Digging into the history of the French Quarter's indie newspapers, magazines and journals reveals an intriguing past - and a few surprises.
- by Ellis Anderson
Note: This homage doesn't include publications associated with different organizations - and there have been many, like The Historic New Orleans Collection's "Quarterly." We'll be covering them in future stories.
When the staff of French Quarter Journal threw open its digital doors last month, we did so knowing we’re simply the latest – and not the last – small, independent publication to originate in this spirited neighborhood.
We decided a brief overview of these publications would be in order, which required genealogical research into our journalist forebearers. It's been happy homework. I was already familiar with several of them - especially the Vieux Carré Courier. Others were new to me.
The months of prying into the past provided several surprises - and a few eyebrow-raising revelations about people I thought I knew.
The New Orleans Tribune
The first surprise came last February, when I meandered up the 500 block of Conti Street. Research wasn't even on my mind. A building where I’d lived in the early ‘80s was undergoing major restoration. I crossed the street to get a better look.
I found myself in front of a recently-installed historic plaque mounted on the wall of 527 Conti Street. The plaque said the building had housed L’Union (1862 – 1864), the South’s first black newspaper, which morphed into the New Orleans Tribune (1864-1869), the first black daily in the country.
Back at my desk, a search turned up a riveting and full account of the Tribune, written by the great-great-grandson of the paper's founder, Dr. Louis Roudanez. The account, unlike the plaque, mentions the threats the staff faced on a regular basis. It calls the newspaper “a formidable political tool that built a courageous campaign for social justice.”
The Double Dealer
While the legendary literary journal, Double Dealer, wasn’t dedicated to social justice, it certainly ran a few bases. Published between 1921 and 1926, it was part of the Little Magazine movement that had taken off across Europe and the U.S. during the 1890s. Regional publications like the Dealer provided a platform for unconventional ideas and fresh voices – including women and people of color.
The journal's literary fire came from the French Quarter although the offices were actually on Baronne Street. Its primary mission was “printing the very best material we can procure, regardless of popular appeal, moral or immoral stigmata… If the Double Dealer misses an opportunity to print a bit of real literature submitted to it, it will be for no other cause than its editors’ stupidity or their healthy fear of the law.”
Some of William Faulkner’s earliest works were published in the journal, as were pieces by Ernest Hemingway, Robert Penn Warren and the lesbian poet Amy Lowell. The Dealer has been resurrected several times in the century since its demise - most recently by Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society.
Another social ground-breaker in the neighborhood is Ambush. After 37 years in print, "the official gay magazine of the Gulf South" wins the French Quarter-based Publication Longevity Prize. Founders Rip and Marsha Naquin-Delain (also remembered fondly as hosts of the Most-Outrageous-French-Quarter-Parties-Ever), launched the magazine in 1982.
Eventually Ambush’s influence and readership radiated from its Bourbon Street base to light up the entire Gulf South. After the deaths of Rip and Marsha, local attorney TJ Acosta took over in 2017, vowing to continue its “commitment to truth, diversity and integrity,” both online and in print.
In post-Katrina New Orleans, several new publications sprang up in the French Quarter, including NOLA Defender (digital and defunct, although its Facebook page still shows occasional signs of life), the irreverent Quarter Rat Digest (“New World Quarter”) and French Quarterly (a print magazine still thriving).
But when I began researching publications from the ‘60s, personal kismet connections began flying fast and hard, like Mardi Gras beads hurled off a three-story balcony.
In 1968, poets Robert Head and Darlene Fife, appalled by the news coming out of Vietnam, became passionately committed to helping end the war. They settled in the lower Quarter and founded the underground paper NOLA Express.
Fife wrote a book about her experiences, “Portraits from Memory: New Orleans in the Sixties.” I ordered it directly from her, and she mailed a signed copy from Lewisburg, W. Va., where the couple has lived since they shut down the paper for good and left New Orleans in 1974.
"Portraits" details how the two anti-war protesters and their cadre were subject to constant harassment from both federal and local law enforcement agencies. They were followed, photographed, and generally dogged the entire four years they published NOLA Express.
