Book: The Last Madam: A Life in the New Orleans Underworld
Author: Christine Wiltz
Type of Work: Biography
Why Did I Read This Book: I love New Orleans. It is my favorite place on the planet, which is a remarkable thing to contemplate given how sensitive I am to smells. So I read most things to do with New Orleans. I also am a sucker for true crime. So it was a win-win situation, made all the better when I found it on close-out at one of those transient book stores that pop up in old, abandoned Linens ‘n’ Things and Nike Superstore buildings.
Availability: Published by De Capo Press in 2001, it is still in print. You can get a copy here:
Comments: 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.
As I say above, I love New Orleans. I read every book I can that involves the city. It is the place where I should have been born and if my spouse could find the sort of work there that would support us, it would be the place where I live.
So it takes a lot for a person in a biography largely set in New Orleans to overshadow the town I love so much, but Norma Wallace managed it. Wiltz does an adequate job of painting a picture of New Orleans from the early 1900s to the mid-1970s, but I found myself more interested in Norma than any of the places she lived.
Norma Wallace was born into bone-crushing poverty, likely in 1901, but she continually shaved so many years off her age that when she died it was reported that she was years younger than she was. I knew Norma was going to break my heart in the first chapter when the author recounted a story from Norma’s youth. Norma lived next to a bakery that made lemon pies and the smell wafted to her daily but she could never afford the few pennies one of the pies would cost. She frequently begged her mother for a pie and when her useless, dissolute parents took in a lodger, her mother promised Norma that she could finally get one. Except the lodger committed suicide when the rent was due. Norma never got her pie.
But Norma was a smart girl, and in the way of too many smart, poverty-stricken girls, she saw a very profitable way to make money: Prostitution. When a doctor (a doctor!!) turned her out in her early teens, Norma’s die was cast.