When Herbert Asbury arrived in New Orleans in the winter of 1935, he was already a hero to the local press. That's because Asbury had managed to pull off what most journalists only dream of: going to court to fight for his rights as a reporter under the First Amendment -- in Asbury's case to affirm the right to chronicle the adventures of a home-town prostitute.
It was actually Asbury's good friend and publisher, the legendary H. L. Mencken, who was facing jail time. But that fact didn't seem to bother Asbury much at all. The notoriety of the case was such a thing of joy, a strange battle between the press and the pious, that The New York Times noted many years later that it made Asbury "a celebrity overnight."
The story that got Asbury and Mencken in trouble was called "Hat Rack," and it was the tale of a thin young prostitute in a small, straight-laced town drawn straight out of Sinclair Lewis' provincial mid-America. Mindful of her customers' religious beliefs, Asbury's prostitute did business with her Catholic customers only in Protestant cemeteries. Protestants in need of her talents visited her only in the final resting spots of Catholics.
"Hat Rack" appeared in the April 1926 issue of Mencken's American Mercury, a small literary journal with a cultural influence vastly out of proportion to its actual circulation. Upon reading Asbury's story, the Rev. J. Franklin Chase, secretary of the Boston-based Watch and Ward Society, declared it "unfit to be read." Chase also deemed Asbury's work as smut and a violation of Massachusetts law.
Fully appreciating the public relations potential, Mencken and Asbury hopped a train for Boston. There, Mencken attempted to sell a copy of the American Mercury himself and was immediately arrested. Front-page news across the nation -- which was even more good news for the then-struggling writer -- Mencken's trial became a reporter's circus. "I intend to have my conduct governed by the properly constituted courts of my country and not by professional reformers," declared Mencken, who loathed all reformers. A group of Harvard students sitting in the packed courtroom cheered.
For Asbury, the hearing was in many ways the apogee of a spiritual journey. Raised by a devout Methodist family in Missouri, he had graduated from a Baptist seminary and into his early 20s thought himself religious enough. Two things intruded upon and ultimately destroyed his faith in organized religion: the first was service in World War I, and the second was his decision to become a professional journalist. By l926, under the space allotted for religion in Asbury's Who's Who listing, he wrote "Infidel."
On the stand, Asbury spared the jury the tales of his spiritual miasma, but he insisted that "Hat Rack" was the story of a real person. The judge took an evening to read the story for himself before rendering a decision. "I find no offense has been committed," he said, dismissing the complaint.
Mencken was now free to sell his American Mercury, with its industrial green-colored covers, in Boston forever. The press immediately hailed the judge's decision as a legal triumph of the first order for Mencken. But for Asbury, the Boston victory meant money in the bank.
"Asbury's reputation was made," Newsweek later noted, adding that the magazine Redbook now "gladly paid him $700 for two short stories which it had previously rejected."
Suddenly, Asbury was America's premier chronicler of crime and sin. He published The Gangs of New York -- the Martin Scorsese-directed film version opened at local theaters this week (see review this issue). He followed with his equally tawdry -- or so many critics insisted -- Barbary Coast in 1928.
Next to New York and San Francisco, Asbury said, there was only one other city in America worth writing about: New Orleans.
In early l935, Herbert Asbury descended upon the city. Upon his arrival, he was described in an admiring Times-Picayune profile as a "stocky man with a shock of gray hair and disbelieving blue eyes."
"There should certainly be more color and greater variety in criminal history here than in most places," Asbury optimistically mused as he set to work. Over the next four months, he dug through court records at the recently opened courthouse at Tulane Avenue and Broad Street, and examined page after dusty page of old newspapers in big bound volumes at the library of the Times-Picayune's old offices off Lafayette Square. When he wasn't reading, he was asking questions, digging for anything and everything about New Orleans, and forming lasting relationships with New Orleans writer Lyle Saxon and reporters Meigs Frost and John McClure, among others.
