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social sciences

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New Orleans  
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A Southern Bohemia

When writer Lyle Saxon arrived in 1919, New Orleans's oldest neighborhood, the French Quarter, had become tawdry and dilapidated. Many of the old Creole families who had lived in the Quarter had gradually moved to new parts of the city, and the area was in danger of becoming a slum.

Saxon, who later became a successful journalist and novelist, was instrumental in attracting writers and artists to the deteriorating neighborhood, promoting the French Quarter as "the next Greenwich Village" and extolling its charm. Saxon's final work, The Friends of Joe Gilmore (1948), is an affectionate tribute to his longtime valet and, possibly, lover.

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The Quarter also became the center of the city's gay nightlife, although a famous transvestite club, the My-0-My, which flourished during the 1940s and 1950s, was located on the lakefront.

The history of the New Orleans bars frequented by homosexuals is well documented. Cafe Lafitte at the Blacksmith Shop was in operation by 1936, only three years after the end of Prohibition. When the proprietors lost their lease in 1953 they moved down the street and opened Cafe Lafitte in Exile. Still in operation at 901 Bourbon Street, it is one of the oldest continuing gay bars in the United States.

In 1939 jazz musician "Miss Dixie" Fasnacht opened Dixie's Bar of Music in the downtown business district and, in 1949, moved to Bourbon Street. She is thought to be the model for a character in Gore Vidal's The City and the Pillar (1948). Although she retired in 1964, Miss Dixie, who celebrated her 95th birthday in 2005, remains a legend, especially for her support of her patrons, who were frequently harassed by police during periodic "clean up" campaigns.

Writers and Artists

In the earlier twentieth century, New Orleans became a haven for writers and artists, attracted by its congenial laissez-faire climate.

Young Tom Williams took the name Tennessee at the time of his initial New Orleans visit in 1938. Four hours after his first arrival in the city he wrote in his journal, "Here, surely, is the place I was made for." It is likely that his first sexual experience with a man occurred a few nights later.

Williams henceforth called New Orleans his "spiritual home" and the French Quarter "the last frontier of Bohemia." As he once wrote to a friend, "Town is wide open."

New Orleans features prominently in many of Williams's works, including A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), Suddenly Last Summer (1958), and many other plays and short stories. Appropriately, one of the city's most important cultural events is the annual Tennessee Williams Literary Festival, which attracts writers, readers, and theater-goers from all over the country.

Lesbian photographer Frances Benjamin Johnston retired to New Orleans in 1940, after she completed her final large project, a photographic documentation of Southern architecture. She lived in the city until her death in 1952. Her partner, a younger woman named Tom Sawyer, survived Johnston by three decades.

As a precocious twenty-year-old, native New Orleanian Truman Capote returned to his birthplace in 1945, where, holed up in an apartment at 711 Royal Street, he wrote the bulk of his first major work, Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948). He later called that period, "the freest time of my life."

Another writer particularly associated with the city is John Kennedy Toole. Toole's posthumously published Confederacy of Dunces (1980) is the quintessential portrait of post-World War II New Orleans, presenting a carnival of eccentrics. Perhaps reflecting Toole's unease with his own homosexuality, the novel's portrait of the gay scene in the French Quarter in the late 1960s is deeply satirical, featuring frivolous young men who would rather listen to Judy Garland and Lena Horne albums than to protest discrimination.

Contemporary artist George Dureau has accurately captured the feel of this unique city. In his mythological paintings and in his black-and-white photographs, which often feature street youth, dwarfs, and amputees, Dureau evokes the paradoxes of the city, particularly its combination of the spiritual and the carnal.


Mardi Gras is an important holiday in New Orleans. The months-long Carnival season commences on January 6 and continues unabated until its Fat Tuesday climax (sometime between early February and early March). It not only attracts hundreds of thousands of tourists, many of whom are gay or lesbian, but it is also the heart of the city's social life, the occasion of numerous balls and parties.

The Carnival conventions of masking and cross-dressing have helped shape gay New Orleans culture. Indeed, the Lundi Gras Luncheon, a private party initiated by Bob Demmons in 1949, is the oldest continuing non-bar-related activity in the New Orleans gay community.

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