When Tom Anderson’s saloon opened in 1901, at the entrance to the recently designated sin district known as Storyville on the edge of New Orleans’s French Quarter, people from all over town came to marvel at its opulence. Its cherrywood bar stretched half a block and was lit by a hundred electric lights. With Anderson’s encouragement, high-class brothels were soon flourishing down Basin Street. Josie Arlington, his business partner, had a four-story Victorian mansion with a domed cupola, mirrored parlor and Oriental statues. The exotic, mixed-race Lulu White built a brick palace that specialized in interracial sex and featured the jazz pioneer Jelly Roll Morton at the piano. Another octoroon (the appellation given to people considered to be one-eighth black), Willie V. Piazza, passed herself off as a countess and sported both a monocle and a diamond choker. Anderson, whose civic spirit earned him the title “the Mayor of Storyville,” published a Blue Book that contained photos and descriptions of the area’s better prostitutes, annotated with symbols (“w” for white, “c” for colored, “J” for Jewish and “oct.” for octoroon). It was all a vivid expression of the city’s tolerance and diversity.
Gary Krist, a lapsed novelist who now writes nonfiction narratives, chronicles the crazy excitement of the Storyville era in this well-reported and colorful tale of jazz, sex, crime and corruption. I can attest, as a native of New Orleans, that in “Empire of Sin” he has captured the flavors and class nuances of the town. And his interwoven story lines, intentionally or not, evoke a piece of jazz, albeit one that’s Buddy Bolden raggedy in places. Some strands, like the concurrent rise of Storyville and jazz, weave together nicely, and others trail off like a wayward solo, among them the descriptions of some unsolved murders that may or may not have involved a crazy axman who may or may not have been connected to the Mafia.