In an interview about her new book, Out of the Easy, Ruta Sepetys describes finding a different book, one that blew her away. She was out in the rain once and had ducked into a bookstore to keep from getting wet, when she saw the book The Last Madam: Life in the New Orleans Underworld by Christine Wiltz. She bought and read the book in one sitting. "The Last Madam" was Norma Wallace, a powerful madam who ran a brothel in the French Quarter of New Orleans. Sepetys was mesmerized. Years later, she was able to go to Wiltz's house, spend the day with her, and learn all about the New Orleans underworld that was home to Norma Wallace. She said she couldn't have written Out of the Easy without this book or Wiltz. Willie Woodley, the madam who runs the brothel in Sepetys' book is based on Norma Wallace.
Norma Baden, as she was originally named, was born in 1901 most likely. (She never told anyone her real age and constantly took years off when she did talk about it. Even her obituary didn't accurately represent her age.) She was a street girl for a few years, before realizing she had intuitive business skills. She then got a loan from the world bantamweight champion Pete Herman and opened her first brothel. According to records, Norma ran a few different brothel houses in New Orleans, but her most famous one was at 1026 Conti Street, a house she bought in 1938 from famous New Orleans photographer Ernest J. Bellocq.
Norma Wallace took her last name from "a bootlegger she met at the age of 15 and called the love of her life; a man she never married but a man who shot her in the ankle. According to reports, Norma shrugged off the shooting because she got a seven-carat diamond ring out of the affair.
Norma Wallace was a strict madam who didn't allow drugs or pimps in her house and ran a discreet, politically protected prostitution business. Men in politics, movie stars, and affluent businessmen were among her clientele. She ran her business from the 1920s through the 1960s, and even when New Orleans was in its prohibition heyday, Norma (and her prostitutes) did good business.
It was only after spending three months in jail, that she finally quit the business. The year was 1963 and it was the first time Norma had ever done time. She closed the doors of 1026 Conti and opened a restaurant called Tchoupitoulas Plantation which was a huge success, but which no surprise here bored the always-looking-for-action Norma.
In 1965, she married her fifth husband, Wayne Bernard (over 30 years her junior), and moved to the country. The relationship was rocky and she felt out of place outside of the city. In an interview, Bernard said that Norma would say she was never going to get old. She said she hoped to die when her husband caught her in bed with a sixteen-year-old and shot her!
But it was Norma Wallace, herself, who ultimately pulled the trigger. While in hospital in 1974, she shot herself in the head. Fortunately for posterity, she left behind dictated tape recordings about her life that she intended to turn into a memoir. She never wrote the book, but Christine Wiltz did.
Incidentally, the house at 1026 Conti was abandoned after Hurricane Katrina and was in total disrepair until a contractor bought the building and renovated it to its former splendor.
A website dedicated to Norma Wallace has links to some beautiful photo and video galleries about "The Last Madam" of New Orleans.
Picture of Norma Wallace from Criminal Wisdom
This article was originally published in March 2013, and has been updated for the
March 2014 paperback release.
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