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New Orleans Portraits


ISSUE:  Winter 1930

I. Madame Livaudais

Madame Louise Livaudais always wore black. Her soft gray hair was parted in two waves and drawn back under an old-fashioned toque. Her large dark eyes had the look of a child. With wondering gaze she surveyed the new world. She herself belonged to the past.

Madame had been born Castellanos. She had Villere blood in her veins. She had married at fifteen Pierre Livaudais and had lived in the street of St. Ann. A spacious apartment in the fine old Pontalba had received the young pair. There, in a setting of heirlooms, she had spent her short married life. There her two children were born. Her canary bird hung at the window. He also was called Pierre. When Louise spoke to him softly in French, he caroled and trilled with delight.

Then Livaudais died. Many, years passed away and his widow still clung to mourning. There was always some fresh cause for grief. She had few blood relatives left. With the death of her brother, Fernand Castellanos, the male line came to an end. Madame held the key to the St. Louis vault.

Her daughters had not married Creoles. Elvire, the eldest, had wedded at sixteen a young man named Potter. He was in the turpentine business. His mother had been a Cajun but Edward did not look or act French. He spoke a kind of patois which his wife called execrable. She declared it far worse for the children than no French at all. Elvire talked with her hands and a deep alto voice, She loved her husband and tried to obey him.

Her sister Jeanne had never obeyed anyone. Jeanne Livaudais was a beauty. Her grandmother’s portrait, which hung in the Cabildo, might have been painted from young Jeanne herself. The young Creole belle had the same jet-black hair and large gypsy eyes. The jewels she wore had been handed down to her granddaughter Jeanne. Elvire had not cared for them. She dressed soberly but Jeanne painted and powdered and sparkled and glittered. She was her stately grandmother done over in jazz.

She had not married as young as her sister. She had numerous beaux but few offers of marriage. When at last Carl Markham proposed, she said, Yes. Even to herself she did not admit the relief that she felt. Carl came from Kentucky. She pronounced his name Caul.

Madame Livaudais lived with the Markhams. She moved like a shadow in the household background. The children adored her. She spoke French to them and they, answered “ma mere.” Otherwise they spoke only English. Ma mere never scolded; their mother often did. Jeanne’s temper was brittle. She not only scolded the children and servants but swore at them roundly when she was displeased. The little ones scampered before her and the servants left without notice. Madame regarded with calm these outbursts of her daughter. Jeanne had embraced the new world; all the rest followed. “Nobody is nice any more; nobody,” was all that she said.

Carl was madly in love when he married Jeanne. There was no place in his thoughts for future events. He was incompetent to think at all. When his first child was born, he awoke with a shock. His son was a papist. Jeanne could not conceive of her children as anything else. Carl could not conceive of it either. He himself came of Presbyterian stock. He had been baptized but did not go to church. Like many American husbands he held that religion was the business of women. His wife, who had been christened and confirmed in the St. Louis church, thought the same. She and Carl never argued the question, though they argued about everything else.

The images over the beds of the children sometimes filled Carl with horror. It did not disturb him when Jeanne and her mother told their beads and touched the cross with their lips. He thought Jeanne’s religion a joke. He teased her about the sandalwood earrings she had made from a rosary which had not been blessed. But sometimes when he saw his innocent babes sleeping under a brass crucifix it made his flesh creep. Once he dreamed of little Lucie in hell.

When the war came, Carl was among the first to respond. Jeanne wished him to fight for the French and Carl was glad to escape from the grind. Stationed in East Tennessee, he renewed his youth. The sight of the blue grass brought a thousand old memories back. He longed to live there again. By the time the war ended, the longing had become an intention. He settled in Chattanooga and brought his family up from New Orleans. A vague hope inspired him. Perhaps little Lucie might grow up there to be less Creole and Catholic.

