would have thought there was a party at Mink's Cafe. That much talk
and hooting laughter. The interior decorators from Hadrian's Villa
had been in for coffee. When they left Raymond Mink marked
the bottom of their coffee cups with the dishwasher's red fingernail
polish. "So now we'll know their cups from ours and you ladies
won't have to drink after them."
The saleswomen and seamstresses from
the Liberty Shop are flattered. It was a gallant gesture on Raymond's
part. He's been looking after them. But they aren't too sure why
they shouldn't drink after the decorators.
And Mink's not telling them. It's
a taboo subject. All he'll say is, "Something you ladies shouldn't
have to put up with."
But the decorators are only part of
the buzz, Mink has thoughtfully provided them with a copy of Look
magazine. There's a full page picture of Stormy, dancing on top
of a bar backed by a band. A couple of waiters are in the picture.
Watching not waiting. The spread in Look has made Stormy
a celebrity overnight. The women at Mink's huddle over the magazine.
Stormy's dark hair falls past her high buttocks. Even in a picture
they can tell the hips are swaying in one direction, the silk panels
and the hair in another. The decorators are nothing compared to
this! "Who cares what those sissies do? I never saw a white
woman shaking herself like that in front of a bunch of waiters.
I can't believe it."
Ione Theriot and Maureen Shaugnessy
have spent their entire lunch hour poring over the magazine. They've
read every word. Studied the picture. The audience of white men
can't be seen. Out of sight; out of mind. To Ione and Maureen the
photographic evidence is inconceivable. The multiple shades of New
Orleans people might suggest to others that somebody in the past
had been doing more than looking, but Ione and Maureen don't think
about that. All they think about is Stormy on a bar with black men
watching. How would it feel to be Stormy? Exciting. Scary.
"It's time to go back to work,"
Maureen says mournfully.
They come to Mink's because Raymond
always has something for the "girls."
Some risque joke or astounding piece in "The States Item."
Something to make them come back to Mink's Cafe rather than go over
to one of the other places for their roast beef po' boys.
"I'm sick and tired of seed pearls,
"Better seed pearls than sewing
sequins. I'll take seed pearls any day," sniffed Ione.
"It's a shame the Pratt girl's
not prettier. Seed pearls show up your complexion and that poor
darling's got bumps all over her face." Maureen likes pointing
out the deficiencies of the homely debutantes: The ones with the
big bellies, large noses, pimply faces.
"Well, you know what? You get
tired of sewing carnival gowns you could go to work for Stormy.
You could run up that cheeky little black number on the sewing machine
in half-an-hour. Bet the money's good." laughed Ione.
"I wouldn't' work for nobody
does what she does."
"You're right about that, Maureen.
Carnival work is tops. Don't we get invitations to sit upstairs
And they do get invitations to the
Proteus ball. Upstairs at the Municipal Auditorium in rusty black
evening dresses they've worn for the past five years, they watch
as the nineteen year old Queen glides around the room with her sixty
year old consort. She's wearing a dress that would have bought a
small house in the suburbs for either of them. They note each whispering
rustle of the gown, the graceful fold of the fabric as the Queen
curtsies and inclines her scepter toward the non dancers, the women
who sit upstairs without any hope of even one call-out: Ione and
Maureen, who bask in reflected glory as the Queen bows and sweeps
across the floor in a white silk creation covered in seed pearls,
each one of which they've sewn on by hand. They envy her nothing.
She is their Queen.
Torchy opens up at 6 p.m. for the
after work crowd. It's early and LaLune is a late night bar. She
works a double for extra cash and down time. Nothing happens until
eleven p.m when the dancers drift in. Torchy greets each one by
name; the women in dresses that tilt and swirl around their thighs
when the slick looking men fling them out onto the dance floor.
Sometimes Tony Almerico plays-the music has a Latin flavor-the room
more Parisian than American. Any Friday night you could see the
tango danced exquisitely at LaLune by a woman with red hair, a lantern
jaw, and a slim hip less figure. She always dances with the same
partner, a man so handsome that the people at the small tables seldom
look at her face, remembering only two slender bodies twirling in
tango fans as the musicians play La Cumparsita. His face
is passionate, as if the tango is the real act of love, and the
patrons seeing them believe also that any other act that human bodies
engage in is only a gross approximation of this beautiful coupling.