In the summer of 1935, Asbury carted his New Orleans materials to his home in the Adirondack Mountains. There, he set to work on The French Quarter, a Knopf Publications book whose advertisement promised to reveal the secrets of the "Wickedest City in the World." An excerpt of that book also appeared in Mencken's American Mercury, under the entirely unsubtle title "Loose Ladies of New Orleans."
Asbury's New Orleans was a world populated with rogues and psychopaths. He told the tale of Kate Townsend, once a "handsome girl with a fine figure," who in middle age was "grossly corpulent." Townsend operated what Asbury described as "probably the most luxurious brothel that ever opened its doors in the United States," a palace of marble and brownstone on Basin Street, where customers were expected to purchase a $15 bottle of wine for the assembled company.
"If his credentials were in order, he was escorted into the drawing room and formally presented to the ladies by his full name and style," Asbury said of the lucky client. "If one of the girls struck his fancy, he communicated his desires to the madam, who conferred with the lucky strumpet." Townsend herself, wrote Asbury, "was occasionally available for the entertainment of a particularly distinguished client -- at a price which is said to have been $50 an hour."
Asbury also documented Townsend's brutal end. Guests reportedly visited the Basin Street home armed with pistols, knives and, in one odd case, a sling shot. One day Townsend herself was assaulted, her murder providing the Times-Picayune with the kind of headlines they don't write anymore:
CARVED TO DEATH!
TERRIBLE FATE OF KATE TOWNSEND AT THE HANDS OF TREVILLE SYKES WITH THE INSTRUMENTALITY OF A BOWIE KNIFE
HER BREASTS AND SHOULDERS LITERALLY COVERED WITH STABS
Other The French Quarter characters included Bill Smedley, a down-river flatboat man who once swept into the city drunk on rye and kept nearly two dozen policemen at bay as he freed a pack of circus animals. Smedley, Asbury said, was at last forced to flee New Orleans after killing two Mexicans in the downtown Sure Enuf Hotel. Accusing Smedley of cheating at cards, the men locked him up in a room and went to work on him with knives. Passers-by heard an awful ruckus inside. Then silence. Finally, the front doors of the Sure Enuf swung open to reveal Smedley announcing "Gentlemen! It's free drinks today!" Those entering carefully walked over the two lifeless bodies.
Adopting a light vein unthinkable in contemporary journalism, Asbury also recalled Bras Coupe, a runaway slave in the l830s who "fled into the swamps and organized a gang of escaped blacks and a few renegade white men, whom he led on frequent robbing and murdering forays on the outskirts of the city, with an occasional venture into the thickly settled residential districts." With a bounty on his head of more than $2,000, it was inevitable that Bras Coupe would eventually run into serious trouble. In the summer of l837, he was clubbed to death by a fisherman in the then-remote Bayou St. John. "The body of the outlaw," Asbury said of Bras Coupe, "was exposed in Place d'Armes for two days, and several thousand slaves were compelled to march past and look at it, as a warning."
When The French Quarter was released in the fall of 1936, it was well-received and an instant popular hit. Newsweek called the book a "lively and colorful chronicle of bullies, bawds, and brawls." Louisiana writer Thad St. Martin, in the Saturday Review, lauded Asbury for a thorough job "airing New Orleans' dirty linen -- and New Orleans has a full line."
Yet the wild New Orleans documented in Asbury's The French Quarter had become a hazy memory even as the writer was doing his leg work in the city in l935. Wondering what the city must have been like the century before, Asbury mourned the closing of Storyville, the city's sanctioned red-light district, declaring that something once original and unpretentious had been destroyed forever. "It can never get back the way it was," Asbury remarked, "in spite of any attempts at revival."
The French Quarter was the last time Asbury wrote about New Orleans. Upon his death in February 1963, the Times-Picayune mourned his passing, recalling the many friends he had made in the Crescent City. The New York Times was somewhat more cynical: "He thought gang fights and rum-running and murders and prostitutes were a gaudy show," the paper said in its official obituary of Asbury. "With one of the fastest typewriters in the United States, he made the most of it."
- Long out of print, Herbert Asbury's The French Quarter will be reissued by Thunder's Mouth Press in April 2003.