Barbara Scott blazed her own trail as a politician, restaurateur, hôtelier, artist, preservationist, gerontologist, feminist - and social justice warrior.
- by Frank Perez
It's election season, and the popular restaurant-owner-turned-political-candidate is fielding questions from reporters while drawing beer for thirsty patrons in her St. Peter St. establishment.
The Republican is running to represent the French Quarter and the surrounding area in the state legislature.
She is also a feminist lesbian with a platform of legalizing marijuana and ending legal discrimination against Blacks, gays and women.
The candidate is Barbara Scott. The year is 1971.
Barbara Scott was ahead of her time and she left an indelible mark on the French Quarter.
I had the pleasure of meeting Scott recently. Although I had known about her for years, I was not prepared for the charm and warmth she exudes. I had researched her life and work, especially in the context of second-wave feminism. I’m not sure what I expected. An angry old crone ready to burn her bra and eager to size me up with distrust?
Barbara Scott was not that. She drove in from her Mississippi coast home and parked in front of my office on St. Ann Street. Diminuitive in stature but with enormous charisma, her smile immediately disarmed me.
A Mississippi Delta accent, still thick as cane syrup, humanized the legend. She took my arm, and we began walking slowly to a coffee shop. As we strolled, she looked around with childlike wonder, remarking with satisfaction: “The Quarter looks good.”
She was born in Memphis in 1936 and raised in rural Mississippi. Scott’s love affair with New Orleans dates back to her childhood when she visited with her family. One of her earliest memories is meeting Jack Benny in the Roosevelt Hotel elevator in 1945. Compared to humdrum life in the Mississippi Delta, New Orleans was all glamour, she says.
She discovered the French Quarter underbelly a few years later when she returned for her high school senior trip. Wandering into the Dungeon, she was astonished to see men engaging in oral sex in a dark corner.
At Pat O'Brien’s she witnessed a lesbian couple enjoying an evening together when an alpha male approached uninvited and started hitting on them. The more butch of the two “read him” and then threw him against the wall.
This was not rural Mississippi.
After high school, Scott studied art at Millsaps College before transferring to the Newcomb College Institute at Tulane. Along the way she spent a year in Japan studying with renown artist Hirisho Kado. While studying in Japan, she was arrested for espionage.
While attending Newcomb, Scott married, and the couple moved to California where they had three sons. In San Francisco, Scott was an account executive with a prominent public relations firm before returning to New Orleans.
In 1967, Scott bought an old Creole Townhouse at 719 St. Peter and had it rezoned so she could open a restaurant. The Fatted Calf quickly became a favorite among Quarterites and was named one of America’s most unique café’s by Venture Magazine.
Scott’s attention and repairs to the building garnered for her, her second Vieux Carre Restoration Award. She had been recognized by the View Carre Commission with the same award two years earlier for her restoration of 509—511 Burgundy.
In addition to delicious food and historical preservation, Barbara Scott was also serving up feminist literature. As part of her campaign for the state house in 1971, Scott issued an eight page manifesto outlining her feminist platform called Distaff.
The following year Scott and a coalition of feminist activists founded The Distaff, the longest running feminist newspaper in America. Edited by Mary Gehman, the paper featured writers such as Pat Denton, Clay Lattimer, Phyllis Parun, Suzanne Pharr, Darlene Olivo, Donna Swanson and several others who constituted a key flank in the Second Wave Feminist movement.
Scott remained in Arkansas for six years before returning briefly to the Mississippi Gulf Coast and living in Paris for six months. She then returned to New Orleans to pursue an education.
In 1984, she earned a B.A. from Tulane with majors in Studio Art, English Literature, and Latin American Studies. She then earned two Master’s Degrees from Tulane in Social Work and Gerontology before being awarded a Ph.D. in Gerontological Education from the University of Southern Mississippi in 1992. Her dissertation was titled “Carl Jung’s Developmental Tasks for the Second Half of Life.”
So what about the republican angle? That was the result of Scott's pragmatism. There was essentially only one party in Louisiana at the time and the democrats already had several candidates in Scott’s race. She didn’t have a chance in the democratic primary, but the republican race was wide open.
Commenting on her practical approach to party politics, Scott later said, “I had been elected to the Republican state committee, because it gave me pardon powers for anyone in the New Orleans district. There were no female judges at all. I wanted to pardon every woman in Orleans Parish Prison.”
After our interview I was reminded of Faulkner’s famous description of New Orleans, “a courtesan whose hold is strong upon the mature, to whose charm the young must respond.”
Like the French Quarter itself, Barbara Scott has repeatedly reinvented herself. And like Faulkner’s courtesan, she is still “smiling across her languid fan.”