Monday, October 24, 2011

Ladies & Gentlemen (but, mostly ladies,) Auguste Manoir.

When people think of a proper Creole gentleman in modern parlance, they usually conjure the indelible image of Auguste Manoir.  A true Orleanian gentleman, Auguste's first memory was being fussed & preened over by an ongoing litany of women who instantly fell in love with his honey brown curls, his eternally clear cafe au lait skin with eyes to match, and his unmistakably masculine build.  Even as a toddler, it was obvious to everyone who saw him that this child was destined to be a most attractive prospect.  Preternaturally free of the oft-seen chubby phase of infanthood, young Augie quickly shed any vestiges of weight by his first birthday, revealing a slim yet powerful musculature that both worried & fascinated any female that encountered his presence.  He inherited his coloring & impossibly long eyelashes from his mother Angelle Hypolyte, a gorgeous Creole lady whose family had been great movers & shakers in the Original Illinois Club.  His physicality was a gift from his father Agneto Manoir, a Swedish national born of an absent French father & a silly high society girl from a cloistered family from Göteborg.  Agneto would eventully become a French citizen, mainly because it would assure him a place in the French diplomatic corps.  By his 25th birthday, he would become a willing citizen of Nouvelle Orleans.

Born in Ochsner Hospital on July 4th, 1976, Auguste was the first baby in the US born on the Bicentennial.  Unfortunately, his birth also took the life of his mother, whose congenitally weak constitution barely brought him to term.  Left alone with his only son, Agneto took advantage of his excellent standing in the French diplomatic corps & arranged for his permanent assignment in Orleans Parish.  His wife Angelle's dying wish was for her child to be raised in her hometown, even though her family had disowned her for marrying a white foreigner.  She also decreed that if the child were to be male, she wanted him named after her paternal grandfather Auguste Hipolyte.  To her, he was the only man besides her husband who had ever treated her with any respect.

Over the next 18 years, Agneto & Auguste would occupy houses in every area of the parish: Uptown, Mid-City, Carrollton, the Faubourgs St. John, Ste. Marie, & Marigny, the Bywater, Central City, Treme, & the French Quarter.  Though to many around them the endless transistions represented the father & sons' descent into poverty, in was actually Agneto's consistent wish that his young son be fully & completely immersed in every aspect of his mother's city, good & bad.  So deep was his love for Angelle & this remarkable city that gave him both of the loves of his life, he often turned a blind eye to the realities of his situations.  So skilled was he at the art of diplomacy & negotiation that he more often than not turned potential enemies into lifelong friends within a matter of minutes.  These impressive skills were not lost on Auguste, who was usually present at virtually every event in his father's life.  By the time he was 16, Auguste had learned how to use his considerable gifts to diffuse any situation, and often did so without the knowledge of Agneto.  In his dotage, the old man had grown less flexible & more prone to opinionated outbursts that defeated all the work he had done over the decades.  Still, Auguste loved & respected his father and wanted only to maintain his power over any situation.  Just as he had learned from an early age of his power over women, so too had he learned that his father was a great man & demanded not only his respect but his support.

Auguste was a very, very rare young man.

Unfortunately, the one time Auguste was not around was the final event in his father's life.

Graduating from Jesuit in 1994, Auguste had begged his father for a night on his own; a night in which he could prove his own worth with a beautiful young lady named Jessica who was a senior at Dominican.  The old man aquiesced & allowed his son to go out on his own, confident in Auguste's ability to be responsible for his actions.  As they left for their date in a strech limosine, Agneto felt that indescribable feeling of pride, sorrow, & hope that most parents know so well.  Pulling away down rue Dauphine towards God knows where, a single tear traced its way down the man's furrowed face; partly due to the feelings of pride, partly due to the absence of Angelle.

Giving in to the sorrows of the past & the present, Agneto chose that warm May night to venture out of rue Dauphine & over to Matassa's to secure a bottle of gewurztraminer, or liebframilsch, or whatever white wine was available behind the counter.  No sooner had he purchased a relatively cheap bottle of chardonnay & stepped outside than the jarring sound of gunfire half a block down rang out.  Without warning, a stray bullet pierced Agneto's head.

He felt nothing but a quick sting on his forehead.  The chardonnay shattered as his lifeless body dropped to the banquette, the straw-colored alcohol miraculously missing every inch of his corpse as it made its way into the gutter accompanied by a twin stream of A positive which did not touch until they reached the grate.

