DF: The first night
we were talking about arranging this interview, you said that this is still
a beatnik town. Why?
JN: I said it was a bohemian town. The basis of bohemia is cheap rent, and New
Orleans is still a cheap place to live. So young people from across the country
can come here, rent an apartment for three or four hundred dollars a month,
work part-time day-jobs and practice their arts. That's simply not possible
in New York or San Francisco anymore, because rents there are astronomical.
You'd have to marry a corporation to afford fifteen hundred dollars a month
for a studio apartment. With the bohemia here comes an incredibly broad mix
of people, of ages, classes, races, sexualities, backgrounds. This isn't possible
anymore in more stratified cities like San Francisco and New York, where you
literally have to buy into the "right neighborhood," the one that fits your
narrow social identity. So bohemia there is just a fashion show, where people
pay enormous rents to live in formerly hip neighborhoods like North Beach or
the Village. But they're working for corporations and don't have time to be
DF: There are other cities, smaller towns for instance, that have cheap rent,
so why not there?
JN: They're not crossroads, one thing that these three cities have in common.
In the 60s we called this the Golden Triangle--New York, San Francisco, and
New Orleans. During the Beat and hippie eras people were in constant movement
between those three cities. All of them were port cities, and all three are
now turning their no longer functioning ports into theme parks, such as the
French Quarter is becoming. So there may be cheap rent in Cincinnati or Philadelphia,
but they're not places that open outward to the world. They open in on the United
States. In the early 60s, the most enlightened poeple I first knew were merchant
marines who turned me on to Allen Watts' The_Way_of_Zen, Ferlinghetti's
Coney_Island_of_the_Mind, books like that. They were disaffected 50s
people who had shipped out, gone to Japan and Europe and South America. In the
60s New Orleans was still a sailor's town--a very important aspect. All along
Decatur Street were foreign sailors' bars--La Casa de los Marinos, the Athenian
Room, the Acropolis. That's where we always wound up about three or four in
the morning, drinking ouzo and dancing like Zorba.
DF: That's something nobody else has talked about.
JN: Absolutely essential, the port aspect of New Orleans. The Quarter wasn't
the urban amusement park it is today, but a functioning port in which ships
from all over the world docked, sailors got off the boats, crossed Decatur Street,
and found bars where Greek, Spanish, and Italian music was playing. And the
ladies were waiting.
DF: You were living nearby because you grew up in Tremé ....
JN: I was born in the Tremé, at Governor Nicholls and North Galvez, and
brought up pretty much in the Seventh Ward. But during this time--from '62 to
'65--I was in high school, and living with my grandparents. I remember that
a month after graduating from Franklin, I was down on my hands and knees in
the third bar of La Casa on Decatur, groping around on the mucky floor for my
class ring that flew off while I was dancing. I never found it, and didn't care.
I was hanging out with an older crowd--and by older I mean people twenty-three,
twenty-six--who had already dropped out of college and were in constant motion
with a copy of Kerouac tucked under their arms, travelling between New York,
San Francisco, and New Orleans. At any moment, a car was leaving. There was
a place to stay! And Babe Stovall was singing, "The ship is at the landing,
don't you want to go?
Jack Eliott, Jerry Jeff Walker, Ben Jennings, and Mark Ryan were part of this
group of older people, too old to call themselves hippies, too young to call
themselves Beats. So they called themselves bohos. Their mentor in the Delta
blues was Babe Stovall, and they wanted to live just like he did--minus the
eleven kids. They called their group the Boho Band. At this point, what we were
hadn't been discovered by the media, so there was no ready-made identity you
had to assume, no costume outside of basic Army-Navy Surplus. I was a young
kid who hung out with older hip people, so the perjorative term was "hippie,"
or little hip one. They were hip, I was hippie, and in 1967 Time did
a cover story, coined the phrase, and the rest if history.
DF: You talk about people like Jerry Jeff Walker and Ramblin' Jack Eliott coming
in and out from other places, and it always seemed to me that most of the interesting
people I ended up hanging out with were from elsewhere. Was it the same in this
bohemia here, and what happened to the native-born people?
