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The Last Madam: A Life in the New Orleans…
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The Last Madam: A Life in the New Orleans Underworld

by Chris Wiltz

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Norma Badon (later Wallace) climbed her way out of a life of poverty and neglect using her body, sharp mind, and good business sense. She started out hustling in 1916 at age 15 in the Tango Belt of New Orleans, at the time Storyville (the infamous Red-Light District organized to help control the spread of prostitution and drugs) was being shuttered after a shoot-out in the area caused a lot of the cabarets to shut down. Some think this may have caused the influx of prostitutes into the area as it was a rough crowd with bootleggers, gamblers, organized crime, etc. She quickly found a house run by an older, well-known madam, and by age 20 was the "landlady" of her own brothel. As a madam, she wouldn't have to turn a trick again. By her mid-30s she was one of the most powerful women in New Orleans. She ran a high-class and safe business, only choosing the most beautiful women of "high moral fiber"--no drugs, no stealing from clients, frequent medical check-ups, and they had to dress like proper ladies when out in public. She was the proprietor of the longest continuously-run bordello in the French Quarter. Her run lasted over 42 years.


French Quarter 1920s

Using audio tapes recorded by Norma herself at the end of her life, as well as misc. interviews, newspaper articles, and personal documents provided by her last husband, the author was able to piece together the story of Norma's life, as well as provide a very interesting history of the political machinations that went on in New Orleans throughout the majority of the 20th century. There was a continuous battle between those who attempted to eliminate prostitution and "clean up the city", often for their own political gain depending on the dictates of the public, and those who fought in their own way to save that institution and any others (gambling, drinking, etc.) which served to line their own pockets. The Last Madam details the political intrigue, graft, and corruption which flourished throughout the city over the years. I found that part of the book very interesting in itself.

The book was given some flair by including Norma's stories about things that happened inside her business. Fun recollections of outwitting local police and FBI sting operations; hiding places where the girls and the johns (or "vidalias") would go during a raid; her system of spies, look-outs, and payouts to the police, lawyers, judges, the mayor; and interesting clients, including some name-dropping of famous celebrities of the time. Things that make you go "hmmm". (I'll never look at Don Ameche the same way again. Stud.) This was not done excessively and oftentimes the names mentioned were included to demonstrate that going to "the Queen's" when you were visiting New Orleans was something not to be missed; and for some young men, it was considered a rite of passage. Even John Wayne stopped in to visit with Norma, although he was a perfect gentleman. He stayed downstairs the whole time and visited with some of the girls, asking them questions about their lives, talking about his wife the whole time, then left them a huge tip because he "took up so much of their time". She was friends with all types of people and was very progressive, especially for her time. Not only because of her profession but the way she was accepting of everyone, even if to the mainstream public they might be considered beyond the pale.

She was either married to or long-time companions with a boxing champ, a famous Hollywood entertainer, and one of Al Capone's henchmen. She was with her fourth husband for over 20 years. Her fifth and last husband (whom she was married to over a decade) was nearly 40 years her junior. She turned heads even into her 60s. She stayed friends with everyone she had romantic relationships with and seemed to have something special about her because the men never seemed to fall out of love with her. She needed to be loved and be the center of attention, and she also was happiest when she was the one in charge. She did what she liked but she would get jealous if one of her men even looked at another woman. Her obsession with her image, her looks, and the loss of her youth were at the heart of her eventual downfall.

Norma was a convoluted mix of every woman. She was a tough cookie, she had a strong sense of self but still secretly held insecurities, she was bold, courageous, lusty, selfish, generous, open-minded, forgiving, charming, and had moxie. She was kind of like New Orleans itself, wasn't she?

