Book review: “My New Orleans, Gone Away” by Peter M. Wolf

Peter M. Wolf, now in his late 70s, is a widely respected architectural historian and authority on urban affairs. He has published several books on both subjects, but here he turns his attention to personal matters: the story of his own life, with particular emphasis on New Orleans, the endlessly beguiling city where he spent his boyhood, to which he returned as a young man but which he had to leave — so at least he believes — in order to find himself. “My New Orleans, Gone Away” is an uneven book that turns clunky when Wolf tries to write dialogue, but its best parts are engaging and at moments delightful.

Those parts, you will not be surprised to learn, are the ones about New Orleans, specifically the section called “Home Again,” in which Wolf returns to the Big Easy after a protracted Yankee education at Exeter and Yale, joins his father’s firm in the cotton trade, takes up lodgings on Burgundy Street at the edge of the French Quarter and hangs out at places the mere mention of which sends shivers of pleasure down my spine: Galatoire’s great restaurant, the Napoleon House, Audubon Park, Acme Oyster House, the quarter itself. I’ve never had the pleasure of living in New Orleans, but I’ve visited often, helped one of my sons and his wife restore a shotgun house in Uptown, and eaten marvelously at many of the famous places and a few known only to locals. In other words, I am close to the perfect reader for “My New Orleans, Gone Away,” and those best parts were for me almost as much pleasure as breakfast at Cafe Beignet or a po’-boy at Domilise’s.

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Wolf didn’t spend his boyhood in New Orleans proper (or improper) but in Metairie, the rather posh suburb just northwest of the city on the shore of Lake Pontchartrain. Metairie is to New Orleans what Potomac or McLean is to Washington, the place where people go when they have enough money to get a piece of land and a relatively big house. Wolf’s family had been well established in the city for generations, and his father added to its position of privilege by returning from service in World War II and going out on his own: “During his tour of duty as a communications and intelligence officer, he had been trained to operate the gigantic new IBM computers. Back home, he had applied his knowledge of computer codes and information-storage potentials to keep track of the war-surplus cotton stored in warehouses throughout the United States. Now he was the only one who knew where all of it was. He’d become the most powerful cotton broker in America.”

So Peter Wolf was born into comfortable circumstances, albeit with an important twist: The Wolf clan may have been practitioners of “liberal Judaism,” people more interested in assimilation than in asserting their Jewish identity, but they were Jews all the same, and although they did not lead exactly separate lives in New Orleans, they didn’t lead exactly equal ones either. Almost all the kids with whom Wolf went to school in Metarie were Christian, as were almost all the businessmen with whom he rubbed elbows in the center city:

“When in New Orleans, through high school and college, I was not invited (nor were any other Jewish boys or girls whom I knew) to participate in the feeder fraternities, sororities, and social organizations that prepared girls for their debuts and boys to become krewe members, who assumed the roles of courtiers, queens, and kings at Mardi Gras. Nor, in later years, was I or any other Jewish boy or girl of my generation invited to join the roster of prominent and powerful social clubs in New Orleans that sponsored the spectacles that the general public associates with Mardi Gras. It dawned on me back then that those finely costumed Mardi Gras kings and dukes . . . were all members of the parade-sponsoring social clubs that excluded Jews.”

It took a long time for Wolf to realize it, but the genteel prejudice to which Jews were (and presumably still are) subjected in New Orleans ultimately made living there “less and less acceptable as a lifelong proposition,” hence his departure for New York and its own quite complicated social hierarchy. If much of the best American literature is about outsiders looking in, the fiction of F. Scott Fitzgerald being the most notable example, “My New Orleans” is about being in and out at the same time, a complex phenomenon that can produce complex responses, perhaps the most common being the classic love-hate relationship. Wolf obviously doesn’t hate New Orleans — he and his family paid to restore a pavilion in Audubon Park, a singular gesture of affection for the city — and he declines to wallow in self-pity over the discrimination directed at him, but being excluded is no more pleasant when it’s done with a tight smile than when it’s done with a padlock.

In Wolf’s case, the pain of prejudice has been considerably ameliorated by the many pleasures New Orleans has given him. Though his boyhood had its rough moments — his father was aloof and his mother mainly interested in her social life — he had many friends, did well in school and generally was comfortably off. It was when he came back to the city after college, though, that he really immersed himself in its pleasures. Working in his father’s cotton business gave him a generous income and, with its offices right in the heart of the city, made him think that he was really a part of things. Living in the French Quarter made him feel as if “I was living in a tropical dream world suspended on soft, marshy soil.” He could walk just about anywhere he wanted to go. He became fascinated by the Napoleon House, which is now something of a tourist trap but was then “a quiet, off-the-tourist-path bar and bistro.” Soon enough, studying part-time at Tulane, he turned that interest into a graduate thesis on its architect, Jean-Baptiste-Hyacinthe Laclotte, which in turn led him to the career in architecture and related subjects he has pursued for half a century.

So you could say that New Orleans gave him that career. It also, in the unlikely setting of Galatoire’s, gave him a deeply rewarding sense of acceptance by the city that in other ways had excluded or marginalized him. Galatoire’s borders on the magical: “To push through those heavy doors . . . was to enter the secret kingdom — a lively, warm, old-fashioned ambience that was reminiscent of the most elegant Parisian bistro.” Wolf’s description of its famous first-floor dining room is far too long to quote here, but he gets it exactly right as, a few pages later, he gets the ritual of Friday lunch there, where men and women eat and drink (especially drink) the day away. Wolf ate there often with his father and grandfather but still was stunned when, dining there with the girl he was seeing at the time, he was approached by Mr. Galatoire himself, who said: “You’ve become, these past few years, a part of our family here at my restaurant. You’re the next generation in the long tradition between your family and the Galatoires that goes way back. I want to allow you to sign for your check.”

“Sign your check this evening,” he was told. “At the end of the month you’ll find your bill at your office, addressed to you.” Wolf’s girlfriend smiled and said: “You’ve been knighted a prince of New Orleans.” He agreed:

“I’d been accorded the highest status I could imagine in the city’s social firmament. It wasn’t quite the same as being invited to be the first Jew in modern times to join the Pickwick Club, the Louisiana Club, or the Boston Club (a few had been admitted in the nineteenth century), but then that wasn’t ever going to happen. But this had. I felt as if I’d been admitted to a special club as a full-fledged member, and to this day I love going to Galatoire’s and signing my bill.”

The eponymous Galatoire family no longer owns the restaurant, but it is to be hoped that present and future owners will continue the tradition of personal accounts for valued customers. It is, as Wolf understands, one way of knowing that deep down you really do belong, no matter how in other ways — or so other people insist — you don’t. Besides, what guy in his right mind wants to join the Pickwick Club, the Louisiana Club or the Boston Club? Groucho got it right: “I don’t want to belong to a club that would accept people like me as a member.” He wasn’t entirely joking.

MY NEW ORLEANS, GONE AWAY

A Memoir of Loss and Renewal

By Peter M. Wolf

Delphinium. 322 pp. $24.95

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