I blew into New Orleans with my buddy Bicente this past Halloween and scared the bejezus out of the Big Sleazy on our absinthe-laced boozy first night there when I tripped and fell on Bourbon Street, then slid face first into a gutter. I got scrapes on my knees and elbows for all the wrong reasons, as well as a bruise the size of Africa on my left thigh. And local spices made my ass so sore I decided to forgo a visit to The Club bathhouse on lower Toulouse Street (“Too Loose!” Bicente called it) in the French Quarter.Still, on this, my third trip to N’Awlins – a city founded in 1718 by the former French governor of Louisiana, Jean-Baptiste le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, who was born in Montreal in 1680 – I regaled friends old and new in a city that has won my heart.
On Halloween night Bicente and I checked out two parades, Jim Monaghan’s Annual Halloween Parade through the Quarter (complete with horse-drawn carriages, stilt walkers and the Storyville Stompers Brass Band), then the Blaine Kern-helmed Krewe of Boo’s first annual Halloween parade, an affair as grand and garish as Mardi Gras and Southern Decadence, but with a whole lot less exposed flesh.
“Baby, we got to get the word out that New Orleans is back and alive and at the same time help the emergency personnel who’ve helped make our recovery possible,” says Kern.
Make no mistake: New Orleans is back with a vengeance, despite its evacuation when hurricane Gustav spoiled Southern Decadence this past Labour Day Weekend.
During a typical year prior to Katrina, New Orleans hosted nine million visitors annually. In 2006, the numbers dropped to 3.7 million (with U.S. $2.8-billion in spending), then rose to 7.1 million in 2007 (with U.S. $4.8-billion in spending).
But the French Quarter remains clean and undamaged – despite my headlong plunge into a Bourbon St. gutter – on the high ground Jean-Baptiste le Moyne built the original settlement on back in 1718.
Following the parades, Bicente and I hightailed it over to our friends Dan and Dave’s annual Halloween party in their French Quarter shotgun cottage where they laid out our matching Roman charioteer outfits and feathered headdresses.
Except they were made of silver lamé.
“We look more like Vegas showgirls!” Bicente cracked.
Bourbon was jam-packed with KISS members, fat Elvises, drag queens, Martians, RCMP officers, you name it – and the costumes got wilder and wilder in the gay “Fruit Loop” where we fleetingly were the centre of attention, posing for photographs and getting my Roman charioteer butt grabbed by strangers.
But we weren’t always the centre of attention: When we weren’t recovering in our fab hotel room at Harrah’s Casino (www.harrahsneworleans.com) on Canal St. – the round-the-clock luxury complex boasts the city’s finest steakhouse, Montrealer Gino Vanelli headlined the week we were there and Celine Dion performs this month – then we were checking out the Preservation Hall Jazz Band in tiny Preservation Hall (“You’re a role model!” the bandleader told me in front of everybody when I gave him $10 to play When the Saints Go Marching In), we were sailing the Mississippi on the Steamboat Natchez (though I can’t stand the riverboat’s just-out-of-tune calliope) and visiting the two French Quarter homes of Tennessee Williams on Toulouse and St. Peters Streets.
Now, I may not be as flamboyant a writer as Tennessee (he wrote his iconic A Streetcar Named Desire in NOLA), but we both liked to booze it up at Café Lafitte in Exile, the oldest gay bar in America, at the corner of Bourbon and Dumaine.
Bicente and I also dined at the famed Brennan’s Restaurant with my fabulous friend Bonnie Warren, a southern belle if I ever I knew one, who used to rent Clay Shaw’s French Quarter apartment, as well as attend parties at Anne Rice’s Garden District home before Rice recently moved to Arizona.
Bonnie also brought us to the most important plantation in the history of America, Houmas House, which at its height owned over 2,000 slaves who tilled its 250,000 acres to produce 40 per cent of the sugar made in America (www.houmashouse.com).
Today, the plantation’s Sugar Palace – crown jewel of Louisiana’s River Rd. and now just 38 acres of lush gardens – is owned by eccentric multimillionaire Kevin Kelly, who hosted us for lunch.
“We host lots of weddings here,” Kevin says, “but we haven’t had any same-sex commitment ceremonies yet. But we’d love to have them!”
The plantation’s creative director, artist Jim Blanchard, gave us a personal tour of the grand home nicknamed “Bachelor House” by locals because its principal owners have all been bachelors, including John Burnside, who I assume was gay.
“He never married and left no heirs, but we’ll never really know,” Jim told me.
The home’s original living, dining and drawing room furnishings are now in the White House, but the home – the model for Tara in Margaret Mitchell’s Pulitzer-winning novel Gone With the Wind, and whose onetime owner Wade Hampton was the model for Gerald O’Hara – remains filled with treasures.
“But [in that era] there were no gay draperies in the house!” Jim laughs.
This is also the home where the 1965 Hollywood movie Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte was filmed. Bette Davis lived here for two weeks, and the Sugar Palace is still home to a vengeful spirit, whom – I swear – opened a creaky closet door as I left the Bette Davis room.
But ghosts are precisely what makes New Orleans such a wonderful, spirited place. You never know what you’ll find around the next corner, maybe even me crawling out of a gutter.
Richard Burnett is Editor-at-Large of
Montreal’s Hour magazine where he writes his national
queer-issues column Three Dollar Bill, which you can also read online at www.hour.ca.