Letty Owings, age 89 and the author of this post, recalls history, customs and experiences in New Orleans in 1958-1959.
New Orleans Mardi Gras
No chapter on New Orleans would be complete without something about the Mardi Gras experience. We knew about the big parade, but beyond that we knew nothing of the festival. The secrets and functions of the city that revolves around a carnival remain obscure to outsiders. Mardi Gras is not just a celebration, it is a way of life meshed with social structure and status. Anyone who is anyone belongs to a krewe, an organization built on social status, occupation and ancestry. All year long each krewe prepares for the season which ushers in the balls and the parades.
The first balls begin on New Year’s Eve. Generally the functions closest to the New Year have the least prestige. That statement has many variations, so I should not be dogmatic with my pronouncement about the worst first. The parades, mostly at night, happen more and more frequently as the weeks approach the “real” Mardi Gras on Shrove Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. As an aside — “Shrove” days are set aside for celebration and excesses not allowed during Lent.
The date of Mardi Gras is strictly governed by the length of Lent in any given year. As Lent approaches, the parades pick up both in number as well as in prestige. People line the streets to view the floats and catch the trinkets thrown to the crowd by masked revelers. Why a cheap pair of beads thrown from a float takes on the mark of a status symbol is hard to say. It all has to do with the spirit of the occasion when good sense gets exchanged for excitement. I have still in a box somewhere the beads and trinkets we caught from the parades.
After a season of fever-pitch excitement and parades and balls, the Tuesday before Lent comes at last. This is the Mardi Gras tourists know about. Two Krewes are left to do their thing, Rex and Comus. Both Krewes parade in their finery, and their awesome collection of real jewels and royal robes. All participants remain masked until the Rex and Comus ball when the King (Rex, of course) and Queen are revealed to the public. Always the distinctive honor goes to well-known socialites of New Orleans. Few people ever get invited to the Rex and Comus affair. In fact, few outsiders or non-members of krewes ever get to go to one of the balls. Essentially they are closed affairs.
After the revelry and costuming and marching bands and drunkenness in the streets, at the stroke of midnight when Tuesday turns to Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent, the doors close and the ball stops. The celebration is over until next New Years Eve. But even at that time, many are beginning to plan the next year’s floats and balls.
Most persons outside New Orleans who go to the city to experience Mardi Gras, see only the last day parades and the wild confusion. That is not all there is, but in order to see the real thing, residence in the city for a time is a necessity. Even then, the rituals and preparations are mostly kept from outsiders. We were fortunate in that our quarreling neighbors who belonged to a krewe wanted our oldest daughter to experience the real thing. I made her a formal and off she went. At the balls, all men are masked. The women have a card signed by different gentlemen who care to dance with them.
Besides Mardi Gras, New Orleans has floods. Since most of the area is below sea level and since it is often in the path of winds and water from hurricanes, the saucer-like shape of the area guarantees water build up. One day in early 1959, the city had twelve inches of rain in twelve hours. Ray was on duty at the hospital and had to stay there. Our yard began to fill and water crept up to the single step that separated us from the rising deluge. Neighbors took it in stride. Some had to leave, but most stayed since they had seen it all before. Some innovative person ran a motor boat down the street and pitched a bathroom plunger to those who needed the instrument. I had no use for a plunger since the sewer was filling up the kitchen sink. In the aftermath of the water, we all lined up for typhoid shots. Small wonder we did not all get the plague or something equally wicked.
Lest I make the weather and the city in general sound too horrid, I must say that when spring came in February, everything burst into bloom. Flowers and trees grew profusely in the semi-tropical, damp climate. Spanish moss floated from the limbs of the magnificent oaks. New Orleans could be the most beautiful city anyone could hope for. That was one face. It could also be smelly and hot and filthy. That was the other way to look at it. We would always cherish the experience of learning about one more culture in this vast, multicultural land of ours.