Norma Wallace stood on a bed of pine needles deep in the Mississippi woods, dressed in a smart red pantsuit and low-vamp leather pumps; she spread her feet apart, sighted down the barrel of her .410 shotgun, and blew the head off the rattlesnake in front of her. There had been a time, not so long ago, when shooting a rattler made Norma feel like a cowgirl. Now the very sight of one made her jumpy as an old maid. The isolation of the place was getting to her. Her Irish setter, Rusty, ran ahead as she walked to the cedar-shingled house. He seemed to be her only company lately.
Norma's hands shook slightly as she put the gun on the rack. Settling herself on the plush-velvet contour sofa facing the brick fireplace, she listened for the sound of a car on the two-and-a-half-mile road to the house. Her white hair glowed in the firelight.
Norma's young husband, Wayne Bernard, didn't always make it home these days. Sometimes he called, but it was getting dark now, and she'd heard nothing from him. She could feel a long night stretching out before her.
The clock on the mantel softly chimed seven. Norma got a rush of the old excitement and anticipationwhat was this night going to bring? She'd had that feeling at nightfall for over forty years, when she ran her business in the French Quarter. Tonight it passed quickly, because now her life was all about waiting, worrying, and remembering. To pass the time she started dictating into the tape recorder beside her. Her hope was that she'd come up with a best-selling book about her life and times as the last madam of New Orleans to run an elegant French Quarter parlor house.
"How do you write a book about forty years of intrigue, fools, deals, and propositionsthat panorama so peculiar to New Orleans?" she mused. Her voice was deep and raspy, though not the whiskey voice given to madams in the movies. She had a trace of an accent, not Southern but New Orleans, that slow way of talking associated with downtown, an accent that sounds like Manhattan in a tropical heat wave.
More to the point, she wondered how she'd gotten from a life of adventure and intrigue to this one, that of the disappointed wife waiting at home. That worddisappointedtriggered her memory, and she began telling her tape recorder a story about her childhood, the only story she chose to tell about her early years.
"The greatest disappointment of my life happened when I was eight. We were so poor that we used to move instead of pay the rent. An old colored man with a horse and wagon would move us for two bucks, which was cheaper than paying eight dollars for the house."
Many people were poor in 1909, as revealed by the number of empty houses on New Orleans's streets. "People would all hole up in the same place because it took four or five of them to make a living and pay the rent. But we were just my parents, my brother, Elmo, and me. So we would move about every three months, after the landlord knew he was beat and put us out. We finally got so hot in one neighborhood that we had to move to another section of town."
The family found a small place with no gas or electricity on Salcedo Street in what Norma called the back part of town, now Mid-City. The amenities were a coal-burning stove and an outhouse.
Eight-year-old Norma would have liked to have had a new dress, something pretty and frilly, but mostly she wanted something to eat. There wasn't much to cook on that old stove, and Norma was hungry all the time. The worst of it was that on the corner was a bakery. They baked little lemon pies, and Norma could smell them, their mouthwatering aroma filling the neighborhood, the house, even her dreams. What she wouldn't have given for one of those pies! They sold for ten cents each, as out of reach as a party dressor the moon. But that didn't keep Norma from nagging her mother about them.
Then one evening her father brought home a boarder, Mr. McCann. "How was he going to board with us? We didn't have anything to eat! I don't even know where he slept because I don't remember but two beds. But he came to live with us. He was an alcoholic, and he used to drink Four Roses. I've remembered Mr. McCann with his Four Roses all my life. He stayed pretty drunk, but we needed the help bad so we would take a chance on anything.
"Every day I smelled those lemon pies and I was dying for one. Lemon pie became the big thing in my life. I would needle my motherI have to have one!"
Norma's mother finally said, "When Mr. McCann pays next time, I'll get you a lemon pie." His rent was due in three weeks. Norma was counting the days.
"So here it was three weeks later, and I'm figuring the next day I'll be eating lemon pie. That evening Mr. McCann went out to the toilet in the yard and he didn't come back. After a long time my mother decided she better go check on him. She came back pretty shook up. Mr. McCann had drunk carbolic acid and he was dead, dead.
"And that was the end of lemon pie for me." Norma laughed.
"That was the first great disappointment of my life."
Four years after the suicide of Mr. McCann, Norma began to figure out how to get what she wanted. Before that her life was all about deprivation, and her earliest memories were of poverty.
When Norma Lenore Badon was only three months old, her parents moved from McComb, Mississippi, where she was born, to New Orleans. Her father, John Gauley Badon, had come from Covington, Louisiana, on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain across from New Orleans. Her mother, Amanda Easley Badon, was the daughter of Warren Easley, the first mayor of McComb.