It probably didn’t help that the paper operated out of an office/apartment at 710 Ursulines Street, a block away from the Bodhi Sala headquarters where a free-wheeling religious cult handed out free LSD. The offices of the plucky Vieux Carré Courier were just a few blocks away on Decatur, so the lower end of the Quarter in the late '60s hummed with creative vibrations.
Despite the constant harassment, NOLA Express managed to publish "uncensored news, art and literature featuring Charles Bukowski, Hedwig Gorski, and many others."
In a recent phone interview with Fife, I asked what motivated the couple to work long hours under extreme pressure for a pittance.
She paused, as if startled I hadn’t figured that out from her memoir.
“Why, we wanted to end the Vietnam War, of course,” she said. Her words came across with casual nobility, devoid of naiveté or cynicism.
When Darlene’s book first arrived, I flipped through it casually until my eyes landed on an astonishing cartoon. One of NOLA Express’s legal dust-ups occurred when it published a drawing involving a spider and a penis.
My eyes widened when I read the artist’s name: Glenn Miller. I’d met Glenn decades before on the Mississippi coast but had no idea of his early life as an underground cartoonist.
A few pages later, Fife gives a placid account of the federal indictment when NOLA Express published a cover deemed pornographic. The offending photograph featured three Playboy pin-ups tacked to a wall before a naked young man in a state of excitement.
Fife wrote that their good friend Barbara Scott rushed over to warn them about the arrest.
My friend, Barbara Scott, the spunky white-haired artist in her eighties who lives on the coast?
I put down Fife’s book and called Barbara Scott.
“Oh, yes. Well, of course. Darlene and I are good friends,” Barbara said. “We still talk a few times a year. All that was back when I was running for state legislature and starting the Distaff.”
I vaguely related the word “distaff” with weaving and pulled up the definition. A distaff is a tool used in spinning that keeps the unspun fibers from becoming tangled.
“It was the feminist paper I started around my campaign, in 1972.”
How had I known her thirty years and missed knowing all this?
Barbara explained she’d seen the publication as a tool to educate women. She emailed me a copy of the first cover, where Distaff defines itself as “a new journal dedicated to serving women as a forum for their creativity.”
In Barbara's bid for office, she ran for the state house seat as a Republican - on a platform of legalizing marijuana and equal rights for women, people of color and gays. Barbara lost the election by “a small margin.” She moved on to help transform Eureka Springs, Ark., into the “Gay Capital of the Ozarks,” before eventually returning to New Orleans and the Mississippi coast.
Distaff continued in fits and starts under new publishers and editors until 1982. Tulane’s University Library calls it the “first and only feminist newspaper published in New Orleans.”
The Vieux Carré Courier
My conversation with Barbara occurred shortly before my phone interview with Ginny Hardy. Hardy was co-owner and editor of the Vieux Carré Courier from the late ‘60s to sometime in 1973.
Hardy already had moved to an editing job at the States-Item by the time I migrated to the French Quarter in 1978. My first year in New Orleans would prove the last one for the Courier. The scrappy publication had just turned 17 and its final issues were rolling through the presses, though none of its readers knew that yet.
The Courier began as the project of two passionate preservationists, Bill and Edith Long. The first issue, Nov. 26, 1961, is subtitled “What’s New and To Do in these Fabled Environs.” The front page features a drawing by Rolland Golden, a neighborhood artist who would go on to be one of the city’s most celebrated. Architectural historian Edith Long wrote the accompanying piece about the building.[i]
The Longs were early opponents of the planned Riverfront Expressway, proposed to run between the river and the French Quarter. Ginny Hardy says the couple used the paper to rally people against the expressway.
In the mid-60s, the Longs sold the Courier to their French Quarter neighbor, Bill Bryan, and Ginny Hardy began working as Bryan’s secretary, learning to type on the job. Bryan quickly tired of the newspaper grind and sold the weekly to Hardy and her husband at the time, Jim Derbes.
Derbes became publisher, and Hardy editor. Hardy remembers the Courier’s first location as “a little building on Dumaine Street,” before it moved to Decatur Street near Governor Nicholls.
