My work as a photo-journalist took me to New Orleans on a number of occasions in the 1970s. I found, in the French Quarter, a history, characters, events that echoed on my writer’s inner ear long after my departure. An intoxicating mix of illicit sex and wickedness hangs in the air here. “Breakfast at Brennan’s” was the result.The famous Belloq photograph of one of the ladies of Storyville with her striped stockings and bottle of rye whiskey.
“To his senses she reeked of a powerful, sensual evil, a feeling that evoked some deep, deep memory that both excited and disturbed him. He shrugged off the feeling, but it clung like a chill winter mist rising off the delta waters.”
Here is an excerpt:
Giles De La Ronde was born blind, but since a man cannot rue the loss of something he never had, he asked for sympathy from none. In fact, he reveled in a very special superiority over his sighted neighbors in the Vieux Carré.
In place of sight he claimed he was gifted with an ear so finely tuned that he could hear the blood coursing through a woman’s veins at twenty paces, and a sense of smell equally as acute. And something more, a sixth sense that gave him the ability to somehow fashion the shape and mood of people as he passed them by.
His story is about a woman. She came into De La Ronde’s life early one spring. You would know her if you had ever frequented New Orleans, Cannes, Palma, or Beirut when these cities were alive. You might even have met her had you ever taken your pleasures in the brothels of the Reepersbahn, the vice circuses of London, or the flesh marts of Istanbul.
The winter chill had mellowed in the Vieux Carré, and De La Ronde liked to walk the streets in the cool air. He strolled down Chartres, Royal and Bourbon, delighting in the warmth of the sun on his face as his route cut through the intersections between Ursulines and St. Louis.
He took in the smells of the freshly washed streets, breakfasts cooking in kitchens above the shops, the dirgeful blues born notes of a tired musician making his last comment on a stale beer, sweat stained and smoky workday.
It was often De La Ronde’s habit to take breakfast at the conclusion of such a stroll. On this day he had decided to breakfast at Brennan’s. He was, of course, known to all of the staff. He was always admitted to the premises ahead of the queue of tourists who patiently awaited the eight o’clock opening hour. By the time they entered, De La Ronde would already be seated at his favorite table at a shaded spot on the back patio. The position was of utmost importance to the blind man because it was essential to the enjoyment of his all-consuming passion, eavesdropping.
A short distance from this table was an alcove formed by the corner of two walls and the patio foliage. It was a private little place amidst the bustle of the patio. Politicians, businessmen and women, and lovers were drawn to it for the privacy it offered amidst the regular Brennan’s patrons. However, the walls funneled the whispered conversations to the very table at which De La Ronde sat. His highly attuned ears had little trouble in filtering the spoken words from the surrounding noise.
On this particular morning, he ordered Eggs Hussarde. As he began to pour his marchand de vin sauce, a body gently brushed past his elbow. A hand touched his shoulder with gentle firmness and he felt the closeness of a face to his ear as a woman uttered an apology in a low husky voice.
As she walked away, De La Ronde’s senses were flooded with vibrant impressions. Most overpowering was that of a rapacious sexuality and a clean, fresh bodily aroma ever so slightly enhanced by the faintest hint of expensive cologne applied upon the neck and, so it seemed to him, between the thighs. A lack of other scents made him realize there was an absence of make-up, creating an impression of confident beauty that needed no adornment.
De La Ronde was at once curious and excited, so aroused, in fact, that he had forgotten whether or not he had poured the marchand de vin. He had to dip a finger into the sauce boat to make sure…
The stench of the Gauloises preceded O’Meara by several seconds. De La Ronde immediately recognized both the smell of the unfiltered French cigarettes and the limping gait caused, it was said, by a poison knife thrust by a gris-gris charm maker that the old policeman had run from the Quarter.
“Mr. Ronde, I wonder if I might sit for a moment. I have a somewhat delicate matter on which I need your assistance?”
De La Ronde marveled at how the soft Irish accent had been passed down to this American born of immigrant residents to the city’s Channel District more than three generations ago. O’Meara had long retired from the City’s police force. He was, however, well respected in the Quarter. The pimps and the prostitutes, the merchants and society all used him as an unofficial conduit of information and ‘arrangements’ with the police. The police, in turn, used him to broach ‘delicate matters’ with those members of society to whom a direct approach would be considered politically unwise.
