“In his illness he had dreamed that the whole world was doomed to fall victim to some terrible, as yet unknown and unseen pestilence spreading to Europe from the depths of Asia. Everyone was to perish, except for certain, very few, chosen ones. Some new trichinae had appeared, microscopic creatures that lodged themselves in men’s bodies. But these creatures were spirits, endowed with reason and will. Those who received them into themselves immediately became possessed and mad. But never, never had people considered themselves so intelligent and unshakable in the truth as did these infected ones. Never had they thought their judgements, their scientific conclusions, their moral convictions and beliefs more unshakeable. Entire settlements, entire cities and nations would be infected and go mad. Everyone became anxious, and no one understood anyone else; each thought the truth was contained in himself alone, and suffered looking at others, beat his breast, wept, and wrung his hands. They did not know whom or how to judge, could not agree on what to regard as evil, what as good. They did not know whom to accuse, whom to vindicate. People killed each other in some sort of meaningless spite. They gathered into whole armies against each other, but, already on the march, the armies would suddenly begin destroying themselves, the ranks would break up, the soldiers would fall upon one another, stabbing and cutting, biting and eating one another. In the cities the bells rang all day long: everyone was being summoned, but no one knew who was summoning them or why, and everyone felt anxious. The most ordinary trades ceased, because everyone offered his own ideas, his own corrections, and no one could agree. Agriculture ceased. Here and there people would band together, agree among themselves to do something, swear never to part—-but immediately begin something completely different from what they themselves had just suggested, begin accusing one another, fighting, stabbing. Fires broke out; famine broke out. Everyone and everything was perishing. The pestilence grew and spread further and further. In the whole world only a few people were able to save themselves: the pure and the chosen, predestined to begin a new race of men and a new life, to renew and purify the earth; but no one had seen these men, no one had heard their words and their voices."
Fyodor Dostoevsky, 1866
René Magritte, 1937
‘Reproduction interdite’ (Not to be Reproduced)
My first home in New Orleans was the Olivier House, a 19th-century French Quarter mansion-turned hotel, whose 40+ rooms each deserve a telling. For the purpose of this Halloween tale, suffice it to say that the Olivier House is presided over by Bobby Danner, my first friend in New Orleans, and family, ever since the day I stepped into Madame Olivier’s parlor as a wide-eyed guest, and he found that he couldn’t get rid of me. In October 2019 when a Dauphine Street property to the rear of the Olivier House opened its doors for an estate sale, I texted Bobby. Having grown in the shadow of the Angel-Xiques Mansion from a child to an adult whole-bodily devoted to historical architecture, I knew that Bobby would find a tour of its rooms irresistible. In addition to catching peculiar relics, stepping across the thresholds of mansions-in-transit to sniff around and peer up close is one of the chiefest charms of a New Orleans estate sale.
Now I will have you know, Journal Snooper, that this tale was nearly brought to premature close when its teller narrowly escaped being crushed by the collapsing Hard Rock Cafe, en route to said estate sale. Escaped by a too-thin-for-comfort margin of precisely seven minutes: seven minutes spent lost in her own city, turned around and cursing a crippling lack of direction---a daily occurrence, but on this day as it turns out, a very lucky one. Dust was still settling on the rubble as I turned from Canal Street into the French Quarter. Readers enamored of our fair city, do temper your enthusiasm from time to time by contemplating its darker realities: for one, the shameless melee of government and business corruption which brought this darker reality into being and left three mangled human corpses suspended above our main thoroughfare for 10 months, without dignity of recovery or burial, and with the very distinct indignity of being both seeable and smellable to passersby on at least one occasion, in a collapsed skyscraper, which still looms to the day of this writing.
I resume the lighthearted narrative to collide with Bobby on the porch of the Angel-Xiques Mansion, where our greetings were exchanged with side-eyed glances at the goods escaping by us out the mansion door. We split up to canvas the joint and eventually circled back to meet again in the mansion’s Gatsbyesque, two-story master bathroom, where Bobby was now sporting a medieval cape draped across his shoulders and I clutched some vintage knickknackery, whose exact shape has been erased in memory by the ensuing year. We paid for our treasures and left, busybodying and hoarding sated---at least for the moment. A couple of weeks later, Bobby texted:
“I have a little secret to share.”