Torchy Wilde doesn't dance at LaLune,
although her look is as dramatic and slick as any of the men. She
dresses her short trim body in black slacks, ecru silk shirts, and
the short bolero jacket worn by the men. Her black hair is combed
back in a perfect duck tail; in front, one lifted strand dips across
her left eyebrow. There is always a cigarillo dangling from one
corner of her mouth, one eye slightly closed as the thin trail of
smoke climbs upward.
There is a woman sitting in the corner
at the end of the bar drinking champagne cocktails. Occasionally,
when the glass empties, Torchy slips behind the bar to lift out
the bottle sitting in a bucket of crushed ice to shake another cocktail.
Torchy is always aware of the woman and the glass as she sets up
and tends to the others in the room.
Someone says to no one in particular,
nodding toward the woman in the corner, "You know a corner
of the room is where power is."
The woman wears high heel black sandals
without hose and a black sun dress slit up the side. Her dark hair
is swept up in a French twist. One long, fine leg crossed over the
other swings in time to the music from the jukebox. Her skin is
very white, pasty, as if she's never in the sun. Luminous, she is
a striking figure in the semi darkness of the room. The faces of
the men turn to her attentively, like toreadors they observe every
movement she makes, but none of them moves in her direction.
Torchy finds reason to walk outside
the bar to say a few words.
"Another drink, Miss Stormy?"
"You pouring? I'm drinking."
"I'm pouring my heart out and
you know it."
She did know. Stormy had just come
back from New York and this was her first stop. The gossip had already
run up and down Bourbon Street, "Stormy is leaving Jack Lester.
She's back with Torchy. Yeah, she's at LaLune right now."
Torchy had not asked the obvious question:
Why are you here when your husband is there? Instead she played
Anita Ellis on the jukebox and mixed champagne cocktails. She would
continue to mix champagne cocktails until Stormy stopped drinking
them or was too drunk to drink them and had to be taken home. Torchy
mixed drinks as if Stormy had always been sitting there, as if she'd
never left New Orleans. Never been Jack Lester's wife.
"I have to go to work,"
Stormy said. "Somebody told me Frank DeSalvo's wife just
had a kid. She can't work. Maybe he needs a dancer."
"I don't know you could work
for Frank DeSalvo. He's not your class."
"What's my class? I never liked
that word. You're whatever that word ought to mean, Torchy. You
always will be."
"Always is a pretty long time.
You're the one goes on trips."
"That's the last one. It was
a big mistake."
After the spread in Look she'd
married the photographer. He was obsessed with her. Either hanging
over the bar at the club drinking Jack Daniels on the rocks or hanging
at the edge of the stage taking hundreds of shots of her. The camera
was an extension of himself, and she began to feel he was making
love to her with the camera, that he saw her as she saw herself:
powerful and beautiful striding up and down the stage. Stormy wasn't
really a dancer. She wasn't a dancer the way Kalantan or Lili Christine
was, and she didn't take much off. She had presence. Her walk owned
the stage. Her face, always impassive, ignored the audience and
she never drank with the customers. Sometimes she'd go into the
back bar and send Torchy or Alice Brady a telegram a couple of doors
One night when she came off stage.
she said, "How you doing Jack Daniels?" And that was the
beginning of it. She knew his name was Jack, and she knew what he
drank, which was more than she'd bothered to know about any man
who'd come into the club.
The pictures he took of her were black
and white studies. They went past the mask. In Jack Lester's pictures
her luminous face was surrounded by a living darkness. He was not
like the other Johns who came to the club every night to see flesh.
The photographs he took made her a star or maybe it was the time
she went up to Baton Rouge and let the football players dunk her
in the fountain after they won the big game. Maybe Jack's picture
of Stormy coming out of the water dripping sex was what made her
a star. Anyone who came to Bourbon Street had to go to Stormy's
Casino Royal to see Stormy.
Jack's persistence was exciting, and
finally-sexy. He was a mirror. She could see herself full length
as she'd never seen herself before, and when he came to the club
one night with two one way tickets to New York, she went with him.
She said, "Jack, everything's going to change in New York."
It did. They were featured in the
gossip columns. Walter Winchell wrote about Stormy the beautiful
exotic dancer -- the toast of New Orleans seen at Twenty-one with
her new husband, fashion photographer Jack Lester. They went everywhere.
She no longer worked. She read everything. There weren't enough
books in the world to satisfy the hunger she had to know things.
Pretty soon she knew more than he did. During the day she liked
to pad around the apartment barefooted, listening to the latest
rhythm and blues from New Orleans: Johnny Ace, Johnny Adams, Shirley
and Lee, Chuck Willis, La Vern Baker, people she'd worked with.
