Norma Wallace; The Last Madam of New Orleans

Let Me Remind you…About Norma Wallace…

TW: suicide, sex-work

Norma Wallace

If you google-maps 1026 Conti St, New Orleans, you might see a rundown building, in the middle of a tattered neighborhood that wouldn’t catch any of your attention as you walked by. But you would be missing a history of scandal, sex, crime, love, bribes and a woman who ruled the streets of New Orleans for nearly 40 years.

Author Christine Wiltz didn’t know where to start when she was handed a box full of tapes, journals, notes, and more, detailing Norma Wallace’s life. The voice coming through the cassettes was old, but not weak, and her story was remarkable.


Christine had been contacted by the Norma’s ex-husband, Wayne and his current wife, Jean who had pushed the meeting. She knew of Norma’s wonderful stories, Probably because she was dating Wayne when he and Norma were still married.  Heck, they still lived in Norma and Wayne’s house in Mississippi. The house which still had a bullet hole in the ceiling (We’ll get to how it got there later). Christine was an author of multiple thrillers that Jean was fond of, so when everyone else had fallen through while Wayne and Jean pursued writing the book about Norma, Jean reached out to Christine, and the book of Norma’s unbelievable life came to fruition.

But lets start at the beginning.

Norma was born anywhere between 1900 and 1916—the dates on that could even be off because she fabricated her age many times, to the point where she admittedly couldn’t even remember it herself.
She said,  

“Don’t ask me what year [I was born] because I lied so much about that I don’t even know anymore. My mother caught me lying about my age once. Then she started lying about her age, and I wound up older than my mother!”


Her father seemed to be a relatively decent man, but after he caught his wife cheating on him, he left. Without looking back, he left Norma at 11 years old along with her younger brother Elmo to fend for themselves. Norma’s mom, an alcoholic, was known to leave the kids for weeks at a time. Norma and her brother would steal food where they could but when the neighbors realized what was happening, they took the kids in, and made sure they were fed and taken care of.
Later, when Norma was making loads of cash, she made it possible for these families to purchase their homes (minorities were unable to own property at the time).
Eventually her father was found in Slidell, where he had another family and his own lumber business.

At fourteen or fifteen, Norma knew what she could do to get by. She wasn’t dumb or blind and had seen the women in the windows and streets of Memphis. She became friendly with a local veterinarian, who was already decades older, but somehow telling him she was seventeen made everything okay. She strung him along for six weeks, going out for lovely dinners and shopping, until finally he gave up when she wouldn’t give him everything he wanted.

It wasn’t long after she started using her body for money. She had a bigger goal though, and by the age of 19 she became one of the most renowned Madams of one of (what some might call) the most notorious brothels in New Orleans.
As much as she was breaking the laws in ways, she was also helping law enforcement. Her most popular house, 1026 Conti Street) was no stranger to well-to-do businessmen, policemen, politicians, actors (and actresses) and even the mayor of New Orleans. She knew everybody’s business and she wasn’t one to stay tight-lipped if she knew it could buy her some favors or get-out-of-jail-free cards. She knew when to keep her mouth shut, but she knew when to run it and who to run it to.
This didn’t save her from multiple raids, but being a savvy businesswoman, she had an adjoining apartment building that she could drop a plank of wood to cross the upper balconies and her girls would shuffle over to the other house until the police left. She also kept a little book with the names, times and dates of everyone that filtered through, so if anyone tried to threaten her, she could pull out the book that even had personal details only the person themselves and the girl who serviced them would know…if you catch my drift.

In the 1960’s though, there was a new district attorney in town, Jim Garrison. He was intent on “cleaning up the city” and was ready to crack down on Norma’s establishment. Eventually even Norma couldn’t outsmart him and she went to jail. She had a personal relationship with the judge though and he let her out after a mere 3 months. She had said that being in that place was enough for her to realize she wasn’t going to do this anymore. It wasn’t the first time she had been to jail, but it was going to be the last. She opened up a restaurant out of town, called the Tchoupitoulas Plantation. I’m not going to get into all the things wrong with the name, but I’m sure you can imagine. It was a two-for-one hit to minorities. After that, she never went back to being a madam, but instead stayed as the owner and presence of the restaurant.

At 1026 Conti she ran a tight ship when it came to her house and girls. The girls would be cleaned and were taught how and what to look for in the men to make sure they were disease-free. They weren’t allowed to have pimps and if they worked for Norma, they only worked for her. It seems that many of the girls became like daughters to her since she never had her own; there was a mutual respect between them.

She was married though—5 times and they all seemed tumultuous. She collected diamonds like a child might collect rocks.
The first love of her life was a bootlegger, Andy Wallace. They never legally married but referred to one another as such. Andy was wishy washy and Norma was a firecracker. It never lasted. She did have this to say about it:

I kicked up something of a fuss, you might say, and I’ll tell you what I got for my trouble. I got shot. Well, I also got a seven-carat diamond ring.”


The husbands in between the first and the last were not much of note—and quite frankly, I couldn’t keep track when I tried to line them up. I think one was in law enforcement (this could be the one she couldn’t even remember the last name of); one rumored to be in business with Capone; another was actor and musician, Phil Harris, who is recalled changing his song line-up and lyrics when Norma and her girls walked into the bar and Norma shrugged off her over-sized fur coat in the middle of the walkway, assuming someone would be there to catch it.
Either way, husbands 2-to-4 were the jealous type. One set multiple fires in the Conti house while she was on vacation with her new husband. Her right-hand girl called her in a frenzy announcing that he was there “setting the couch on fire”. Norma told her to deal with it and hung up.

Then there was Wayne Bernard. Norma was 60 when she found Wayne, who was 38 years her junior and seemed to be the most stable of all her other husbands. Him and Norma moved to the country in Mississippi. Partially a tactic by Norma to keep Wayne from being tempted by younger women, though she knew he was fooling around and seemed to accept it. Eventually, Wayne too lost his immunity to women his own age and stopped coming home on a regular basis.

In 1974, with one of her girls, Rosemary and her baby in the other room, Norma grabbed a pillow, a pistol and walked into the kitchen to call Wayne’s sister while she shot twice, killing herself.  She was anywhere from 60 to 74 years old.
Eventually Wayne and Jean, whom he was seeing regularly behind Norma’s back, got married and still lived in that small country house when Christine Wiltz gathered the tapes to record Norma’s life.

What I touched on here it not even the tip of the iceberg; it’s like a corner piece that broke off and floated away. I would highly recommend at least listening to the Death By Champagne episodes on this, go to one of the websites below, or check out Christine Wiltz’s book.

Further Reading: The Last Madam by Christine Wiltz

Sources:
NPR.org
Criminalwisdom.com
TheLastMadam.com
Backstoryradio.org
NYtimes.com
1026contist.com

Death by Champagne podcast.

Don’t forget to check out my novel
The Pecan Trees
Available on Amazon or my website, HERE.

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