Lulu White, the Storyville Madam
Updated: Feb 6, 2019
In the early 18th century, the population of New Orleans was overwhelmingly male. Leaders struggled to draw women colonizers, and the situation was so dire that the King of France, Louis XV, had to intervene to draw women to the young colonial city. The monarch released inmates of the Pitié Salpêtrière asylum, an institution that held a large number of sex workers, but also other social “deviants” such as homeless women, orphans, protestants, alcoholics, and suicidal women. As a result, the city became so full of sex workers that when a priest petitioned the governor of Louisiana to banish “disreputable women”, the politician replied that if he were to send away all the “loose females”, no women would be left in New Orleans.
When New Orleans was under French and subsequently Spanish colonial rule, prostitution was neither regulated nor suppressed. However, when the colony was sold to the United States in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, the ever so puritanical Americans imposed a series of regulations that allowed cops to arrest streetwalkers for “vagrancy” or harass madams for “brothel keeping”.
Despite these repressive measures, by 1897, there were brothels all over the city. Sidney Story, an elected member of the New Orleans municipal council, proposed to limit brothels to one district, which would be specifically zoned for the purpose. His ordinance passed, and as a result New Orleans became the only city in the United States with a legally-sanctioned red-light district, who is now nicknamed as “Storyville” after the politician who proposed it.
Lulu White left her home in Alabama for New Orleans in 1880, where she started working as a whore. She quickly became very successful; Maggie McNeil states that her client list included “an oil man, a railroad tycoon and a department-store owner”. Her ability to attract a wealthy clientele led her to be able to amass enough funds to start her own business and become a Madame.
Brothels at the time were segregated into three types: houses could either be staffed by white women, black women, or “creole” (biracial) women. Only white clients were permitted to enter these establishments- black men were prohibited from patronizing Storyville brothels. Lulu white’s house was an “Octoroon Parlor”, a brothel that hired only biracial sex workers. White herself was a woman of color; she claimed to be an immigrant from the West Indies and that she did “not have a drop of negro blood”. However, it is widely believed that she was, in fact, partially black.
Her wealth and extravagant ways led White to become an icon; the Mae West film Belle of the Nineties was based on her life. By casting Mae West, a white actress, in the role of the biracial Lulu, the producers effectively whitewashed the film.
In 1906, White went to Hollywood to investigate the budding motion picture industry. The Honest Courtesan points out that she “made deals for real estate and production facilities which would’ve made her the owner of the largest studio in town, then returned to New Orleans to get the funds together.” When she sent her boyfriend, Georges Killshaw, to California to complete the deal for her with 150 000$ in cash, he disappeared with the money.
In 1917, the Secretary of the Navy, Josephus Daniels, considered Storyville to be a “bad influence” on the sailors at the nearby New Orleans Naval base. The District was closed by federal order in 1917, despite the mayor’s objections, who famously claimed that “[y]ou can make prostitution illegal, but you can’t make it unpopular.”
Her fortune already vastly diminished after having been robbed by her partner, Lulu was then forced to close her brothel. Her only remaining business was a former saloon that she turned into a soda bar after the National Prohibition Act of Prohibition passed, and where she secretly sold liquor.
Little is know of her after 1931- she is said to have lived into her seventies. As Maggie McNeil points out: “imagine how different Hollywood (and perhaps even America) might’ve been had its largest studio been owned not only by a black woman, but a proud and unrepentant whore!”
Maggie McNeil's "Lulu White", The Honest Courtesan
Maggie McNeil's "Storyville", The Honest Courtesan