It was a terrible wrench for Madame Livaudais. The stately mahogany from the Pontalba had to be sold. They were going to a house with small rooms. A canopied bed, a carved armoire, and two Boule cabinets went for a song. Chairs on which Lafayette had sat were sold for six bits. With what remained, the Markhams moved north.

With them went Madame Livaudais, unprotesting. Jeanne had embraced the new world. This was the outcome. With an effort she learned to pronounce Chattanooga so that the children would not laugh at her. For the first time in her life, she saw the snow fall. With Pierre, the canary, and little Lucie she stood at the window and watched the soft flakes drift slowly down to the earth where they melted and vanished. She drew her black shawl more closely around her and shivered. “Mais non, I am frizzing,” she said.

She took care of the children while Jeanne Markham went out. Jeanne flitted from luncheon to luncheon, from card game to card game. She was lively and much in demand. She came home afterwards and reviled the food. “This awful white sauce,” she said with a wave of the hands. “Or is it white gravy? It has no flavor at all. With it they spoil everything. Maman, they can’t cook.” She complained of the stores. The bay leaf was rare; filee powder, unknown. How was she to cook? She sent to New Orleans for red beans and a coffee pot. Carl found himself bringing his household supplies from the South.

Lucie went to the new public school. Carl took her there in the morning and watched her as she entered the square brick and stone building beneath the American flag. In the evening he asked her what she had learned during the day. The teacher was stern and Lucie was weak in her lessons. When she grew angry, the child burst into tears. That was the end of all effort for Lucie. Carl wrestled with her in the evening but the child seemed dedicated to failure. Easy or hard, her lessons baffled her equally. Carl pleaded and Jeanne stormed. Nothing availed. The end of the term was approaching and promotions were near at hand. Lucie was in despair.

One morning as Carl and the child walked hand in hand to the school, Lucie said, “Ma mere sent a candle down to St. Rita that she may help me to pass.” “Why not the Virgin?” said Carl brusquely. “She at least lives in this town.” “But St. Rita is advocate of the hopeless,” said Lucie. “All right,” said Carl, “we will see.” Mid-year came with promotions. Lucie was left back. Her father was torn between disappointment and triumph.

The cold wave came. This time it snowed in earnest. Great icicles hung on the eaves and the windows were covered with frost. With the thaw came the flu. Sickness spread over the town and laid whole families low. The doctors had no time to sleep and there was a dearth of trained nurses. One after the other, the Markham children all went to bed; then Jeanne succumbed. She had scarcely begun to improve when Madame Livaudais sickened. The doctor came and said double pneumonia.

A month passed, two months. Madame still dragged around. She took the bitter tonic the doctor prescribed but grew no better. Still she coughed and raised a slight temperature. The doctor at last said to Carl, “Better send the old lady back to New Orleans. Perhaps she’s homesick for the town.”

The Markhams packed up and went south again. They took a raised cottage up-town. With a few pieces of San Domingo mahogany, and the rest from a Canal Street department store, they furnished their new stucco home. Lucie went to the convent on week days and took the toe dancing lessons on Saturdays. Carl devoted himself to his business. He went to his office seven days in the week.

Madame Livaudais resumed her custody of the family vault. Growing old and forgetful, she leaned ever more heavily on her son-in-law. She gave him the keys of the St. Louis vault and Carl kept them in a drawer at his office. Sometimes he wondered vaguely where he would eventually be buried. He thought he would like to lie under the blue grass. But he was too busy to make provision for that.

II. The Misses Rantoul

Virginia Rantoul and her sisters were known as the Misses Rantoul. In early youth they may have been called the Rantoul girls but they soon outgrew this informal title. Virginia distinguished herself early in life by literary works of a serious cast; Ada developed executive talents; and Cammie, who was an instinctive home body, settled down to a domestic routine. They were charming old ladies who had never been young.