NPR interview of author: http://www.npr.org/2014/06/06/319415101/the-last-madam ( )
  AddictedToMorphemes | Mar 14, 2016 |
Wiltz has written a fascinating history of the social life in New Orleans during the Prohibition Era. She focuses on the life of Norma Wallace, a prostitute who managed to become a highclass madam and political power. Liquor was the source of her initial stake -- it was ironic that more liquor seemed to flow during Prohibition than before or after -- and she invested it in a house that served the sophisticated desires of the wealthy and powerful. These clients helped protect her from the periodic anti-vice pogroms of the morally fastidious under police chief captain "" and her business boomed. She renovated an old Creole-style house and filled it with beautiful girls who were required to adhere to the strictest rules: matching underwear, no kissing the clients -- they were selling sex, not emotion -- no drugs, and no pimps. Her business acumen was so acute that in one case a wealthy client ran up a tab of $4,500 -- the equivalent of $75,000 today -- in liquor and female companionship for himself and his male secretary. Her clients were not always male. The famous actress Marjorie Rambeau stopped in New Orleans on her way to Los Angeles, made her way to Norma' -- cab drivers often got a percentage of the take -- and proceeded to spend $35,000 in cash, drinking herself into a drunken stupor. When she awoke in her hotel room the next day, appalled at what she had done, Norma refunded $10,000 of her money, still leaving a nice haul, most of which went long-term annuities for herself. She was very good at using information to her advantage. In one case, she recognized a man on the FBI' most wanted list and notified the local police, endearing them to her. The local police and FBI agents were often regular customers, the ultimate in protection, and soon, at age thirty-five, she was one of the most powerful women in New Orleans. Norma had numerous love affairs — she truly loved many men — but the most dangerous of these was when she fell for Sam Hunt, a notorious killer and ally of Al Capone. Sam brutalized Norma' other girls, but with Norma he acted as an old romantic and insisted it was true love. He remained convinced she loved him and was not just turning another trick. He was insanely jealous, and when he happened to see her talking with a former boyfriend, he became enraged. When she married Pete, another old friend who was almost completely blind, Sam became so enraged he started a shooting match at her house and tried once to run her down with his car. His friends finally managed to get him back to Chicago. Norma' marriages rarely lasted long, and, characteristically, she assumed responsibility for their failure, noting that most men wanted their wives to be a combination nun and madam and that she had difficulty becoming the first. She also argued that " make good wives, but madams don'" because a madam has enough income to make herself independent. Many of her girls married successfully and quit hustling. Numerous efforts at reform were implemented during the fifties. The Kefaufer Commission investigation revealed a police department so corrupt and criminally organized that anyone wishing to open a brothel or gambling establishment literally had to pay for police permission. One prostitute testified, after looking around the hearing room, that nine out of ten of the men in the room, including the investigators, had been customers of the brothel where she worked. By the sixties, Norma had given up the business.

Most of her police protection friends had retired or suffered from too much close scrutiny. She opened a restaurant that she initially left in the charge of a good restaurateur, but it never did well until she publicly announced she was the owner. Then it took off, everyone wanting to talk to and be seen with the famous madam. She married Wayne, many years her junior, who seemed to be a perfect partner, except that Norma became insanely jealous whenever he glanced at a younger woman. Infamy became her path to fame, and now a super-legitimate businesswoman, she made the cover of New Orleans magazine and received the key to the city. New Orleans has always enjoyed exploiting its own myths and legends, and Norma's fame played right into the selfperpetuated image of its being a "wicked city." Norma eventually tired of living in the country, away from the excitement of the city, and looked nostalgically back to the days of the "public secret" that, she claimed, "took the strain off marriages. . . .But the women's libbers are all running around saying women are prostituting themselves keeping house, having babies. And here's the deal--women get married for one thing, security. They sell it to one man for the rent, food, clothes. When you look at it that way, hookers get more for what they sell. If I was still in the business, though, I'd probably be sending one of those lady liberation groups a check every month. Any landlady will tell you the bossy broads will sure send her a lot of customers."

Ironically, it was her bossing around of Wayne they helped to drive him away, and in her seventies, the fun seemingly having left, she shot herself in 1974. ( )
  ecw0647 | Sep 30, 2013 |
I have always been fascinated and in love with the city of New Orleans. I have forgotten how I came across this title but I was immediately intrigued and added it to my WishList. The history of the city has always been mysterious and The Last Madam gives us a glimpse into the underbelly of it all.

