For 30 years, Olive Leonhardt’s illustrations and writings sat in her granddaughter’s basement in Woodstock, New York. If it hadn’t been for a threatening flood, Gay Leonhardt might never have had to bring those boxes upstairs, forcing her to go through them.
Imagine, then, her excitement upon finding a complete illustrated manuscript of poems and images written in the 1920s, satirizing Prohibition — which, in New Orleans, “the wettest city in America,” was most certainly a joke. At the time, there was a count of 70 speakeasies in a two-block area of the French Quarter. Restaurants served booze in coffee cups instead of glasses, wink wink, and it’s said that only in New Orleans did cops pay for their drinks like everybody else.
Hilda Phelps Hammond was Olive’s co-author on the manuscript, recently published as “Shaking up Prohibition in New Orleans: Authentic vintage Cocktails from A to Z.” They were great friends, but came from very different echelons of society. While Hilda was a queen of Mardi Gras, Olive’s family was tainted with the scandal of her father having run off with a young second cousin. Both of them proved to be tough and resourceful. When Hilda’s husband got fired by Huey Long, the party was over. To make ends meet, Hilda began writing cooking articles for The Times Picayune …. although she could not cook. Friends’ recipes filled in the gaping gap in her cooking knowhow.
Both women were activists in the Women’s Suffrage movement, and both women were there for the founding of the New Orleans Junior League … although it must have been a very different organization then, as they met in a building owned by the Jewish community.
Olive kept a studio in the French Quarter with two other female artists and she traveled widely. Spending most summers in Mexico and Guatemala, she hung out with the artistic glitterati of the day, Bill Spratling, the Mexican iconic painters Diego Rivera and RufinoTamayo, and later with the literary figures Anais Nin and Gore Vidal.
The LSU Press describes this book as “cheeky poems that jab at the dubious scenario of a ‘dry’ New Orleans. A cultural snapshot of the Crescent City’s resistance to Prohibition, this satirical, richly illustrated book brings to life the spirit and spirits of a jazz city in the Jazz Age.”
I don’t know if Olive and Hilda caused the storm that caused the basement flooding that forced Gay to go through those boxes that led to uncovering the treasure that is this book. But I’m not ruling it out either.
Gay Leonhardt will be presenting and book signing along with John Magill at the Octavia bookstore on Wednesday, April 22, at 6 p.m. The original pen and ink illustrations for “Shaking Up Prohibition in New Orleans: Authentic Vintage Cocktails from A to Z,” will be shown at The Shaw Center in Baton Rouge starting on May 5, along with some of Olive’s oils from her Mexican work in a show called “Mexico in Two Americas: A Tale of Two Americas.”