Spectacular Wickedness

  • by Emily Epstein Landau
  • Narrated by Lee Ann Howlett
  • 9 hrs and 42 mins
  • Unabridged Audiobook

Publisher's Summary

From 1897 to 1917 the red-light district of Storyville commercialized and even thrived on New Orleans' longstanding reputation for sin and sexual excess. This notorious neighborhood, located just outside of the French Quarter, hosted a diverse cast of characters who reflected the cultural milieu and complex social structure of turn-of-the-century New Orleans, a city infamous for both prostitution and interracial intimacy. In particular, Lulu White, a mixed-race prostitute and madam, created an image of herself and marketed it profitably to sell sex with light-skinned women to white men of means.
In Spectacular Wickedness, Emily Epstein Landau examines the social history of this famed district within the cultural context of developing racial, sexual, and gender ideologies and practices. In 1890, the Louisiana legislature passed the Separate Car Act, which, when challenged by New Orleans' Creoles of color, led to the landmark Plessy v. Ferguson decision in 1896, constitutionally sanctioning the enactment of separate but equal laws. Landau reveals how Storyville's salacious and eccentric subculture played a significant role in the way New Orleans constructed itself during the New South era.

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What the Critics Say

"Historians of race, gender, and sexuality will learn much from Landau's explanation of how vice precincts such as Storyville reinforced the patriarchal and racial logic of segregation, and challenged it in the most subversive (and intimate) of ways." (Journal of American History)
"Well-researched and informative, Spectacular Wickedness is a welcome addition to the ever-growing canon of New Orleans cultural history books." (New Orleans Advocate)
"Landau's scrupulously researched profile of Lulu White, in particular, is a model for historians interested in giving voice to women of color so often absent from the archival record." (Journal of Southern Religion)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful

Spectacular Wickedness is fascinating

The only book I have ever encountered before about Storyville was The Girl From Storyville by Frank Yerby, published in 1972. As I listened to Spectacular Wickedness, I was struck by how accurate of a picture Yerby had portrayed in his novel. Emily Epstein Landau introduces us to the real Storyville.

New Orleans had a reputation for being a city of sin from it’s earliest days. Landau traces how this reputation was earned in each incarnation of the city. From the French, Creoles, and Americans, as New Orleans changed hands, it did not change its reputation. In 1897, the city passed a zoning code establishing a red light district in the hope of containing the vice to one area. The hope was if the vice was contained, visitors would see more of the honest hard working community and attract more business. This red light district became Storyville and for almost twenty years it was the wildest red light district in the country.

Landau explores the history of Storyville through primary source documentation from individuals from all points of the social and economic spectrum. The most important business in Storyville was sex. There were closet sized bordellos and very fancy upscale bordellos. The women who worked there were members of all races as were their customers. The major difference was while the sex workers may be of several different races within a bordello, the clientele would only be white or non-white. The rules concerning races were less stringent in Storyville then outside the red light district. That all changed with the advent of Jim Crow laws due to the Supreme Court ruling on Plessy vs. Ferguson which started in the New Orleans courts. Another area Landau explores is how Storyville was an incubator for Jazz. Many great jazz musicians began their careers playing at the bars, clubs or bordellos in Storyville. Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton are just two of these greats who worked there.

Lee Ann Howlett does a good job narrating Spectacular Wickedness. The subject matter is complex and dense at times. Her voice is pleasant and never goes to monotone. Her narration reminded me of a good college professor. It is similar to listening to a very good lecture.

Spectacular Wickedness is fascinating. Ms. Howlett does a fine job with it. The only reason I rated it as 4 stars for attention holding is because of the complexity of the information. I recommend this book to anyone who wants to look at a familiar topic through a new perspective.

Audiobook was provided for review the narrator.

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Buried in Minutiae

This book wasn’t for you, but who do you think might enjoy it more?

A researcher.


Has Spectacular Wickedness turned you off from other books in this genre?

No. I'm very interested in New Orleans/Louisiana history, culture, etc. I would even consider another book by this author. This book just wasn't for me.


You didn’t love this book... but did it have any redeeming qualities?

It is thorough and very well researched.


Any additional comments?

The middle 70% of this book is essentially a data dump of the racial make up of New Orleans starting way before Storyville existed. The author makes the same points over and over. Much of the book is an indictment of white males, which is fine I suppose. But she just keeps hammering that point over and over. I wish there had been something in the title or description that explained how so much of the book was backstory compared to actually being about Storyville.

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- Justin York

Book Details

  • Release Date: 09-08-2015
  • Publisher: University Press Audiobooks