The Last Madam

For 40 years, Norma Wallace was one of the most powerful women in Louisiana. She ran the city's most well-established brothel, so she knew everything about lust. Or so she thought.

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GLYNN WASHINGTON, HOST:

True love, eternal love, undying devotion - we've got all that. But what about true lust? In some cases, lust can be even more powerful than love - something Norma Wallace knew all too well. SNAP's Stephanie Foo has the story.

STEPHANIE FOO, BYLINE: When Norma Wallace walked through the doors of the blue room, the entire nightclub turned and stared. She was flanked on both sides with the most beautiful women in New Orleans. Head high she carelessly shrugged off her mink coat as she walked into the room. The waiter obediently following her scrambled to catch it. The legendary actor and singer Phil Harris was on stage. When he saw her, he dedicated his song to the queen.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THAT'S WHAT I LIKE ABOUT THE SOUTH")

PHIL HARRIS: (Singing) Sit down where they have those pretty queens. Keep a dreamin' those dreamy dreams. Well let's sip that absinthe in New Orleans. And that's what I like about the south.

CHRIS WILTZ: That summed it all up. She was the reigning queen of the French Quarter underworld.

FOO: That's Chris Wiltz. She's here to help me tell the story of Norma's reign, which lasted from the 1920s all the way through the '60s. Here's Norma herself.

NORMA WALLACE: It was exciting. That's it. The word is exciting. There was never a dull moment and you can blame me when I tell you that.

FOO: This audio is not great as it is quite old. Tapes of Norma recording her life story were found after she died. Chris Wiltz listened to all of them and spent years researching her life.

WILTZ: Which is how I came to write the book "The Last Madam: A Life In The New Orleans Underworld."

FOO: Yes, Norma was a madam. But Norma didn't start out on top. She was born dirt poor in 1901 and she grew up begging for scraps of food. And through all that she always knew that she was going to make something more of herself.

WILTZ: She understood that money bought her independence and freedom. So she decided that like a man she wanted to be able to make a lot of money and the only way she knew to do that was selling sex. Only Norma never did want who she slept with to be dictated to her by anyone or anything. She did not want to be a prostitute. She wanted to be the madam. And so she was going to open her own house and become the madam of that house.

FOO: And the way she did that was by using men.

WILTZ: Norma wasn't beautiful in any classical sense of the word but there was something about her that was magnetizing. Men fell at her feet. They fell in love with her and they loved her forever. She had her choice.

FOO: Norma chose famous men, rich men - sometimes dangerous men like Sam Hunt.

WILTZ: He was rumored to be part of Capone's group. And he was called Golf Bag Sam because he carried his machine gun in his golf bag. Nevertheless, she fell in love with him and he with her. And he was wealthy from his life of crime. And he bought her a house at 1026 Conti Street. She furnished it absolutely gorgeously with golf bags, money, and then of course the money that she herself was making by thinking up all kinds of things - like the very first strip teases that were going on in the Quarter were happening at Norma's house up on the third floor.

FOO: Norma knew how to manipulate lust. And this made her very very rich.

(SOUNBITE OF SONG, "BIG SPENDER")

WILTZ: When the clock struck seven o'clock every evening she could feel a thrill in her body. This was the time that the action started every day.

WALLACE: I used to wake up around noon and have my coffee and wonder what now - wonder what this night's going to bring?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BIG SPENDER FT. ASAP ROCKY")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (singing) Hey, big spender.

FOO: Norma ran a very classy house which was all part of the business strategy. Posh clientele would bring in more money and the cops would have a harder time shutting her down. But truth was the cops weren't really after Norma anyhow. They needed her. In 1936 Norma did what policemen all across the country could not do. She set-up and nabbed Alvin Karpis, the FBI's most wanted bank robber.

(SOUNBITE OF ANNOUNCEMENT)

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER: Karpis was promoted to U.S. public enemy number one.

FOO: The New Orleans Police Department got the credit and the commendation from President Hoover. And Norma got protection and mighty friends. And this was the most important thing to her. Even more important to her than money was power - control over her own life and for that matter over New Orleans. In a time where women had barely earned the right to vote Norma Wallace had most of Louisiana's elected officials in the palm of her hand.

