Tag Archives: travel

Sugar Magnolia

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Sugar Magnolia

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Front door, Magnolia House

Whoever you are, I have always depended on the kindness of strangers—Blanche DuBois in “A Streetcar Named Desire”

We traveled to the east coast for a wedding in Philadelphia, the World Traveler having taken himself forevermore off the marriage market and finally settling down with a nice Jewish guy, who will, no doubt, keep him on his toes, but I digress.

Since the boys had their fall break, we decided to tag on a few extra days and head to New York City. FOTI had seen enough of hotels the past months, so we decided on an Air B & B, but what a choice! Every enterprising homeowner in the tri-State area seems to be doing Air B& B. “Here’s a good one,”  he told me one night after dinner, ” its called “Magnolia House”, Staten Island, easy walk to the ferry, two rooms so we don’t have to share with the boys, living room, breakfast and, oh by the way, Tennessee Williams stayed there.” Hold the phone. Tennessee Williams, right, not Hank  Williams (although that’d be cool too) or Ted Weems? ” Tennessee Williams for sure,”  he said, “you know, Stella!Stella!” “Book it,” I told him, without a second’s hesitation.

The host, Danforth, responds to our booking request with the elegant, almost florid correspondence of a 19th century gentleman. I, for one, was intrigued.I didn’t have time to google Danforth to make sure he wasn’t of the Procrustean persuasion, so I had no idea what to expect he’d look like and was hoping for the best.

We arrived after dark on Sunday night.

Magnolia House,  is nestled in the St. George neighborhood of Staten Island, tucked just beneath the wing feathers of St. Peter’s Church. Even under cover of darkness, the Victorian house is as quaint and welcoming as her name would imply.

Danforth was a surprise. I think I was expecting a cross between the immortal Jeeves and a forbiddingly gothic Mr. Danvers as it were, but the friendly figure who answered the door looked more like your hip college RA than a B & B landlord.

While FOTI and Danforth parked the car, the boys and I moved into the parlor. Here quaint gave way to opulent, quirky eclecticism. As they say in Dutch “Ik kwam ogen tekort” or  my eyes could hardly take it all in! From the golden proa , to the masks, the regency sofas the curios, the art work. “Is this a haunted house?” one of my sons asked. “No,” I replied, “we’ve tumbled into a game of Clue and this is obviously the Oriental Room.”

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The Parlor

By this time Danforth and FOTI had returned, wine was poured and we sat down for a chat about our plans, what time for breakfast, books, art, music etc. etc. like you do. Hey, when I meet somebody, first thing I need to know to get their measure is: Atlantic or Motown? Eventually, Danforth shimmered off to his second-floor abode and we shimmered off to bed.

Breakfast was another surprise. Darwin, that is, Darwin Porter, yes, that Darwin Porter was manning the stove and whipping up some delicious scrambled eggs. It is not every day that you get breakfast cooked by a mondo travel writer, journalist and raconteur extraordinaire. Between Danforth’s running commentary and Darwin’s wonderful tales of New York, Key West and Hollywood “back in the day”, time flew by and it was well past noon before we took Manhattan.

It was a great stay in New York. We took in museums, strolled in Central Park and Times Square, surfed on the subway…but getting to know Darwin and Danforth made everything even nicer and more memorable; hanging out on the veranda, talking about  all kinds of important things including politics, Harper Lee, The Pink Triangle, extraordinary people we’ve met…

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Joe College and FOTI hanging out on the veranda with Danforth

If you are looking for a unique and unforgettable place to stay on a trip to New York City and if you aren’t expecting a premium hotel experience, this is the B & B for you. As Danforth says, “The Hilton, it ain’t”. He’s a believer in what he calls “radical hospitality”. All I know is that we arrived as guests at Magnolia House, we left as friends.

The Voudou Queen: New Orleans Part II

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Orléans has St. Jeanne d’Arc as its patron saint. Ancient Egypt had Cleopatra. New Orleans has Marie Laveau as patron “saint” and Voudou queen and to make things even more interesting, there were two Marie Laveaus, mother and daughter.

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I’m writing about Marie Laveau Sr., (also known as “the widow Paris). A figure shrouded in mystery, wrapped in a febrile Mississippi fog, bound in cobwebs of legend and folklore is Marie Laveau. She lived in the New Orleans of the early 19th century, between the American Revolution and the War Between the States. Official records regarding her life are scarce, church records have “gone missing”, there are no known accurate portraits of this woman who has the power to fascinate the imagination even from the grave. If you were to ask 10 contemporaries of Marie Laveau to describe how she looked (as writers in FDR’s WPA effort to collect oral histories of the United States did), you will get 10 different descriptions.

