Southern Decadence In New Orleans

by Christopher Verleger

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday August 14, 2018

Southern Decadence In New Orleans

The title of Howard Philips Smith and Frank Perez's engrossing, expansive book, "Southern Decadence in New Orleans," is not only arguably misleading but also a disservice to the meritorious effort of its authors.

For those not in the know, Southern Decadence is an annual New Orleans celebration that takes place over Labor Day weekend - a gay Mardi Gras, if you will. While the focal point of the book is the history and evolution of that renowned event, it also serves as a meticulously researched, detailed, comprehensive timeline of the Crescent City's French Quarter, as well as its gay community, pageantry, bar culture and political climate.

Having attended Southern Decadence myself, which now draws a crowd of more than 200,000 (making it the city's second most popular and profitable festival, after Mardi Gras) I was surprised and fascinated to learn that it started in 1972 as a pub crawl with just a few dozen folks in attendance. These participants were the maladjusted misfit residents of an infamous boarding house, Belle RÍve, named after Blanche DuBois' plantation in "A Streetcar Named Desire."

This once-intimate gathering among friends soon grew in size and scope, with a parade, Grand Marshals, elaborate costumes and select French Quarter bars and clubs as host venues. The authors fastidiously and painstakingly review the theme and outcome of each Southern Decadence since its inception, calling attention to pivotal years when ensuing events inadvertently replaced the celebration's previous traditions.

The book also drops the names of well-known artists whose bodies of work were major influences on the city's gay community, like Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote and John Waters. There is also discussion of activism and progress, despite the efforts of the region's conservative politicians and other vocal naysayers (e.g., Anita Bryant). I especially applaud the authors for specifically mentioning the fire at the Up Stairs Lounge in June 1973, a horrifying, tragic incident that deserves much more attention than it gets.

Although Southern Decadence today may not reflect what its originators intended, it is clearly here to stay, with its resounding themes of friendship and frivolity still very much intact. The interviews, photos and groundwork assembled here by Smith and Perez will help the reader truly honor and appreciate Southern Decadence rather than dismiss it as just another Pride knockoff.

"Southern Decadence in New Orleans"

By Howard Philips Smith and Frank Perez


LSU Press

Chris is a voracious reader and unapologetic theater geek from Narragansett, Rhode Island.