In my nine decades on this earth I have never uttered these words, let alone seen them written, in my own hand, indelibly staring back at me. But now, as a summer storm rages strong enough to send the Pontchartrain right through my front door, I sit with a curious sense of peace and clarity. My past is more than just my own history. Although this story shames me in so many ways, it is the legacy I leave. I must embrace the very truth I spent my life denying.
I come from a long line of whores.
Call them prostitutes, call them women of ill repute, call them madams. It’s of little consequence now to try to soften how they earned their way. But they did earn their way, and in a time when even women of means and good breeding held little hope of achieving anything professionally.
Oh Saint Teresa, what an ingrate I’ve been. Everything I have, everything I am, I owe to them—to her. She’d started life as a bastard girl, not a silver dime to her name. Her family tree was but a stump. And yet, the riches she bestowed upon me: my education, my inheritance . . . this fierce, old Victorian. How the walls moan in the grip of these winds! This house, in all its faded elegance, is all I have left. How I hated that it once lived as a bordello—hot jazz, voodoo magic, and unspeakable sin oozing from every crevice.
My aunt built this house, but I saved this house. The ghosts would come to me at night, whispering that I couldn’t let it go. While New Orleans raced to obliterate any evidence of the red-light district’s existence, I guarded this door. Overnight, City Hall purged all records of the women who lived and worked here. Even the names of the streets were changed. It took the highest judge’s signature to spare this house from the torch-wielding mob that pillaged and set aflame other bordellos. But how can I blame my beloved city? For I, too, wanted to erase this blight, this scourge on our history.
But it did exist. Storyville was real. And so were the madams. Larger than life, indeed, but flesh and blood through and through, with feelings and smarts even—they were more savvy in business than most businessmen in this town. And yet, they were still just women, devoid of equal rights and treated as vulnerable, useless creatures. These women may have laughed and drunk and frolicked more than most women, but they still ached and loved, cried and prayed, and in their darkest hours, repented.
Now, this house, my house, is all that remains as a testament to an era. If it is this storm that brings down my house, I will go with it. I only hope that this letter and these photographs will survive.
My dearest Josie, by the grace the God, please forgive me.
CARI LYNN is a journalist and the author of four books of nonfiction, including The Whistleblower: Sex Trafficking, Military Contractors and One Woman’s Fight for Justice with Kathryn Bolkovac, and Leg the Spread: A Woman’s Adventures Inside the Trillion-Dollar Boys’ Club of Commodities Trading. Her first novel, Madam, was released by Plume in February 2014. She has written for numerous publications, including O, the Oprah Magazine, Health, the Chicago Tribune, and Deadline Hollywood. She has taught at Loyola University and received an M.A. in Writing from the Johns Hopkins University. She currently lives in Los Angeles.
Adapted from Madam, by Cari Lynn, Copyright © 2014 by Cari Lynn. With the permission of the publisher, Plume Books.