Instilled with the gifted absence of regret by both his parents, young Auguste found himself the recipient of a considerable fortune (wisely meted out over a period of 25 years by both his mother's & father's estates), and the priceless gifts of physical beauty, masculine attractiveness, monetary security, financial accumen, & the talent for talking anyone into anything he wished AND making certain that all involved in whatever deal he engineered would benefit.  Truly a uniquely Orleanian man with everyone's best interests at heart.  When things would get bad (as so often happens in New Orleans,) he would recall his mother's familiar saying, which became his father's & his mantra over the years:  "Treat everyone as you wish to be treated.  You may have to work harder to achieve that goal, but its always worth it to make it happen."  Over the next 11 years, Auguste would have a blessed life by the standards of most people.  Getting in on the ground floor of the telecommunications industry because a trusted friend from his Jesuit days needed a helping hand, young Manoir soon found himself a multi-millionaire thanks to American Telephone & Telegraph.  When that friend left the industry in July of 2001, he too left the industry by selling off his considerable shares out of loyalty.  When the tragedy of Sept. 11th of that year occured, he innocently discovered that not only had he gotten out at the exact right time, but that his other investments in security equipment had suddenly quadrupled in value.  Such happy accidents of loyalty & fealty would serve him in incredibly good stead over the years.  But it was his devotion to his friends & colleagues that truly structured his security.

Auguste had a way about him that attracted the best of every caste of society.  But deep inside him he was desperate to find the kind of woman his mother had been.  A litany of what everyone called 'black' women had been his attraction, his devotion.  The one thing he could never understand was this imperturbable predillection for calling these dark-skinned beauties he longed for by the erroneous moniker of 'black.'  In artistic terms, the color white is considered the total absence of color.  By the same token, the color black is considered the total presence of all colors.  By that logical reasoning it should be right that the darker the skin the greater the value.  But in the realities of human life, the color black had no such grand representations.  In the upside-down world in which he lived, the whites had all the power & respect, the blacks had virtually nothing.  It wasn't until his 24th birthday and a weeks-long dissertation by a college friend that he realized that his own sainted mother Angelle was what was dismissively called 'passing' that he realised that his own unique physicality & coloring was the result of an interracial marriage.

It was a revelation that would mystify both himself for not realizing it & everyone around him for their own limited views of the world as either priveged whites, empowered blacks, or clueless foreigners of every caste.

Now, at the age of 36, Auguste is at a most unsusal place.  With a chorus line of plainly lovely young ladies decorating his unfulfilled past, and his forward momentum seemingly stalled by the lack of a substantial soulmate, he has turned to the only friend that has never asked for a single favor, never needed his connections, or held him in contempt for his ridiculous wealth.  Jerry Laufrey.

Jerry is one of those men who somehow never recognize their own worth all the while putting the best parts of themselves out there for the common good.  He was what Agnesto would call a 'pure spirit:'  giving to the point of self-depreciation, then reprimanding themselves for not being enough to get past being used & thrown away.  Fortunately for Jerry, both Agnesto & Angelle had it in their makeup to recognize people like him & pass onto their only son the power to protect such folks as much as was possible.  They had met when Jerry was a lowly waiter at Krystal Seafood Restaurant on the third floor of the repurposed Jax Brewery building & Auguste was an investor in the business.  He earned his respect when Auguste inadvertently sent a party of 24 Sicilians to the place on a Monday night where Jerry was the only waiter on-staff.  After two hours of diligently serving his friends despite the language barrier, by himself, Auguste decided that this was someone he needed to know.  What he found was one of the most generous, diplomatic yet honest, & loving people he had ever known.  After nearly 20 years of being friends & Jerry constantly & consistently giving to him all the while refusing any help or recompense, Auguste had finally figured out what the true meaning of friendship really meant: someone who wanted more for you than for themselves.

And he also figured out that not only was his dear friend capable of giving him his life's desire. he was capable of making his dearest friend's dreams come true without him knowing anything about it.


A most convivial group assembles at The Bombay Club, underscored by the felicitous fingers of Matt Lemler on piano. At a table in the way back, Auguste Manoir enjoys the company of his dear friend Jerry Laufrey, left to his own devices for the night as his husband Patrick attends a meeting. Secretly happy to show off for Jerry, Auguste plies an endless supply of sazaracs from his unlimited account at the bar, each one its own recipe. After the 3rd or 4th, Jerry asks bluntly through a knowing smile 'to what do I owe this largesse, Augie?' Manoir's agile Creole eyes sparkle as he replies, 'I want you to help me find a woman to marry me, Jerry. A real, proper Creole beauty'...This Is My New Orleans.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Let's Talk About The DuPlessis...