“You bought it, didn’t you?”
And now the Angel-Xiques Mansion is a jewel in the already-lovely crown of Madame Olivier. Bobby has spent the last year gathering its stories and preparing to open it to the public as ten lovingly restored, fully furnished long-term rentals, adjacent to the existing hotel in which you can book a room this very night. Trust that I do not miss an opportunity to inquire how the “Lady Delaney Suite” is coming along. Half of me is joking. The other half feels very solemnly that this is fair spoils in the game of head hunting new haunted mansions for your hotelier friend.
This Halloween, Bobby convened a small and convivial gathering of friends at the Angel-Xiques Mansion, presided over by the Olivier House’s resident Voodoo priestess, and culminating in a house blessing by the same. Arriving shortly after 8pm, following a lengthy search for parking and game of trying not to flatten any pirates, vampires, or pantless revelers (fairly standard French Quarter fare on any evening, to be fair), we made our way up the sweeping double staircase and across the porch through mingled conversations in Spanish, Portuguese, and English.
Our host swept several of his guests up in a tour, leading us through the house with updates on its progress and the new bits of historical information he has gleaned since the last shindig. Those of you who know the French Quarter by its famous ghost tour cannot begin to guess at the rich histories lying quietly untold behind doors like the Angel-Xiques Mansion’s, impossible to plumb in one evening’s tipsy stroll---or a lifetime. Built in 1852, the Angel-Xiques Mansion served clientele nobly as a Cuban importer, the Spanish consulate, and less nobly as a gambling den, “cat house,” and then gambling den again. A few of the nefarious deeds taking place over its history have escaped the confines of plaster and bargeboard to land in newspaper columns: a Spanish consulate was murdered here. A later resident---a lawyer---was the first person to be telephoned by the mother of Lee Harvey Oswald after her son’s ignominious deed. The joint was once raided by police after its working gals gained a reputation for knocking clients out in order to rob them; things went south for the scheming gals when one of their marks died, leading police to discover a cache of poisons hidden under the mansion floorboards.* To this tale, local lore adds the claim that a pile of wallets teetered just on the other side of the house’s back wall, not-so-subtly tossed there after ransacking by the treacherous maidens. Most recently the house was the private residence of another kind of working gal: a famous international model formerly employed by Coco Chanel.
I spied Voodoo Priestess Wendy dressed as a mermaid with a sparkly green tail and bare belly, and when she jumped up to greet me with a warm hug of recognition, my staid midwestern heart just about exploded out of its lame, last-minute nod to a Nancy Drew costume. An older couple I recognized from my days of living at the hotel joined us; enthusiastic members of New Orleans’s swingers scene, they frequent NOLA from vanilla-er parts of the country unknown. Bobby’s Brazilian friends milled about, chasing their children dressed in costume. I wandered, consuming roughly my bodyweight in macarons, and caught up with several other friends (including an exceptional Jack Sparrow and his pretty wench) as we waited for Wendy to receive us in the front parlor which she has converted into a room for receiving the day's traffic of tarot card readings and bone throwing divinations.
While we waited for Wendy to summon within herself whatever required summoning, Bobby suggested we wander a short distance to take in Bourbon Street. Bourbon Street and its balconies were packed, thronging with people masqued for pandemic and debauchery. I tried to remember the last time I had been so near to so many humans, surprised to find that it didn’t feel quite as disconcerting as I would have expected, notwithstanding the present and ongoing dangers of which none of us need reminding. Bobby remarked that this was the liveliest he had seen the French Quarter since Covid’s arrival. As we stood at the edge of the crowd, I tried on for size the idea of waking up to our mugs plastered on the inevitable national news coverage of misbehaving New Orleanians and its “super-spreader events.” We lingered a few minutes, talking about the current year and its curious unfoldings, and then we mosied on past the wildness of Bourbon to my better-loved Royal Street of galleries and cafes, before cutting back to the gathering on Dauphine.
