About Norma Wallace- The Last Madam

She was christened Norma Badon; likely born in 1901. The term “likely” is used because no one is really sure of her birth date as the ever colorful Norma continuously shaved years off her age. Even her obituary, which ran in The Times-Picayune newspaper, skeptically reports her age. It was noted in the article that she was 68 at the time of her death, but that was based on the age she'd given to police in 1953 after being arrested. Later it was learned that in 1953 she was low-balling her age by at least six years.

Even though she married five times, Norma never took the last name of the man she was married to her husband.Instead, she always referred to herself as Norma Wallace, the last name of 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. And that in nutshell is Norma Wallace; a colorful, exceedingly shrewd and ambitious businesswoman who by the 1920s was making $100,000 per year --- as a madam.

1026 Conti Street

According to records, Norma ran several houses in New Orleans, but her best-known house was 1026 Conti, purchased in June 1938. Norma was known as a strict madam, running a discreet, lavish, and politically-protected house of prostitution. During her reign from the 1920s -1960s, Norma’s brothel and the ladies she employed entertained a stream of governors, gangsters and movie stars. With the names came some trouble. As noted in Christine Wiltz’s book the Last Madam, Norma found herself in a quandary one night when the city was hosting a mayor’s convention and a delegation of mayors found themselves being entertained at Norma’s Conti Street home. As the mayors were about to leave, Norma noticed several policemen patrolling and called her brother-in-law, Gasper Gulotta, known as The Little Mayor of Bourbon Street, to tell him of her predicament and urge him to use his influence to call off the cops. As stated in the book, Norma told Gulotta, “Do you realize if these men are busted the wheels of progress will grind to a halt in a dozen cities and an international incident might prevail?” Her brother-in-law replied, “You mean a national incident.” “An international incident,” Norma said, her voice cool as ice. “One of ‘em is the mayor of Barcelona.”

During the 1920s and beyond, Norma attracted a more affluent and influential clientele. As her reputation grew, more and more customers would come to town and find her even as the city was enforcing prohibition and trying to clean up the French Quarter of prostitution. Because there was such a police presence, Norma created a code name that was not only embraced by her ladies, but the cab drivers and others who sent business her way.

The name was “Vidalia.” Locals know the town of Vidalia, LA or the ever popular vidalia onion, but Norma used the word to describe just about anything and everything that had to do with her business. If an inexperienced man would come in she would call out one of her girls and tell her, “Here’s a vidalia on holiday,” which meant the gentleman only wanted to spend $10. Cabdrivers started using the term and would tell Norma that they had a vidalia from a certain city for her. Her financial books were even inscribed with the code name instead of using money amounts in the event her books got into the wrong hands.

As mentioned throughout Wiltz’s book and through many articles, Norma ran a profitable and influential bordello during a colorful era in the French Quarter. Her girls were always kept in line and there were rules, most importantly no drugs and no pimps. Norma was a strong businesswoman, but she had a weakness for men, especially those she could not have or those she should not have had. She enjoyed numerous romances along the way with an Al Capone-linked gangster, a blind champion bantamweight and entertainer Phil Harris, among others. But it would be her last that would ultimately do her in.

In 1963, on being released from a three-month stint in jail for her first and only conviction, Norma quit and walked away from the business altogether. She opened a successful restaurant, the Tchoupitoulas Plantation. Two years later, at the age of 64, Norma married Wayne Bernard, her fifth husband who was 39 years her junior in reality, but as Norma would do so often, she lied about her age. Her wedding certificate has her birth year as 1916 and like that, 15 years disappeared. Now married and living in the rural town of Bush, Louisiana, her relationship was rocky and she realized the city-girl in her was not suited for country living. She often had to defend her marriage as neighbors would wonder what a young man was doing with such an older woman. As Norma explained to an interviewer one day, “I would just tell ‘em I’m a rich old lady and I’m supportin’ him.” But it’s obvious that age was the one concern in Norma’s life. In an interview after her death, Bernard was quoted as saying, “Norma used to tell me she was never going to get old. She said she hoped her death would be that her husband caught her in bed with a sixteen-year-old and shot her."

Norma was shot; the fatal blow however, did not come from her husband, but by her own hand. Norma died on December 14, 1974, at Ochsner Foundation Hospital, from a gunshot wound to the head.

In Literature & Film

"The Last Madam: A Life in the New Orleans Underworld" by Christine Wiltz
In 1916, at age fifteen, Norma Wallace arrived in New Orleans. Sexy and shrewd, she quickly went from streetwalker to madam and by 1920 had opened what became a legendary house of prostitution. There she entertained a steady stream of governors, gangsters, and movie stars until she was arrested at last in 1962. Shortly before she died in 1974, she tape—recorded her memories-the scandalous stories of a powerful woman who had the city's politicians in her pocket and whose lovers included the twenty-five-year-old boy next door, whom she married when she was sixty-four. Combining those tapes with original research, Christine Wiltz chronicles not just Norma's rise and fall but also the social history of New Orleans, thick with the vice and corruption that flourished there—and, like Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and Philistines at the Hedgerow, resurrects a vanished secret world.

Christine is the author of 5 books:

THE KILLING CIRCLE, A DIAMOND BEFORE YOU DIE, AND THE EMERALD LIZARD, which are the triology comprising the Neal Rafferty series. The next novel, GLASS HOUSE, is a story about fear, based upon a true incident in which a New Orleans police officer was murdered on the border of one of New Orleans' most violent housing projects. This was followed by THE LAST MADAM: A LIFE IN THE NEW ORLEANS UNDERWORLD. In NEW ORLEANS NOIR, I have a short story called "Night Taxi." She has published essays and articles in "The New Yorker," "The Los Angeles Times," "New Orleans Magazine," and various journals. Christine has written 2 screenplays, which did not find a screen, and co-wrote a documentary "Race and the American Dream," which aired on PBS in 1992. THE LAST MADAM has been produced as a play, and it is currently optioned for the screen.

Christine has held many different jobs to support my writing, including a brief stint in a Los Angeles advertising agency, a correspondent for two trade journals, work in a drug rehab center and an independent book shop here in New Orleans, and held the title of "costumer" for a fifties-style rock 'n roll band. The most dramatic job she ever held was as a short order cook in the French Quarter. One afternoon as she tried to fill too many orders before a Saints football game, the overloaded grill caught on fire. Shelost the job, but she says it's handy at times to know how to put out a grease fire .

Christine has also spent some time at both Tulane and Loyola Universities as a visiting writer-in-residence and an adjunct professor, teaching creative writing courses. She has enjoyed teaching and enjoyed many of the seminars she’s conducted around the country as well. Inspiration and knowledge always come from those who want to learn.