The phrase 'old money' was coined for families like the DuPlessis'. They have seemingly been around forever in the Gulf South, mostly around Pass Christian, Biloxi, & New Orleans.
Arriving at the family mansion on Audubon Place, Bitsie & Ivan DuPlessis step from the town car into the New Orleans heat. A gasp escapes Bitsie's lips, shocked at the heat & the quality of the air. Ivan takes no notice. Their assistant Schramm quickly opens the front door, sending a corridor of chilled air towards the couple. The DuPlessis' return; and a dark cloud crosses the sun.
Once inside, Bitsy stops inside the foyer to take in her surroundings while Ivan marches directly into the office & closes the door. Quite the place, she thought. Classic Georgian floorplan, terrazzo tiles, penchant for Louis XIV furnishings, berber carpeting--is that a Ming vase? No, but a damned good replica.
Schramm breezes past his mistress with the first load of luggage and a curt "this way Mrs. DuPlessis, to the master bedroom." Automatically she follows him up the steps, cataloguing the entirety of the house & holdings. For the next few days, she and her husband would move as separate entities, sharing only the ministrations of Schramm.

1.) Elizabeth Lenore "Bitsy" Pritchard DuPlessis
There is virtually nothing of Bitsy Pritchard's life to tell until she made it to Loyola University. Born to a middle class Florida family populated entirely with accountants, CPAs, and middle management, Bitsy was raised in the most unremarkable way in central Kentucky. There is not a single unique or truly memorable event in her life before moving to New Orleans, as she will be the first to inform you. The only small part of her existence was her relation to a very popular mayor in her family's hometown of Elizabethtown, KY. These were also her only fond memories of her childhood, spending every Easter with Great Uncle Seuss Pritchard, searching for eggs in his expansive yard with the comparatively interesting children of the city. Early on, she discovered a talent for needlepoint & knitting that would serve her well personally, not socially.

But she did make it through the central Kentucky school system with some ease and was forced to attend the University of Kentucky by her family, who demanded that she stay close to home. She earned a BA in art history, the only subject that held any fascination for her. After her 4 years there, she meandered through her job at The Speed Museum, first as an Junior Assistant Curator, to Senior Assistant Curator, to Vice-Curator. She was able to rattle off the important facts on every single display, each piece in the building with a disinterested ease that most people took for genuine exptertise. Her meteroic rise in prominence at The Speed made her a sought-after student for the Master's program at every university in the country. When Tulane called however, she jumped at the chance to live somewhere that oozed life, and soon took up residence in the Riverbend of New Orleans. It was here that she met her future husband and changed her life forever. Granted, it took several months to make him realize that she alone was the answer to his life's questions, and in 2003 they were engaged to be married. Being goal-oriented, she enjoyed a satisfaction that such personalities relish for decades as she walked down the aisle of St. Louis Cathedral in May, 2006. She would come to remember very, very little of the actual ceremony, her mind cataloguing & classifying every inch of artwork in the minor Bascillica with unconscious precision. She would also come to remember their wedding night as the night she lost her virginity and thinking 'what's the big deal?'

2.) Ivan Sargent DuPlessis
The most influential moment in young Vannie DuPlessis' life happened because of his uncle, The Colonel. It was a memory which he eventually would hold dear...then come to loathe in private. The summer of his eighth year a distant cousin had engaged the family in a land deal in Pensacola. The deal was counterfeit from the start and several members of the family lost a lot of money; but not the cousin. The Colonel was the only one who hadn't invested, being stationed overseas in Berlin. However, upon finding out the details The Colonel literally showed up at the cousin's mansion and 'convinced' him to reimburse his sister and the rest of the family. No one knows exactly what happened but family legend says that the cousin never looked the same after his encounter with The Colonel. When he asked his uncle what had happened, he replied: "Its bad taste to screw your own family, but its a kick to the balls to make them pay for the opportunity. Never take a kick to the balls, boy." Years later, he would take the revelations about The Colonel as a kick in the balls.