They lived in an old house in Prytania Street. It had once been surrounded by a sugar plantation. The broad arpents of the first Thomas Rantoul had been reduced to sizable acres. In the rear of the house the old servants’ quarters remained. The long balconies and many locked doors gave evidence of a once numerous black retinue. Along those balconies the ancestors of Antoine and Del-phine had passed sleepy-eyed to drip the morning coffee and rub down the doctor’s horses. The Rantouls had been physicians and planters.

The Misses Rantoul were like a reigning family. Virginia Rantoul was like a queen. All three of the sisters had hair as white as Madame Pompadour’s and jewels almost as magnificent. Their gowns, like those of true royalty, were made without regard for the mode. They spoke French as Marie Stuart must have spoken it. Their voices, old as they were, sounded musical.

The drawing-room of the Misses Rantoul was a remnant of the eighteenth century. The chandeliers were poems in glass and the floor was a poem in wood. A Pleyel piano and chairs of rose brocade and gold-leaf were reflected in gilt-bordered mirrors above mantels of massive carved marble. A soft coal fire blazed in the small grate beneath.

The Misses Rantoul seldom went out. Twice a week, they had visitors. On Sunday afternoons they held a petit salon and on Thursday afternoons they received in full state. Of the two occasions, the first was more formal. There strangers of note, especially those of literary pretensions, were presented as if at a court. Miss Virginia Rantoul, who wrote biographies, sat on her sofa and discussed literature with her guests. She wore a black cloth dress and no jewelry. Like Clio, she sometimes had ink-stains on her fingers. But she was most queenly at the petit salon, most completely her father’s own daughter. Young ladies instinctively backed out of her presence.

On Thursdays Miss Virginia unbent. In black silk and lace and her grandmother’s pearls, she talked of trifles and flattered her guests. On Thursdays Miss Ada came to the front. She talked of her committees and plans, played mild politics. Had she been forty years younger she might have gone into business. At no age would Miss Cammie have done so. She spent her happiest hours in the kitchen, cutting out sugar cookies in the shape of hearts, spades, and diamonds. On the maid’s day out, Miss Cammie opened the door.

The years went by. The war came and with it prohibition. The impossible had happened in New Orleans. It was as if Cromwell had taken Paris. How would French-town survive the invasion? What would the Vieux Carre” be without wine or liqueur? A rebellion at least was expected.

Nothing happened. The city submitted, It was not the first time a cold wave of reform had blown out of the north. The old lottery had been successfully outlawed though even the cooks of New Orleans had gambled. The old Metairie races had vanished with all their glory,. The city which Jefferson bought and Jackson defended was being slowly Americanized. The reign of Louis XIV was drawing at last to an end.

Just then the old city revived. Drawing new life from some mysterious source, it began sweetly to bloom. The French quarter, forsaken by the younger Creoles, put forth green shoots like Tannhauser’s rod. Old houses, neglected for years, were restored for gift shops and tea rooms. Old gardens were replanted and cherished and forgotten courtyards were redeemed. New Orleans had discovered its past.

It discovered as well the Misses Rantoul. They were like a rare old engraving suddenly gifted with life. Virginia was well in the front of the picture. Her sisters made atmosphere for her; her house made background. As the old city burst into its second blooming, Miss Virginia experienced a renaissance. She was ardently feted. Her coterie crowned her and publicly honored its literary queen.

Miss Rantoul, who had never been wooed in her youth, found it sweet to be courted. She flowered delicately. The blue-stocking was transformed into a belle. Like the red camellia which blossoms in winter, she smiled graciously beneath her snow-crown.

III. The Feast of Livaudais

Mrs. Meriweather was a widow. Her husband had imported coffee and Lucita had lived comfortably on the proceeds. Then suddenly her husband died. Lucita was stunned. In her big house with its broad cellar and cavernous attic, she woke up and found herself lonely. She decided to go into business.

Pretty and well educated, she would have graced a gift shop, a tea room, or a Royal Street bookstore. But Lucita tried none of these. Like her husband, she became a dealer in coffee. Unlike him, she speculated. Meriweather had been successful but his widow contrived to be prosperous. She multiplied many times her deceased husband’s profits. Lucita grew quietly rich.

