Review: Spectacular Wickedness
Emily Epstein Landau. Spectacular Wickedness: Sex, Race, and Memory in Storyville, New Orleans. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 2013. xviii + 310 pp. ISBN 978-0-80715-014-6.
Today, the popular image of Storyville as the most (in)famous prostitution district in American history is mostly myth. It is a product of the marketing devices of New Orleans’s tourism industry, the commercial interests of local business owners, the willful ignorance of city residents, and the mindless consumption of visiting revelers. Emily Epstein Landau joins a string of historians interested in replacing Storyville’s mystified past with “the trauma of poverty, racism, and gender inequality” that developed out of “the material reality of prostitution and Jim Crow in turn-of-the-century New Orleans” (206). More than a book about people having sex in a red light district, Spectacular Wickedness situates Storyville at the center of moral contests over sex and race that were happening in New Orleans and throughout the United States.
The opening of Storyville on January 1, 1898, was the product of a city council ordinance that legalized prostitution within nineteen square blocks north of the French Quarter in New Orleans. At the time, the establishment of a vice district was nothing new, given that most American cities with more than 100,000 residents also included prostitution districts within their borders. The turn of the century was an era marked by the moral visions of progressive reformers interested in meeting the social challenges of urbanization and industrialization. From the perspectives of these reformers—most of whom were white, middle-class, Christian men—the legalization of prostitution districts was a hallmark of modern thinking and an instrument of the state to quarantine peoples, actions, and ideas deemed undesirable, immoral, and “other.” To wit, Storyville became “a stage for acting out cultural fantasies of white supremacy, patriarchal power, and a renewed vision of American manhood,” with women of color playing the leading and sometimes tragic roles (1).
Chapter One, “The Promised Land of Harlotry,” is a sprint through the streets of Storyville and the history of prostitution in New Orleans. Landau introduces the men, women, music, and bordellos that made up the daily happenings of Storyville from 1898 to 1917. Then she goes back in time to the colonial origin and antebellum flourishing of prostitution in the city, choosing, somewhat uncritically, to elaborate on Herbert Asbury’s characterization of New Orleans “as the promised land of harlotry” (38). Chapter Two, “The Quadroon Connection,” is a continuation of Landau’s development of the historical context of Storyville with an eye toward the legacies of race and racism in New Orleans. It was no accident, according to Landau, that Plessy v. Ferguson—the U.S. Supreme Court case that found racial segregation to be constitutional in 1896—involved a man of mixed race from New Orleans. Storyville, when it came to interracialism, turned the prohibition against sex across the color line on its head, with women of color playing the part of the “tragic octoroon” in ways that Landau finds similar to the buying and selling of “fancy girls” in slave markets and the plaçage (interracial concubinage) associated with quadroon balls.
Out of this historical context, Landau uses the remaining four chapters to explore the intersection of racial and sexual politics in Storyville. Chapter Three, “Public Rights and Public Women,” identifies the origin of Storyville with political and economic initiatives to make New Orleans a “respectable” place for businesses to grow and tourism to thrive. The segregation of commercial sex was a product of this New South outlook, but one that mapped onto similar efforts at racial segregation. Chapter Four, “Where the Light and Dark Folks Meet,” highlights the irony of quarantining interracial sexual license, in that “Storyville promoted and profited from marketing miscegenation at a time when interracial sex was strictly forbidden and black/white distinctions were supposed to be absolute” (110). Chapter Five, “Diamond Queen,” stands out in Spectacular Wickedness for its focus on the life of Storyville’s “most notorious madam,” Lulu White, and the women of color who attracted so much attention from white males (132). In this “dialectic of repulsion and desire,” Landau chronicles Lulu White’s “life on the color line … to see that line for what it often was: blurry, ambiguous, false, and, nonetheless, vigorously grasped and violently enforced” (134). And Chapter Six, “The Last Stronghold of the Old Regime,” documents the closure of Storyville in 1917 by discussing larger progressive initiatives that came out of the Spanish-American War and World War I. As “an ideationally bounded, liminal space,” Landau concludes that Storyville was more than just a peculiar site in an equally peculiar city (200). Rather, “Storyville was part of the transition from slavery’s racial patriarchy to the New South’s fraternal white supremacy, from slavery, that is, to segregation” (200).
The chief strength of Spectacular Wickedness is the connection that it makes between white supremacy, racial segregation, and sexual legislation in the New South. Landau shows how the progressive dreams and sexual fantasies of white male reformers crystalized in Storyville, resulting in a porous cordon sanitaire that exemplified regional and national visions for a modern society. Landau’s scrupulously researched profile of Lulu White, in particular, is a model for historians interested in giving voice to women of color so often absent from the archival record. That being said, Spectacular Wickedness is also a reminder of how little we can know of the women who lived and worked and dreamed in Storyville. With a keen understanding of this erasure of the past, Landau ends her book with the words of Abigail Adams echoing in her head—“remember the ladies”—knowing full well that there is so much that we will never know about Storyville. The faces and bodies of the kind photographed by Ernest Bellocq and portrayed on the cover of Spectacular Wickedness reinforce Landau’s parting words and encourage others to continue the work of historical discovery.