The return of the Grand Duchess

My pal Jen has remarked to me on more than one occasion that I have not spoken of my friend the Grand Duchess in more than a year. I protested each time, insisting she was wrong, but after checking my notes, it turns out she was right.

So, this week, I walked over there and dropped a note in the metal letter box with that distinctive fleur de lis scrollwork. As always I posed a query as she liked it- to the point:

Dear Duchess,

I am interested in any thoughts you have on statues.

I had noticed her windows had been closed and so I assumed she was on one of her east/west trips (“never South or North my dear; there’s been entirely too much traffic in THOSE directions over the years”) and would have to wait a few weeks for a reply.  Yet, within a week, my monosyllabic upstairs neighbor (trust me- it’s a good thing) grunted at me while handing over a letter, “Yours,” and I somehow knew who it was from.

If I didn’t, the envelope with the intricate handwriting gave it away, or maybe it was the verbena scent with the formal note inside inviting me up for a cocktail and a chat.

When I rang her bell, I had to wait an inordinately long time for Miss Maude to come down to greet me and lead me up the circular, wooden stairs to the second floor room. However, once I arrived, there was already a rum and satsuma juice with grenadine and fresh lime juice waiting for me.

Her usual creme de menthe was next to her straight-backed chair and as soon as I noted it, the Duchess came in the room and warmly welcomed me. She very formally introduced me to her newest cats,  Zorita and Betty, the Ball of Fire. Since all of her cats are named for burlesque dancers or Roman generals, I assumed the former.

What should be done about the statues of Lee and Davis?

(long pause) Statues are erected by and for the wealthy. Those who feel strongly about them are those who believe in wealth.  Therefore, it seems obvious that to find private accommodations for their statues will be easily accomplished by those interested.

What should be done about the Liberty Monument?

(Direct gaze from her. Seemed to be judging my facial expression, but with no clue as to hers. After waiting for a long while, I realize she was not going to respond. You’d think I would be clued into this by now but her willpower to not answer always takes me by surprise.)

Do you think there should be new statues in place of those removed?

 We believe that statues of men are a thing of the past.

Do you think we should rid our city of all traces of slave owners named for streets or buildings?

(long thoughtful look out of the window. long silent sigh.): As the name of many of our relatives, including yours my friend  (she courteously nodded at me) likely contain history of deeds against our nation’s rightful leaders, how can we erase it all? Our people did these terrible things to others and cannot be separated from them. It is better that we acknowledge those wrongs and use our time to repair the damage rather than try to ignore them.

In any case, we believe that any public mark of the Confederacy leadership is ill assigned to our village and should be stricken from its illustrious history.  They cared little for us and left us as spoils.

Better to tell of all of our people and ancestors. Why not talk of the water and its changing path and what that means? That is real. It has shaped us. Or talk of the music and those who gave it to us that heralded these modern times we live in today. Or of the food, or of the architecture, or of the athletics that so many prize. All of those come from our efforts to connect to each other to learn from our neighbors and friends and their experiences. That is our heritage.


With that, she rose and offered me a tour of one part of her ephemera collection, carefully preserved in glass boxes along the hallway leading out. She pointed out letters from New Orleanians over the last 300 years where I counted well over two dozen languages represented. She had translations in a bound book on its own stand and pointed to this page from a  woman visiting New Orleans more than a hundred years ago:

Dear Momma,

I have arrived here and am happily ensconced in Elizabeth’s lovely 2nd floor rooms. She has been very gracious in showing me about the village. The babble of language is positively heady as is the wide selection of food from areas still unknown to me. This  is truly  a country flowing with milk and honey just as we learned on Sunday. I hope someday I can make my life here, and experience more of the world while among friends. 

Our Grand Duchess addresses noise and the variety of goods in the village

The ebb and flow of one’s life surely depends on how the people in it come and go; sometimes they arrive with a violently flung open door (BANG!) and then others come as a soft voice at your shoulder, amusedly calling your name as you stand staring with mouth unfortunately open at how the windows along Pirate’s Alley can be viewed now because of the redone landscaping in St. Anthony’s garden at the back of the Cathedral.

The Grand Duchess came back into my life in the second way (of course) and confessed she had left her carriage (really her car, but she calls all cars carriages) when she noticed me standing at Orleans and Royal. Her car was still waiting for her, so she asked me to call on her in an hour or so as “there was something she wanted to discuss with me.”

