If the walls at 1026 Conti Street in the French Quarter could talk, they’d be international porn stars. It’s Norma’s House, the upscale brothel near the corner of Rampart run for 25 years by the sexy, shrewd and legendary “Last Madam” Norma Wallace. From 1938 until the early 1960s, Norma welcomed an upscale clientele including gangsters, governors, movie stars and scions of Uptown families.
Her often outrageous, sometimes touching and always fascinating stories are told in the best-selling “The Last Madam: A Life in the New Orleans Underworld,” by author Chris Wiltz.
“Norma’s house was the last wide-open parlor house in New Orleans,” Wiltz said. “Men went there as a rite of passage.”
During the first decade of this century, the house underwent reconstruction, and several unique features from Norma’s day were recreated, including the door to the “hideout” where the girls fled during raids and the hole in the wall where the money was secreted and the door where Norma made her payoffs.
Two years before her death in 1974, Norma began to tape-record her memories – the salacious stories of a smart, glamorous, powerful woman whose scandalous life made front-page headlines, and whose husbands and lovers ran the gamut from movie stars to gangsters to the boy next door, 39 years her junior, who became her fifth and final husband.
Wiltz’s book chronicles Norma’s rise from a life of poverty to that of a wealthy grande dame – a New Orleans legend with powerful political connections who was given the key to the city. “She answered to no one, and surrendered only to an obsessive love, which ultimately led to her surprising and violent death,” Wiltz said.
“The Last Madam” is also the story of New Orleans over five decades, steamy-thick with the vice and corruption that flourished in an Old World atmosphere.
“Wallace had the wit of Dorothy Parker and the instinct for self-dramatization of Tallulah Bankhead,” said The New York Times review. “The Last Madam admirably recreates a little slice of life otherwise devoured by time.”
Key to understanding the only owner of a bawdy house in New Orleans’ recorded history to receive the Key to the City from the mayor and council is the house itself. Built in the 1830s, the three-story, balconied building was also home to Storyville photographer E. J. Bellocq, who famously captured the “red-light ladies” for posterity.
Bellocq and his brother Leo, who would become a Jesuit priest, spent their childhoods in the building. They sold it in 1911, when E.J. Bellocq was in his late 30s, for $9,880. Bellocq particularly loved the light on the top floor; another photographer/artist now lives there. Portraits of Bellocq and Norma adorn the entry hall.