Norma Lenore Badon had a tormented childhood where she and her brother, Elmo, were raised in dire poverty. Shifted about and left for days due to a mother who was battling her own demons, Norma’s family finally intervened and she went to live with relatives in Memphis. Norma’s father could no longer put up with her mother’s waywardness so he left and began a new life and family. Norma was all of twelve of years of age when a family friend, a bootlegger, told her, “Norma, darling, you know it’s going to be rough, but one hair on that thing is stronger than a cable under the ocean (8).” This statement stuck with Norma. While in Memphis, Norma spotted her first set of “hustling girls” at the Gayoso Hotel and was fascinated (8). Norma returned to New Orleans in 1916 and her life in the “life” began. Norma started life as a “woman of the night” as a teenager and worked up her way to The Last Madam of New Orleans.

Norma took her first love, Andy Wallace’s, last name even though she was never married to him. Norma was methodical and very discreet with the way she ran her business. Norma’s shrewd business sense is what kept her in business for decades along with the peculiar details she kept on all her customers in her black book. It was so amazing to read how Norma eluded the police for so many years. It seemed to be every cop’s mission to take down Norma Wallace. Wallace kept most of the cops at bay with payoffs but she mainly outsmarted them. Wiltz shared interesting tidbits on the girls that worked for Norma and how she trained them. The whole story was simply mind boggling but what I had to keep in mind was that this woman was making 2012 money in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. Neither prohibition nor the Great Depression slowed Norma’s business down.

In 1962, the police finally won and Norma Wallace went to jail for six weeks. After her jail stay Norma, decided to scale her business down even though she said she was going to get out for good if she ever when to jail. Years earlier Norma had seduced a teenager named Wayne Bernard who would turn out to be her last husband and young enough to be her grandson. She finally gave up the lifestyle and she and Wayne opened the Tchoupitoulas Plantation Restaurant where people still speculated was a cover up for prostitution. Norma Wallace was a powerful woman who never wanted to grow old. Her lifestyle and inner demons tormented her to a tragic death.

There were times when I could not put this book down as I was swooped into the corruption and crime of the New Orleans underworld. I felt the story lagged when Wiltz included so many police facts which seemed like filler or fluff. There were so many names and places that I was familiar with being born and raised in south MS. It’s no doubt that Norma Wallace was the baddest chick in the game. All her power and influence did could not bring her happiness in the end. ( )
  pinkcrayon99 | Jan 5, 2012 |
I’m unsure how to go about reviewing this book. What do you say about an adequate biography that is interesting because the writer is competent and the subject matter is relevant to your interests? It was a fun-enough read and because I tend to keep any books that are not outright garbage, it will have a place in the biography sections on my shelves. But it was a merely adequate book. Not particularly thought-provoking. I read it when I was ill with H1N1, when Dr. Seuss would have been challenging, but this book went down easy and did not require much of me, even as I found it interesting. It seems like all praise for the book is damning it faintly, but it’s not often a book falls into the middle zone with me, a place where I could take it or leave it. But seeing as I how “took” it, it is on that basis worth discussing.

Read the rest of the review here: http://ireadeverything.com/?p=72 ( )
  oddbooks | Jan 21, 2010 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0306810123, Paperback)

Actually, they called themselves "landladies" in New Orleans, though that didn't change the nature of their business: running houses of prostitution in the city's wide-open French Quarter. Beginning in 1920, when she was still in her teens, Norma Wallace managed a high-class bordello for an affluent and influential clientele, evading the police and asserting her sexual freedom "like a man" despite the nominal confines of several rickety marriages. Obsessive love for a man 39 years her junior and her first-ever jail term finally put Wallace out of the business in the mid-1960s, but her memories were still vivid and raunchy when she tape-recorded material for an autobiography in the two years before her suicide in 1974. Novelist Christine Wiltz makes good use of those recordings in an earthy narrative filled with great anecdotes, from how the name of Wallace's dog became local slang for an out-of-town customer to the time an undertaker's premises served as her temporary place of business. Wiltz also interviewed many of Wallace's lovers and associates; she draws on popular journalism and scholarly monographs with equal acuity to flesh out Norma's story. Her perceptive biography of a colorful and complex woman is equally satisfying as a social history of 20th-century New Orleans. --Wendy Smith

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:18:21 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

"A chronicle of Norma's rise from a life of poverty to that of a wealthy grande dame--a New Orleans legend with powerful political connections who was given the keys to the city. She answered to no one, and surrendered only to an irrational, obsessive love, which ultimately led to her surprising and violent death."--Jacket.… (more)

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