After an hour exactly, I made my way to her house and was shooed in efficiently yet warmly by Miss Maude and told to wait in the usual room. I poured a lemon ginger drink from the ever standing pitcher and looked down at her lovely courtyard garden which, in the old style was gloriously tangled and full of colors and smells even from the second floor. One of her many cats joined me at the open window, so was rewarded with a head scratch; this one was named either Sally Rand or Germanicus.

She bade me to sit and asked me to share what news I had about the “staff on Loyola Avenue” and their recent activities concerning noise ordinances and shops selling t-shirts. I shared what I knew, adding any asides that I felt would help her decrees, as previous experience told me she appreciated any added opinion. After listening carefully and asking a series of clarifying questions, she asked me to write and share this with her people:
As Grand Duchess of the Vieux Carre, we say thusly: We applaud the staff on Loyola’s attention to the matter of increased disruption of the quality of life and quality of commerce of many of our residents, well-respected small businesses and buskers. It is true that we have noticed an increased lack of civility among some owners of amplified clubs, as well as some owners of shops that offer sweet gifts to commemorate visits to our village. Some have extended their sound or visual range to overtake that of their neighbor, reducing the opportunity for an indiscreet aside or quiet proposition among walkers which is unfortunate for those in search of such an opportunity. This should be addressed to ensure that over amplified sound is measured and curbed by constables of all orders and those in uniform or deputized by them should be allowed to unplug the offender after measuring the noise at the door. Noise-meaning that which constantly interrupts or overtakes other sound-is the enemy of the musically inclined after all and lovely sounds should not be eclipsed by turning up the volume higher than one’s neighbor. However, those that make their way through our streets offering performance without amplification should be allowed to do so up until the last seating of our area’s fine dining restaurants. (DW note: by my estimation, that makes it between 10-12 midnight on most nights). As noticed in earlier decrees, the idea of allowing buskers to roam is vital, but it is also important that no busker takes control of any spot for more than 8 hours at one time.
As to the proliferation of shops, it is true that for those of us hurrying to market, it is difficult to get there without being tangled in metal, fabric or wooden extensions often spilling to the banquette. We do applaud the staff’s attention to this matter, but it also must be acknowledged that those of us residing in the village proper do welcome the ability to choose from among so many establishments and should in no way be seen as willing to lose that charm and availability. Therefore, we caution the staff to patiently curate the tout ensemble of our village and to restrain any overcorrection. We will also caution the staff to deal fairly with ALL of the shops that offer visitors the chance to purchase goods that offer our name emblazoned across one’s bodice or bustle among other delightful tokens, and not only to argue against those that have been singled out previously, no matter how regularly some point in one direction. We might recommend that the staff employ weekend eyes to gauge the ongoing issues in real time; we are sure that many would be happy to wield clipboard and camera capturing problem areas, adding resident/shop owner councils on each street to oversee these practices. The staff and their representatives might also consider adding incentives for shop owners to bring more varied goods to the village and awards for those who incorporate the most agreeable entrances and facades. It is important to us that we continue to welcome those who are willing to risk their purse to add value to the village, so any change that must be made must be made evenly and with restraint.

Grand Duchess floats back to town

The last time I heard from the GD was during the French Quarter Festival, when her neighbor delivered a message to me from an alert Duchess, who spied me from her balcony. That post
As I know that the Duchess locks up her house for the summer and takes long trips east and west (“never South or North my dear; there’s been entirely too much traffic in THOSE directions over the years”), I was surprised when I noticed the curtains blowing out from her 3rd story. I rang the bell and was admitted warmly by her live-in, Miss Maude who looked fresh as a daisy in the 96 degrees, as all true New Orleans ladies do.
I knew to wait for the Duchess in the cool, darkish middle room on the second floor, which is where she receives guests in the summer. I sat in the large wicker chair after making myself a lemon ginger drink from the tall pitcher, mixed together with ice from the bar freezer and mint from her glorious garden.
garden description