De La Ronde waved an arm and a second cup of coffee was served to O’Meara as he slowly sat down. He drank, then leaned forward and spoke in a whisper he well knew De La Ronde would hear with clarity.
“Your maid has left your service, Mr. Ronde.”
“Yes, several days ago, O’Meara. I had no idea this merited your attention.”
“It doesn’t of course, except that she came to us the same day with concerns for your well being. It seems you were entertaining two women. A Jane Doe and a girl called Elise Cannally. The maid insisted that the Jane Doe had some kind of voodoo wickedness in mind. Of course we could do nothing. There was no evidence of any crime. We did watch though. The Cannally woman, it turned out, was a prostitute. We know she left your apartments a little while after she arrived, and that the other woman left early the next morning. Who was she?”
“O’Meara, she would not be the first woman to have stayed overnight in my ‘apartments’ as you call them. As for her name, I can truthfully say that I still do not know. What’s the point to all this?”
“The point is the Cannally girl was found in the harbor several days ago. We didn’t ID her until the officer who watched your house saw the morgue photos. He’s not absolutely sure it’s the woman he saw leaving your place. We want you to confirm the ID. We want to know what you can tell us about her. The Jane Doe and Cannally are not, of course the kind of company you are known to keep. There must have been some special reason for them to enter the house and run off the maid.”
De La Ronde’s breakfast suddenly seemed unappetizing. He had, somehow, to avoid mentioning the bogus Justine Holmes business, to refrain from dragging the Laussat name into this.
“The woman you call a Jane Doe wished to meet me. I had used Elise’s services a number of times before and she arranged the introduction.”
“Oh really, a number of times? That’s very interesting. What, I wonder, would you be doing with a girl who was a confirmed lesbian? Don’t answer, Mr. Ronde all I need is for you to confirm the identification.”
The morgue drawer slid open and O’Meara took De La Ronde’s hand and placed it on the face of the cadaver within. De La Ronde fought the revulsion and ran his fingertips over the cold flesh, recoiling slightly as he felt the open eyes and then the gaping mouth.
“Yes this is her, there is no doubt.”
Then De La Ronde gasped as his hands ran across the top of the head.
“The hair. The lovely long blonde hair is gone.”
Instead of the intricately woven hair beneath his fingertips there was a closely cropped crew cut, the only length being at the back of the head.
“Blonde? What do mean? Her hair is black.” O’Meara snapped impatiently.
“Very black. Her hair was the one thing clearly described by the maid, and the officer who saw her leave your apartments De La Ronde. And why blonde? You are blind, why would that matter to you?”
“Black. No. It’s supposed to be blonde, very long and…”
De La Ronde suddenly felt weak. His hands trembled as he returned to the face. There was no doubt. It was the girl Elise.
“How did she die?”
“We are not entirely sure. She was found naked in the harbor, but she didn’t drown. The pathologist said she died of a massive heart attack. Yet she was healthy, athletic even. Not your usual candidate for heart problems. Then there is a matter of her clothes. We know she wasn’t raped, the tests proved that. Besides that wasn’t her style.”
“Yes, Mr. Ronde. You see, Elise Cannally was a gay sporting girl who serviced women of like tastes visiting the Crescent City. She never sold herself to men. Which is why I find it so interesting that you say you spent time with her. The Jane Doe is not entirely unknown to us. She seems to have a different name every time we encounter her. She is reviled and feared here for many things, even by the local underworld. She is very dangerous and impossible to catch with her hands dirty, yet her visitations here are usually accompanied by deaths and disappearances.
“The blacks tell me she is old evil, maybe even Marie Laveau reincarnated or perhaps never dead. All I know is that this woman is hovering around the edges of a lot of bad deaths and disappearances but never close enough to get caught. We have no reason to suspect that you were directly implicated in the Cannally death, Mr. Ronde. If you can throw any light at all on her activities prior to the crime, well, it would be most helpful, I’m sure.”
The ten thousand words of Breakfast At Brennan’s evolved and became “Tales of the Quarter,” a three-part ms that further explored the denizens of the quarter from colonial times to the 19th century.