1940s Archive

Along the Boulevards

Originally Published February 1949

IN THE LIGHT of an investment of time, extending now over several decades, of money, effort, and travel, with our own particular genius for chaos involved, this department has no least hesitancy in claiming for itself a certain expertise in the field of public routs, celebrations, tumults, and disorders. For years we took our preparatory training in uproar in the old Fakirs Balls of infamous memory, later the communist debutante parties staged by Cynthia White in Webster Hall in the Village, and still later in the Beaux Arts Balls, which lasted precisely as long as Gretchen Menken did, and which disappeared with the going of that kind and imaginative lady.

During this period, we conducted side researches into such notable and bedlamite doings as the openings of two World's Fairs, one in New York and one in Chicago, participated bodily and to no good end in the four days of “Fiesta” which ushered in the San Francisco World's Fair, attended the old Hale House balls after the Harvard-Yale football games at the Copley Plaza in Boston, went to Derby Day as an undergraduate at New Haven, and never failed to turn up for that superessay into alcoholic dementia and yachting madness, the Harvard-Yale boat races at New London.

We have never been to a Beaux Arts Ball in Paris nor participated in a moon dance among the Ojibways, but we missed none of the great safaris to film premières which were staged during the thirties at such improbable points as Dodge City, Omaha, Santa Fe, and Virginia City, a series of promotional morris-dance festivals which won us a graduate degree in frontier follies, and only lately we became acquainted with the details of something annually known as Nevada Day at Carson City, an overproof, broad-gauge bit of nonsense at which there are almost as many horses in the saloons of Carson Valley as there are pedestrian customers.

For free-wheeling catastrophe and cataclysmic hurrah, however, few of these, even in recollection—and some of them have been notable—live up for sustained brilliance to Mardi Gras, a sort of Carribean earthquake which, scientists forecast, will be repeated this year on the first day of March and which is well worth your going to New Orleans for if you have nothing better to do than ruin your health, destroy your reputation, and have a perfectly fascinating time.

Advice about how to conduct oneself and what to see and do at Mardi Gras is largely an impertinence and comes in wholesale lots on every hand. Everyone wants to eat at Antoine's and everyone with any discrimination wants to eat at Arnaud's, a far less wholesale establishment and one where the waiters definitely do not attempt to persuade the customers to eat oysters Rockefeller. The chances are that most folks who go to Mardi Gras never get near either Antoine's or Arnaud's but eat on a catch-as-catch-can basis between skirmishes with the more obvious fleshpots, and in this case the little oyster bars which specialize in such unpretentious fare as Poor Boy sandwiches, broiled Canadian bacon, fried shrimp, and such substantial matters are to be recommended as are the poor man's restaurants in no other city in the United States. There is one, the name of which escapes our mind, just off Canal Street in St. Charles Avenue on the St. Charles Hotel side, one of whose Poor Boy—or Po' Boy—sandwiches we would not exchange for a steak Diane at Jack and Charlie's, and that is saying more than considerable.

The one New Orleans deadfall which should on no account be missed, and whose proprietors would be alarmed if it were described as anything but a deadfall, is the Lafitte Tavern, which is located about a mile deep in the Vieux Carré on Bourbon Street. Bourbon has, of course, been nominated as the wickedest street in the world, but its wickedness is of a Shubert-road-show order until about the point the Lafitte is achieved, when it becomes at once atmospheric, authentic, and of a sort you don't write home about to your Aunt Sophie.

Proprietors of this gaudy el dumpo, which looks like a haunted farmhouse on the outside and inside resembles nothing so much as Halloween in hell, are Tom Taplinger and Mary Collins, and they are a pair of drolls to give you pause. Taplinger, an émigré from, of all quiescent places, Maysville, Kentucky, is the acknowledged Mayor of the French Quarter, and Miss Collins is a frail little lady with a bob of graying hair and a Whistler's-mother manner who can fetch a recalcitrant customer a crack with a bung starter that will paralyze him for a week while she compares samples of crochet work with a neighboring beldam from the Quarter.

In a city which prides itself in taking the suckers, but good, during Mardi Gras, drinks at Lafitte are invariably what they say they are and of full, honest measure, a circumstance which has fouled up the navigation of many an explorer whose only previous experience with New Orleans slings and toddies had been in the quarter-ounce mills down the street. The tumult and the screaming are continuous, and if the customers fall into the forge, where once the pirate Lafitte used to fashion his cutlery before scuttling merchantmen, the management doesn't mind in the least. The customers burn with a clear, blue flame, thereby substantiating the management's fame for the purity of its spirits.

There is a good deal that is admittedly bogus and tourist-inspired about New Orleans at Mardi Gras, but if the dementia at Lafitte is synthetic, then so is the hangover this department carried away as a souvenir the last time it was down. This Taj Mahal of indispositions, this tall tower of shakes and mutters, didn't visibly abate until it reached its native New York and that, it may be remarked parenthetically, is a long time on the railroads of the Deep South.

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