Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Matriculation of Bitsie DuPlessis

She remembers it like it was yesterday.

Vintage damask silk covers the walls of the sitting room in the DuPlessis mansion, illuminated by an custom-made Tiffany lamp hung evocatively over an antique Louis XVI loveseat with the Constance Howard embroidered cushions.  Across the room on the turn of the century Persian rug, the restored Atwater-Kent radio radiates an amber glow to cover the modern machinery playing the digital jazz channel WWNO-3.  And in between them is the carefully arranged visage of Bitsie DuPlessis, cursing her aptitude for art appraisal. For her, a manse like her in-law's was a cursed amusement park, filled with toothsome treasures anxious to monopolize her consciousness.  To the gentle rhythms of Lionel Hampton and Sarah Vaughn, she deftly sews her days away between social obligations, errands for her husband Ivan, & the growing instances of his escapes into the 'vookuray.'  Here she sits from afternoon to late night, embroidering with ever-increasing skill and intensity.

She first noticed it in June, a few months after they had moved into Audubon Place.

For the first several weeks of her new-found role of Uptown society wife, Bitsie fully immersed herself in every event she could attend.  She discovered early that the DuPlessis name was akin to a golden ticket to the convoluted world of New Orleans societal rigors.  So powerful was the mention of the name that she found herself injected into situations destined to end in her failure on many levels.  While well-schooled in the good social graces of proper Southern debutante, the training would fail her.  In her zeal to be accepted, she bullied or coerced the elite into granting entrance to enclaves that, while rare & powerful would ultimately lead to her alienation in a few strata.  Even though a slim majority of New Orleans society found her charming, Bitsie existed in a world where positive reinforcement was ignored.

On the hind end of a 3-day period of inactivity, a sudden burst of afternoon downpour temporarily halted her daily routine.  Preparing to leave for an arranged meeting with the captain of the all-female krewe of Muses, an angry late spring storm erupted over Uptown.  Within moments the torrential rain had overwhelmed the drains & flooded Audubon Place.  Schramm advised against leaving just as the power went out.

With Schramm gone to collect flashlights & candles, Bitsie was left alone for the first time in months.  A thunderclap rattled the house as the lightning in the solarium windows illuminated the stairway.  She thought of Ivan and his office on the third floor.  The office she had never seen.  The rooms she had never entered like his childhood bedroom and the Colonel's suite.  It wasn't until she found herself looking at the corridor of doors that she realized she's climbed the stairs and entered his enclave.

Errant lightning bursts shone through the window at the other end and gave her the impression that she was in a 70's suspense thriller.  The hairs standing up on her neck helped, too.  The first room she checked was a guest room with a four-poster bed whose canopy had seen tighter days, drooping to within two feet of the mattress.  Boxes of paperwork dotted the floor in a skyline of tedious records.  The next room she found was the upstairs water closet, a remnant of a lavish renovation in the 1920's, done entirely in Venetian gold marbled mirror tiles and a golden shell basin on a mirrored pedestal.  Even in near darkness, the gleaming gold seemed to hang in the ether like the doorway to another world.

On her right was a door she couldn't open.  It was the only one with a modern handle & lock.  This was obviously Ivan's office, locked up tight.  She wondered if Schramm had the keys to this door.  He has to let the maid up when she shows up to work.  Another unsuccessful try, and she moves on.  At least now, she knew where it is.  The branches of the live oak scratched against the window with jarring intensity, causing her to jump.  Heart beating hard in her ears, she heads for the next room on the left.

