By Gary Krist
Crown. 416 pp. $26
Given the publication of so many books and articles about New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, it’s instructive to remember that many of the city’s much-discussed problems — street violence, institutionalized racism, the push-pull between permissiveness and prohibition — existed for generations before the federal levees collapsed and floodwaters inundated the city. And while there have been many fine books and articles written about the city’s Storyville era, when prostitution was legalized in a district adjacent to the French Quarter, Gary Krist’s “Empire of Sin” is certainly one of the most well-researched and well-written, a true-life tale of a sui generis American city that reads like a historical thriller.
After the Civil War, New Orleans was a place that the rest of rock-ribbed America looked upon, in Krist’s words, “with a combination of wonder, suspicion, and often abhorrence.” The city was largely unsegregated, mixed marriages were legal, and its reputation for liquor and licentiousness was already firmly fixed. By the end of the 19th century, local reformers had had enough, and their unique solution was a vice district called Storyville — where, they believed, all manner of sin could be contained. It opened in 1898, and the next 30 years were some of its most dramatic in the city’s history as Storyville and its denizens were at loggerheads with “the city’s ongoing crusade for order, racial purity and respectability.”
Krist tells his story through some well-known characters of the time, including Tom Anderson, the “Mayor of Storyville,” a powerful and popular saloonkeeper and restaurateur; and Josie Arlington, the madam of an elegant brothel on Customhouse (now Iberville) Street. There’s also David Hennessy, America’s youngest police chief at 32, so upright he lived with his mother; Buddy Bolden, the black cornetist who began playing “raggedy” music and today is credited with inventing jazz; and the “Axman,” a serial killer armed with a hatchet, whose reign of terror felt supernatural to a superstitious city and whose identity is still unknown.
The most successful brothels grew prosperous enough to decorate in high Southern Gilded Age style, with chandeliers and fine carpeting; proprietors vied to employ the most popular piano “professors,” who would entertain in the parlor while the women entertained upstairs. Storyville even had its own publication, the Blue Book, a guide to each sporting house in the district. Anderson eventually amassed an entertainment empire and a veneer of respectability (he was elected to the Louisiana legislature and spent 16 years there). As Storyville became an economic engine unto itself, the city’s reformers realized their mistake.
Outside the district, New Orleans was fraught with spasms of racial and ethnic discord. Black and Creole residents chafed under the city’s resegregation, leading to riots in 1900, while the early years of the 20th century also saw the rise of the Black Hand, a shadowy group of Italian immigrants who worked extortion rackets. (The Axman’s habit of killing Italian grocers in their sleep was said by some to have Black Hand involvement.)
Reformers nibbled at Storyville’s edges, but the Dance-Hall Wars of 1913 weakened the district for good. A series of shootings led the city to outlaw the dance halls (but not the brothels), which had a dampening effect on all the business in Storyville. The death blow came in 1917 during World War I, when the federal government decreed that no brothel could operate within five miles of a military base. But its particular pleasures remained; New Orleans musicians who traveled north introduced others to jazz, while nightlife peregrinated toward the French Quarter and, eventually, Bourbon Street. Much of Storyville was razed, and by the mid-20th century, the site held blocks of public housing (all of which was recently bulldozed in the post-Katrina “cleanup” of New Orleans; planned for the spot are luxury condominiums).
Often recurring in Krist’s history is the echo of the past in modern-day New Orleans. Just as they did then, many musicians still have to leave the city to make a living, and some, like Louis Armstrong, found greater freedom and larger paychecks elsewhere. Just as jazz evolved from “backatown” New Orleans, bounce music (a subgenre of rap) recently has emerged from the city’s poorest neighborhoods to become a popular and uniquely New Orleanian sound, performed by artists like Juvenile and Big Freedia. And dances like the “turkey trot” and the “Texas Tommy” that were cut up in the Storyville dance halls have their modern equivalent in twerking, a dance that emerged in New Orleans in the 1990s under another (unprintable) name — but got widespread attention only when a white performer, Miley Cyrus, performed it on national television.
But the biggest character in this improbable true tale is Storyville itself, home to characters with names like Gold Tooth Gussie, Mary Meathouse, Bull Frog Sonny and Stack O. Dollars. The book’s subtitle, “A Story of Sex, Jazz, Murder, and the Battle for Modern New Orleans,” sums up Krist’s story well — it’s a book both lurid and scholarly, and thoroughly entertaining.
Kevin Allman is editor of the New Orleans alt-weekly newspaper Gambit.