Recently, I traveled to New Orleans and stayed at my Grandmother’s home, a stately symbol of stability, much like its elegant owner, Adele Uddo (The Original). At 88, Grandmother is one of the last remaining Southern Belles, delightfully polite, wonderfully charming and always well put together.
Until this past visit, I’d never seen Grandmother in a sweat suit (she stopped sporting high heels only a few years ago). Whatever her attire, Grandmother is always adorned with dazzling accents (notice necklace of Austrian crystals to complement pink terry cloth).
When describing her fondness for certain gems, she once said, “There’s nothin’ more gar’geous than a brunette in pearls and a white fox. The heck with diamonds!”
Grandmother’s home also glimmers in gold, and both have been featured in the Times Picayune….
For me, Grandmother’s house is a sweet familiar place, one of few unchanging landscapes in my life – a place stopped in time, where symphonic sounds of Some Enchanted Evening fill the air that still smells the same half a century later. Items made popular decades ago still stock the pantries: Sara Lee pound cake, Planters Peanuts, Jello, Gatorade…and of course, Progresso bread crumbs.
Even her speech is dotted with phrases of yesteryear. When describing the electronic features of modern automobiles, Grandmother asked me, “Who needs all those bings and bells?”
Grandmother has a wonderful way of making the mundane and even questionable, appear glorious. A freshly-opened can of Starkist tuna is described as “Superb.” When cruising past an oil refinery off the Mississippi, she declares dramatically with pride, “AMERICA!” After encountering my other grandma, Mawmie, Adele Uddo, the Original describes her in a tone most would reserve for royalty: “I saw ya’ Mawmie at the Chef’s Charity dinna’. Such a FINE woman, with ha’ silva’ hair and her walka’…!”
Grandmother lives in the Garden District, a chic section of uptown New Orleans, though not immune from the city’s spirited nature. Over the decades, her car continues to get hit by one “drunken fool” after another.
Speaking of “accidents”, Grandmother informed me during this past visit, that years ago my grandfather, Honey, attempting to avoid the strict guidelines of the French Quarter planning commission, “employed” a construction worker to drive a heavy truck into the historic brick wall of his apartment building in order to secure off-street parking for himself. She said, “Ya’ grandfatha’ asked the gentleman if he might have his ‘foot slip’ off the brake pedal….”
Grandmother is the historian of the family and her stories have inspired many of the tales I’ve told. Though we’ve walked her hood many times before, I told her I’d be taking notes this time, and requested that she share all the history, gossip and scandal the South has to offer.
Our tour begins before we exit the gate. Grandmother’s home was built by Myrlin McCullar, an architect who fashioned this particular design after the Palladium style mansions of Venice, Italy.
Myrlin built Grandmother’s house for his wife, a “spoiled brat alcoholic” heiress to a beer fortune in North Carolina. Apparently Mrs. McCullar had more interest in infidelities than enjoying her new home, as Myrlin soon caught his “mean and sour” bride on the side street with another man.
Grandmother said sadly, “I feel fa’ the man. His haw’t and soul were in this house. But ha’ powa’ and lawyas’ forced him out. Some people have a rotten disposition with no one to say, ‘Now change ya’ ways or ya’ not gonna’ have a happy life.’”
Outside the gate, our first stop was a house Grandmother and Honey once considered purchasing. She recalls a butler greeting them with champagne in the entrance of a lovely parlor. Upon further investigation, they realized the back quarters were filthy with “cheaply made” furnishings. Grandmother refers to such a home as having a “Queen Anne front and a Mary Jane back.”
As Grandmother and Honey left the open house, Honey said, “Looks like you’d find a dead person in there.” Well, sure enough, three weeks later it was revealed in the paper that the glamorous facade was indeed hiding an ugly truth. Found buried inside one of the walls was the skull of a little girl with red hair. According to Grandmother, such was the sorry fate of certain “retarded” children in those days.