In 1972, when the writer Clint Bolton profiled Norma for New Orleans magazine, she told him that both her parents had come from good families, that her mother was college educated at Bowling Green, Kentucky, and played the piano. She told Bolton that all her mother had ever wanted was to get to New Orleans. She didn't tell him why, though, or what happened after the family got there. Nor did she confide to her tape recorder the horror of her first twelve years, except to tell about the suicide of Mr. McCann, a pivotal episode in her young life, to be sure, but one that she told in a spirit of self-mockery.
Years later Norma told her sister-in-law Helen Moran, the wife of her half brother, J. G. Badon, that her mother had wanted to come to New Orleans to live the wild life, and that her own mother had put her out on the streets as a prostitute. To other confidantes she recalled how her mother had left her and Elmo, who was five years younger than Norma, alone in the French Quarter for weeks at a time after Gauley Badon abandoned the family because he caught Amanda in bed with another man. The children were left with no money and no food, in a house with no electricity or heat. Elmo stole food to keep them alive, until the black families who were their neighbors realized that the children were starving and uncared for and took them in. When Norma became wealthy she made it possible for those people to own their homes.
She said to Helen, "I'll tell you what kind of mother I had. I can remember her bathing Elmo, and she'd take his little penis and say, `Boy, this is going to make some women happy!'"
But that was confidential information, not for public consumption in either Bolton's profile or Norma's memoirs. Norma held her family's secrets close, not because she was ashamed but because she had great family loyalty. In spite of Amanda's irresponsibility, Norma bought her a house and took care of her until she died. She resented that Gauley had abandoned her and Elmo, and that he later moved to Slidell, a town about forty miles from New Orleans, where he started a lumber business with his brothers, one of whom, Eugene, became the town sheriff and the other, Alonzo, the mayor. Gauley also started another family, a respectable family. But he did not fare as well as his two brothers. He had drinking problems and money problems, and somewhere along the line Norma bought him a piece of property called Shady Pond, on the Pearl River, which she then said she'd inherited after Gauley died.
Gauley also had a sister, Carrie Badon, who had a wild streak like Norma's mother, Amanda. Alonzo and Eugene wouldn't let their daughters speak to Carrie, but Norma was close to her aunt until Carrie died, even taking care of her during a long illness. Amanda and Carrie operated as prostitutes in the French Quarter for a time, but eventually they both found husbands.
In her memoirs Norma said she didn't have much education, that if you didn't go to school, nobody cared, so she didn't go more than a year or two, which she regretted. But she matured early. A small girl, never weighing over eighty-five or ninety pounds, she menstruated at eleven and developed young. Innately intelligent and street smart, Norma developed two personas early in her life: one that operated in the respectable world of family and another that was equally comfortable in the underworld.
Her nature was to put a positive spin on events, but her parents' actions had set her on a life course from which there would be no return. Norma's parents had split up by the time she was twelve; the year was 1913. Storyville was still going strong just across Basin Street from the Quarter, but a shoot-out that year between two bar owners erupted into what was called the Tenderloin War. Bars and cabarets were closed. Many musicians left for Chicago then. The Tenderloin War also may have caused or accelerated an illegal, clandestine movement of prostitutes into the Quarter. These women and the characters they associated with were a rough crowd. Living with her mother in the French Quarter and being something of a street urchin with her brother, Norma could have had her initiation as a prostitute with the Storyville migrants, but it is also possible that Amanda Badon sent her daughter to Memphis, because the story that Norma chose to tell for her autobiography leaves her mother out of the picture and sets her first experience as a streetwalker there.
* * *
When Norma was twelve years old in Memphis, she met a bootlegger, an older man who had been a lifelong friend of her family. This man took one look at her and said, "Norma, darling, you know it's going to be rough, but one hair on that thing is stronger than a cable under the ocean."
"That thing is what he called it," Norma said. "So that stuck in my mind."
Norma had gone first to stay with her grandmother in McComb, then to visit some cousins in Memphis who took her out and walked her past the ritzy Gayoso Hotel. Memphis was wide open then, with big-time gambling and bootlegging. At the Gayoso, Norma saw her first hustling girls ("spectacular ladies" she called them). Immediately she was fascinated.
Within the next couple of years, she decided to become a streetwalker. Petite, well-developed Norma, with her slightly too high forehead, a bit of a hook to her nose, and her thin lips, may not have been an eye-catching beauty. But she was attractive with her thick, chestnut hair and soft, brown eyes under full lids. She had something, though, that made up for anything lacking in her looksa strong sense of self, an irrepressible personality. And something morechutzpah.
