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Spectacular WickednessSpectacular Wickedness

Sex, Race, and Memory in Storyville, New Orleans

Emily Epstein Landau

Narrated by Lee Ann Howlett

Available from Audible

Book published by Louisiana State University Press

From 1897 to 1917 the red-light district of Storyville commercialized and even thrived on New Orleans’s longstanding reputation for sin and sexual excess. This notorious neighborhood, located just outside of the French Quarter, hosted a diverse cast of characters who reflected the cultural milieu and complex social structure of turn-of-the-century New Orleans, a city infamous for both prostitution and interracial intimacy. In particular, Lulu White—a mixed-race prostitute and madam—created an image of herself and marketed it profitably to sell sex with light-skinned women to white men of means. In Spectacular Wickedness, Emily Epstein Landau examines the social history of this famed district within the cultural context of developing racial, sexual, and gender ideologies and practices.

Storyville’s founding was envisioned as a reform measure, an effort by the city’s business elite to curb and contain prostitution—namely, to segregate it. In 1890, the Louisiana legislature passed the Separate Car Act, which, when challenged by New Orleans’s Creoles of color, led to the landmark Plessy v. Ferguson decision in 1896, constitutionally sanctioning the enactment of “separate but equal” laws. The concurrent partitioning of both prostitutes and blacks worked only to reinforce Storyville’s libidinous license and turned sex across the color line into a more lucrative commodity.

By looking at prostitution through the lens of patriarchy and demonstrating how gendered racial ideologies proved crucial to the remaking of southern society in the aftermath of the Civil War, Landau reveals how Storyville’s salacious and eccentric subculture played a significant role in the way New Orleans constructed itself during the New South era.

Emily Epstein Landau teaches in the Department of History at the University of Maryland at College Park.


“The topic of the historical red light district of New Orleans sounds like graphic subject matter. But the author takes a scholarly approach, and narrator Lee Ann Howlett's conversational Southern delivery makes it engaging. Storyville (1897-1917) was created in an attempt to segregate prostitution in New Orleans. Notorious resident Lulu White — an octoroon, madam, and brilliant businesswoman, who frequently changed her life story — is skillfully portrayed by Howlett. She also deftly conveys the realities of sex across the color line — as well as the ambiance of the region itself, especially the beauty of the Mississippi River. Since Storyville is considered by many to be the birthplace of jazz, quotes from Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton add authenticity. Listeners will chuckle as things come full circle and Howlett concludes in an amused tone that in 1917 "the law stepped in and outlawed fun.”


“Landau...contributes to a nuanced understanding of agency and coercion in these troubled circumstances....Landau has admirably demonstrated that the red-light district’s notoriety was, and continues to be, premised on the exploitation of the city’s reputation for racialized sexuality.”

American Historical Review


—Historians of race, gender, and sexuality will learn much from Landau‚Äôs explanation of how vice precincts such as Storyville reinforced the patriarchal and racial logic of segregation, and challenged

“Well-researched and informative, Spectacular Wickedness is a welcome addition to the ever-growing canon of New Orleans cultural history books.”

New Orleans Advocate

“Landau's takedown of Storyville's place in the United States's creation myth proves relevant in a country that still doesn't know how to categorize this sea-level city of intersections.”

Bitch Magazine

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