Turns out this haunted house was also the childhood home of Samuel Israel III, the former hedge fund manager who made national headlines in 2008 after attempting to fake his own suicide off the Brooklyn Bridge, following a made-for-Madoff scandal. Grandmother’s head shook as she sighed, “He was a TERRIBLE crook. Rememba’, greed will catch up with ya’.”
Until recently, the next home on our tour belonged to novelist, Anne Rice. What I found most shocking here was that Honey’s brother, Uncle Joe, could’ve brought the joint in the 1960s for $75,000!
As we rounded the corner, we came upon the house where the classic, Toys in the Attic was filmed….
Then the final resting place of President Jefferson Davis in 1889….
The famous wrought iron cornstalk fence, hand crafted by slaves, at the home of Kentucky Colonel Short’s villa…
“The dummies…excuse me, dumbbells wa’ a common street fixcha’ used to tie down carriages,” Grandmother explains….
When we arrived at one of the oldest cemeteries in the United States, built following the yellow fever epidemic of 1817, Grandmother said, “People were droppin’ like flies from all the mosquitoes in the swamps.”
Crossing the street, we came upon Commander’s Palace, a restaurant famous for serving award winning Creole food since 1880.
Apparently in its past, the Palace once provided more than Foie Gras du Monde and Bananas Foster….
“Befora’ my day, it was a brothel…then a greasy spoon. On Fridees’, we’d send Daddy down to get an oyster po-boy. Then the Brennan family took it ova’. I went to high school with Ella Brennan, a good Christian woman and a haaard worka’!”
As Grandmother described the incarnations of the Palace, a small group of patrons walked out of the restaurant. After a few seconds, Grandmother broke her pause and asked the strangers where they were from (Florida); if they were enjoying themselves in New Orleans (“Yes indeed!” they replied in unison); and how much did they drink during lunch (3 martinis for the gentleman on the right, which, according to Grandmother is “The Limit” – if you’re driving).
Commander’s was the spot I first exceeded “the limit”. I was 11 years old, with the whole family while the waiters were pouring wine for all. As Grandmother recalled that day I cried sentimentally while confessing my love for everyone, she added, “You made a mess of the crackas’.”
Our last stop on the tour du Jardin, was the Opera Guild home, an 18th century European Revival mansion, willed to a group of ladies to help subsidize the New Orleans Opera Association.
At one time, Grandmother was the Vice President of the Guild, but she stepped down from the position because it was “too much responsibility.” When I pressed her for any juicy details from her years of experience, she divulged a few but requested that I share with the public once she’s “dead”.
Grandmother also asked I not reveal the names of certain neighbors. One couple she spoke of were “rich as cream”:
“She inherited millions from ha’ family in the shipping business. One day she and ha’ husband made an open declaration: “We gonna’ get FAT.’ In other words, they wanted to enjoy life. They were young and weren’t about to be disciplined, so they got as big as they could be. The drinking’ll do it to ya’. Then, in their old age, they went to a spa and slimmed down. She lost ha’ hair and he’s probably wobblin’ around on a cane somewaya’…such a shame.”
Grandmother may well know Garden District gossip, yet her recollection of the names of the rich and famous is fuzzy at best (apparently here, the Apple doesn’t fall far from the tree).
“Did I tell you about Leonardo DaVinci shootin’ a movie here in New Walyins’ at the Opera Guild home?” she asked.
“Do you mean Leonardo DiCaprio?” I asked.
“Yes! And that directa’, Tarantilla,” she said.
“I think you’re talking about Quentin Tarantino.”
Over the course of a few hours, we walked over a mile. Not once did Grandmother complain about her feet or the heat.
She’s repeated a simple but profound truth: “Life is a learning experience.” No matter how many years Grandmother lives, her eyes remain full of wonder and her mind open. Though she represents old-world tradition, I’ve watched her ride many tides of change with flexibility and grace.
This special Scarlet has lived her entire life in the heart of a hurricane, but no matter how rough the storm, she continues to put on a smile (and a little sparkle).