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The Last Madam: A Life In The New Orleans Underworld Paperback – January, 2001

3.8 out of 5 stars 295 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Actually, they called themselves "landladies" in New Orleans, though that didn't change the nature of their business: running houses of prostitution in the city's wide-open French Quarter. Beginning in 1920, when she was still in her teens, Norma Wallace managed a high-class bordello for an affluent and influential clientele, evading the police and asserting her sexual freedom "like a man" despite the nominal confines of several rickety marriages. Obsessive love for a man 39 years her junior and her first-ever jail term finally put Wallace out of the business in the mid-1960s, but her memories were still vivid and raunchy when she tape-recorded material for an autobiography in the two years before her suicide in 1974. Novelist Christine Wiltz makes good use of those recordings in an earthy narrative filled with great anecdotes, from how the name of Wallace's dog became local slang for an out-of-town customer to the time an undertaker's premises served as her temporary place of business. Wiltz also interviewed many of Wallace's lovers and associates; she draws on popular journalism and scholarly monographs with equal acuity to flesh out Norma's story. Her perceptive biography of a colorful and complex woman is equally satisfying as a social history of 20th-century New Orleans. --Wendy Smith --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Mystery and nonfiction writer Wiltz (Glass House, etc.) offers an affecting portrayal of the woman who for 40 years ran the last successful high-class brothel in New Orleans, and of her vanished demimonde. Born into poverty in 1901, Norma Wallace became a streetwalker in her teens, but by the early 1920s had decided that a more comfortable, profitable living lay in being a "landlady"--running a discreet, lavish, politically protected house of prostitution. Shrewd and ambitious--and a strict madam--she quickly became an underworld force within the wide-open New Orleans of the 1920s-1940s, enjoying numerous romances along the way with a Capone-linked gangster, then-blind champion bantamweight Pete Herman and entertainer Phil Harris, among others. Norma's first serious arrest came only in 1962, and it sped her retirement a few years later. Wiltz, who makes excellent use of Norma's tape-recorded, unpublished memoirs (Norma died in 1974), understands that this tale is necessarily one of corruption and acquiescence in mid-century urban America: Norma could not have prospered without the ritualized, baroque corruption of local law enforcement as well as the town's leading economic lights and political figures, who often checked their pious selves at Norma's door. Wiltz thus elevates a sometimes impeccably assembled historical narrative above its elementary bawdy elements into something more elegant and fragile: the resurrection of a secret world, like those uncovered by Luc Sante and James Ellroy. (Jan.)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Da Capo Press; Reprint edition (January 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0306810123
  • ISBN-13: 978-0306810121
  • Product Dimensions: 5.9 x 0.7 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (295 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #86,099 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

To be born in New Orleans is simply a terrific piece of luck, especially if you're a raconteur, but then, every person you meet anywhere has a story they'd like to tell. In New Orleans they don't hesitate. This is a city where creativity flourishes, from the downtown art scene to the dialogues overheard in the aisles at the grocery store.

Another piece of luck is that my mother happened to be a reader and liked mysteries. I write mysteries sometimes; there was no way to avoid that after my mother read Sherlock Holmes stories to me at bedtime for years. She gave me a way to escape, and eventually a profession, and I have run with it ever since.

When I went to college I majored in journalism at Loyola because I'd been the editor of my high school newspaper, but eventually I dropped out of journalism and read my way through a B.A. in English at San Francisco State University. After college I held numerous jobs while I taught myself to write. I was a proofreader at a Los Angeles advertising agency, worked in a drug rehab center at Tulane University Medical School, left to become the costumer for a 1950s nostalgia band, ran a bookstore, and wrote for various trade journals with subjects as diverse as lounges, restaurants and electronics, until I found myself as a short order cook at a French Quarter establishment. One Saints Sunday I put too many burgers on the grill and nearly burned down the kitchen. I lost the job, but no one can argue that learning how to put out a grease fire is a good thing to know.

Soon after this debacle, I read The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler and decided I wanted to write about New Orleans the way he had written about Los Angeles. So I wrote three mysteries featuring an Irish Channel detective, Neal Rafferty. Like so many other New Orleanians, Neal has a large dysfunctional but close family, and was shaped into his own peculiarities by the city where he'd been born. Those three books are The Killing Circle, A Diamond Before You Die, and The Emerald Lizard.
Next I wrote Glass House, a novel based on a true incident in which a police officer was murdered on the border of one of New Orleans' most violent housing projects. This novel took on the challenges of race and fear. While it was set in New Orleans, the problems were, and unfortunately still are, some of the tough issues that face our country.

This was followed by The Last Madam: A Life in the New Orleans Underworld, a biography of Norma Wallace, the French Quarter legend who ran the last wide-open parlor house in town. The book is based on Norma's taped "confessions" and interviews with over 100 people. The Last Madam has been produced as a play and is currently under option for the screen.
In New Orleans Noir, an entry in Akashic Books great noir series, I have a story, "Night Taxi," the only short story I've ever written. I've written essays and journalism for The New Yorker, The Los Angeles Times, and many other magazines, reviews and journals. I have written two screenplays which did not find a screen, a few treatments, and co-wrote and -produced a documentary, Race and the American Dream, about David Duke and his followers, first aired on PBS in 1992.