I could hear the muted chatter from nearby streets and feel the fans churning above me. The second floor seems cooled by old-fashioned architecture and strategic breezes rather than too-large air conditioning machines (as the Duchess calls them).
I sat relaxing and cooling and opened my eyes when I smelled verbena. The Duchess had entered and was shooing one of the fattest of her cats to the next room. Soon after, she sat in her usual straight-backed chair across from me.
“I am surprised to see you home in the summer, Duchess”
We believe that in moments of high drama, our citizens need us to be alert.
“I assume you are referring to the historic river levels?”
We are referring to the Mississippi and Atchafalaya river levels, yes. It is our wish that no one suffers on behalf of the village’s residents, but unfortunately, this time some will suffer to save the old city. We hope that our cousins in the Louisiana provinces know that our gratitude and empathy rises to them at this time
“Do you believe the levees will hold?”
We have personally inspected the levee in our village and believe it is safe. However, I cannot vouchsafe for the other villages surrounding ours and hope their royal servants are taking their citizens safety seriously.
“Duchess, I do not believe the other neighborhoods have a Duke or Duchess such as yourself that watch over them.”
(She looked at me sharply as if to gauge my seriousness and then shook her head sorrowfully)
If that is true, our concern is profound for those places. We hope that someday they can restore a personage to serve their needs.
In any case, we must all remember that water is both our saviour and our curse. We cannot control the mighty rivers forever, so must live in such a way as to not draw their ire and still prepare for the days that the water will change its course. We have been thinking a great deal on this subject and offer these decrees:

All villagers must teach each other basic swimming techniques.

All villagers should keep a flotation device available.

The staff of Loyola Avenue must ask for widow’s walks or wrapping galleries to be built on all new buildings above one story.

Second and third floor windows must have an exit path.

Those villagers with means should store expandable ladders of 15 feet or more on second floors or in attics. Rope ladders are more useful but must be inspected regularly for strength. (DW-I mentioned the usefulness and long life of nylon rope, an idea which pleased the Duchess and she begged me to insert the word nylon to the decree above.)

All villagers should make the acquaintance of at least one neighbor who seems to be alone and then to be responsible for that person in times of environmental or federal crisis.

After her decrees were stated, she rose, bade me to follow her into her library and showed me a brass bell and a beautiful old oar from a small boat. She told me they had been given to her by a grateful river pilot many years ago. As she went to ask Maude to show me out, I noticed an first English edition of Mark Twain’s “Life on the Mississippi” near the items and surreptitiously opened it to find this confounding inscription:

To the gracious lady downriver who watches over us all. Mark Twain

To read the original post explaining our Duchess:

Grand Duchess adds to her earlier Festival decree

Our good Duchess has contacted me during this year’s festival calendar with some new thoughts on her decrees. In her unusual way, she sent the information to me via messenger directly to my chair set up on Royal…or was it Bourbon? She must have spied me weaving fast and purposefully through the crowd and noting my destination, sent a card down her marvelous stick and basket system she keeps at the corner of the balcony, asking the neighbor on their stoop to hand it to me. I remember a tug and had a card in my hand before I had even fully turned. “From you-know-who” was yelled in an amused tone as the messenger headed back to their perch and it was true that the verbena fragrance had indeed given away its owner.
the original set of her decrees
My Dearest Darlene,
We are pleased to see your presence throughout the festive weekend, although chagrined at your choice of beverage.

(She had spotted my limed Go Cup; she rued my love of cheap gin)
However, we are glad to see you looking so well. We once again ask for your assistance in publicizing our words to the Vieux Carre citizenry and as always, thank you in advance.

We decree that all festivals held in the village should entertain the idea of using those adorable blow up couches, simple pine benches (for ease in storing after) or, temporary trees to invite our visitors to sit in places that do not block our service or retail doorways.
We explain thusly:
How lovely to see the citizens using the streets so well during the planned parties. However, when the day closes and the storekeeper tallies their sales, one would hope for the type of success which depends on feet entering the establishment.

We also decree that for that very same purpose all tents of our temporary merchants be set only on blocks in which 75% of the offerings are residences. And, that any storekeeper on those streets can register their disapproval of a particular temporary merchant when the items detract from the storekeeper’s sales. The storekeeper would be required to list the central items that their store has long sold that the temporary merchant is offering. This does includes food or beverages. That storekeeper(s) disapproval should be weighted to such a degree that the residents must explain why they would want that temporary merchant to stay in the face of the storekeeper(s) opposition.. If the temporary merchant is moved, then the next choice to allow in that block must be significantly unlike the first.

We explain thusly:
Our long time storekeepers should appreciate new ideas and welcome new merchants to the area, as the small stores are, if you will, the 5th chakra of the village and need new energy to thrive. However, this does not mean that storekeepers can or should overrule any and all temporary merchants. Those those who impede on their central business should be the only ones that they may oppose. In other words, two silver jewelry sites on one block (or two gelato offerings) can be confusing and unnecessary when we have so much space to offer.