“None of us were professional journalists,” said Hardy. “It was a very from-the-heart operation. We were open to anyone who walked through the door, to hear what they wanted to say.”
Photographer David Richmond worked for the Courier, developing film in the office bathroom. Tulane student Bill Rushton started with an architectural column called Cityscape, later moving into the editor’s chair.
Luba Glade, who owned Glade Gallery on Toulouse, wrote as the art critic, while Betty Cole, who became a criminal defense attorney, covered the music scene.
The Courier then was printed at the Louisiana Weekly office, a Black newspaper co-founded by Constant Dejoie in 1925. His son, Henry Dejoie, Sr., had taken over as publisher by the 1960s.
Hardy recalls, “I’d arrive at their office with the pasted-up pages and we’d take them out and carefully check them. He’d put them on the press. Then he’d bring out a bottle of Chivis Regal and pour a drink. We'd visit until the paper was printed.
"He spun stories and was a true charmer."
Hardy would complete the weekly ritual by packing all the papers in her tiny Toyota station wagon and dropping them at boxes around the city.
The Courier staff occasionally visited with Fife and Head at the NOLA Express office a few blocks away. “I used to go to their office and Bob would have on one of those green visors, bending over a long table with the lights shining from above,” Hardy said.
“Darlene and Bob. We were ridiculous wimps next to them.”
Yet The Courier under Hardy and Derbes became a vital political and arts paper, the only one courageous enough initially to cover 1973’s horrific Upstairs Lounge fire, when 32 gay bar patrons died after an arsonist’s attack.
In the mid-70s, Phillip Carter bought the small paper, seeing it through the final years. Hardy took a job first with New Orleans Magazine and then as an editor for the States-Item/Times-Picayune, where she worked until her retirement.
“I know it [working with The Vieux Carré Courier] sounds adorable, but it was so exhausting,” said Hardy. “I don’t think we ever went to bed. We’d be up all night typing up columns, pasting them up on cardboard.”
“[The Courier] had its time and it was so full of life and vigor,” Hardy said. “I just ran my race there. If you’re not an inheritor, there’s so little money, you can’t just keep staying up all night and living at the office. But it was a lovely, lovely environment. I learned so much there and am very lucky I happened into it.
“I cared about having experiences,” she said, laughing. “And I did!”
A Contemporary Challenge
Like Ginny, I care about having experiences. That first year I lived in the Quarter - 1978 - didn’t let me down. I joined the free-spirited hippie holdovers and tried to hammer out a living as a singer-songwriter.
But my earliest ambition was to become a professional writer and photojournalist. The Courier’s mere existence seemed to promise opportunities. Aside from Greenwich Village and the Village Voice, I’d never even heard of a neighborhood with its own publication. So I devoured every issue of the Courier and was saddened by its demise later in 1978. Forty years would pass before I became part of an independent French Quarter publication.
French Quarter Journal began as a café au lait-driven idea one Sunday morning in July, 2018.
In the courtyard of Croissant D’Or, 617 Ursulines. The same building where Darlene Fife and Robert Head once lived - although I didn't know that at the time.
Call it Quarter Coincidence.
I started by asking neighborhood residents and business owners what they thought about a publication focusing on the Quarter as a "community - not a commodity." The response was a universal thumbs up. French Quarter Journal attracted a talented team faster than a Jackson Square crowd gathers around a fire eater. And so here we are. Digitally publishing three features each week.
Our mission isn’t as lofty as some of our esteemed predecessors. We simply want to tell stories that might otherwise go untold. The unlikely, spicy ones that wouldn’t make it into Garden and Gun or Southern Living. Savory stories too good to be lost forever.
When I first mentioned French Quarter Journal to Ginny Hardy, she said, “The French Quarter’s been unexcavated for a long time.”
That sounds like a charge to us. And a responsibility.
We’ll try to do it justice.
[i] Long’s columns and Golden’s illustrations would later be compiled in a book, “Along the Banquette,” published in 2004 by VCPORA.