America

New Orleans

From 1897 until 1917, “Sporting Houses” were not only legal in New Orleans, they provided the city with its largest and most reliable income source. Tourists were sold Blue Books listing every available woman in town by race. For a license fee of $100 per courtesan and $250 per madam, anyone could operate a house catering to the resulting flood of cash-only amours.

Upscale houses like this one on Bourbon St.—supposedly the last to close—provided forage for carriage horses on the ground floor. By law, female companionship was limited to the upper stories, and unlike today, flaunting and boozing on balconies were strictly prohibited. And in spite of strict segregation of the “labor force,” most grand houses sported a negro band where many of America’s most famous jazz musicians, including Louis Armstrong, got their start.

My novel, The Quotidian, includes a scene that takes place in the elegant gay bar and art gallery across the street from this particular establishment. Our host regaled us with some of the choicer stories, even as we all realized that the reality was undoubtedly a little more ghastly than the legend. But what the hey—with enough time, you can probably polish any fragment of history, however squalid the original. The city of New Orleans certainly thinks so.

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