We also ask that the Loyola staff continue their excellent work to study the needs of cyclists in our village and find ways to secure their property more carefully. Clearly, we need to invite more 2-wheeled conveyances and reduce the attraction of the 4-wheeled variety, as evidenced by the continuing stand-still every festival weekend on our Old Levee Street. (DW-Old Levee was changed to Decatur Street in 1800s).

Lastly, we must search for an expansion of sites for our musicians in non-festival areas and on non-festival weekends (see our earlier decrees) but not at the expense of the residents. We ask that Miss Darlene’s idea concerning adding busking stations be explored.

(DW-huh. Once again, she confounds me. I had raised the idea of adding busking areas in some areas of the Quarter, but how had she heard of it?
Buskers is a term used for itinerant musicians or performers and some cities or other public entities paint musical signs on the ground where musicians could set up on festival days and weekends. I thought we should close Wilkerson Row on weekends and allow buskers on that street, as well as on the Royal end of Pere Antoine Alley next to the Cathedral, as well as next to Bienville’s statue (with its hierarchy of the smaller standing priest and even smaller sitting Native American at the end of Conti) and in the corner of the Cabrini Park under the overhang; there would be painted musical signs where groups could set up for a half-day but then they MUST to move to another space on the next half-day . This is designed to offer more underused spaces for entrepreneurial musicians, while ensuring that merchants or residents don’t have to listen to the same musicians under their window every day.)
We hope that the Loyola staff can attend to some of our decrees in the midst of their busy Uptown paving schedule and in the meantime, welcome all to our village.

The Grand Duchess thinks about the Baroness

Over the last few weeks, there has been a back and forth about the Lower Pontalba rent prices. As many of you know, the Pontalba apartments are among the oldest in the country, having been built as apartments by Baroness Pontalba in the 1850s. As I have written before, you can see the inside of one by going to the 1850 museum in the middle of the lower block. It’s a self-guided tour with an apartment set up as it would have been in the 1850s (maybe they lived without the groaning a/c) and has some plaques explaining some of the family history of those who lived there then. The city manages the uptown side of things and this management falls under the French Market Corporation which has been having its own upheaval recently.
Rental prices are being debated for these treasures, since the councilwoman  has found out that they are rented well below the market rate for apts like that AND should be primary dwellings, which anyone who spends any time on the Square can tell you few are. Lights are generally on at most of them only a few days a year, and I assume you know which days I am referring. CM Palmer has also found out that they of course are rented to very prominent people at these lucky rates. However, in all likelihood, a few rents will increase but things will go on the same for most people there. The truth is that at market rate, few people who live in New Orleans full-time can afford it.
Although I would love to have stopped and sat on a particular sunny balcony to chat with the Grand Duchess to hear her views personally, I knew she was leaving for a hurried trip to the Middle East this very week. I instead left a message on her machine that I looked forward to talking with her on this subject when she returned. A suspicion that she enjoys my offer to publish her views was confirmed with the speed of her reply: within a day a call came from her live-in, Maude. Miss Maude told me the GD had sat down and written something as she was leaving and handed it to her, asking her to call me to read it. Miss Maude apologized before starting as her sight is not what it was and “with the intricate handwriting…”
but I suspect she just about got it word for word .
“So Miss Dar, here is what she says”:
Residing at the Pontalba is a privilege. 1/4 of these to be set aside for long-term employees of the stores below and/or those who work at Cafe DuMonde and should cost 1/4 of their monthly rate of pay.
She also says:
Those who get this privilege should have the good sense to have loads of parties and invite artists and dancers and musicians and serve excellent food and strong liquor and let the friendly noise drift over the Square… And to festoon their balconies with lovely crepe paper and greenery, changed every season of course. Also, as it should be remembered that crime is an issue in our village, one dweller should act as the block captain for 6 months at a time. This captain should walk through the Square weekly, noting any broken or missing valuables. They should chat with the eyes of the square (artists, musicians and sun seekers) discussing their concerns as well.
P.S. And all should remember to take a strong cup of coffee outside every morning and drink it gratefully with a silent nod to our dear Baroness. Our own Micaela who always chose gaiety over decorum and would do it again if she could….

Your health,