“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.