The Last Madam: A Life in the New Orleans Underworld


Biography. History. True Crime

The life of Norma Wallace, the French Quarter legend, who ran the last of the wide-open brothels in New Orleans.

Norma Wallace grew up fast in the rough neighborhoods of New Orleans. In 1916, as an ambitious fifteen-year-old, she went to work as a street-walker in the French Quarter, but by 1920 was madam of what became one of the city’s most lavish brothels, an establishment frequented by politicians, movie stars, gangsters, and even the notoriously corrupt police force. For decades Norma flourished, a smart, glamorous, powerful woman whose scandalous life made front-page headlines. Her lovers ran the gamut from a bootlegger who shot her during a fight, to a famed bandleader, to the boy next door, thirty-nine years her junior, who became her fifth husband.

Norma knew all of the Crescent City’s dirty little secrets and used them to protect her own interest—she never got so much as a traffic ticket—until the 1960s, when District Attorney Jim Garrison decided to clean up vice and corruption. After a jail stay, she went legitimate as successfully as she had gone criminal, with a lucrative restaurant business. To the end Norma maintained her independence, and surrendered only to an irrational, obsessive love, which ultimately led to her violent death.

In The Last Madam, author Christine Wiltz combines original research with Wallace’s personal memoirs to bring to life an era in New Orleans history rife with charm and decadence, and to reveal the colorful woman who reigned as its underworld queen.

Praise for The Last Madam:

“In this world there are great characters who have no idea that they are great characters, and great characters who are fully aware of their greatness. Wallace must be counted among the latter. She had the wit of Dorothy Parker and the instinct for self-dramatization of Tallulah Bankhead.” Michael Lewis, New York Times Book Review

“Christine Wiltz has done a remarkable and rare thing: she has captured perfectly the essential, earthy complexity of the most fascinating city on this continent. The Last Madam is an exhilarating mardi gras of a book.” Robert Olen Butler, author of Pulitzer Prize winner,A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain

“In New Orleans the water table is so high the underworld is never far beneath the surface. The Last Madam is a fascinating study of the unrivaled Mistress of that world, delightful and serious by turns, an insider’s look at an insider’s life in a city both know and love.” Valerie Martin, author of the Orange Prize winner, Property

“This book takes the reader by the hand just as Norma’s girls did when they took a customer into one of her upstairs room. It’s always reassuring to be in the hands of a pro, and The Last Madam gives the reader this feeling right from the get-go. It provides as good an experience in its way as Wallace must have in hers.” David Cuthbert, Times-Picayune

“Wiltz elevates…[an] impeccably assembled historical narrative above its elementary bawdy elements into something more elegant and fragile: the resurrection of a secret world like those uncovered by Luc Sante and James Ellroy.” Publishers Weekly