Sunday, July 11, 2010

A BIT OF NEW ORLEANS CULTURE

A few years ago, I inherited a strange piece of paper, relatively undamaged, from my godfather, Markham Peacock, Jr. He passed on to me a certificate that had belonged to his wife, Dora, my second cousin and godmother. The certificate was a $25 share in Le Petit Salon that Dora’s stepmother, Mrs. E. L. Greenlaw had given to her, and the significance of this document was that it was a memento of the literary culture that existed in New Orleans during the 1920’s and 1930’s. Grace King, one of Louisiana’s outstanding authors, presided over this salon as president, and the $25 share was one of 800 stock certificates issued to members and other New Orleanians to purchase the Victor David House for a literary salon in the French Quarter of New Orleans.  Grace King’s signature appears in the lower right corner of the certificate. The salon was frequented by Grace King, Dorothy Dix, Mrs. Roydan Douglas, an attorney and the first woman notary public in the Crescent City, and other notable New Orleans women. I might add that three men were on the original board.

Recently, my good friend, Dr. Mary Ann Wilson, distinguished professor of English and BORSF Endowed Professor in the Humanities at ULL in Lafayette, Louisiana, sent me the copy of an article she had written about Grace King and Le Petit Salon for “Louisiana Cultural Vistas.” The article featured the stock certificate I had given to her because she seemed to be the appropriate legatee for this bit of Louisiana literary history. The article is not only beautifully written and gives readers a fascinating glimpse into a literary salon in New Orleans during the 20’s and 30’s, the layout would rival any slick magazine on the market today, showcasing color photographs of Grace King and a painting of Le Petit Salon.

Dr. Wilson, who is a consummate researcher and author, depicts the literary culture of the early 20th century, highlighting a salon that has become a landmark in the French Quarter of New Orleans. She quotes from Le Petit Salon’s charter: “…to promote enjoyment, harmony, refinement of manners and intellectual improvements and to revive, promote and continue the pleasant intercourse of the salon, which gives grace and brilliancy to the old society of this city…” When the Le Petit Salon building became a reality in 1925, 350 members were on the salon’s rolls; today, the salon still exists and meets on Thursdays, “keeping alive the history of such topics as New Orleans silversmiths and the Arts and Crafts movement in New Orleans,” according to Dr. Wilson.

Old newspaper clippings about the salon, from which Dr. Wilson gleaned some of her information, tell of music that accompanied the gatherings of salon members, and Dr. Wilson reports “double billing; for example, ‘This Thursday afternoon there will be a talk on ‘Aristotle and the Human Soul’ with songs by Miss Wolfe.’” Programs also featured poems accompanied by renditions of the music of Franz Liszt and Brahms. Dr. Wilson cites some of the famous visitors to the salon as Prince Matchabelli, The Count and Countess from the Imperial Court of Vienna, as well as actors and actresses from New Orleans' counterpart in culture, Le Petit Theatre. Sherwood Anderson, Oliver Lafarge, Tennessee Williams, and Eleanor Roosevelt also attended programs at the salon. During Dr. Wilson’s research forays, she discovered a golden anniversary commemorative pamphlet, “Le Petit Salon: A History of Its Fifty Years which provided valuable information about the salon frequented by intellectual women of New Orleans.

This article by Dr. Wilson and the entire summer issue of “Louisiana Cultural Vistas” is a must read for those interested in Louisiana history and culture. I’ve taken the liberty of reproducing the famous stock certificate I passed on to Dr. Wilson and featured in the article.
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