Shortly after we returned to the party, all interested adults were summoned to Wendy’s parlor. As with the rest of the house undergoing renovations, the parlor was mostly bare, though a few pieces of antique furniture had been placed and gave the room a sense of stage: a couple of large armoires, a room screen with ornate scrollings, and a scattering of chairs. A bathtub sat shrouded in the corner, destined for some other part of the mansion. Smaller antique pieces had been arranged across the room: candlesticks, tarot cards, and a display of crosses. On the ceiling the previous owner had painted trompe l'oeil clouds against a blue sky, a bit of circa 1980s folly which Bobby assured me wouldn't be there for long. The ceilings were tall, the walls robin's egg blue, the atmosphere light.
Wendy commenced sternly with the admonishment that everyone gathered must suspend their disbelief. Children were banished from the room, but the parlor’s large door remained open for the sake of parents whose attention was now divided between the occult and childcare. Their squawks echoed in to us from the rest of the house, now emptied of adults, as we arranged ourselves around the room, some of us perched on the edges of chairs and some of us perched on the floor. “The spirits are very active tonight,” Wendy tells us, moving through the room to peer at chosen individuals in turn and beckoning them to rise before telling them something of themselves. Someone will be very wealthy. Someone else needs to give himself over to joy (“You need to learn to dance.”) One member of our party is told that he needs to abandon thoughts of suicide and come to peace with his mother. A woman sitting near me is congratulated on her pregnancy as Jack Sparrow looks on in horror. When called upon, Bobby acts as translator for his friends, repeating Wendy’s pronouncements in Spanish or Portuguese.
This was my second audience with Wendy. The first occasion was an even smaller gathering orchestrated by Bobby when, in a particularly beautiful corner of the Olivier House, Wendy taught several of us how to “roll the bones.” The evening lasted beyond the lesson and I took the opportunity to get a Voodoo priestess’s take on some theological questions rattling around in my noodle since its lapsed Catholic school girl days. In response to one of my questions, Wendy tells me that we ought always to “act in a way that is legacy-building, making choices which future generations will look back on with pride.” What an extraordinarily beautiful way to parse through the murk of every day living and its complicated choosings, I thought and still think. Theater, visual art, tarot cards, rorschach tests, fall along the same spectrum in my mind. You can assign mystical properties to any of them, or don't, but all reflect the viewer back to themselves. They are as powerful or true as you decide that they are.
When Wendy gets to me, I rise from where I am sitting on the floor, wedged between Bobby and the armchair containing my date. Wendy wraps me in another warm hug, which I accept as the gift that it is. The secrets she tells me are mine to keep. They belong to the other people gathered there, to the ghosts, and to the walls of the Angel-Xiques Mansion. Another night and another story has unfolded at 521 Dauphine. Thankfully for these Halloween revelers, no poison was required.
Stay at the historic Olivier House Hotel
Learn (almost) anything you could want to know about the French Quarter by paying visiting to the virtual or real life archives of The Historic New Orleans Collection
Learn the story of New Orleans Voodoo or book a spiritual consultation with friend & Plantation Voodoo Priest, Robi Gilmore: gilmore.robbie[at]gmail.com
*During renovations, Bobby’s crew had uncovered old bottles beneath the ground floor level. Thankfully, these libations did not appear to be on offer to the evening’s guests.
“Stranger would you solve the mysteries of our city? Go then to 4th Avenue, for there beats the pulse. You’ll come away baffled, but pleased.”
Courier-Journal, August 3, 1919
Mister Biscuit and I arrived to the Seelbach just before 10 o’clock. A valet zipped past us on the steps of the grand old Louisville hotel and after several more zippings, I was able to catch hold of his flying lapels, detaining him long enough to request the assistance promised by nearby signs, and to receive his breathless reply: “hello-a-wedding-at-the-hotel-is-just-now-finishing-up-and-things-in-the-general-vicinity-are-about-to-get-crazy.” I assured the gentlevalet that if a cart could be procured, we’d manage ourselves just fine. Henceforth in this travelogue, understand “we” to mean the cat meowling his displeasure from the travel bag/passenger seat/moonlit windowsill as his human struggles in vain to sleep under a stack of several pillows.
