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.
Born Norma Badon, Norma was married five times but took and kept the name of the love of her life, a bootlegger she never married but who gave her a seven carat diamond ring and later shot her. Yes, shot her. Through her various relationships with men, both amorous and amicable, she received funding and safe locales to start her brothels, but she and the other women who ran houses of ill-repute called themselves landladies, not madams. Interestingly, once she became a madam, Norma stopped having sex for money. She was strictly a business woman from that point on and a good one, too. She never used drugs, though drank hard enough, and did not permit women with pimps or drug habits to work in her brothels.
Though arrested a few times, Norma ran brothels for decades before finally being arrested and sent to jail for several months. Once out of prison, Norma promptly tried to set up a new house and decided to stop for her own good, divorced her husband and married a man almost 40 years younger than her. Gah, no matter how you feel about prostitution (should it be legalized, pearl-clutching at the morality, etc.), you gotta admire Norma’s spirit.
With her much younger husband, she ran an extremely successful restaurant, but eventually, the luck Norma had in her younger life ran out on her. Her marriage was rocky, she moved to the country, where a city-girl like her was not suited to live, and entered a depression that became intractable. Not to spoil too much, but her days ended in a way that utterly belied the elan with which she had lived so much of her life.
Norma’s pictures do not reveal the je ne sais quoi that drew people to her. In her pictures, she appears passably attractive but she had a raw magnetism that made men want her and the sort of personality that made the women who worked for her loyal to a fault. She was a woman who understood that glamour meant a lot and that brains meant even more. Yet, despite her business acumen and the inevitable hardening such a profession has on one’s emotions, Norma valued love and happiness above money.
Overall, the subject matter of this book almost ensures it is going to be a good read, but Wiltz does a capable job of telling Norma’s story, using old tapes Norma left behind and reconstructing believable conversation from the notes she had to work from. But the title is a little misleading. This is less a tale about a life in the New Orleans underworld than the story of a woman who was larger than life, whose way of life would have been large no matter where she lived. In a way, Norma was such an interesting figure that New Orleans was just a back drop to her personality.
Oh, and because I am a complete squishface, the fact that Norma loved animals, that there is a picture in the book of her nursing her beloved puppy Vidalia, almost ensured I would love Norma. But her canniness, her wit, her smarts and her outright amazing presence as a woman, despite her career choice, sealed the deal. Too bad the book about her was merely capable instead of extraordinary.