Unveiling the Muse, Howard Philips Smith's exhaustive history of gay Carnival culture in New Orleans from the 1950s to the present, owes a partial debt to pack rats. Men who were involved with the city's earliest gay Carnival balls carefully saved invitations, costume sketches, posters, programs and other ephemera, and some of these keepsakes made their way to The Historic New Orleans Collection (THNOC)'s holdings.
When he found invitations to the Krewe of Yuga's 1961 and 1962 balls at the THNOC archives, Smith knew he'd discovered a key to this once-hidden history.
"I thought, 'Oh my God, here it is. This really happened. I just have to get to the bottom of all this stuff,'" he says.
Smith presents the book at THNOC's Williams Research Center Jan. 31 and at Garden District Book Shop Feb. 1. The 346-page coffee table-style volume has more than 700 illustrations and photographs, and uses the history of individual krewes to catalog the evolution of gay Carnival culture — as well as give readers a glancing sense of gay life in New Orleans through the second half of the 20th century.
Early krewes, Smith says, used traditions of costuming and secret societies to their advantage.
"For [Mardi Gras], you could be in costume, you could be in drag, no problem," he says. "But any other day you would get arrested. [The early krewes] were very clever ... when you get a request on your desk, an all-male group wanting to form a krewe, you don't think anything of it."
Though he lives in Los Angeles, Smith grew up in Mississippi and participated in gay Carnival balls when he lived in New Orleans in the 1980s. From those days — the so-called "Golden Age" of gay Carnival — he recalls fierce competition among krewes trying to outdo one another, and vivid scenes, like New Orleans police escorting drag queens across Judge Perez Drive on their way to a ball at St. Bernard Civic Auditorium.
With his book, he hopes to integrate the unique legacy of gay krewes with the broader history of the city's best-known celebratory season.
"There are hundreds of books on Carnival in New Orleans, and hardly any of them mention gay Carnival. Maybe you'll get just a paragraph, a page if we're lucky," he says.
"This book shows the world that gay Carnival is just part of Carnival, the history of New Orleans."
Smith signs Unveiling the Muse at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 31. The Historic New Orleans Collection, Williams Research Center, 410 Chartres St., (504) 523-4662; www.hnoc.org, as well as at 6 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 1. Garden District Book Shop, 2727 Prytania St., (504) 895-2266; www.gardendistrictbookshop.com.