“What kind of dog is that?” asked an elegant lady in green velvet as the member of our party with opposable thumbs piled cat and human gear onto the old rolling cart: snacks for two and four-leggeds, my traveling office, a suitcase of lady dresses and cat bow ties, and what I hoped was a discreetly hidden litter box. Though Mister Biscuit’s reservation was confirmed with the front desk, scattering cat feces across the storied lobby and the feet of its guests felt like a definitely unglamourous way to begin our tenancy. I smiled as I handed the car keys to our distracted valet friend, saying a silent prayer that we would be reunited with the same vehicle in the morning. Though if things took a turn in that regard, I suspected that there would be worse places to be marooned than the former glamor den of Al Capone and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
In the time-honored tradition observed by august hotels, our graceful check-in dance was shouted through face masks across the distance of a gloriously appointed lobby. Key in possession, we made our way through the labyrinth of elevators and hallways leading to room 646. Having settled into his evening digs, Mister Biscuit made a snuggly case for pausing hotel explorations until the morning. I fought off his purrs and the post-driving stupor to haul my weary bones back down to see what sort of mischief and dusty ballrooms I could get into, and what might be had in the way of ghosts, history, and chocolate bars.
My meanderings deposited me in front of a large display of hotel artifacts. Nearby a video looped “Legends of the Seelbach” recounted by a white-haired, twinkling-eyed gentleman. I listened to them all, punctuated by the valet’s footsteps thundering behind me:
“I'm late, I'm late! For a very important date! No time to say 'hello, goodbye,' I'm late, I'm late, I'm late!”
If I had given in to the strong impulse to chase him, I’m sure that I would still be tumbling down some rabbit hole tucked into the shadows of a Seelbach lobby column. Fervently wishing for this, or for the kind of magic which attends the letting of strangers tell you tales, I lamented that the white-haired, twinkle-eyed storyteller was a video rather than a flesh and blood human who I could exhaust with my questions and enthusiasm. This wish expressing itself to my heart, it occurred to me to inquire with the concierge about a guided history tour, though it seemed a vain hope for 11:15pm.
“Oh yes, the next one departs in about 15 minutes.”
The gentleman conducting the tour which my desire had seemingly apparated for the very improbable hour of just-exactly-when-I-happened-to-be-in-the-lobby-desiring-it-o-clock was Patrick Rhodes. In his 13 years at the Seelbach, Patrick’s dedication to the hotel and its guests had earned him a prestigious Rose Award (“the Oscar of Kentucky hospitality,” he explained with a low chuckle). As the evening progressed, it became clear that the heroic Patrick was one of four total employees I counted working Saturday night shift at the 500-room Seelbach. Half a dozen times during our tour, static would crackle from his suit pocket, summoning him to a remote corner of the massive hotel with a bucket of ice or, after a more ominous-sounding broadcast (which I interpreted in hotel language to mean that a guest was being a pain in the butt), to restore order. Somehow Patrick managed it, and managed it with grace. During the interludes in which Patrick was otherwhere, I snapped photos and struck up a chat with the friendly St. Louis couple sharing my enthusiasm for midnight tours of old hotels.
We followed Patrick across the darkened stages of the Seelbach’s legends. In the upper ballroom where Daisy Buchanan had married the wrong man, a crew of weary event staff disassembled the last of the evening’s wedding. I wondered if tonight’s happy couple had read the book whose fictional couple made their reception room famous? To follow in Daisy’s marital footsteps seemed like a dubious choice to me. Then again, I am an unmarried woman who travels with her cat.
Through a service entrance and pair of imposing doors relieved of their European castle, we stepped into the subterranean “Rathskeller” bar, where friendship---and fiction’s most famous character--- allegedly bloomed between F. Scott and bootlegger king George Remus. During the prohibition era, the Seelbach was a playground for gangsters whose bootlegging fortunes ran fast through it: in high stakes games of poker and blackjack, in bribes made to police, and in the seduction of fast-living dames, one of which landed in the bottom of an elevator shaft and still haunts the place as “the Blue Lady.”
Patrick tells us that interactions with the Seelbach ghosts are a part of his routine, much like bringing ice to the fifth floor. He explains that his upbringing was one of heart, mind, and soul, and that the phantomly things are just a part of life. Though the Blue Lady hasn’t officially been seen in years, according to Patrick, she comes and goes just about as she pleases. Also according to Patrick, she has personally confirmed to him findings of a recent investigation which allege that she did not leap into the service elevator shaft. She was tossed. “When did you see her last?” Mister St Louis asks Patrick. “Oh, about two weeks ago.”