"I was still young, but I came up with an idea I thought would work. I got some schoolbooksthey weren't my booksI put them under my arm, put on my big black Milan hat, and I said, `I'm going to turn out.'"
The first man to pick her up was Dr. Silvester, a veterinarian. She judged him to be at least sixty. He asked Norma if he could take her to dinner. She told him he could take her to the posh Gayoso Hotel.
As they ate their way through the first course, Dr. Silvester said, "You're awfully young."
Norma pulled her shoulders back and said haughtily, "I'm seventeen years old." She was fourteen.
Dr. Silvester decided to believe that Norma was seventeen and fall in love with her. She knew what he wanted from her, and she wanted clothes from him. But Norma hadn't been to bed with a man yet. "I figured I'm too smart to go to bed with this old man, but I'm going to make him think I'm going to bed so I can take him. So I strung him along and he dressed me up, bought me a black velvet dress, with thirty-five-dollar long white kid gloves. That was my first present. We went on the excursion boats together, and I drug him around town. He kept thinking he was going to make me. This lasted about six weeks." Then the doctor got tired of waiting.
Soon Norma met a dashing young bootlegger named Andy Wallace. "Call it love at first sight," she said.
Wallace had money and looks. He set her up in an apartment. "Naturally, he said we were Mr. and Mrs. Wallace. I don't know why we didn't marry, I married so many, but I ended up keeping the name the rest of my life. No way I was going to call myself Norma Badon and live this kind of life, anyway. I just wouldn't do that to my family.
"I kept the name, Andy kept me, and I was fine with the situation. But a man like that, in a dangerous life, running with a dangerous crowd, who knows when's your last day? And then to have looks like that? Andy Wallace was deadly good-looking, and every woman in Memphis and within a gunshot beyond knew it. They lusted after him and he couldn't resist them. For him, the grass was always going to be greener across the road. I wasn't fifteen years old. Imagine me trying to tame that. I would have had better luck with a rattlesnake.
"I kicked up something of a fuss, you might say, and I'll tell you what I got for my trouble. I got shot. Well, I also got a seven-carat diamond ring."
When Norma told Dr. Silvester she was seventeen years old, her lie began a lifelong preoccupation with age, but it was the last time she lied to make herself older. When Clint Bolton, for his New Orleans profile, asked her when she was born, she said, "Don't ask me what year because I lied so much about that I don't even know anymore. My mother caught me lying about my age once. Then she started lying about her age, and I wound up older than my mother!"
Her obituary in The Times-Picayune in 1974 reported that she was sixty-eight years old, but that was based on the age she'd given at the time of her 1953 arrestshe'd shaved off six years.
After she reached her twenties, the only math Norma did was subtraction, the difference between truth and appearances becoming bolder as she aged. She married Wayne Bernard, her fifth husband, on February 18, 1965. He was two months away from his twenty-fifth birthday. She had just turned sixty-four. On the marriage certificate, she gave her birth date as January 24, 1916, and fifteen years disappeared.
Less than two years before this marriage, her lucrative career as a French Quarter madam came to an end less by choice than by circumstance. Norma Wallace's was the longest continuous operation on record in the history of the city, beginning around 1920 at 328 Burgundy Street, moving to 410 Dauphine in 1928, then to 1026 Conti Street in 1938. After her 1962 bust and her first jail term in forty-two years, Norma continued to run her high-class bordello on Conti Street for another ten months, but gradually she shifted the operation to Waggaman, twenty minutes from New Orleans across the Mississippi River, where she had bought the old Cedar Grove Plantation in 1954. She ran a sporting house there for another year, until April 1964; then, in the same house, she and Wayne opened the Tchoupitoulas Plantation Restaurant, and Norma made another fortune.
They sold the restaurant in 1968 and moved to Poplarville, Mississippi, where Wayne had been building a house for them. They lived in a trailer until he finished it. But Norma had tried a permanent move to the country once before. It hadn't worked then, and it didn't work this time.
Norma's photograph was on the cover of New Orleans magazine in June 1972. The piece inside told her story. Her white hair shone, and she wore her trademark dark glasses. She held a bird in her hand, a baby chick. She seemed to have the whole town in her hand. She was presented with a key to the city at the Press Club. Reporters, politicians, former clients, and the curious waited in line for her autograph. The piece was so popular that the magazine ran it again in an anniversary issue four years later.
For years Norma Wallace had money, power, and influence. From her Poplarville retreather exile, as she called it in the magazineshe now achieved something more: recognition from the establishment, respectability. She seemed to have it all, except she was on the verge of losing her young husband.
