Bohemian rhapsody - Author John Shelton Reed expounds on William Faulkner's Quarter-dwelling 'Famous Creoles'
Times-Picayune, The (New Orleans, LA)-September 16, 2012 Chris Waddington
Stocks were rising, booze was illegal and, in most of America, starched propriety was the order of the day. In 1925, President Calvin Coolidge proclaimed that "the chief business of the American people is business."
Things were a little different in New Orleans.
In fact, crossing Canal Street into the French Quarter was like leaving America entirely. On its narrow streets, grocers touted their wares in Sicilian dialect. Laundry was strung from 19th century iron balconies. Dock workers unloaded tropical cargoes. Banana trees drooped over crumbling walls. Alcohol and artists were everywhere, and there was plenty of French Quarter grist for the city's four competing newspapers to report: from jazz-powered balls where bohemians mixed with society dames, to the growing public clamor over historic preservation.
That's the world conjured by author John Shelton Reed in "Dixie Bohemia: A French Quarter Circle in the 1920s." Published by Louisiana State University Press, "Dixie Bohemia" is the 19th book by the acclaimed Southern sociologist and founder of the Center for the Study of the American South at the University of North Carolina.
"I could have written about all kinds of things, but I couldn't resist a project that allowed me to live on Burgundy Street, eat at Galatoire's and walk past stoop-sitting neighbors on my way to the archives of the Historic New Orleans Collection," Reed said. "The physical continuity of the French Quarter -- so much of the architecture still survives -- helped me make the imaginative leaps that are necessary when reconstructing the past."
Packed with archival research and illustrated with hundreds of period images, Reed's lively history is built upon one of the slimmer works in the catalog of New Orleans literature: "Sherwood Anderson and Other Famous Creoles."
Penned by a young William Faulkner and illustrated by his artist roommate, William Spratling, this 1926 lark offered a snapshot of the era, briefly sketching 43 women and men at the center of the French Quarter ferment: architects, painters, journalists, patrons, preservationists, literary writers, two pioneering archaeologists, and a Tulane University cheerleader who had once worked as a Ziegfeld Follies dancer.
Very few are actually Creole -- that is, white or African-American descendants of French or Spanish settlers -- and many were transplants to the city.
In "Dixie Bohemia," Reed fills in the social and political background and expands on Faulkner's sketches with compact biographical essays.
"The French Quarter was one of those places -- like Chelsea, Montmartre and Greenwich Village -- that drew bohemians. It had what they wanted: cheap rents, exotic charm and tolerant attitudes," Reed said. "In Prohibition-era America, it also provided easy access to alcohol -- an illegal social glue that was as important to the 1920s as marijuana would be for succeeding generations of bohemians."
Sherwood Anderson led the roll call of "Famous Creoles." In 1926, the author of "Winesburg, Ohio" was the only member of the circle with a national reputation, and he helped to bring attention to the artistic stirrings in New Orleans.
Other famous "Creoles" went on to fame in succeeding decades: Faulkner won the 1949 Nobel Prize in literature for work he wrote long after departing New Orleans; Spratling helped to revive the Mexican silver industry (and the colonial city of Taxco) with his highly collectable jewelry designs.
Most of the "Famous Creoles," Reed writes, fell into a uniquely New Orleans category, "the kind that one of them, Meigs Frost, had in mind when he wryly remarked that 'so many of us here are internationally famous locally.' "
The "Famous Creoles" left an enduring mark on the city, however. They founded Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carre, led efforts to preserve the historic buildings of the French Quarter, directed the influential Arts and Crafts Club, helped turn Tulane University into a national center for research into pre-Columbian civilizations and launched "The Double Dealer," a short-lived but influential literary magazine that published everyone from Ernest Hemingway to the Harlem Renaissance writer Jean Toomer.
"One of the things that set the 'Famous Creoles' apart from the bohemians of other cities was their interest in historic preservation. They became part of a larger civic project -- renovating the French Quarter -- and that pulled in a lot of society people who lived in Uptown," Reed said. "That wouldn't have happened if the 'Famous Creoles' had been like the leftist bohemians of Greenwich Village. Patrons don't like to hang out with people who talk about sending them to the wall."
The "Famous Creoles" included women like 74-year-old Grace King, described by Reed as the "grande dame of local color literature and no-fault history," and Helen Pitkin Schertz, a 56-year old club woman and harpist who lived in high style on Bayou St. John and battled to save the Quarter.
"Bohemians in other places would have mocked distinguished women like King and Schertz. They exemplified the romantic Old South. But in New Orleans they were able to make common cause with Quarter-dwelling writers like Anderson and Lyle Saxon because all of them were interested in preservation," Reed said. "The alliance between Uptown and downtown was also fostered by the unique sociability of New Orleans. It's hard to imagine an Atlanta banker dressing up for a costume party in the Pontalba, or Junior League ladies in any other city dancing a can-can in public."
One subject was off the table in 1926: race relations. Although the "Famous Creoles" included plenty of gay men, Jews and women active in the suffrage movement, there were no African-Americans in this bohemian circle.
"No one discussed race," Reed said. "If you came out as a racial liberal in 1926 New Orleans, you had to leave town. Jim Crow was in full force. You could take an interest in black culture, record it and romanticize it, but no one was making arguments for equality."
For better or worse, the 1920s bohemian party soon came to an end.
"The Quarter changed. The preservationists succeeded. Middle-class people began to fix up the old buildings, and gradually a lot of the 'Famous Creoles' left for bohemian scenes in Paris, Santa Fe and Taxco," Reed said. "It's a story that's repeated in every generation. I suppose it's happening in New Orleans today, as artists keep moving downriver into the Marigny and Bywater neighborhoods. A bohemian scene is one of those things that defines New Orleans."