Far below the Rathskeller, secret tunnels entwine with Kentucky’s famous cave networks, providing convenient egress for gangsters eluding prohibition agents. Above the Rathskeller and accessed by another hidden passageway (whose walls bear the scorchings of a more recent fire) is a secret room haunted in the 1920s by Al Capone. This room was outfitted with a two-way mirror and locking mechanism which could be tripped in the event of unwanted guests. In the stately dining room adjacent, a simpler ruse was employed by hotel staff and patrons. When the prohibition agents turned up, the revelers would hide their alcohol beneath the tables and hotel staff would throw cash at the federal party poopers to make them disappear. Exiting Capone's secret room, we passed through a cloak room whose magnificent beauty set a gal pondering the sort of world which lavished extravagance upon a chamber whose sole dedicated purpose was the collecting of coats and losing of gloves.
The evening’s melancholy notes lingered as I nestled cozily beside Mister B, thoughts drifting between sleep, Seelbach room 646, and a scene from the movie Somewhere in Time in which Christopher Reeve’s character finds himself haplessly tossed back through the decades, landing as an intruder in his own hotel room, once again occupied by its guest from 100 years previous. He hides from the woman as she moves around the room doing inconsequential doings, oblivious to the handsome time traveler. She plucks a pin from her hair. She absentmindedly hums a tune. She is unaware of the extraordinariness in which our gaze casts her, peering from another time.
I fall asleep thinking of the untold moments played out in this room across the nights and the years, and those playing out across the honeycomb of the Seelbach's additional 499 guest rooms, secret passageways, and dark corners. F. Scott understood: “There was a ripe mystery about it, a hint of bedrooms upstairs more beautiful and cool than other bedrooms, of gay and radiant activities taking place through its corridors and of romances that were not musty and laid away already in lavender but fresh and breathing and redolent of this year's shining motor cars and of dances whose flowers were scarcely withered..."
My dozing is crowded with the parade of a century's costumes. The drunken leanings-in of bar conversation. Schemes and love hatched over drinks, forgotten in morning light, or transformed into great American novels. The newspapers, letters, and journals tossed for a time onto the desks, chairs and beds, to be replaced in turn by other newspapers, letters, and journals telling same-different stories. The tunes hummed quietly under breath while preparing for an evening dance. The lost hair pin still wedged somewhere 100-years after the hair has tumbled onto its pillow, fragrant and framing sleepy eyes, exhausted from dancing. The spilled Rathskeller drink, which may still be cascading, tumbling somewhere down below the hotel’s sub-subterranean levels, where even Patrick has not ventured. The honeymoons, tears, laughter, deaths, suicides, affairs, babies made, hearts broken, silent prayers, presidents, rock stars, the reversals of fortune. A lady with her cat, maybe, in some other room, some other time.
Mister Biscuit shrugs in his sleep. Probably, silly human. But now it’s time for sleep.
From what I could see under his mask, the gentleman greeting me at the desk in the morning was a dead ringer for the one in the “Legends of the Seelbach” video, so I chanced to ask. No no no, he said, though he gets that all the time. The star of the video is a man named Larry Johnson, who began working for the Seelbach in the 1980s, and loved it so much that he created a book dedicated to its history. Johnson was no longer employed by the hotel, as of very recently, having been laid off in the Covid upheaval. From the sparkle so evident in Johnson's "Legends" video, I suspect that this development is a mutual loss for both storyteller and hotel. Since the arrival of Covid, five to thirty of the Seelbach's 500 rooms have booked per night. Since March, only three weddings have taken place in the ballroom of inauspicious Daisy fame.
As I pull the door of 646 closed, the last thing I notice are the patches of dust left ragged on the desk where my computer and phone have sat. They leave near-perfect rectangles. With my new copy of Johnson’s book tucked safely in the old valise, Mister Biscuit and I step from the dim hotel into the bright sunlight of Louisville’s downtown. So recently the epicenter of Breonna Taylor protests, the boarded windows lining 4th Avenue remind us that new chapters continue to be written.
Watch Larry Johnson tell the "Legends of the Seelbach"
Buy Larry Johnson's book, The Seelbach: A Centennial Salute to Louisville's Grand Hotel
Learn more about the real Lady in Blue
Visit the Seelbach