My latest book is Shoot the Money, a novel that is social commentary disguised as a dark-humor crime novel. Like my other books with New Orleans settings, its themes are both those that are peculiar to New Orleans, especially in the aftermath of Katrina, and many that are more universal. Money and friendship are at the heart of this book as it explores women's relationship with money, their desire for money, how they begin to understand what money does to those who have it, lose it, pursue it, or steal it. The women in Shoot the Money are on a rapid chase toward a better life. They've got the money, they're smart and they're daring. And they've got a gun. They could just whip it out and shoot somebody, but that would be way too easy.
In addition to writing, I've also spent some time at both Tulane and Loyola Universities as a visiting writer-in-residence and an adjunct professor, teaching creative writing courses. I enjoyed teaching and I've enjoyed many of the seminars I've conducted around the country as well. Inspiration and knowledge always come from those who want to learn.

Presently, I am active in the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival, and I am also on the advisory board of the Walker Percy Center for Writing and Publishing at Loyola. My interest, besides writing about the city of my birth, is to be involved in expanding the literary infrastructure of New Orleans and helping to get recognition for the vibrant literary scene here that is full of writers, editors and publishers whose talents are wonderfully diverse.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
New Orleans is one of the most visited cities in the USA. Even the casual visitor has been told the stories of prostitution and corruption in the majestic French Quarter. The story of Norma Wallace based in part on her audio taped autobiogaphy gives the present day reader the best look at what this life was really like. The writer is convincing, by naming names and places, that the world's oldest profession was almost respectible, even in the last half of the 20th century. The research done to write this book is amazing. The opinion you form of Norma, by the end of the book,is surprising. A good book and a must if you are familiar with New Orleans
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Format: Hardcover
I was a young investigative reporter living in the French Quarter in the era Christine Wiltz writes about, and I saw it all -- the political payoffs, the crooked cops, the upscale whores and the spavined sluts, the overstuffed and pompous city fathers, the pimps and touts and junkies. What a rich mix it was! Wiltz, a native Orleanian, put the odor of pralines and boiled crawfish and "buster" crabs back in my nostrils for the first time in 50 years. She's caught the era perfectly, and with considerable writing skill. "The Last Madame" is as authentic as an open grave in the St. Louis Cemetery.
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Format: Hardcover
When the subject of this book shrugs off being shot in the ankle because she got a 7-carat diamond ring out of the affair, you know this is no ordinary person. Norma Wallace was one of the last Madams' of New Orleans. For more than 4 decades she ran her various houses that were the locations where young men were brought for their introduction to the carnal pleasures of adulthood, where actresses and actors frequently paid visits, and where a good percentage of politicians and law enforcement officers also passed some time. The book is not a glorification of what was at times a brutal existence. The book and the behavior of many is entertaining, but when reality becomes a bit too easy, incidents that were absolutely horrible brought reality back with great intensity.
This is a story of a woman who knew what she wanted at a very young age, and who by the 1920's was making 100,000 per year. To survive and thrive during changes in political landscapes she was not only an exceedingly shrewd businesswoman, she was also a grand manipulator of politicians, and law enforcement. She managed to fit in 5 marriages, a relationship with a nationally known gangster, and the creation of a wildly successful restaurant business in with all her other interests. This woman was one of the original practitioners of multitasking.
All of this came with a price, the same man who was a gangster might try to kill her one night, her jewelry that was valued at 70,000 decades ago and which she wore daily would make her a target. And for 40 years there was always some new rookie cop or politician that wanted to make his mark by closing her down.
The story is wild, amazing and true; the read is almost as fast paced as her life.
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By A Customer on February 11, 2000
Format: Hardcover
A fabulous book with wonderful descriptions of New Orleans. Norma is, of course, legendary, so it was a privilege to finally learn the details of her fascinating life. It kept me on my toes the entire time I was reading it. How amazing that you can know how everything turns out at the end and still not be able to put it down until you're finished.
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Format: Hardcover
This book had all the makings of a true page turner - a madam, her girls, political corruption, a hot steamy setting and more, it just didn't read like a page turner. Yes, there were parts that held me captive on the edge of my seat waiting to see what happened, but then there were vast sections that were about as interesting to read as the telephone book.
Gleaned from her own taped memoirs and other previously written articles as well as interviews with friends and accquaintences the professional life of Norma Wallace, New Orlean's last madam, seemed rather lack luster. With so much raw material, what went wrong? Oddly the later parts of the book, after Ms. Wallace's retirement from the business seemed to hold much more interest for me than those dealing with her working days.
From a historical perspective I think this was a good read as Ms. Wallace's life in the French Quarter spanned quite a long period of time. This is not the stuff you learn about in Louisiana history. I learned alot more about our past mayors from this book than I ever did in a history class. I particularly liked that addresses of the houses where she was a "landlady" were given. I will definately spend some afternoon in the near future scouring the French Quarter for these addresses.
All in all it was a fairly decent book. I think it will hold particular interest for New Orleaneans like myself, but would not be as appealing to the rest of the general popluation.
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Format: Hardcover
The colorful life of "landlady" Norma Wallace is laid out here in great detail -- her thoughts, shortcomings and enviable business sense, and the obsession with the beauty of youth that eventually becomes her downfall. Novelist Christine Wiltz has meticulously researched her subject, so readers not only come away with a full understanding about New Orleans' last real madam, they also get a real feel of the N'awlins of the early to mid 20th century. A great read before or during a trip to the Big Easy -- and an equally great read even if you've never set foot in the Crescent City.
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