In a place rich in history, 1026 Conti Street has left its mark in one of the oldest and most interesting places in New Orleans, LA. Located just inside the French Quarter, 1026 Conti Street has become a historical landmark since it’s erection in 1830.
Over the past 180 plus years, 1026 Conti Street has been the home of New Orleans most interesting and influential characters. Through the turn of the century to 1911, 1026 Conti Street was the childhood home of one Ernest J. Bellocq. Bellocq was a prominent New Orleans photographer and was later more famous for the resurrection of photographs taken of the women of Storyville, New Orleans' historic legalized red-light district. Born in 1873 to an aristocratic, white Creole family, Bellocq and his brother Leo, who would later become a Jesuit priest, spent their childhood in and later owned 1026 Conti until they sold the property in 1911 for $9,880. 1026 Conti Street in later years was acquired in June 1938 by Norma Wallace. Norma Wallace was the famed “Last Madam” who ran a well-known brothel from the walls of 1026 Conti Street for more than 25 years. Norma was known as a strict madam, running a discreet, lavish, and politically-protected house of prostitution at 1026 Conti Street. During her reign in the French Quarter, Norma’s brothel and the ladies she employed entertained a stream of governors, gangsters and movie stars. Norma ran the house of ladies until mid 1960’s.
Through the late 60’s to the year 2006, 1026 Conti Street was residents to many. The years of wear and tear took a toll on the structure of 1026 Conti Street. The need for a renovation or demolition needed to occur. Conti Condos LLC bought the structure in 2006 and painstakingly restored 1026 Conti Street to almost new condition. Many original architectural features and structures were restored with extreme care and still stand inside 1026 Conti Street today. Please take a tour through our renovation photographs to see the magnificent transformation of one of New Orleans historical landmarks.
In a way you can say it took Ernest Bellocq dying before those around him would come to appreciate what he actually accomplished while alive.
An incredibly talented photographer for his time, Bellocq would be recognized by the City of New Orleans in 1898 for his photos of ships and Mardi Gras floats. But it’s what was found after his death in 1949 that would alter the name and image of Ernest J. Bellocq forever. Unknown to all but a privileged few, Bellocq was the famed photographer of the women of Storyville, New Orleans' historic legalized red-light district.
In what some would call irony, others destiny, 1026 Conti was actually the childhood home of Bellocq before it became the famed brothel of Norma Wallace. Born in 1873 to an aristocratic, white Creole family, Bellocq and his brother Leo, who would later become a Jesuit priest, spent their childhood in and later owned 1026 Conti until they sold the property in 1911 for $9,880. Bellocq’s venture into the infamous world of prostitution began when Bellocq, a 30-year-old man living alone, began to take notice of what was occurring just blocks away from his front door across Rampart Street. He would grab his camera and venture into another world; a world of where elaborate homes served as the backdrop to music, liquor and ladies for pleasure. At one time you could even purchase what was known as the “Blue Book,” a directory that alphabetically listed the nearly 700 prostitutes who worked for madams in the area.
Storyville became Bellocq’s private pictorial assignment. It’s not known how many photos Bellocq took, but after his death, 89 glass negative slides were found, all dated 1912. The slides highlight the women of Storyville, some young and vivacious, others older and much heavier. Some women were dressed respectably for that era, others posed nude or partially clothed in what was considered more provocative positions. No one is sure why Bellocq chose to focus his talents on the women of Storyville, but the photos show that he obviously recognized the women for their natural beauty; there was no glamorization or vilification of the ladies, he just simply photographed them with a simplicity that nevertheless captures a certain mysteriousness and complexity.
As mentioned, it wasn’t until after Bellocq’s death that his work was found. His brother, now Fr. Leo, and two witnesses went to Bellocq’s home after his death to begin packing up what was his life and that’s when they discovered, according to history, the collection of glass negatives concealed in a sofa. These slides were never listed in the succession. At some point, they ended up being stored in a bathroom in an antique shop, and that’s where Lee Friedlander, a photographer himself, obtained the slides, some of which he found to have the faces of the women scratched so they are not identifiable. Legend has it that Bellocq’s brother was responsible, but that myth is disputed because in some cases, there were two negatives of the same woman, one negative damaged while the other remains intact.
As with so much of Bellocq’s life, there are many twists and turns and unknowns, like who damaged some of the slides and what was Bellocq’s real name. In his baptismal record, they have him named as John Joseph Ernest and then later in the same record they have his name as Joseph John Ernest. What is known though, is that Bellocq became a legend long after his death. In 1971, Freidlander published a selection of the photographs in a book entitled Storyville Portraits. In 1996, a more extensive collection of Friedlander's prints, entitled Bellocq: Photographs from Storyville, was published.
Today, Bellocq’s remains are buried in the family tomb St. Louis Cemetery #3 in New Orleans along Esplanade Avenue. Whether it was a coincidence or his destiny, Bellocq lies just across Bayou St. John near the New Orleans Museum of Art where at one time, his private collection was once on display for all to see.
All the photographs are portraits of women. Some are nude, some dressed, others posed as if acting a mysterious narrative. Many of the negatives were badly damaged, in part deliberately, which encouraged speculation. Many of the faces had been scraped out; whether this was done by Bellocq, his Jesuit priest brother who inherited them after E. J.'s death or someone else is unknown. Bellocq is the most likely candidate, since the damage was done while the emulsion was still wet. In a few photographs the women wore masks.
The mystique about Bellocq has inspired several fictional versions of his life, notably Louis Malle's 1978 film Pretty Baby, in which Bellocq was played by Keith Carradine. He also appears in Michael Ondaatje's novel Coming Through Slaughter and is a protagonist in Peter Everett's novel Bellocq's Women. These works take many liberties with the facts of Bellocq's life. He is also a minor character in David Fulmer's novel Chasing the Devil's Tail.
The photographs have inspired imaginative literature about the women in them. There are several collections of poems, notably Brooke Bergan's Storyville: A Hidden Mirror and Natasha Trethewey's Bellocq's Ophelia.
The 1974 book Storyville, New Orleans: Being an Authentic, Illustrated Account of the Notorious Red-Light District by Al Rose gives an overview of the history of prostitution in New Orleans with many photographs by Bellocq.
In 1971, "Storyville Portraits" won a mention at the Rencontres d'Arles's Book Award, France
The 1983 novel Fat Tuesday by R. Wright Campbell features a thinly-veiled depiction of Bellocq, a photographer named B.E. Locque.
Bellocq appears as a fictional character in David Fulmer's Storyville novels Chasing the Devil's Tail and Rampart Street.
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.
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.