The bar at Hotel Monteleone New Orleans spins every 15 minutes like a giant rewinding of a grandfather’s old pocket-watch. The carnival lights and creepy carved faces of the famous Carousel Bar creak and turn, with glittering gold reflecting from mounted mirrors onto Swarovski crystals, beads and pearls framing portraits of jazz icons and Ziegfeld Follies of the 1020 and ‘30s. Laughter tinkles like icy Sazerac or Fleur de Lis cocktails in crystal glasses.
As the carousel bar turns, I half-expect to see a lady in a purple hat with a syringe and a vial concealed beneath its folds. The authoress Miss Eudora Welty created that character decades ago, placing her upon one of the 25 seats at this carousel bar every evening for 30 years – never growing old and always with a handsome young adoring man on her arm. I’m guessing that a lot of travelers buy purple hats in the French Quarter after arriving at Hotel Monteleone.
When I was myself a young woman studying at a suffocatingly pious private college in the South, I peered into a garden beneath my window every afternoon. Like a trapped Rapunzel on the top floor of a towering dormitory for women, I let my eyes follow an old lady who appeared every day at about the same time. Sometimes methodically pacing and other times rambling like a lost child, this woman became the object of my pity as well as my scorn.
I pondered sadly on a wasted life, the aging shell of a woman never leaving the town in which she was born, never seeing the world, perhaps not even wondering what lay beyond the dirt that pulled at her feet like loathsome magnets across her destiny in the sweltering Mississippi heat. I vowed that my life would be different. I would accomplish something when I finally escaped from the confines of tutelage and tradition.
After I checked into the Hotel Monteleone New Orleans, many years later, the first room I asked to see was an elaborate suite bearing that woman’s name. I smiled, remembering the day I discovered that the little old lady in the garden beneath my dormitory window way back then was none other than the Pulitzer Prize-winning Miss Eudora Welty.
The famous authoress had, by the time she settled back into her Mississippi childhood home a few blocks from the college I attended, traipsed across continents on a Guggenheim Fellowship, been on staff at The New York Times, won the O. Henry Award on numerous occasions, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and lectured at Oxford, Cambridge and Harvard Universities. She won the Pulitzer for her novel The Optimists Daughter just 4 years before I sat judging who I thought she was beneath my window.
New Orleans has surprises like that, stories untold for generations, tucked away in cobblestoned alleyways, popping out in the face of a lady selling multicolored hats from a doorway or a man spraying graffiti on a stone wall, “Katrina … We will not forget.” Shotgun houses with fading red X’s and peeling paint still stand like barren sentinels in the Lower Ninth Ward, watermarks staining gaping holes left when the levee breached its silent pact with the city. Etouffees and crawfish jambalayas simmer in pots at Hotel Monteleone’s Criollo Restaurant the same as they do in the Lower Ninth.
That intriguing dichotomy is likely why so many of America’s storytellers have written about or lived in this grand old sinking city. As I roam the hallways of the Hotel Monteleone, I imagine the ghosts of so many of them, now with hotel suites paying sheltered homage to their memory: Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote – and, of course, my little old lady, Miss Eudora Welty. Truman Capote even claimed to have been born in the hotel, though the truth seems to be that the hotel arranged for his mother to be transported to the nearby Touro Hospital for his actual entry into the Big Easy. The list doesn’t stop there; Anne Rice, Stephen Ambrose, and John Grisham also joined the ranks of literary guests over the years.
‘The Rose Tattoo’ by Tennessee Williams … ‘The Purple Hat’ by Eudora Welty … ‘Night Before Battle’ by Ernest Hemingway. The Hotel Monteleone New Orleans is featured in each of these classic short stories or plays by America’s darling pen-pushers. It somehow disturbed me to discover that Criss Angel Mindfreak had been filmed in Miss Eudora’s fancy suite in 2008. It just didn’t seem right, and it still doesn’t. But who am I to judge; I certainly got it wrong the first time when watching Miss Eudora stroll methodically beneath my dormitory window day-in and day-out.
Location is the crossroads of circumstance, the proving ground of “What happened? Who’s here? Who’s coming?” – and that is the heart’s field. – Eudora Welty, 1994
Hotel Monteleone is known for being one of the premier haunted hotels in New Orleans. In March 2003, the International Society of Paranormal Research spent several days at the Hotel Monteleone New Orleans. While at the hotel, the team made contact with more than a dozen earthbound entities. Among them were several former employees, a man named William “Red” Wildemere, who died inside the hotel of natural causes. Another spirit is that of a friendly toddler named Maurice Begere. The boy died in the hotel, and his distraught parents returned frequently in hopes he might visit them. Maurice eventually appeared to his mother and comforted her, and to this day, guests report seeing him near the room where he died.
I still hope, on every return journey to Hotel Monteleone, to stumble upon the spunk and spirit of Miss Eudora or the unfettered flamboyance of the lady with the purple hat sitting at the Carousel Bar. If there’s the slightest chance of something like that actually ever happening, it would be in the timeless ethereal elegance of 214 Royal Street.