Ivan had stayed with his great Grandmother Janette during Katrina. She saw no reason to leave since her house had a full generator and one of the neighbors had arranged for those Blackwater fellows to guard the circle to keep out the common criminals. She also had a full wine cellar, months of Meals Ready to Eat, a satellite telephone, several liters of Jim Beam bourbon, & the constant ministrations of Schramm. Ivan, being the strongest of the great-grandchilcren in many ways elected to stay with old Gran, since he would be restarting at Tulane at the start of January when he would send for his fiancee Bitsie. Late on Thanksiging night of 2005, he was awakend by Schramm and told to go to his Gran's suite. He entered the suite, and found her at her desk neatly assembling papers in a folder. On the blotter beside her was a photocopy of a vaguely familiar form, a--what're they called?--a 'telegram?' Her crepe-lined face was solemn and cold as marble. She told him to sit with such force, he instantly obeyed out of shock. Finishing her work, she closed the portfolio and shoved the scanned telegram towards him. It had been emailed by his father's lawyers from a distant cousin in Amsterdam:



Ivan was shocked. The Colonel was dead--how? Who was Mr. Parmentiere & why was The Colonel with him? As the tears mounted in his eyes, Gran stares at him with the unmistakable air of disappointment. Still reeling from his favorite Uncle's death, he could only ask,
"Who is this R. Parmentiere, Gran?"
The old woman peered up at him over her pince-nez with a look of incredulity that he had never experienced. After what seemed like an eternity, she lowered her eyes and turned to Schramm, who had somehow magically produced a very large '73 Valpolicella from nowhere. Creakily standing up to her full, crooked height, she took the glass with an alacrity reserved for the well-practiced alcoholic & conveyed a look to her young manservant that was visible from the back of her head. Without another word, she hobbled her way out of her suite. Alone with the butler, Vannie looked to Schramm with an intense need for answers. In his peculiarly clipped Midwestern accent, Schramm addressed his young charge with brutal yet compassionate tones.

"Master Ivan...your Uncle, The Colonel is what the less-cultured castes of the city would call a-well, a....a "Ginny Woman."

Seeing no recognition of the term, the servant proceeded apace.

"Your Uncle was...'fond' of those like him......He do I say this? It's so difficult really have no idea what I'm trying---" His voice trailed off as the expression on Ivan's face grew more desperate for clarification. With his imposing linebacker frame, piercing eyes & full height of 6' 4" English Creole self, he almost towered over Schramm's 6' Germanic-Irish-Scot being. Yet, being older than his charge Schramm managed to keep an unspoken mastery over his subject as he finally left euphemism behind them & stated,

"Master Ivan, The Colonel was a closeted gay man who found love with this Rony Parmentiere. They have been together for years. And now, your Uncle is dead and Mr. Parmentiere is making certain that his body returns home for a proper burial."

In that moment, the innocence of the favored which had been the life of the adored Vannie died a quick & unmerciful death. Within the confines of that paragraph Vannie DuPlessis was cast down upon a pit of spears, every inch of him impaled on the stalagtites of cold, hard reality. Still breathing, still pumping blood in deafening torrents in his ears, Vannie DuPlessis merely ceased to exist. For a preciously long, almost interminable time there was no one inhabiting the flesh that was owned by that identity. An era passed in silent agony as a sea change happened in the mound of skin, bones, & organs that once played host to the late Vannie. What emerged was a foreign creature that took its comfort in the negative promulgations of countless generations of DuPlessis' & their compatriots. So deeply & quickly were the basic insecurities of his own existence made evident by the scandal of his once beloved Uncle's life, the insecure young man's subconscious mind murdered any & all vestiges of compassionate objectivity in order to preserve his mistaken sense of inherent worth.

In that second of time, warm, giving, loving Vannie DuPlessis succumbed to cold, calculating, vicious Ivan DuPlessis.

And so was the family name & reputation to be carried on, unbroken.

That morning, Janette DuPlessis died of a combination of cirhossis & a severely depressed immune system that allowed a simple virus to stop her withered old heart. Within a week her 85 lbs. body was interred in the last unclaimed space in the Lakelawn Cemetery crypt. Ivan carried her casket with the semblage of brave apolomb across from Schramm; the only other person in the procession who knew that they were also burying young Master DuPlessis' former life.

Five years & 6 states later, the heir apparent would return to the ancestral home in Audubon Place with his trophy wife, his 'faithuful' family servant, and an agenda that will lay the old money of New Orleans bare to his whims in a way not seen for well over a century. For Ivan DuPlessis is on a mission informed by his genetics.

And so is his devoted, yet inherently non-Orleanian wife Bitsie Pritchard DuPlessis. It is her strength that will be the greatest challenge to his unholy birthright.