Shutter Down

00:00 December 21, 2013

 New Orleans is known as a hub for rich cultural heritage, preserving the city’s lasting legacies through historical restoration and an overall community respect for tradition. Since it’s founding in 1718 by the French Mississippi Company, the dynamic history of the city holds within it the individual stories of many industries, cultures, religions, artistic movements, and more. One of the industries that has influenced the city in countless ways has been New Orleans’ knack for tourism which also brought with it the infamous brothel business. Some of the country’s most notorious figures and stories of life in the brothels come straight from New Orleans. Prominent figures like Napoleon entered the narrative early on, while famous Madames, along with whole houses of the Storyville vice district, continued the legacy, and picked up again during the last reign of landlady Norma Wallace in the mid-1900’s. Through the operation of tours, preservation of historic objects, and in the bindings of books, this dynamic story is told still today with evidence of its imprint all around the city.
Highlighting many of these spots is the New Orleans’ Original Red Light Tour, which guides attendants through the downtown area, telling the stories of some of the most famous brothel houses, landladies, and tango halls. Former tour guide, Logan Schutts, tells of his experiences and knowledge in guiding the tour, which he says begins by walking to the Napoleon House. Schutts describes a plan in the early 1800’s where Napoleon was to escape from his exile on St. Helena Island in order to start a “New France” in the area surrounding New Orleans. “They had that place stocked with a bunch of girls ready for Napoleon and his men right around the time that the building was built,” he describes, “but Napoleon ended up dying.”
Though not officially a brothel, it is this same attitude among city officials that led to the issuing of licenses for brothel owners, and the eventual creation of the Storyville vice district. Storyville, so named after its founder City Councilman Sidney Story, was formed in 1897 in order to make the French Quarter a more family-friendly area where drinking, crime, and prostitution could be consolidated to one section outside its borders. “Prostitution has never been legal in the city of New Orleans,” Schutts reiterates, “but it has been tolerated.” This toleration, as he continues, came largely from one simple rule…close your shutters.
From the Tango Belt, located in the French Quarter, to Storyville, this was a strict rule. Failing to comply often-meant trouble for many landladies, the less offensive term for Madame according to Schutts, as well as dance hall owners. As long as the shutters were closed anything could go. “There weren’t anymore brothels there, but the dance of the tango was at the height of its popularity and there were a lot of live tango clubs. And you know, the dance of the tango is a very intimate couples dance,” he tells of the Tango Belt. However, sometime in 1914, the Catholic church declared the dance of the tango to be immoral, lending the highly Catholic city of New Orleans to follow suit in its actions. The tango halls then had to have shutters on them so that people from the outside couldn’t see the raunchiness-taking place on the inside. “And then the nickname of that area changed from the Tango Belt to Shutter Town,” the licensed tour guide explains. “The phrase ‘shutter down’ comes from Shutter Town,” Schutts describes.
In Storyville, shutters had meaning as well. One particular landlady, French Emma, had particular reason for the shutters as she pushed the limits on public entertainment within her brothel house. She would have live sex shows of all different types, sometimes ones that even involved animals. “Anytime she ever got in trouble with the police it wasn’t about what she was doing in there it was always just about the fact the she didn’t have her shutters closed when it was going on,” Schutts tells. “So it really became the kinda deal where anything was tolerated if they had their shutters closed,” he further describes.
It was around this same time that the now well-known photographer E.J. Bellocq took his infamous pictures of these ladies of the night. All in black and white, these pictures vary from nice brothel houses to small shacks with the ladies many times either relaxing, posing nude, or in the case of the popular landladies, dressed in their finest gowns adorned in jewelry. Bellocq’s photo’s are the only photographic evidence of brothels in Storyville, making them an important piece of history even though no one even saw them until after his death in 1949. After being popularized in the 1970’s, there are still a few of the photographs in New Orleans, some of which are up on the wall of May Baily’s Place located on Dauphine Street downtown. Copies of ads in the Blue Books, which were books given to tourists that listed all the working girls in Storyville, along with their associated houses, can also be found in May Baily’s Place. “May Baily’s is a great place to go for anyone who’s interested in the history. You can just get a drink and walk around, look at the stuff on the walls and it’s fascinating,” Schutts recommends.
Another interesting fact regarding E.J. Bellocq is the location of his home at 1026 Conti Street, which is the very same place the famous “last Madame” Norma Wallace housed her final brothel in the mid-1900’s.  After Storyville was shut down by the Federal government in 1917 due to military moral restrictions at the beginning of World War I, more of the same activity continued. “You can make it illegal, but you can’t make it unpopular,” said the late Mayor Martin Behrmann at the time Storyville closed. Norma Wallace was an ambitious, wild business woman who often lied about her age. She started her first brothel in the 1920’s and cleverly ran on the corner of Burgundy and Conti above an illegal speakeasy called Pete’s Ringside Lounge that her boyfriend owned. The police would never get to bust the brothel because they’d only bust the lounge. “With the two of them making money from both of those businesses, every time they’d bust the ringside lounge they could just pay whatever the ticket was and continue what they were doing,” Schutts explains.
After that, Norma Wallace stepped up her clientele selection, and required a strict dress code for girls both on and off the clock, providing a classy and elegant array of girls to choose from. She did not allow her girls to use any drugs or pimps.  Her second brothel was located on Dauphine Street across from what is now May Baily’s Place and this is when many politicians, police officers, and other prominent figures began to regularly visit her business. However, it is her third brothel at 1026 Conti Street that was Norma Wallace’s most famous brothel. Purchased in June of 1938, Norma ran this lavish brothel that housed movie stars, gangsters, and international political figures into the 1960’s up into her retirement. Her success was based on her discrepancy, such as using the code word “Vidalia” to describe anything from a drunken customer to an unwelcome lawman. It was based on political protection due to her long list of faithful clients throughout her career. “The Last Madame” is a book by Christine Wiltz that truly captures the essence of this remarkable woman and her story since birth around maybe 1901 (no one knows her real age).
Schutts says the importance of Norma Wallace can not be reiterated enough when they visited each of her three brothels. The Scandalous Cocktail Hour Tour that largely highlights some of New Orleans’ dirtiest secrets from the Storyville time does the same.  However, the last and perhaps most mysterious highlight of the Original New Orleans’ Red Light Tour was their visit to one of the locations of the House of the Rising Sun, which is believed to be on the 800 block of St. Louis Street between Bourbon and Dauphine.  However, Schutts says there was disagreement on the location after renovations were done in the ‘80’s to the building and some proof of its importance was found. “They found a big mural with some cherubs surrounding a rising sun,” he says. “They found champagne flutes, dirty postcards, and paper work by Madame MaryAnn Le Soleil Levant, which in French means ‘The Rising Sun.’”
So many stories like these make up the fascinating history of brothels in New Orleans. Visit the spots yourself to find out more information on each location’s story. More information regarding the individual tours can be found at or at

Sign Up!