Twenty-five years later Wayne sat in the kitchen at his Bush, Louisiana, house, a country house dressed with dormer windows and carriage lamps at the door, where he and Norma moved three months before her death, and recalled their last days together.
He'd met Jean, the woman he eventually married, while he and Norma were still in Poplarville. "Norma knew I was fooling around," Wayne said, "but then, I wasn't trying to keep it much of a secret. She told me she wasn't staying out in the country all by herself anymore, that she had decided to sell the Poplarville property. I was against itI loved the placeso I put what I thought was an outrageous price on it and told her if we could get that, then okay. It sold almost immediately. We moved here to Bush. Well, I moved my things here, but I wasn't really living here. I took the trailer we'd lived in while I was building the house in Poplarville and went to Bogalusa. I was going to stay there until I could figure out what I was doing."
Bush, Louisiana, is a sleepy little town across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans. A far remove from the life of a French Quarter madam, it has more in common with the Bible Belt than with Sin City to the south. Norma's motives for moving to Bush were puzzling. If she was lonely or afraid of being out in the woods in Poplarville without Wayne, Bush wasn't much of an improvement. Its only advantage was a shorter drive to New Orleans, about an hour door to door.
Two months before the move to Bush, Howard Jacobs of The Times-Picayune wrote a two-part profile of Norma from Poplarville, which ran June 30 and July 1, 1974. Jacobs quoted Norma: "When Wayne and I first moved here, the settlers living within twenty miles were consumed with curiosity about our relationship, and one of 'em tried to wheedle a little matrimonial information out of me. She said, `A lot of people are asking me what was a woman of your age doing with this young man.' I said, `You tell 'em I'm a rich old lady and I'm supportin' 'im.' This shook her up so much that she dropped the subject like a hot potato."
But Wayne was supporting himself by that time, collecting his paycheck and keeping it, something he'd never done at the restaurant; he'd signed all his checks there back over to Norma. Now his paychecks gave him something he had not had for almost ten yearsindependence.
"After I went to work and Norma found out I was seeing a woman my own age, she told me the only thing that would come of it was that I'd have a bunch of kids and have to work like a dog until I was sixty.
"The funny thing is, Jean and I had been on again, off again; when Norma died we hadn't been together for a couple of months. But I didn't tell Norma that. I came over here the Thursday before it happened, and I ended up spending the night on the living room sofa. I fell asleep with my head in her lap. I woke up a number of times, and every time I did, she was still sitting there, wide awake. She'd stroke my head and I'd fall asleep again. We stayed like that all night." Wayne paused before he said, "She always knew it couldn't last forever."
After Norma's death, Wayne moved into the Bush house. He and Jean married the following year, 1975. Many of Norma's things are still therea copper kettle on the hearth, a ship's lantern beside the door, both from the restaurant; and her furnituretables, lamps, chairs, and most notably the sofa that was in her private apartment on Conti Street. It dominates one end of the dark-paneled living room. It's a sexy sofa, a broad contour, a wide bench seat with one continuous cushion that curves into two sharp, pointed ends, hard, stylized lines that were ultramodern in the 1950s, and brass-tipped stiletto legs. The sofa once was covered with plush, sensual, siren red velvet. Now it's covered in white Naugahyde; it has about as much bounce as a silicone job.
And the bullet hole is still visible in the ceiling of the Bush kitchen, a small, almost unnoticeable depression in the textured acoustic tile.
"Norma used to tell me she was never going to get old," Wayne said. "She used to say she hoped her death would be that her husband caught her in bed with a sixteen-year-old and shot her." Her vision of her death was violent, romanticized, but in that vision she was still sexy and powerful enough to command a sixteen-year-old's attention.
Norma's life revolved around sex, money, and power; her scandalous escapades made front-page headlines. In her autobiography she wanted to be perceived as a smart, classy, glamorous, and generous woman who was independent yet always had a powerful, sexy, and usually younger man in tow. But the reality was much more complicated, an ambitious, domineering, yet vulnerable woman who was glamorous, yes, but also vain and afraid of growing old. She proudly attached herself to a man thirty-nine years younger, saw herself through his eyes as sexy and seductive and through the public eye as outrageous and exciting, but she did not see that her pride was leading her into the dark embrace of obsessive love.
Norma Wallace made a fortune selling the art of seduction. She
practiced that art in her personal life and was herself seduced by a
young and beautiful man, largely because she had no vision of growing
old as a privilege and an achievement. In her work life Norma's
power rose from knowledge and experience; in her personal life she
relinquished her power to an obsession.