By midday on Mardi Gras, the scene at the Ernie K-Doe Mother-in-Law Lounge was spry as expected: Guitar Lightnin' Lee onstage in the side yard; fried tilapia and stewed greens on paper plates in people's laps. The only indication this particular day was different came from two signs posted on the lounge's front and side doors. Handwritten on cardboard, they read, "Due to the passing of Miss Antoinette K-Doe, we will be closing at 5 p.m."
K-Doe, 66, whose fame as proprietor of the iconic, eclectic North Claiborne Avenue bar grew at least to match her notoriety as widow of musician Ernie K-Doe (and faithful steward of "the K-Doe statue," his man-about-town mannequin ringer), suffered a heart attack on Mardi Gras morning for the second year in a row. In a February interview with The Gambit, she recounted her 2008 ordeal, which included having friend and Mother-in-Law manager Geannie Thomas come up with a fake story so as not to disrupt Carnival.
"'Keep my bar open and call me an ambulance,'" K-Doe recalled saying to Thomas. "'Tell any lie you want to tell.' I didn't want people to know I was in the hospital. ... But Geannie had told a lie so good, everybody was believing it! She said, 'Oh, she's upstairs getting dressed. She's upstairs on a long-distance call.'
A New Orleans native, "Miss Antoinette" married K-Doe in 1994 and was credited for helping revive his performing career. The two opened the lounge before the singer's death in 2001, but she had stayed active in the community since, most recently as a rider in this year's Krewe of Muses parade.
K-Doe's lifelong love of Carnival was imparted by her father and uncle, both Mardi Gras Indians, for whom she would help fashion costumes. "I had to thread the needles for them, pick all the beads off the floor when they dropped them," K-Doe said. "That's how I learned to sew. I never did play with children; I was always fascinated by what the grownups were doing."
In recent years, the woman Ernie K-Doe had dubbed "Empress of the Universe" had focused her efforts on reviving midcentury Carnival rituals along Claiborne, in particular the Baby Doll masking tradition. She welcomed women from all over town to use the Mother-in-Law Lounge as a makeshift Mardi Gras boudoir: "They'll have on their housecoat, get dressed all here, put their makeup on, do their wigs or whatever. The Baby Dolls came out of this bar."
At one point in the conversation, it was suggested that the invasive I-10 overpass may be largely to blame for the demise of those rituals. K-Doe would have none of it. "Keep in mind what you had, don't lose that, but think about what you got now," she said with a sly smile. "If it rains on Mardi Gras day, that's a big umbrella."
There was no rain on this Mardi Gras day. Only clear skies, fine music and food and a party fit for an empress at 1500 N. Claiborne Ave.
— On Fri., Feb. 27, a visitation for Antoinette K-Doe was held at the Mother-in-Law Lounge, after which she was laid to rest in St. Louis Cemetery No. 2 with her husband. A reception celebrating her life was held at Mid-City Lanes Rock 'n' Bowl the next day.