100 years ago this month, New Orleans closed the book on Storyville
After 20 years of legal prostitution, the notorious New Orleans vice district known as Storyville was shut down 100 years ago this month, on Nov. 12, 1917. Here’s why: After America entered World War I in April of that year, the federal government prohibited prostitution within five miles of military bases. That action didn’t bring the sex-for-hire business to a halt, but it did close a district that would become an overly glamorized part of local legend.
Although Storyville was shut down and, in the 1940s, replaced by the Iberville public housing complex, three buildings from that era remain: a convenience store at Bienville and Basin streets that used to be the annex to Lulu White’s Mahogany Hall; a structure at St. Louis and North Villere streets; and a building at Bienville and Crozat streets that used to be Frank Early’s My Place saloon.
- Storyville, also known as “The District,” was the brainchild of Alderman Sidney Story, who sought to control prostitution by making it legal within an area bounded by North Robertson, Basin, St. Louis and Customhouse (now Iberville) streets.
- Unlike many other politicians who are only too happy to affix their names to anything in sight, Story didn’t seek to put his name on that part of New Orleans, and sources said he was embarrassed to have his name attached to the nation’s only legal red-light district.
- Storyville turned out to be an incubator of art. E.J. Bellocq’s photographs of prostitutes went on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in 1970, 21 years after the photographer’s death, and were acclaimed for their realistic depiction of the women and the environment in which they worked. Keith Carradine portrayed Bellocq in Louis Malle’s highly fictionalized 1978 movie “Pretty Baby,” which also starred Susan Sarandon and a young Brooke Shields.
- For all of Bellocq’s skill behind the camera, no photographs of him are known to exist.
- Although white and black women worked in Storyville and black musicians performed in the parlors, only white men were allowed as customers.
- There was a less-well-known Storyville for black men on a site behind Charity Hospital that includes the site where present-day City Hall stands.
- To help guide fun seekers through this fantasy realm of fleshly delights, a series of palm-size guidebooks, known as blue books, was published between 1898 and 1915.
- Even though the books professed to be guides to the demimonde, neither their prose nor their pictures could be considered naughty. “What the blue books give you is the sizzle but not the steak,” said Pamela Arceneaux, author of “Guidebooks to Sin: The Blue Books of Storyville, New Orleans.”
- The books bear no price. However, they have become prized mementos of New Orleans’ lurid past, and collectors have been willing to pay as much as $3,500 for just one of them.
The concept of Storyville fits nicely into the image of New Orleans as a rip-roaring, anything-goes kind of town, where all sorts of titillating activity supposedly can continue nonstop. As Storyville continues to fade into New Orleans’ past, its nostalgic glow becomes ever more rosy, even though the prostitutes didn’t look as beautiful as Julia Roberts in “Pretty Woman”; jazz apparently wasn’t born there; and the bordellos, though nicely appointed, were hardly opulent pleasure palaces. An editor in John Ford’s 1962 Western “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” probably said it best: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”