JN: A lot of Southerners were in this world. For a long time, probably since
the turn of the century, anybody who was a misfit in the South ended up in the
French Quarter. You know, drunken debutantes from Mississippi, flamenco dancers
from small Texas towns, people like that. We still have rigid social classes
in the South, particularly in New Orleans, but in the French Quarter social
distinctions have always melted away. So a Delta debutante shacks up with a
pool-shark whose father was a sharecropper. Invite them both over for spaghetti.
What was the question again?
DF: Specifically, where did all these bohemians come from?
JN: There were Southern misfits, local people, and Jewish people from the North
involved in the civil rights movement, like Larry Borenstein, who had an art
gallery, Al Rose who had a recording studio, and Allan and Sandy Jaffe, who
started Preservation Hall. But the backbone of Quarter bohemia, when I knew
it, were the painters on Jackson Square. They both lived and made their living
here, and could go for years without ever leaving the Quarter. That's why we're
so upset recently that they've been driven off the Square by corndog psychics
and other circus acts. The last of the artists' community is crumbling.
From those days, I remember the painter John Kamas was a Slavic son of the Irish
Channel, and another painter Joanna Palmer was a third or fourth generation
native. The local bohemian painters of an older generation tended to be more
conservative politically and socially. I knew painters native to the Quarter--parents
of friends of mine--who wore sandals and gypsy skirts and exhibited their work
on the Square, but went to Mass every Sunday and were concerned with family
matters. Creole bohemians were different from people who moved here to let their
hair down. The people here still had families, and didn't step out too far.
We led a double life. We would go home to have Sunday dinner with Memere and
Pepere, but were hung over from Saturday night at La Casa and the Greek bars.
Sometimes we envied people who moved here from other parts of the country. They
seemed to live in a state of perpetual exploration, whereas we always had to
maintain some semblance of traditional life.
DF: How did this jibe with new sexual and racial attitudes?
JN: Parts of the Quarter were integrated before legal integration. At that time
I was going to a bar on Frenchmen Street called the Dream Castle, now known
as the Dream Palace, that was the first integrated bar in the city, as far as
I knew. It was a black bar where white musicians and white anthropologists from
Tulane started going to hear Babe Stovall and other blues musicians. That attracted
more bohos, and finally high school students like myself started turning up
about 1963. The bar was frequently raided, so when the police came in, I would
run to the men's room with my chemistry workbook, lock the door, and do my homework.
They were raiding for underage drinkers, but those laws were never enforced
anywhere else then. The cops were trying to bust an integrated bar, but it was
such a wonderful place. This black Creole guy who owned it would invite everyone
home for gumbo at three in the morning. And this was just unheard of, a place
where black and white people could sit down together to make music, talk, and
drink at the same table.
Also, I had never met homosexuals before, but
the painter Ivan Kotterman and a lot of others in the Discussion Group were
gay. Many of the gay people were really bisexual, because they were married
with children but were tricking on the side. And so the Quarter was also a sexual
melting pot of gays, straights and mostly, I think, bisexuals. After a while,
I just assumed everyone was bisexual, and nothing surprised me. It still doesn't.
DF: So except for having to report home for dinner, the local bohemians lived
a free life and were accepting of blacks, gays, and bisexuals?
JN: And of independent women. Before, I'd never met a woman who wasn't immediately
identified as someone's wife or daughter. Then women were defined by their relations
to men, but in the Quarter the women I met-well, I didn't know who their husbands
or fathers or brothers were. That was considered pretty racy: women on the loose,
with their own money and apartments.
DF: Tell me about the Discussion Group. Lee Grue kept referring to it as the
JN: We all called it the Disgusting group. There were greasy jelly glasses filled
with jug wine, everyone got disgustingly drunk, then got into knock-down, drag-out
fights with each other. I first heard about it when I was a junior in high school.
I was going out with a pregnant French ballerina named Lyonnes Bourbonais who
took me there. It met at a regular time on Fridays in Ivan Kotterman's apartment
on Bourbon Street.
It was like what is known in Spain as a tertulia,
which is a monthly get-together of like-minded people who meet to drink and
informally discuss a topic. What makes it different from a party is that there's
always a topic, there's no music, and everyone talks at once, loudly disagreeing
and shaking their wine glasses in the air. At the Discussion Group we'd discuss:
"Is There Life After Death?" or "Will Integration Work?" I remember at one point
I gave a demonstration of the Tarot. It was actually rational for about twenty
minutes, until everyone filled their glasses again and started screaming. It
always ended in a battle between Helen Gladstone, a vaudeville actress from
New York, and Ivan, who had this huge walrus mustache. He reminded her of her
father, and she reminded him of his mother. In the meantime, everyone else had
paired off to insult each other or pick each other up. It was quite an array
of eccentrics, always a good mixture of old and new faces. Everyone was welcome.
