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The Big Easy in the Roaring 20’s

Time traveling to the Roaring 20's!

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I thought it might be fun to lighten things up here on the blog this week. Taking a virtual trip to New Orleans is always happy for me (a real one not being possible right now). But this time I’d also like to time travel a bit, because you know I also like that. What was it like in the Big Easy in the Roaring Twenties? 

As you would imagine in a city of a thousand saloons the amendment of prohibition (1920 to 1933) wasn’t too popular. 798 saloons and 7 distilleries in New Orleans shut down, including the landmark Crescent Bar at Canal and Saint Charles street, a saloon that had been in business for fifty-one years. 

Orleanians turned to bootleggers and speakeasies which were plentiful in the city. In the French Quarter you could find 3 speakeasies per block. After all New Orleans was a favored rum-running port so it was easy to ship in contraband alcohol from Cuba and the Bahamas.

And restaurants found ways around the no liquor requirement. 

  • Galatoire’s offered secluded rooms on the second floor for illegal drinking 
  • Tujague had the staff tuck liquor bottles into their work aprons to hide them
  • Antoine’s had a hidden door to The Mystery Room—a secret bar
  • Arnaud’s devised a labyrinthine of dining rooms, corridors, and chambers for forbidden drinking. A secret code for ordering a cocktail was to order coffee at the start of lunch
  • The Southern Yacht Club at West End served Pink Lady cocktails and they still do.  The grenadine which gave the drink its pink color also masked the taste of low-quality gin which they were limited to during the prohibition era

All of this illegal activity brought gangsters into the city.  

Sylvestro Carolla, known as Silver Dollar Sam, took full control of the New Orleans Mafia crime family, which he’d previously transformed from Charles Matranga’s Black Hand gang. There’s a story from that era about Al Capone coming to New Orleans, demanding Carolla supply him with imported liquor. Silver Dollar Sam along with several local police officers got the drop on Capone’s bodyguards and broke their fingers, forcing Big Al to quickly catch a train back to Chicago. 

How did you fall in love with New Orleans

In the prohibition ear, women rebelled against conventional ladylike behavior by becoming flappers.

Some notable, liberated New Orleans ladies of the day were:

  • Leatrice Joy—A popular actress and wife of John Gilbert a well-known movie star, renowned as “The Great Lover”. With close-cropped hair and a youthful persona, Leatrice embodied the free-spirited woman of the Jazz Age. 
  • Corinne Griffith— A famous movie star, known as “The Orchid Lady of the Screen” was considered by many to be the most beautiful actress of the silent film era. 
  • Pauline Sabin—An elegant, wealthy, and well-connected Republican party official began to see the hypocrisy of the Eighteenth Amendment, with policymakers drinking illicit cocktails right after they’d passed stricter enforcement of prohibition. She also observed that more people were drinking during prohibition, that bootleggers were treated with prestige, and there was an overall blatant disregard for the law. In May 1929, she established the Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform (WONPR).
  • Mrs. Elizabeth Werlein— Known for hunting tigers in India, shooting big game in Africa, breaking stallions on the steppes of Russia, having lunch in a submerged submarine, and flying in the Wright brother’s plane in Paris, was also one of the first three women in the US to ride in a hot air balloon and was given a heavy gold ring by Empress Eugenie. In 1904, Elizabeth was engaged to a Russian prince when she jilted an English earl to wed Philip Werlein III (of the music publishing family). She met him while shopping for her trousseau in New Orleans. 

In addition, Elizabeth played a major role in preserving and restoring the French Quarter’s historical architecture and she wrote the book, “Iron Railings of the Vieux Carré”. 

Additionally, she headed the Louisiana branch of the Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform (WONPR). And, on December 10, 1920, she organized the League of Women Voters and was its first chairwoman. In 1921 the newspaper reported she was off to “China and India in the near future to study ants,” due to her interest in a gynarchy—a government ruled by a woman.

WONPR members were influential in ending Prohibition and in 1933, the Cullen-Harrison Act legalized beer and wine that had a low alcoholic content. Next, Louisiana’s Prohibition law, the Hood Act, was repealed and a few months later the Twenty-first Amendment was ratified and secrecy in selling and drinking liquor was cast aside.

Now you have to admit that New Orleans is always fascinating, no matter when you stop by. 

Interesting side note: In the summer when cholera and yellow fever ravaged the city, they engaged in their version of social distancing. The more things change, the more they don’t. 

How are you coping with social distancing where you are? 

Perilously yours,



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