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Fact: Marie Laveau was a Free Person of Color, not white, but not a slave. Records of FPC’s often “go missing” especially if the family now considers themselves one race or the other.

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In anticipation of our trip to New Orleans I read a recent biography of Marie Laveau by Mary Ward.* Ward’s research, such as it was, because there is little factual information to be found about Marie Laveau raised a number of interesting points.

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One of the things I found terribly intriguing was that in 19th century Louisiana, people “passed” on both sides of the color divide. Although Louisiana was a member of the CSA with the same laws, strictures and taboos regarding race as other CSA states, things were different in Louisana. Interracial relationships were tolerated on the basis of the French Colonial term “placage”.

Plaçage was a recognized extralegal system in which white Frenchand Spanishand later Creolemen entered into the equivalent of common-law marriageswith women of African, Indian and white (European) Creole descent. (From Wiki-pedia)

Fact: Marie Laveau’s second (common law) husband, Christophe Galpion, long believed to have been a member of the “Sons of Freedom”, the “Battalion of Free Men of Color” (War of 1812) actually served in the of the Dragoons, which was an all white regiment. Christophe, in order to bypass the extralegal convention of placage to legitimize their children and ensure their inheritance passed as a “free person of color”. Ironically, he used the extralegal convention of placage to do this. His father had a second “placage”wife. Christophe had half-brothers and cousins who helped him via various social and benevolent societies to seamlessly pass as what we would now call “biracial”.

I found the voodoo yaya a bit tedious.

Fact: Marie Laveau was a skilled (such as it were) nurse during the many outbreaks of yellow fever in New Orleans. She had a wealth of knowledge regarding folklore and folk medicines passed down from generation to generation by the women of her family. Her remedies often worked better than those prescibed by conventional doctors. This gave her an allure of mystical power.

Fact: Marie Laveau was a devout Catholic. Her work with the famous Pére Antioine of Cathedral St. Louis is well documented. She visited the condemned in jail on a regular basis to pray and comfort. She was involved in a number of what we would today call “social” issues.

Why would a devout Catholic turn Voudou practitioner?

New Orleans was a cultural melting pot in seriously turblent times. It wouldn’t be beyond the scope of possibiltly to believe that Marie Laveau, strong in her own Roman Catholicism tried to bring it home to others who were not brought up in the faith on their terms by drawing parallels to Native American and Yoruba spiritualism. This resulted in the litany of Voudou saints that we know today. I don’t believe that she believed that she was practicing any kind of dark arts.

She liked a party. She could dance, apparently, and would dance in Congo Square, a place at the corner of St. Peter and Rampart in the French Quarter of New Orleans on a Sunday when people of color would gather there on their free days. Un, deux, trois, Marie Laveau would knock three times on the wooden dancefloor to “call up the spirits” to kick off the party. Now, I’ve seen James Brown perform live and count it off to start a song. Is this any different? I’m not sure. People liked to see Marie dance and liked to dance along too. St. John’s Day, 24 June was apparently the scene of some notoriously wild dance parties attended by the “Voudous” as Marie’s “fans” called themselves.

It is said that people would seek out Marie Laveau for advice and help in all manner of personal conflicts. The woman had been widowed young, was a mother several times over and had at one point wealth and social standing in the community. She had money, power and life experience. Who would you go to for advice in a tough situation? Oprah wasn’t born yet. In the ‘Burg such a person would be addressed as “Don”.

I like the idea of a mysterious Voudou queen with arcane powers. I don’t want to see what’s behind the curtain, but it is a good bottle of wine’s worth of conversation to speculate on the real woman.

We went to visit her crypt in St. Louis Cimitiere No. 1 before we left the Cresent City on Sunday morning. I couldn’t bring myself to add to the grafitti on the crypt with my own 3 crosses (un, deux, trois). Instead I knocked 3 times on her name, just to say “hi”and left 3 Euro coins at the base of the crypt so she’d know it was me who came knocking.

Marie Crypt

* http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/147217.Voodoo_Queen

**All images except photo of crypt  (used by permission of VWG Rutgers) are public domain.