Sometimes she'd dance for Jack, which made him romantic. For a while
it was all romantic.
When she got lonesome for home she'd
write to her mother who worked on Bourbon street and never wrote
back, or to Miss Willie ,who raised her and still worked at Maison
Blanche making curtains for rich people. Mostly she wrote to Torchy
who always wrote back: Torchy sent Stormy something she'd copied
from a Gideon Bible years before:
Entreat me not to leave you or
cease following you. Whither thou goest I will go, and whither thou
stayest I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God
will be my God. whither thou diest, I will die, and there will I
die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me severely
if I allow anything but death to separate us.
In her letter Torchy wrote, "It's
what Ruth said to Naomi. It's the way I feel about you." The
letter made Stormy homesick and she stayed in bed most of the day.
She thought about her wedding day. The Justice of the Peace who'd
married them was a fan. He blushed when he told her he'd seen her
picture in Look "I thought the pictures were beautiful,
but I'm glad you've turned your life around."
It did seem that way at first. Jack
was gentle -- intelligent. His eyes saw everything through the camera
lens. He'd married a sophisticated woman who stalked the stage;
if he took her to nightclubs everyone wanted her and ignored him.
He wouldn't let her work because everyone wanted her. "You're
my wife," he said.
The woman at their apartment was
someone else: A shy girl from Mississippi who liked to walk around
without shoes, who didn't wear makeup, who cooked fried chicken
and greens, who sometimes cried for her Mama and Torchy all night
long, and who, when she was sad wanted him to "put your mouth
where it will do some good," A place where he'd never put his
mouth before, and who, when he didn't bought stacks of postcards
to send to the strippers in the Quarter to tell them how wonderful
her life was in New York.
After two years-- after almost two
years to the day, she wrote to Torchy. "I want to come home."
Torchy sent her a train ticket . After eighteen hours on the train,
with nothing to eat but the chicken she'd fried before she left
New York, it was Torchy who met her at the station. "Where's
your bag? Did you check it."
"I don't have a bag," she
Now she was back. It was the same,
but not the same. Everyone knew who she was -- Stormy, and that
meant something. She was heavier now. Had come into her woman's
body--voluptuous, older. She could have lived forever on the adulation
of a few rich, gay mean who saw her as the ultimate woman--the woman
they would like to be--not too differently from the way Jack Lester
had seen her as she danced above him, when she was the most beautiful
dancer in New Orleans.
After the first week, she left Torchy's
apartment. The physical part of their affair was over. It was like
that song Anita Ellis sang, "The Four Walls and One Dirty Window
Blues:" "I'll call up my used-to-be. He'll straighten
out my affairs." Stormy had called up Torchy to straighten
out her affairs. It was time to move on.
Stormy moved in with a younger woman.
Jeanie had came to town wearing a sharp business suit to work as
a buyer for Kreeger's department store. Now she was working as a
barmaid at Wanda's on Bienville Street wearing black slacks, a man's
shirt, and a duck tail haircut, staying with Stormy in a slave quarter
apartment on Ursuline.
Jeanie looked like a clean cut young
boy. One Saturday night she lost a cap on a front tooth in a fight
with a male customer. It was not obvious-- not worth having fixed.
She seldom smiled and would rather drink than look good.. The books
she read were by E.E. Cummings and she tried to write like him:
all small letters. Stormy smothered her with mothering. In the six
months with Stormy, Jeanie had four bar maid jobs but couldn't hold
one. "It's because I won't sleep with the bosses." Word
was she did sleep with the bosses for free booze and they tired
of her quickly.
One Sunday morning about 3 a.m. Stormy
came in from the club. She found Jeanie lying on a white chenille
bedspread covered in blood from twenty-seven hesitation cuts she'd
made to her face, arms, and breasts. Stormy knew there were twenty-seven
because the doctors had documented twenty-seven. One for each year
of her life--more than her father had made when he ended his.
Now that Jeanie was residing on the
third floor of Charity Hospital in the psychiatric unit, Stormy
was able to reexamine her life. The doctor said that Jeanie was
a great danger to herself and should stay in the hospital for an
extended period. Stormy knew from the bruises she was wearing around
her own neck that Jeanie could be dangerous to others.
Torchy gave Stormy the money to move
and moved her. Stormy moved while Jeanie was in the hospital tending
to her new love, a woman who smoked a pipe and looked like Ernest
Hemingway without a moustache. The woman was undergoing
a series of shock treatments, and when the orderlies dumped her
back in her bed like a slab of cold beef, Jeanie cared for her.
