What it comes down to is this: the grocer, the butcher, the baker, the merchant, the landlord, the druggist, the liquor dealer, the policeman, the doctor, the city father and the politician—these are the people who make money out of prostitution, these are the real reapers of the wages of sin. – Polly Adler
Business was booming for the whores of late 19th-century New Orleans; there were some 2000 prostitutes and about 40 brothels scattered all over the city, and it is estimated that the gross income of the city’s sex trade at that time amounted to some $15 million per year (about $360 million in 2011 dollars!) Then, as now, this money flowed through the demimonde and into the conventional economy, enriching merchants, restauranteurs, liquor dealers, furniture stores, shoe salesmen, milliners and landlords, to name just a few. And considering that many of those businesses were owned by politicians (and the biggest landlord in New Orleans is the Catholic Church), there was a vested interest in keeping those businesses lucrative. So when the social purity movement reached New Orleans in the 1890s and pressure began to mount for something to be “done about” prostitution, Alderman Sidney Story proposed restricting it to one part of town. This was enacted into law in 1897, and the newspapers dubbed the resulting district “Storyville” (much to the alderman’s chagrin). One year ago today I published a short history of prostitution in New Orleans with emphasis on Storyville, and today I’ll tell you about one of its more famous denizens, a madam known as Lulu White.
Her real name was apparently Lulu Hendley, and she was born sometime before 1870 on a farm near Selma, Alabama; she was a quadroon (¼ black) or possibly a light-skinned mulatto, but she claimed to be from the West Indies and to have “not a drop of Negro blood” (though nobody who met her believed this claim). She arrived in New Orleans in the early 1880s with an older dark-skinned black man who is believed to have been her stepfather (though nothing else is known of him) and immediately began working as a whore, but so ambitious and charming was she that despite average looks and a short, dumpy figure she managed to attract a number of wealthy and influential clients including an oil man, a railroad tycoon and a department-store owner, and by the end of the ‘80s she was a madam with a house of her own. Further proof of her business skill can be discerned in the fact that, though she was arrested countless times in the ‘80s on charges ranging from disorderly conduct to pandering, by 1892 she had such political influence that her mansion at 166 Customhouse Street was assessed at a mere $300…while a much smaller and plainer house across the street was assessed at $1200.
But this house was itself small in comparison with Mahogany Hall, the $40,000 four-story brothel she built at 235 Basin Street (two doors down from The Arlington) when The District was organized in 1897. Mahogany Hall was an “octoroon parlor”, i.e. a bordello staffed by Creole girls of roughly one-eighth Negro blood; one of these girls, Victoria Hall, was so lovely that Lulu “borrowed” her photo for use in her own ad for the “Blue Book” of 1906 (in which she rather dubiously claimed to be 31, which would’ve made her a madam before she turned 15). Lulu made a tremendous amount of money, and spent much of it on clothes and jewelry; as Al Rose explains in his 1974 history Storyville, New Orleans:
Vivid is the recollection still alive in certain aging heads, of Lulu descending the “hall’s” swirling staircase, decked out in her gaudy display of diamonds, smiling her celebrated diamond-studded smile, and singing her favorite song, “Where the Moon Shines”. Attired in a bright red wig and an elaborate formal gown, she wore diamond rings on all her fingers (including thumbs), bracelets up both arms, a diamond necklace, a tiara, an emerald alligator brooch on her chest – the works!
Rose also notes that the 1934 Mae West film Belle of the Nineties was originally entitled Belle of New Orleans and was inspired by Lulu White’s life, but due to the pervasive racism of the time all racial references were suppressed. Forty years later, the brothel madam in Pretty Baby (1978) was also clearly inspired by Lulu; she wears a red wig and excessive jewelry, and her brothel has a swirling mahogany staircase.
Lulu was a savvy businesswoman who understood the value of diversification and had an appreciation for new opportunities; in 1906 she made a business trip to Hollywood (in her private railway carriage) in order to investigate the potential of the new technological innovation, motion pictures. She made deals for real estate and production facilities which would’ve made her the owner of the largest studio in town, then returned to New Orleans to get the funds together. But her next move was one of those critical mistakes which changes history: she trusted someone who proved untrustworthy, namely her “fancy man”, George Killshaw. He and Lulu had been together since soon after her arrival in New Orleans, but he was slim, handsome, charming and could easily pass for white, so when Lulu sent him to California to complete the deal for her with $150,000 in cash (about $3.6 million in today’s currency) he decided to drop out of sight and start a new life elsewhere, probably as a white man.
Strangely, Lulu made no effort to find him (probably because she didn’t trust the police), but picked herself up and resumed planning for the future (albeit on a smaller scale). In 1908 she built a saloon right next door to Mahogany Hall, at the corner of Basin and Bienville Streets; it opened for business in 1912, but with the arrival of Prohibition in 1919 it ostensibly became a soft drink bar. By this time, of course, Storyville had been closed (as I explain in last year’s column) to satisfy the prudery of the Secretary of the Navy, and due to the Hollywood disaster the bar was Lulu’s only remaining business. She secretly sold liquor there, but due to her reputation was repeatedly arrested throughout the ‘20s for violating the Volstead Act. Eventually she tired of dodging the cops, and in 1929 sold the building to Leon Heymann. It was one of the few Storyville buildings not bulldozed to construct the Iberville Housing Project in the 1930s, and though it lost its upper story to Hurricane Betsy the year before I was born, the lower story was refurbished and today houses a neighborhood market.
Lulu herself vanished from history after 1931, but is known to have been alive for at least ten years afterward because (as Rose reports) she made a withdrawal from her account at the Whitney National Bank in 1941 and was recognized by the teller; her fate beyond that is unknown, but at the time she would’ve been in her seventies and is not likely to have survived much longer. There is no death certificate on record in Louisiana, so it is possible she returned to her birthplace to die (though there is no death record in Alabama, either) or else succumbed in some public place and was never identified. What a sad end for one of the harlot queens of New Orleans; imagine how different Hollywood (and perhaps even America) might’ve been had its largest studio been owned not only by a black woman, but a proud and unrepentant whore!