Her life gave no sign of her occupation. She had no business address and kept no office hours. She took her morning coffee in bed and lived otherwise like a lady. Her dress had always been dainty, her manners quiet and simple. Her new life did not change her. It was hard to think of her as a woman of business at all. Yet her income increased every day. People watched for the official report and gasped over the published amount.

They asked each other what she would do with her fortune. Some solemnly wondered if it would last. Her father had speculated and had died poor. Lucita might yet end in bankruptcy. In the meantime, it was apparent that she did not waste. The charge of extravagance could not be laid at her door. She lived, as always, in ease and comfort, without luxury.

Every year, after Mardi Gras, Lucita made an exception. At the old Louisiane, she gave a grand banquet. Monsieur Antoine, with his diploma from Paris, was called on to produce the last proof of his skill. When Lucita gave her annual feast, he vindicated anew his title as artist. Hostess and chef divided the honors. He planned and prepared the banquet himself.

The guests at the feast were seldom the same. Lucita preferred to surround her table with strangers. Visitors, travellers, sojourners, so numerous in New Orleans at the Mardi Gras season, formed most of the company. They went away from the city and never saw their hostess again. Lucita paid no social debt with her extravagant spread and could expect from these birds of passage no social return. Her hospitality was lordly and free.

The dishes for which Antoine was famous permitted but little change. He allowed himself one innovation at most. The rest were chef-d’oeuvres, which the guests knew by name and fame. As the courses appeared on the table, they were anxiously scanned for the artful touches and eagerly, tasted for the recherche* flavors which they were reputed to have.

Crawfish bisque headed the menu. The Prince of Tauris once sent a messenger one thousand miles for a soup not more delicious and scarcely as fantastical. Between the great heaps of live crawfish in the French Market and the brown-and-red bisque at the Louisiane lay many hours of patient skilled labor. Delectable fruit of the bayou, the banquet had hardly begun and it was already gone. The pompano trod on its heels. Served in a paper bag which had survived a half hour in the oven, it had lost none of its original flavor. The sauce added a soupcon of garlic, a souppm of bay, and the rest only Antoine could tell. Only he too could reveal the secret of the little fried basket, so cunningly woven of shoe-string potatoes. Do we eat the basket? Heavens, no. There are still other courses to come.

At last the dessert. What strange invention is that? A long pudding mound on which appears in graceful white script the names of the guests of honor. The company loudly applauds. The head waiter seizes a great carving knife and goes swiftly, to work. Is it a sweet after all? The first taste proves that it is. A delicious golden souf-flie, delicately browned in the oven, caresses the now blast palates. A second spoonful turns to solid ice and slowly melts on the tongue. Antoine is indeed a magician. He has baked the ice cream.

The hostess distributes her favors: tiny scarf pins of gold for the men; for the women, slender bracelets of silver. At a touch from Lucita the flower design on the table breaks up into corsage bouquets and prim boutonnieres. The end of the banquet has come.

Not yet. One more touch of extravagance before the feast of Lucullus ends. A girl with a willow basket appears at Lucita’s elbow. She carries not flowers but perfumes. From her basket each guest may select the odor he finds most delightful. They were all made in a Dau-phine Street shop from flowers of Louisiana. The perfume girl is skilled in the delicate art of assisting the chooser.

Passing the bottle close to the nostrils, she murmurs the name of the scent. Magnolia; sweet violets; jasmine. Impatient natures do not go any further. Magnolia is the popular choice. The adventurous try, each bottle in turn. White rose, azura, and lemon verbena find preference among the men. Orange blossoms and peau d” espagne, made of twenty-six flowers, acquire a slight lead with the women. The connoisseurs still hesitate between vetivert, derived from a root raised in Louisiana, and kus kus, the union of eighty-five blossoms. Lucita takes vetivert.

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