The second she opened the door of the room she knew it was Ivan's old bedroom.  It still smelled like him, like he was when they first met at Tulane.  A tiny smile curls her lips as she navigates in near darkness.  Feeling her way along the foot of the bed, another flash reveals a long chest of drawers strewn with the castoff knick-knacks of his late youth, a handful of framed pictures, and a flashlight.  Amazingly, the flashlight worked.  Now equipped, Bitsie instantly turned to the framed pictures.  They are much as she expected.  Ivan in his Coast Episcopal uniform, a family trip to Pensacola, a Christmas picture of Janette & the Colonel in younger but no more congenial days.  Ivan & the Colonel on a fishing trip, then again at Disney World, and another at a birthday party with both of them blowing out the candles.  Casting the light around the rest of the room she discovers more relics of Ivan's adventures with The Colonel.  A framed collecton of his medals & ribbons from his Army career hanging next to the door, an enormous shell casing holding a collection of carved wooden swords & a quiver of arrows.  And a collection of 7 scrap books, pushed back behind the TV, nearly invisible save for the glint of chrome on the spines.  Pulling them out, she quickly flipped through one of them.  Newspaper clippings, other photographs, written passages, the effluvia of childhood.  And the Colonel was on nearly every page.

Another gust of wind knocks the oak into the side of the house again, making a noise like a door slamming and startling Bitsie into flight.  With the books still clutched tightly to her chest as she dashed out of the room, she flew back downstairs and into the solarium in a fit of pique.  Collapsing on the Louis XVI loveseat in heaving breaths, she slowly releases her death grip on the scrap books and places them on the seat next to her.  By now Schramm had found a cache of tapers & candelabras and deposited them strategically around the first floor.  In the candlelight, she looks at the books with a mixture of fear & elation.  She's found that part of his life that he used to talk about before the Colonel died, the years he closed off.  Engrossed, she reaches out to open them when the front door flies open with a great burst of wind, putting out the candelabras.  Ivan's broad shouldered silhouette filled the entranceway for a moment, then the door closed reducing the available light to dusk.  Instinctively, she shoves the books behind the cushions and drapes an afghan over it all, her face rearranging to show mild annoyance as she fusses over the extinguished candles.
A remarkably bright LED flashlight cuts through the gloom and then makes its way up the stairs...
It was the last thing she remembered before he left her last year. Now he's back and she knows the rest...This Is My New Orleans.

Réne Lafrenieré, Part One

The young Jocasta Lafrenieré.
Réne  Lafrenieré  is as Creole as you can get in modern parlance.  Cast somewhere between Bernard de Marigny & "Dutch" Morial, those who know him as well as is possible see in him every romanticized image of the indolent sybarite taking advantage of all that is best in this world.  To those unaccustomed to such men born of fanciful heritage & washed in the muddy waters of the river, he is a living caricature of the lazy Southerner, a stock character found in shoddy films & depreciating television programs.  Drenched at any given moment in seersucker & sazarac rye, Réne feels no need to challenge the public's caprices. He's an Orleanian from a very old line.  What tourists and other carpetbaggers think is of no concern.

Réne was raised by the remaining women in the Lafrenieré family to be a snob.  Not because they felt that they were better than anyone else (other than those damned Yankees,) but because it provided a kind of safety.  The family had developed the protective skill of snobbery quite highly over the course of decades, beginning with their emergence from the shame of indentured servitude in the early 1800s.  They all knew the story by heart.

The family patriarch Lemuel  Lafrenieré and his beautiful Creole wife Jocasta were by nature an open and ebullious couple, the charmers of rue Chartres who lived in the blessed shadows of the Ursulines Convent.  Lemuel was a successful importer from France whose marriage into the Peychaud of the Marigny Peychauds on Christmas Day in 1829 began a miasma of social dinners and theatre parties-their introduction into New Orleans society.

Lemuel was instantly popular with the businessmen of New Orleans, due in no small part to his French ancestry and his decidedly masculine stature.  His only detractor was a rival importer, Charles W. Claiborne.  Frequently Claiborne would engage  Lafrenieré in heated discussions, with Claiborne seemingly taking the opposite tract in order to goad his opponent.  Lemuel saw Claiborne's consternation as a social parlor game and engaged him with good natured firmness.  But Claiborne would have none of it.  He openly decried Lafrenieré as an interloper and wished for his departure.