The word "liminal" comes to mind to describe it, an equalizing of social distinctions.
The group continued until the early 70s, when
a fire destroyed Ivan's apartment on Royal Street and his lover Vernon was killed.
Before, Ivan had another lover, Dorothy White's husband, and he and Ivan ran
a bar called Mom's Society Page, for drag queens and truck drivers. And truck
drivers in drag. Dorothy was an uptown debutante who disgraced her family, moved
to the Quarter, and had several children with various men. I recently ran into
one of her sons, and he reminded me that when he was growing up, his mother
would often take a case of whiskey and disappear into her bedroom with a strange
man for four or five days at a time. These were some serious people.
DF: Which bar did the Disgusting Group take place in?
JN: It wasn't in a bar or cafe, like in Spain, but always in Ivan's house. In
Barcelona I was a member of several tertulias that did meet in cafes,
on different nights of the week every month. They were like families of friends.
Except in Spain, people have complicated domestic situations, and can't meet
at home. In New Orleans, because of segregation, it would have been impossible
for the Discussion Group to meet in public places.
DF: What was the clientele of the Quorum Club like?
JN: The Quorum was a coffeehouse, didn't serve alcohol, and so was a little
straighter and more politically oriented, aligned with the civil rights groups.
John Beecher, an elderly Southern poet, an important figure in the civil rights
movement, used to show up. There was a church next door, and I'm not sure of
the exact relationship between the coffeehouse and the church, but some liberal
protestant churches were setting up these coffeehouses as meeting places for
blacks and whites in the South.
The Quorum Club had a tiny stage where folk singers,
jazz musicians, and poets performed, and tables where people played chess. The
mood was funky and mellow, which is why we were so shocked when the police raided.
The formal charges--I still remember verbatim--were "the tuneless strumming
of guitars and pointless intellectual conversation." Of course, one of the main
activities there was black voter registration, which is what brought the heat
At the Quorum there was a moral purpose to change
society. The Discussion Group had more artists on Jackson Square, and the Quorum
people were more social activists. You have to remember we were in the middle
of a social revolution, and in 1968 Martin Luther King was assassinated, Robert
Kennedy was assassinated, even Andy Warhol was shot. Closer to home, that year
my parents committed me to St. Vincent DePaul hospital because I was coming
down to the Quarter, had long hair, was smoking grass, and I think some neighbor
saw me holding hands with a black nun at a civil rights demonstration. It was
DF: Oh boy. Is that something Southern parents did a lot to their wayward kids?
JN: A lot of people spent time in DePaul's. That was the place where families
put children or relatives that they didn't know what to do with. That's where
Sebastian Venerable's cousin Catherine winds up in Suddenly_Last_Summer.
DF: And you were how old when this happened?
DF: And how long did you stay?
JN: Four months. The American Civil Liberties Union wanted to make me a test
case for illegal commitments--all any doctor had to do to commit you was call
the coroner--and filed suit against the doctor and hospital. Rather than go
through with what was called a "lunacy hearing," my parents put me in a half-way
house, and we never went to court. Which is just as well, because the ACLU finally
won that test case-eight years later, in 1976. I got out on Mardi Gras day of
1968, if you can imagine, and shortly after my friend Gretchen Hirt was released.
DF: Any relation to Al Hirt?
JN: His daughter. She was an actress working at the Gallery Circle Theater on
Madison, which had quite a few ex-patients from DePaul. They performed wonderful
experimental theater like Viet Rock and MacBird. At that time,
of course, Richard Schechner was at Tulane, editing the Tulane_Drama_Review,
and Tom Dent and Eluard Burt were working with the Free Southern Theater, so
radical theater was very much alive in New Orleans. And the Gallery Circle was
the center of the Quarter theater world.
ME: Were you involved in theater then?
