By Diana Williams
Today, the house at 1026 Conti looks quiet and unassuming but 100 years ago, it was one of the most popular brothels in New Orleans. In the early twentieth-century, Norma Wallace, now known as the Last Madam of New Orleans, lived and ran her prostitution business from this house.
The house came with a prior history of prostitution: it was previously owned by E. J. Bellocq (warning: links to a page that may contain nudity), a photographer who documented the lives of the prostitutes of Storyville, New Orleans’ late nineteenth-century red light district. Wallace turned the place into a parlor house, with club-like sitting rooms on the ground floor and apartments above.
According to Chris Wiltz, author of “The Last Madam: A Life in the New Orleans Underworld,” Wallace was a smart, savvy businesswoman. Born in 1901, Wallace and her poor Mississippi family relocated to New Orleans when Norma was very young. Shortly after the move, her father disappeared under unknown circumstances and her mother, who may have worked as a prostitute herself, abandoned Norma and her brother Elmo.
On the streets, Wallace developed a business acumen and it was during a 1917 trip to Memphis, with one of the many men who found themselves drawn to Norma, that she decided she wanted to be a classy dame. Her traveling companion showered Wallace with attention and expensive items, things she couldn’t afford on her own. During a time when women had few options, especially without a decent education, Norma decided that prostitution could be a lucrative career. At the age of 16, she decided it was the life for her with one exception – she would never be a prostitute, but she would always be in control. Shortly after, she returned to New Orleans to pursue her dream.
By her early 20s, Wallace was running a small brothel in a space above Pete Herman’s Night Club, a New Orleans hotspot from the early to mid-1900s. Once she outgrew that space, she rented a house at 410 Dauphine before settling in at the house on Conti. From the late 1920s through the 60s, Wallace grew her business and also cemented her place as a New Orleans powerbroker. The authorities not only tolerated Wallace, many of them were her clients. As a result, she ran her brothel for close to 40 years before she was ever raided.
Wiltz is one of the foremost authorities on Norma Wallace. She has listened to hundreds of hours of tape that Norma recorded about her life and business before her death. Wiltz also interviewed Wallace’s last husband, as well as many other friends and associates. We talked with Wiltz to learn more about how an uneducated madam from a poor, rural family, garnered so much power in early twentieth-century New Orleans.
Q. Norma Wallace was known to keep a black book containing information about her clients. What sort of details were in the book and how was it used?
A. There actually were two black books, but they contained the same information. Norma would write about her clients in great detail, but she always used nicknames. Through research, I learned that “Toothpick” was the mayor, Victor Schiro. Schiro was, “a little bitty, teeny guy. He was thin as a toothpick, so we assumed Toothpick was the mayor.”
Sometimes, a client would do something that would cause Norma to write “never allow here again” next to the name.
The books were about the men who visited the house and they were an insurance policy. She figured if anyone came after her, “she had the goods on them.”
Q. How did Norma help the authorities in New Orleans?
A. Anytime she could help the police, she did, but in small ways. Norma was very discreet, she wielded her power discreetly. She once purchased a refrigerator for a policeman who couldn’t afford a new one. She would also loan money to the officers who frequented her home.
Norma helped the FBI capture a gangster named Alvin Karpis. Known as “Creepy,” Karpis was a bank robber and eventual kidnapper who made it onto the agency’s most wanted list. During one of Karpis’ visits to New Orleans, Norma learned of his whereabouts and passed the information to one of the many officers who visited the house.
Q. How was her brothel different from the others?
A. Norma was good at details – nothing got by her. The only other madam on her level was probably Glenn Evans, from whom Norma learned a lot of the business because Evans was a lot older than her.
Norma was also good at the big picture. She knew when she could operate in the open and when she had to close the house up and go undercover. Norma worked and lived at the house so she always knew what was going on.
Norma ran a high-class establishment from design. One of the men interviewed described it as “our own private club.” Norma encouraged it. Everything was always plush and immaculate so she could continue to attract big spenders.
The house was classified as a boarding house and was listed as such on her taxes, which she paid regularly so she wouldn’t run afoul of the IRS. Another madam got busted for tax evasion, so Norma renovated the rooms in her house to include bathrooms. She also, on occasion, would rent to Blue Room musicians. (The Blue Room is another historic New Orleans night club.) “She ran a completely clean operation. She didn’t let anything slip.”
Q. What led to the raid and how did it impact Norma?
A. There was a man named Jim Garrison. He was a big, strong, good-looking guy who was an articulate, brilliant lawyer. He came to Norma’s door one day offering his card and saying if there was anything he could do, to call him. Norma said in her tapes, “There was something about him I didn’t trust.”
Garrison had political aspirations and when he ran for district attorney of New Orleans, his platform was cleaning up Bourbon Street. Now, Bourbon Street was wild, but it was also a family place. Garrison managed to ruin Bourbon Street and the French Quarter for awhile. By the time Garrison was making headlines for prosecuting Clay Shaw in connection to President Kennedy’s assassination, a trial that was widely described as a circus based on wild conspiracy theories, Garrison was seen by many as crazy.
Norma knew Garrison was going to be trouble so she kept her distance. Garrison initiated the investigation against Wallace which led to the raid on 1026 Conti Street in the late 60s.
Norma spent three months in jail. She’d never been to jail before, but she made the best of it. She was allowed to bring some of the furniture from her house into her cell and she ordered dinner from the Black Orchid every night. The experience made her decide that she was through with running a brothel in New Orleans. “Three months was enough for her, even if it was the Palais Royal of jails.”
After her release, Norma and her fifth (and last) husband, Wayne Bernard moved across the Mississippi River to run a restaurant, Tchoupitoulas Plantation, and eventually moved into rural Mississippi where they lived until her suicide in 1974.
Learn more about the history of local power in this week’s episode of BackStory, Little Caesars.
BackStory Digital Editor & Strategist