Stormy was back with Torchy painting
oil portraits of people in the Quarter she'd known or worked with.
Torchy gave her a one woman show at LaLune. One wall was plastered
with portraits: Ruthie the Duck Girl, Ivan from the Disgusting Group,
Lucita, Mary Collins from the Galley House, Aggie, Louise from the
Starlet Lounge, Alice Brady, and Galatea. Bill Christy cooked a
huge buffet. Everybody came to eat and drink and buy their portrait.
The show was a huge success. After the show, Stormy quit painting.
Stormy was older--they were both--older.
Stormy said she'd never leave again. Torchy was the one constant
in her life, but they both knew she was restless, never quite satisfied
with life if it stayed too much the same--she loved change--a new
woman--a new man.
Once when the real restlessness hit
her-- when she wanted to shake up everything she flew to Chicago
where Jack Lester was working for the "Chicago Tribune."
He had married again and had kids, but he went on a week's tear
with Stormy. They flew to New York and visited as many of their
old haunts as still existed. She knew he would probably leave his
family if she asked him, but she could only be the woman he wanted
for about a week.
Torchy picked her up at the airport
in a new Cadillac convertible.
"Where'd you get the car?"
"From my new old Lady."
"New or old--you better hold
on to her. She's a live one."
"And you, Miss Thing. Did you
get New York out of your system?"
"For now. Did you miss me?"
"You know I did, but I didn't
lose any sleep."
"God, it's good to be home! There's
no light like this anywhere else in the world."
"How would you know? You got
a shuttle going between here and New York. You don't even go back
'I like the bright lights."
"Baby girl, you haven't missed
much even if you haven't been a lot of places." Torchy in her
black sunglasses didn't smile, but Stormy knew her eyes did. She
took Torchy's hand and held it.
Stormy was back at DeSalvo's dancing
on stage. The sign out front still said: STARRING STORMY. It
stayed up whether she was in town or not, but the sign had weathered.
DeSalvo, who was renovating the club, had the sign taken down.
NADIA THE GIRL WHO STRIPS UNDERWATER
was more of a draw. DeSalvo had modified the stage for Nadia's tank,
and he always got his money's worth. The big tank limited Stormy's
area to stride. Made her act smaller. When the new sign went up,
it read: NADIA THE MERMAID, NUDE UNDERWATER, underneath
STORMY , A BOURBON STREET LEGEND. Nadia wasn't really nude,
but she ducked behind rubber plants or fake coral and gave the illusion.
Stormy's mother Enola worked on Bourbon
Street in a blue comedy act . She was the farmer's daughter in a
short pink gingham skirt and pasties. Enola had been working the
street for thirty years, and she always sent her money home to Mississippi
where her Daddy had been a share cropper. Where her mother still
eked out a living with a garden, and four other daughters, none
of whom had stayed married but had a mess of kids. When Enola went
home she went to Mississippi, when Stormy went home she went to
Torchy or sometimes to Miss Willie..
One Sunday Torchy said, "Come
on, Baby, let's take a ride."
They went to Metairie. To the other
side of Airline Highway to look at JIM WALTERS MODEL HOMES. Stormy
was excited. It had never occurred to her that anybody she knew
might buy a house. It was a finish it yourself house. Not too much
bigger than a trailer.
"How are you going to do that--finish
it?" Stormy asked. "You don't know which end of a hammer
drives a nail."
And when it was finished-- Torchy's
house in the suburbs-- she took in anybody off Bourbon street with
a hard luck story: Drying out? Can't make the rent? Name your poison.
Torchy could feel sorry. And she didn't bad mouth them when they
left complaining of the food or the uncomfortable couch. She said,
"They're good people."
The year Stormy got sick--no one thought
she was really sick. A look of profound sorrow had always been part
of her allure. There was a deep note to many things she said, although
she didn't talk much. In spite of her voluptuous figure men and
women both thought of her as delicate and treated her that way,
but she'd been amazingly healthy. She danced five nights a week,
five shows a night for twenty years.
Her quick humor--a belly laugh--would break out of any quirky little
happening, but she didn't like dirty jokes--too many night club
It began as a light headiness on stage,
whirling the silk panels to show her legs became an exercise in
caution. Caution made her feel old. She thought it was her eyes.
"I'm going to look pretty silly on stage in granny glasses."
None of the imperfections of her body
had ever bothered her, and she laughed about this too. There was
always someone who wanted her. It was like being too rich: Out of
sheer animal vitality she'd been wasteful of her looks.
