So many of the French Quarter’s extraordinary houses have fascinating histories. You can hear their stories as the buggies filled with tourists pass you on the street. Some are actually true.
One house that has not been talked about much in almost half a century is located at 1026 Conti Street, a property developer Bob O’Brien purchased pre-Katrina and began renovating in 2006. A native New Orleanian with extensive knowledge about the French Quarter, even O’Brien was surprised to learn that he had bought the house once owned by the infamous Norma Wallace.
And who was Norma Wallace?
Well, she was the last madam of New Orleans, a tough, strict, five-times-married owner of a lavish, politically-protected house of prostitution that operated just a few blocks from Rampart Street, right inside the French Quarter. With “clients” ranging from local college boys to well-known gangsters, celebrities and even governors, Norma Wallace stayed in business for 25 years. Paying off the local gendarmerie as well some of the city’s influential politicians, she managed to keep herself out of trouble right up until 1963 — when she was arrested and spent three months in jail.
The day she got out she decided to close down her joy house, turn off the red light and open a restaurant instead. It was the end of an era.
Interestingly, the house at 1026 Conti, which was built in 1830, was earlier home to E.J. Bellocq, who, after his death in 1949, became renowned for his extraordinary and intimate photographic portraits of a number of prostitutes working in nearby Storyville, New Orleans’ legalized red-light district. Many of those photographs are now in national and international art collections, including the New Orleans Museum of Art.
Now renovated and repurposed into seven elegant rental apartments, 1026 Conti St. is to be part of FestiGals, a New Orleans-style weekend getaway designed by women for women. A three-day event, June 22-24, it is designed to bring women together from across the country to celebrate with fun, food and fashion. Among its activities will be a luncheon with guest speaker Hoda Kotb, as well as private tours of art and antique galleries.
On the final Sunday, June 24, developer Bob O’Brien will offer FestiGals participants a one-time-only opportunity to visit Norma Wallace’s house on a day organizers have dubbed “Saints and Sinners.” The Saints part will take place in the morning: a visit to St. Augustine Church in nearby Treme to hear their magnificent gospel mass. The Sinners will follow with a visit to 1026 Conti St. to learn more about Norma Wallace’s life as told by Christine Wiltz, author of The Last Madam: A Life in the New Orleans Underworld. Bob O’Brien will also be there to show guests the secret money drop, hidden in a false wall, where Norma Wallace kept her cash, as well as the secret room where her “ladies of the night” and their “johns” hid from certain “anticipated” police raids.
Sharon Litwin is president of NolaVie.