New Orleans in the Twenties
by Mary Lou Widmer, Pelican Publishing, 207pages
Mary Lou Widmer has already written entertaining histories of the Crescent City in the 1930s, —40s, and —50s. In those she mixed stories from her own life in New Orleans with details of the city’s coming of age; a photograph of her high school prom might appear near a picture of a 1940s Mardi Gras. Having now used up much of her own experience, she fills out New Orleans in the Twenties with earlier family lore. It is an amble through a town in which some streets were still paved with ballast blocks from European ships and the average per capita income was $131. Top-hatted chimney sweeps roamed the city, shouting, “ Ramoner la cheminée! , ” while King Oliver and Louis Armstrong invented a new kind of music. The town was awash in geniuses, charlatans, and bathtub gin. Widmer profiles the great saloons that became “restaurants” during Prohibition, including Tom Anderson’s and Lamothe’s. The Anheuser-Busch Brewery got through by converting to ice-cream production.
The first chapter begins with a picture of Audubon Park opposite one of Widmer’s mother’s wedding in 1924, and from there the private and public histories run parallel until the stock market crash at the end. Widmer, who is also a romance novelist, covers it all in cogent, conversational style, as if she had meant to tell a good family story and wound up dreaming an entire city in the process.