Stormy's skin was flawless, unlike
Marie Cavanaugh who at fifty looked eighty and stripped in the dark
under black light, swooping around the stage to Claire de Lune
in iridescent butterfly wings and glowing scarves, which she removed
slowly, stripping down to a luminous G-string and pasties. In the
dark Marie Cavanaugh was the moon. Men in the audience never noticed
her age or scars. The illusion worked and they were horny.
Stormy made a few concessions to her
heavier figure. Bunny Gay (Costumer to the Stars) constructed what
he called an "industrial strength bra" with black French
lace over a full sized brassiere. The bra concealed her breasts
except for an extravagant cleavage in front. Bunny, who worked for
Art and Tony, dressed all the strippers. He always called her Mama.
He told anybody who came the shop, which was open from 10 p.m. to
5 a.m. full of crazed coke Queens sewing at flying sewing machines.
"Mama is still the prettiest dancer on Bourbon Street. Only
a dumb fuck like Frank DeSalvo would headline a drowned rat over
Stormy. But you know how it is: Rats run together."
The eye doctor, when Stormy finally
kept an appointment, told her it was not her eyes--something deeper--something
he couldn't fix with a pair of glasses. The other doctor she went
to couldn't fix it either--it was past fixing.
At Torchy's insistence Stormy quit
working, and moved back in with Torchy. This time to the country
or what Quarterites considered the country--Metairie. It was not
Mississippi, she'd never liked Mississippi. Here there was her little
dog and coffee in bed in the morning with Torchy who brought it
in for both of them. They had always slept late, had breakfast around
two in the afternoon, now Stormy wanted to get up early for fear
of missing any part of the day. Each day was like a semiprecious
stone. Slight imperfections made it unique. Time did not seem to
be going too quickly. Torchy had saved a little money and they let
her off from LaLune with the promise of her job back any time she
Stormy said,"Doesn't this remind
you of summer vacation when you were a kid? The summer goes on and
The days were like two lifetimes.
In the past Torchy had known writers
who lived in the Quarter: Lyle Saxon, Tennessee Williams, sometimes
they'd come into LaLune. Tennessee gave Torchy a book with a personal
inscription. More often she bought the book and got the author to
"Hey, listen to this, Storm." She'd read a passage from
Elizabeth Barrett Browning or from "This Is My Beloved."
Torchy was partial to love poems. Stormy would listen and play with
Alouette the toy poodle. "Yeah, that's great. Just like you
and me, Torchy." Torchy would laugh. She knew Stormy was ribbing
on the square.
No one in Torchy's family had ever
been to college. She had worked since she was fourteen. In the Jim
Walters house Torchy built bookcases in every room. She'd show her
books to friends and say, "This is my Tulane University."
For the first time in her life Stormy
was not restless--not looking for change.
"Mama, " Bunny said when
he came to visit, "You're still the prettiest dancer on the
street. Forget the Cat Girl. Forget Blaze Starr. Forget Kalantan.
Mama, you're the one."
"She's the happiest I've ever seen her." Bunny told Torchy.
Exactly what Torchy wanted to hear.
Stormy said, "You know Bunny
everybody thinks I'm being brave. It's not that. Now I know what
my life is all about. I can see it. It's all of a piece, and it's
not bad. Not bad at all."
When Stormy died there was a short
obituary in "The Times Picayune." Ione Theriot couldn't
believe it. She immediately called Maureen Shaugnessy, who remembered.
" Like it was yesterday," she said, "those pictures
of Stormy in Look.
And to them this was a memorable death--like
Roosevelt dying. They would remember what they were doing on that
day for the rest of their lives. Stormy was important, although
they weren't quite sure why.
Torchy had a burial policy she'd taken
out on Stormy twenty-five years ago just like she was family. The
policy paid for a metal coffin and the burial, but it didn't pay
for interment--finishing off the tomb. Torchy had to do it herself
with concrete blocks and Qwikcrete. While the Qwikcrete was still
wet she wrote in it: BELOVED STORMY. Later had it
put on a stone.
In her will Torchy requested that
she be buried with Stormy BELOVED TORCHY inscribed on
her tomb. Her old friend Alice Brady took care of the funeral,
the inscription, and set the concrets blocks, but before she could
spread the Qwikcrete her right knee gave out and she had to have
an operation. The Qwikcrete hasn't been poured.
Stormy and Torchy are buried in Greenwood
Cemetery at the foot of Canal Street where the bus driver always
calls "Cemeteries-End of the line."