JN: I directed our senior class play! I mean, I was at Ben Franklin High School,
living in my grandparents' basement. Franklin was known as a Sputnik school,
which meant they wanted to "teach Johnny what Ivan knows," in the Cold War phrase,
because the Soviets were ahead with their space program. It was all physics
and algebra, and I hated math. I did have an inspiring English teacher, Charles
Suhor, who was later part of the New Orleans Poetry Forum. He was not only a
poet, but a jazz drummer, which was an enormous influence. He gave us creative
writing assignments, and that's how I started writing. Actually, I was much
more interested in painting, theater, and music, but there were no outlets for
any other type of art at Franklin then. It was a science school, and the most
creative thing you could do was to make up talks in Latin.
ME: That's when Franklin was on Carrollton.
JN: Absolutely. In the old Carrollton courthouse building.
DF: So you were schlepping there on the streetcar or bus?
JN: Yes, from Banks and Jeff Davis, where my grandparents were living at the
time. They were amazingly supportive of me going to the Quarter, where my grandmother's
family came from. Memere was born in the building known as Maspero's Exchange,
across from the Napoleon House, where my great-grandfather (whose chairs we're
sitting in) had a tobacco shop. So when I first started coming here, they were
oblivious to the social revolution happening. They treated me like a young adult,
free to come and go as I liked from my rat-infested garconniere in the
basement. The Creole part of my family had always lived here, so....
DF: It was the old neighborhood.
JN: The old neighborhood. And they were delighted I was taking an interest.
My great-aunt, a public school teacher living with us, was a member of Le Petit
Theatre, was on committees to save the streetcars, stop son et lumiere
on Jackson Square, things like that. [Interruption. Phone rings]
DF: Would you mind recapitulating what you just said about your great-great
JN: OK, I'm from here because in the winter of 1862 my great-great grandfather
slapped a policemen in Brussels, and had to get out of town quick. So he joined
what was then the equivalent of the French Foreign Legion, the French Volunteers
of the European Brigade of the Confederate Army. He was sent as a captain to
New Orleans, where he later set up a tobacco company trading with Cuba. He married
a woman from Alsace-Lorraine, and their son was my great-grandfather, Auguste
Glaudot, who died when I was three. His wife was Alice Landry, whose family
was involved with the People's Bank in the Quarter, lived on Bourbon St. in
that large house next to Lafitte's-in-Exile, and were probably Creoles of color.
My grandmother grew up in the Pontabla building, went to the Ursuline Convent
school, and didn't learn English until she was sixteen. So she was pleased I
was interested in the old neighborhood. On the other hand, my parents were horrified,
joined white-flight and moved to River Ridge in '64. I lasted one summer out
DF: That was really far out there.
JN: Way far, and my mother didn't even know how to drive. It was absurd, streetcar-riding
people raised in Seventh Ward shotgun houses trying to be "Ozzy and Harriet."
But they thought the Quarter was a bad influence. My father warned that someone
was going to "slip a mickey" in my drink, whatever that meant. He grew up around
the Fairgounds, and predicted if I smoked grass, I'd end up like "those people
at the race track." That was their generation's perspective: The Quarter was
vice, not culture.
You see, after the wealthy Creoles left the Quarter
around the turn of the century, Sicilian immigrants revitalized it as an ethnic
neighborhood. They had the French Market, and were the green grocers. Everyone
I know here with an Italian last name, their grandparents had a corner store
in Little Italy, which was Esplanade to the Square, Decatur to Royal. All that
remains of that lost world is Progress Grocery and Fiorella's Restaurant.
But by the 30s, the Sicilians had moved up and
out, and the Quarter had become a slum, associated with vice and prostitution.
The only block left of that derelict Quarter is Iberville between Royal and
Chartres, at Exchange Alley, with all those seedy red-light girlie clubs. By
the 50s, the whole quarter looked like that block, and it was a good place to
get mugged or rolled.
DF: That was my mother's reaction to the Quarter, too. I went to St. Aloysius,
at the corner of Rampart and Esplanade. When that closed and they shipped us
to Gentilly, I would still take the bus to town on Fridays just to schlepp through
the Quarter. She said, "You're going to get robbed by drug addicts." She thought
everything was going to happen to me. And it did!
JN: And here we are, still lost in the Golden Triangle.
DF: You were right, Mom.
(May 19, 1999)