THE LAST MADAM

A Life in the New Orleans Underworld

By Christine Wiltz

Faber and Faber. 288 pp. $25

The French Quarter of New Orleans--the Vieux Carre--is at once the most alluring and the most wicked of places. Its narrow streets and small houses, some with spectacularly ornate wrought iron railings and other adornments, are endlessly interesting and pleasing. The same is true of many of the Quarter's restaurants, not merely the famous old ones (Antoine's, Galatoire's) but also the modest po-boy and muffuletta places, and of many of its shops, especially those along the main drag, Royal Street.

That's the Quarter by day. The Quarter by night is something else--a raucous, tawdry conglomeration of strip shows, bars, voodoo emporiums and tourist traps of every imaginable description. On a Sunday morning after a tough Saturday night, the place smells like an odious cocktail mixed from stale booze, dead cigarettes and fresh vomit, most of this last having been deposited by revelers in the gutters of Bourbon Street.

Into this fetching milieu, or the roughly equivalent form that it took in 1916, stepped a petite 15-year-old girl named Norma Wallace, a native Mississippian who had considerable sexual experience and set about--in an entirely calculated way--making a career of it. She moved up quickly from prostitute to madam, and beginning around 1920 operated "the longest continuous [prostitution] operation in the history of the city"--a city that had, needless to say, an exceedingly rich history in that and related endeavors.

More than half a century later, in retirement back in Mississippi, Wallace got it into her head to do a book about "40 years of intrigue, fools, deals and propositions--that panorama so peculiar to New Orleans." She started talking into a tape recorder, a project that ended with her death late in 1974.

Apparently she didn't get enough on tape for a book of her own, but Christine Wiltz has combined Wallace's oral history with her own research to produce an account of her life. It's not as lively as its subject would lead you to expect--largely because Wiltz is a pedestrian writer--but because that subject is inherently interesting, it overcomes the author's shortcomings.

Norma quickly realized that the Quarter was her kind of place, as she told her tape recorder: "The French Quarter was full of hookers, night spots like the old Cadillac and La Vida Club, and dance halls. The Quarter runs 10 blocks across and 13 down, from Canal Street to Esplanade. From the river to Rampart I can't tell you how many whores there were. Between Iberville and St. Louis Streets and from Bourbon to Rampart, every door had a girl hustling in it. I didn't start it; they were there when I got there."

She may not have started it, but she certainly ratcheted it up several notches. Norma was a born entrepreneur, blessed with fierce ambition and business acumen that many a banker would envy. As it happens, the business she was in was a dirty one, but she made it as clean as she could, Wiltz writes: "Anytime a girl appeared in public, she must be dressed as a lady. . . . Girls were never to kiss the dates; if a girl came downstairs with her lipstick off or awry, she was fired--they were selling sex, not emotion. Norma's girls were expected to be unswervingly loyal to her and totally discreet, never divulging anything regarding the operation. They were not to take drugs, they were to be examined by the house doctor twice a week, and they were not supposed to work during their periods."

Et cetera. The result, according to Wiltz, was "a better class of client," i.e., prominent businessmen and politicians, visiting firemen from New York and Hollywood, college boys of wealth and position. As one of these told Wiltz, "Going to Norma's was part of growing up in New Orleans--for those of us lucky enough to have some money."

Norma's was "a New Orleans institution," but like all such businesses it played a cat-and-mouse game with the cops. Most could be bought off in one way or another, but every once in a while a reformer would wander onto the scene and make trouble. One such was District Attorney Jim Garrison, who eventually achieved peculiar notoriety as the champion of various lunatic theories about the Kennedy assassination, but it was by other hands that her arrest and conviction in 1962 finally were engineered.

The last decade of her life was lived in relative obscurity. She did not completely quit the game, but she grew interested in the restaurant business, and she fastened much of her attention on her fifth husband, who was nearly four decades her junior and eventually tired of her. At the end she was lonely and sad, and the circumstances of her death were demeaning. Whether there is a moral in that is for each to decide.

Jonathan Yardley, whose e-mail address is yardley@twp.com.