much underworld types like Norma and her cohorts truly relished life on the make. That's articulated by a picture from the 1920s, which shows Norma and her first husband, a handsome bootlegger who gave her a seven-carat diamond and a gunshot wound, smiling into the camera like movie stars: heads cocked, hats tilted and big, what-the-fuck-you-gonna-do-about-it grins on their faces. You can still find a shred of that impertinence in fur-frocked pimp daddies and bad-boy actors today, but it's always tinged with a scowl of guilt.

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