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The Golden Triangle: An Interview with James Nolan
by Dennis Formento

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 artists.

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?
     Ramblin' 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 Disgusting Group.

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 down.
     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 war.

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?

JN: Nineteen.

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 grandfather.

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 there....

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)

Dennis Formento is the editor of Mesechabe: The Journal of Surregionalism and lives near Bayou St. John (Mudfish River) south of Ok-wa-ta (Lake Pontchartrain) in the flood plain of the Meschacebe River.

Email: mesechabe@hotmail.com

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