Jocasta's people had come to New Orleans from Port Royal, Jamaica some thirty years before as free people of color. (The rumor floated around for years until Jocasta's death that the Peychaud's had been instrumental in a slave uprising there, and stole their illegitimate freedom.) Gifted with a great appreciation for the arts she was particularly entranced with the wonders of Mr. Caldwell's American Theatre and the beautiful leading lady, Jane Placide.  She shared this fascination with the fascinating Dr. & Mrs. Lalaurie, with whom they frequently sat at the theatre.  Another great companion was Mrs. Charles Claiborne, Loretta by name.  She frequented the theatre not with her husband but with her sister-in-law, the spinster Maude Claiborne.  It was Maude who disliked Jocasta and her bright personality.  She believed the rumors about The Peychaud's and took exception. Miss Claiborne found Mrs. Lafrenieré to be 'crass.' Mrs. Lafrenieré found 'dear old Maudie' to be 'quaint.' The familiarity of the phrase rankled Miss Claiborne deeply.

By spring the following year, Jocasta was with child as Lemuel's business and their social prominence flourished.  Despite her delicate condition, Jocasta served as the perfect society wife, constantly expanding their circles and opening their home to all.  On the eve of their first anniversary the happy couple attended a sold-out performance at the American Theatre to see the great tragedian James M. Scott in "The Robbers," followed by the comedians Holland, Cowell, & Ludlow in "The Honest Thieves."  So long and so hard did the couple laugh that Jocasta went into labor and was rushed back to rue Chartres in a carriage.  As the sun rose on Christmas Day 1830, Violetta Alicie Peychaud Lafrenieré was delivered by Dr. Lalaurie, whom with his wife Delphine served as godparents.  Their world was perfect.
But their ebullience would prove to be their downfall.  Both husband and wife were possessed of a trustful nature that never saw the faces of deception, greed, or jealousy.  Lemuel's business associates were envious of what they saw as his undeserved success and soon discovered they could use his own words against him.  Lemuel discussed his business and his home life as easily as he would the time of day, always believing himself to be in the company of trusted friends.  Intrigues more than could be imagined by Lemuel were enacted by Charles Claiborne working behind the scenes in the immutable halls of Old New Orleans Society.
The society women of New Orleans were also jealous of Jocasta's beauty and her freedom. Jealousy is the mother of gossip and deceit, and these bitter children wrought their ways through the salons of the city. It was rumored that her great beauty had been gained by selling her soul to the voudouennes of the swamps.  Her remarkable strength during her pregnancy inspired tales of an Zulu bloodline and gave Maude Claiborne the happy opportunity to retell the tales of illicit deeds by her enslaved parents, May God Rest Their Souls. There was even talk that she was a witch who had put a spell upon Lemuel to be her slave in life and marriage.
Soon, they found themselves barred from high social events, some of which they had created.  Their friends The Lalauries retreated from them as well, being the focus of rumors that Delphine was exceedingly cruel to her slaves.  The business began to slip as Lemuel watched his clients take their business to his competitors.  In April of 1834 The Lalauries had fled the city after a fire in their rue Royale mansion had revealed the worst: their slaves had indeed been abused in horrific manners unspeakable in proper company.  With the rumors of their former friends proved true, New Orleans also accepted that the stories about The Lafrenierés must be true as well.  By autumn the family was destitute, forced to take up residence in a mean little cottage on the batture, a property forgotten by the Peychauds who also turned their backs on the indolent family. So distasteful was the smell of scandal that they disowned Jocasta and all her children by post. The Peychauds abandoned their home in rue Burgundy and moved upriver to St. Francisville. No other member of the family would tread Orleanian soil again for another 150 years.