WILTZ: Norma kept a book - the famous madam's black book - that had all of her patrons listed by nickname. One of the mayors of New Orleans, who was extremely thin, was called Toothpick. These books - let's call them her insurance policy. If anyone threatened her she could threaten them back. She had dates, times, things like birthmarks, the size of their (laughing).

WALLACE: Was it unusually big or small or did he have any marks on him?

FOO: The information also protected generations of Norma's girls. Norma loved and took great care of them even long after they stopped working for. She even mentored a couple of them into starting their own houses. But being in this business made long-term relationships difficult for Norma. She married five times and several of her marriages and affairs ended because these men wanted her to become a housewife, close down the brothel and cook. But nothing controlled Norma Wallace. And so she left - divorced all of them.

WALLACE: I couldn't make a go of it. Marriage wasn't for me. You know, when you're making money and you're running a whorehouse you don't - that makes you independent, makes you hard to get along with as a wife in the first place.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NOBODY'S SWEETHEART NOW")

UNIDENTIFIED MALE SINGER: (Singing) Am I mighty sorry to stay. You're nobody's sweetheart now.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE SINGER: (Singing) Is that so? Well, I manage to get along somehow.

FOO: Norma had made a killing capitalizing on beauty. Unfortunately, of course beauty fades.

WILTZ: And this is probably the reason that every man that she married was younger than the next. She wanted to retain her own youth and beauty and this was one way she could do it. If she was on the arm of a really good-looking young man then she was still in the game.

FOO: She had no trouble finding willing younger men.

WILTZ: They said things like Norma had a body that was better than a 25-year-old's and that she was just one good-looking woman all the way.

FOO: Norma was in her 60s when she found her youngest, hottest, most ravishing man. She'd had her eye on him since he was a teenager. Now he was 22 and his name was Wayne Bernard.

WILTZ: Her weakness for young men, for youth, for beauty - all of it came together in Wayne Bernard. He was 39 years younger than Norma.

FOO: But she fell completely in love with him. And they got married. Here's Wayne.

WAYNE BERNARD: She was a beautiful person and everybody in New Orleans -everybody welcomed her with open arms. And it's just the type of person she was - just a fantastic person.

FOO: But were you happy?

BERNARD: Sure, definitely. I mean, it's, you know - we - naturally, I was working at avenue shipyard making I think $40 a week. And whenever we'd go out she'd put $300 or $400 in my pocket and my God.

FOO: Norma was a rational woman. She knew this romance could not last.

WILTZ: She knew that eventually Wayne was going to want to have his own family. He was probably going to want to have children. And she said early on that she was going to have to know when it was time to walk out.

FOO: But Norma had moved Wayne and herself to Mississippi away from New Orleans to keep him away from the temptation of younger woman. She sacrificed her treasured connections with the city she loved and its smoky sparkling ballrooms to try and control Wayne.

BERNARD: I guess I was missing some of the things like going to football games with a younger crowd of people. And yes, I was being more attracted to younger woman. Sure. Wayne, she says, I know I'm a lot older than you. If it ever comes to the point where you want to see other people, I can understand it. And well, she undoubtedly know she couldn't take it undoubtedly.

WILTZ: And when Wayne began to drift and not come home night after night after night, one day she went into the kitchen. She called her sister in-law. And she shot herself.

BERNARD: It was devastating to me really that she would do something like that. I thought for a while, you know - you know. What did I do? It made me feel like I caused her to commit suicide. You know, I mean, did I? I don't know - until today I think of it, really.

FOO: I see it this way. Norma had lost her business, her husband, her influence. And so maybe it was then alone looking in the mirror that Norma was forced to confront that there was one thing she was powerless against - age. But as always nothing controlled Norma Wallace. And in her pride Norma died how she had lived - trying to write her own destiny.

WASHINGTON: Thanks so much to Wayne Bernard and a special thank you to author Chris Wiltz for sharing her knowledge with SNAP. And if you think what you just heard was crazy, we just scratched the surface. Read Chris Wiltz's book "The Last Madam" for many, many, many, many, many more raunchy, hilarious and thrilling stories. That piece was produced by SNAP JUDGMENTS' Stephanie Foo.

When SNAP continues the guy gets the girl. The girl doesn't get the girl. And the pearl squirrel goes on the hair curl. Kind of. On SNAP JUDGMENT, "Love Supreme" continues. Stay tuned.

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