I gots my two dollahs and I'm ready to go down to Lulu's and do the Mahogany Hall Stomp! I'm talking about the notorious madam, Lulu White, and the beautiful, light, bright, damn near white prostitutes who resided at No. 235 Basin St. - the opulent pleasure palace known as Mahogany Hall, located in the red-light district of Storyville in New Orleans. These are the people and this is the place that Spencer Williams was feeling when he wrote Mahogany Hall Stomp - the early instrumental jazz classic of the same name. Williams and White were said to be tight, but as we shall see, he must have been one of the few men of his complexion to even get past the front door.
The fact that her parents were slaves and that she was born on a farm in Selma, Alabama must have escaped Lulu White's memory when she declared that she should be exempt from the extreme racism that other women who looked like her endured on a daily basis. Interviewed by a local newspaper in 1894, Miss Lulu wanted everyone to know that she was born and raised in the West Indies, and that there wasn't a drop of American Negro in her.
Loud, rude and obnoxious, Lulu arrived in New Orleans in the 1880's, accompanied by a very dark-skinned man who was said to be her stepfather. She immediately embarked on a career of vice and became the darling of the local police precinct having been arrested countless times on charges of prostitution, disorderly conduct, and numerous other infractions that included white slavery. She was said to be short, plump and unattractive (though I beg to differ on that assessment). Attired in elaborately beaded gowns, and diamonds on every finger, up both arms, on her neck and every other place imaginable, White was an unforgettable presence.
It is said that Mae West, the Hollywood star, based her iconic turn in the film, The Belle of the Nineties, soley on Lulu White. West's alias, "Diamond Lil" (clearly a prostitute) became known on film as Lady Lu, and was obviously inspired by Miss White. Whatever anyone thought of her, she was certainly fascinating enough to attract the attentions of various well-to-do men about town, including an oil man, a railroad baron and a department store magnate. Their collective bank accounts helped finance the building of Mahogany Hall at forty thousand Dollars - which equals to about a cool $1 million dollars in today's economy. (The photo above of Lulu White is from 1904, and is the only one known to exist that isn't a mug shot).
The district known as Storyville was established in 1897 and flourished until 1917. It was set up by local authorities to monitor prostitution and limit it to one area of town. It was already established by law that white and black prostitutes could not live or work in the same house and black men were not welcomed as patrons no matter what. However, many old-timers recalled that that there were houses of ill repute that were run by black madams who staffed only black girls available to black men exclusively. There is also a pre-Storyville record of a homosexual brothel that "was known for large scale, noisy, interracial social functions that frequently attracted the wrath of neighbors and police." (The air-shot above of the Storyville district was taken around 1914. Except for one local church, every building in the area was said to be devoted to some form of prostitution).
In "the District" as it was known, the popular and ambitious Lulu White moved from a well-appointed mini-mansion to the four-story, ornately furnished Mahogany Hall. Originally called the Hall of Mirrors, it was built of solid marble with a stained glass fan window over the entrance door (seen above). The whole house was steam heated and boasted five parlors, an elevator made for two, and fifteen bedroooms with hot and cold running water. There, Gen. Jack Johnson, the 40 inch tall, black midget doorman-turned-pimp stood guard to keep out the undesirables.
Lulu White, the Octoroon Queen, "made a feature of boarding none but the fairest of girls - those gifted with nature's best charms, and would, under no circumstances, have any but that class in her house." In its heyday, Mahogany Hall housed as many as 35 to 40 "octoroon" prostitutes - technically girls of mixed-race backgrounds but specifically with only one quarter African ancestry. As their queen, she made the whorehouse a showplace!
"They had the most beautiful parlors, with cut glass and draperies, and rugs, and expensive furniture ... and the girls would come down dressed in the finest of evening gowns, just like they were going to the opera. They were just beautiful. Their hair-do's were just so, and I'm telling you that Ziegfeld didn't have any more beautiful women as those. Some of them looked Spanish, and some were Creoles, some brownskins, some chocolate brown. But they had to have that figure" remembered the legendary jazzman, Clarence Williams. Early jazz and ragtime musicians were often the only black men allowed on the premises as piano players at the best bordellos.
Not everyone remembered Mahogany Hall with such fondness! One very snobby "john" who first visited the Hall as a skinny teenager with his wealthy father, remembered "the instant we stepped inside that door, it became apparent that, though ornate, the taste reflected in the furnishings and decor was just miserable .... Imitation Renaissance tapestries and wall hangings of particularly muddy color hung everywhere. The oriental rugs, possibly actually from the Orient, were thick but shoddy imitations of the luxurious pile and color for which the East is famous." He also recalled Lulu White as being a "monstrosity" but agreed that "the girls, though, were something else again." In the above photograph, taken by the legendary New Orleans photographer, Ernest Bellocq, we see that bad taste is subjective! It is the only known photo in existence of the interior of Mahogany Hall in all its splendor!
This beautiful portrait originally hung on a boudoir wall in Mahogany Hall. It was a gift from the Friedman Bros. Shoe Company to facilitate a shoe sale to the room's occupant. With a 1903 copyright, it is symbolic of the lovely residents who called Lulu White's establishment home.
Storyville was an area of rats, roaches, open sewers filled with the contents of chamberpots and overflowing garbage cans. Dirt and diseases like syphilis and gonorrhea were intimate friends. Fake cures were rampant! Your neighbor might be named Crying Emma, Steel Arm Johnny, Mary Meathouse, Coke Eyed Laura or Sore Dick. Bad Blood, Three Finger Annie, Lily the Crip and Cold Blooded Carrie lived somewhere in the demimonde near the snootier girls of Mahogany Hall. Girls like Victoria Hall (above) was said to have a voice that rivaled The Black Patti, a famous African American opera star of the late 1890's. For some reason, this photo was actually long thought to be of Lulu White herself.
Storyville had its own press! It was located on the top floor of a saloon that Lulu White owned. There, they printed guidebooks that advertised the district, the whores and the whorehouses. They were distributed free to barroom owners and sold for a quarter to potential customers. Lulu White is the only madam who had her own Blue Book!
1915 found the times a'changing for Lulu White and Storyville with subtle and dramatic changes alike. Prices were down in the whorehouses and cribs and local, younger men were supposedly changing their minds about the morality of the business. The Suffrage movement, and other equal rights movements for women were entering into the picture. The girls were moving to other cities that seemed more interested. The mansions fell into disrepair and Lulu White now only had three girls left. Syphilis had taken over and people were sick and showed it. By 1917, the federal government stepped back into the picture and ended the "experiment" known as Storyville, and with no "controlled environment", a new wave of street prostitution (and accompanying crime) spread across the city and into the French Quarter.
Lulu White returned to what she knew best - petty crime! In this mug shot from around 1920, we see a very weary Lulu White. It really isn't known exactly what happened to her after this time, but some say that she returned to Selma, Alabama and died there in the 1940's. Mahogany Hall was boarded and used as a city storage space for local department stores. The area formerly known as Storyville was gradually torn down and blighted as the city tried in vain to forget its sordid past.
Mahogany Hall was the last of the fabulous structures to be demolished in 1949. Jazz fans and historians picked the place dry for souvenirs. They stripped the wallpaper and bought pieces of the famous swirling mahogany staircase as it was being disassembled. A few items have turned up in museums and in personal collections. Today, as in yesterday, Mahogany Hall is known as the most lavish whorehouse in Storyville.