With no where else to turn for help and their purses now empty, Lemuel was forced to turn to petty theft just to feed his wife & child.  For a while his still-impressive wardrobe allowed him to snatch up enough food from the French Market to keep them alive without notice.  Inevitably, he was captured in the act of stealing a baguette and dragged.  He would have been sent to jail if a benefactor had not stepped in and settled the account.
It was Charles Claiborne.
Whether out of charity or childishness, the rival offered a solution to Lafrenieré's dilemma.  For a period of 10 years Lemuel and Jocasta would become his indentured servants.  Jocasta would become Loretta's maid while Lemuel would become Charles' butler.  With no other prospects they were forced to accept.  Since there would be no room for Violetta, she would be cared for by the Ursuline nuns in their orphanage; the pay for her upkeep taken from the couple's wages.
For the next 10 years Claiborne subjected Lemuel to every embarrassment he could afford.  When he could find no other usage for him, Claiborne would rent Lemuel out for menial labor to his former colleagues and clients.  At first his remaining friends took pity upon him and rented his time in order to give him respite from his difficult life.  But the expense of doing so (as well as Claiborne's reluctance to send Lafrenieré to them when he found out they were 'spoiling his slave') brought this convention to an end.   For Jocasta, life was a little easier.  Loretta accepted her friend's servitude as a gift of time with someone whom she enjoyed.  But in time she too began to regard Jocasta as her property.  Stripped of her rights as a free woman of color, she was forbidden to attend the theatre with Loretta, depending only on her mistresses' recountings of the performances when she saw fit. The only kindness they received was at the hand of Mrs. Lorenz, the head of the household. She remembered the couple in their halcyon days and continued to regard them with respect; a respect that strengthened over the next several years as she worked alongside them.
For Violette, she took it the worst of all.  The Ursulines were unkind to her even as they preached the Gospel of forgiveness and loving their neighbors.  If she saw her parents once a month it was a luxury.  While under their care, the Peychauds discovered Violetta's situation and paid the nuns to remove the Peychaud name from her records. She hated the other girls with whom she was made to grow up and learned to loathe the Sisters.  Twice she ran away to find her family and twice she was returned and beaten, punished for weeks on end for her sins. Her childhood robbed from her, she had no other choice but to closely study the ways of the Sisters and the odd Priests to discover how they worked.

In March, 1844 the Lafrenierés were finally free of The Claibornes and with Violetta returned to the little cottage on the batture.  Though he was cruel during the past decade, Claiborne had done what was deemed 'the right thing' and made good on his promises, (due in part, the rumors said to Mrs. Lorenz threatening to set loose a 'flock of little birds with big things to say.')  The cottage and the land were turned over to Lemuel and with their accrued pay the couple were able to fix up the little house and open a grocery in the Faubourg Marigny.  Soon, the family  was once again solvent.  But their years of poverty and solitude had taken their toll on the family Lafrenieré.  They were now distrustful, damaged beyond repair.  Even as they grew closer as a family they learned the value of keeping the outside world at bay.  As their fortunes returned and a new generation of New Orleans society emerged they found the power of haughtiness now on their sides.  A derisive look could elicit a lengthy dissertation of highly useful information and give them the appearance of superiority.  A witheringly clever remark at the right time could take down an opponent faster than a pistol shot and make more of a mess.  The lessons were well-learned.
In another year Jocasta gave birth a final time to a son, named Lorenz Pierre Lafrenieré.
In 1861 the city was on the verge of capture by the Confederate forces, which forced the family to make a concession that had been a long time coming. For years Jocasta had been 'passing' with most people, and she knew it. Her features did not belie her ancestry, nor did the cafe au lait hue of her skin. But even her status as a gens de coleur le libre was not enough to protect her or the children from the Confederates.
By Lemuel's decree Jocasta & the children would get out of New Orleans and up to Cincinnati to stay with a distant cousin of the Peychauds. As they boarded the ship in the dead of night Jocasta kissed her husband and stared deeply into his eyes until the dock grew small in the distance; as if she would never see him again.

The next time the family would be together was at Lemuel's funeral. Christmas Day 1865.

By the time The School of Design rolled out Rex, The Merry Monarch in 1873 the Lafrenieré Family was reestablished as a formidable social force with Jocasta as the aging matriarch and Civil War widow, Lorenz acting as the head of his late father's grocery &  a burgeoning restaurant empire, and his spinster sister Violette's Academy for Young Ladies which taught all the old line family's daughters in the ways of proper New Orleans society and Carnival royalty. What had also been established was Lorenz' disdain for the darker side of his ancestry and his silent commitment to erase the stain.

End Part One