For years, I’ve had the nagging fear that the New Orleans Spring Fiesta Association, which wraps up its 2011 events with house tours this weekend, stopped offering plantation tours because the Marshall family was so casual about it all.
Mother barely got things together in time for the first Spring Fiesta tour of Madewood. We’d painted the ballroom and restored its flooring, but finishing touches were sparse: Light streamed through the tall un-curtained windows — which I secretly have always thought looks better than elaborate curtains.
There was no time to have a fiesta dress made, so Mother bought a second-hand wedding dress, slipped a petticoat under it and tied a violet ribbon around her waist. On the big day, she tripped the light fantastic in the ballroom with local sheriff Gaston Gros.
When TV personalities Bob and Jan Carr arrived, themselves and all four children in elaborate ante-bellum regalia, you’d have sworn the entire Confederacy had descended on the place. (The incident is curiously absent from the Carr’s new book, Raising Our Children on Bourbon.)
All this hoopla was new to a friend I’d invited up for the weekend. She had nothing of the period to wear, but Mother produced a slim white lace dress that had belonged to a relative, which fit her perfectly.
As I’ve always favored redheads, over the years the dress was worn at Madewood by a succession of carrot-topped demoiselles.
In the late summer of 1981, our thoroughly-modern Millie, who wasn’t wild about wearing a big traditional gown – or, heaven forbid, a hoop skirt –had, at her mother’s insistence, tried on a succession of wedding dresses at D. H. Holmes department store on Canal Street. Exhausted and frustrated, she remembered the lace dress at Madewood and took it to every Uptown lady’s favorite dress shop at the time, Town and Country, for a makeover.
The seamstress, Mrs. Royals, took a nip and a tuck here and there, created a brilliant yellow slip to show through, and topped it all with a flowing yellow sash — all for $75.
Francis (as she spelled her name) Dorsey, Madewood’s housekeeper and a person of standards who had married and buried two preachers, felt it wasn’t fitting for the new mistress to wear a hand-me-down dress on her wedding day; but Millie persisted, fueling Francis’ apprehension that trouble lay ahead.
Millie looked radiant that day in the soft October sun, but next day declared that the dress was being officially retired, like the football jersey of a Superbowl champion.
Millie isn’t the only family member who prefers to live in the present, tolerating the past.
My brother Don always viewed these dress-up events at Madewood with something of a jaundiced eye. Don’s outre’ sense of humor has kept him sane through his adventures as the first director of the Contemporary Arts Center, Executive Director of Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carre (“La Petite” to true New Orleanians), Director of both the Cultural Management Program at S.L.U. and the Arts Administration Graduate Program at U.N.O. and, finally, as Executive Director of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and Foundation since 2004. A fine arts and journalism major at Washington and Lee University, he’s had bouts of artistic fervor over the years that betray an innate ability to create a bizarre image out of something perfectly natural — like the Spring Fiesta.
My favorite, a quick pencil sketch titled “Spring Fiesta,” features a cobra, ready to spring toward its victim, its coiled length spiraling upward in narrowing circles that approximate a hoop skirt.
Its companion piece, “The Link Between Fish and Man,” was inspired by a letter I wrote Don when Yale acquired, with great fanfare, a large frozen fish – nee Coelacanth (that’s Latimeria chalumna, old chap) – that we all got to view, laid out a la Bultman’s, in a big chest freezer of sorts. With its stubby little fins, professors postulated, its great-to-the- 20th-power grandparents had tried to creep up on land and walk. In Don’s version, a Citroen Diane – that wonderful French car that leveled itself and gave every indication of being from another planet – is seen skulking up menacingly from the depths of Lake Pontchartrain onto the beach, no doubt headed for a pink drink with paper umbrella at the long-gone Bali H’ai restaurant before surreptitiously blending into the Spring Fiesta’s Night in Old New Orleans parade.
So goes evolution in New Orleans, in this case with really intelligent design.
One year, friends from New Orleans came up to Madewood for the Spring Fiesta plantation tour. As their Citroen Diane turned into our gravel drive, its hydraulic sprung suspension righted the vehicle as it leaned ever-so-slightly into the turn, allowing it to creep gingerly up the path. As one of its occupants exited the futuristic vehicle with her two Pekinese, who always rode on red velvet pillows in the car, we knew the Age of Aquarius had arrived.
“M’mm’mm,” murmured Francis, shaking her head as she gave the strange-looking vehicle the once-over from the screen porch. “What are they gonna think of next? A car that flies?”
If so, I know who should do the illustration.