Spectacular Wickedness: Sex, Race, and Memory in Storyville, New Orleans by Emily Epstein Landau. Reviewed by Louise Hilton.
By the late 1800s, New Orleans was already known as the “Southern Babylon,” a city arguably as legendary for its rich cultural heritage as for its festive (and libidinous) atmosphere. In an effort to “clean up” and modernize the city, officials passed an ordinance in 1897 establishing the red-light district Storyville, designed to restrict vice to a clearly demarcated area away from the more civilized parts of town.
Spectacular Wickedness explores the history of Storyville that reigned from 1897 to 1917, offering liquor, gambling, jazz music, and, of course, the main attraction: sex. Landau touches on the racial history of New Orleans and then focuses on some of the major players of the era, in particular Lulu White, the so-called “Diamond Queen” of the demi-monde, Storyville’s most infamous madam who specialized in offering “octoroon” prostitutes at Mahogany Hall, her Basin Street bordello.
The seminal Supreme Court “separate but equal” decision Plessy v. Ferguson which legalized segregation in 1896 originated in New Orleans, a city with a long-standing three-tiered racial hierarchy and complicated system of cultural categories within the black community. The fact that the madams of Storyville openly defied the segregation laws just a few short years later by advertising sex with mixed-race women to white customers (all the while barring black customers, interestingly enough) contributed to the district’s notoriety and Landau argues that the brothels of Storyville provided venues for white males to assert their dominance in a time of social unrest.
Well-researched and informative, Spectacular Wickedness is a welcome addition to the ever-growing canon of New Orleans cultural history books.