Lynette Brasfield , novelist, ghostwriter, writer

home ... bio ... novels ... ghostwriting & FAQ ... fees ... articles & editing ... media & events ... contact

Renaissance on the River: The “New” New Orleans

After the sherry-laced turtle soup, after the ocean-rich Oysters Rockefeller, and before the sensual crunchiness of the Shrimp Sardou, I discover that Bonnie Warren—public relations director of Brennan’s Restaurant on Royal Street and doyenne of the dining room—is, as I am, South African-born. She left the country when she was eleven, she tells me. Warren touches my arm lightly with her fingertips as if touching the past, nods once, and puts her hand to her heart. And then she breaks into song: a lilting “Jesus Loves Me” in Zulu.

I smile in delight. Earlier, with my excellent tour guide—former lecturer and Latin teacher, Servando Mendez—I had departed the magnificent Hotel Monteleone, built 116 years ago by a Sicilian cobbler. Now I’m eating breakfast in a restaurant founded by an Irishman famous for French and Creole cooking and listening to an African lullaby sung by an elegant white woman.

After three days in this city of contrasts, this glorious gumbo of cultures, I have come expect the unexpected: first of all, how intact the city itself is, despite Hurricane Katrina. The French Quarter, where the Hotel Monteleone is located, is as vibrant as ever, symphonic with jazz musicians who paint the air purple and gold and green with the Mardi Gras sounds of trombone and trumpet and sax. The Garden District is as grand, the live oaks as beautifully twisty-branched and befoliaged as before.

There’s a brand-new coffee shop in Lakeview, where residents inhale the smell of espresso and dip fresh-baked biscotti, read newspapers and chat about their plans, ignoring the eight-foot-high watermark on the adjacent building and the shattered houses across the street, where Venetian blinds spill from windows like small twisted staircases.

In the Upper Ninth Ward a new Musicians’ Village is budding, bright shotgun houses in teal and lilac and yellow, testament to the passion of Branford Marsalis and Harry Connick Jr., who, with Habitat for Humanity, are luring missing melody-makers home. A memorial to renewal, a work of art in blue and red metal, has risen across the bridge. Tarps are disappearing from roofs and new tiles appearing. Fats Domino is back. New celebs have arrived: Angelina has already picked her favorite local hangouts.

In the Warehouse District, artists paint with a ferocity and passion born of the storm.

Warren points out the corner table where Tennessee Williams dined in his rumpled white suit, served by David Sledd, a waiter who remained with the hotel until Katrina hit. (Sledd has since returned, but for the moment, with typical New Orleanean resilience, he is selling foam insulation.) Warren tells me about Joan Good, a local woman who played poker regularly with Williams and still lives nearby, in the 800 block, undeterred by what Servando Mendez refers to as “the thing that happened, the storm.”

And Warren reminisces about Victor, a friend of Williams’s who visited recently, a black briefcase packed with memorabilia in his hands. “Viktaaa!” she pronounces his name, drawling the last syllable, the way Marlon Brando pronounced “Stella!” in A Streetcar Named Desire. The sound throws me back into the world of the iconic play that Williams set in the Elysian Fields neighborhood.

I tell Warren how much I’m enjoying staying the Hotel Monteleone, one of three hotels designated as a Literary Landmark—not simply because of the luxurious room, and the welcoming spa with its fruity, herby scents, and the quixotic weather predictions provided by room staff, but because, as a novelist, I am delighted to know I’m staying in the same place as Williams once did, and Truman Capote—who was nearly, but not quite born in one of its rooms—and William Faulkner, and Eudora Welty, and that I’ve sat at the Carousel Bar, revolving, as they once did, with a cocktail.

By the time waiter Ron Boykins has flamed the Bananas Foster, disappearing for an instant behind an orange sheet of fire in a culinary conjuring act, and famous sous chef Lazone Randolph has paid a visit, I have begun to feel melancholy, for this is my last meal in New Orleans, at least for a while, and I have fallen in love with this grand, delicious city.

Later that afternoon, I walk down Royal and Chartres Streets toward Camp Street, for there stands a magical, mesmerizing place that I will not forget, and I want to linger one more time in its warm, welcoming lobby, graced this pre-Mardi Gras season by a tableau of Venetian mannequin merrymakers dressed in silk and feathers and sequins. This is International House, New Orleans’ first boutique hotel, infused with the spiritual life of the city, its décor changed seven times each year to reflect local customs and rituals. Light is an art form here: the hotel’s eclectic rooms are buttery with sun by day, and its Loa bar—named for Voodoo deities—is lit only by the flicker of candles. I step into the amber ambiance: I feel as though a second, spiritual dimension is present – perhaps it is merely a combination of the beauty of the place, and the play of light and color and the energy of the people. Or, who can tell, maybe the souls of ancestors do gather in such places. If so, they have great taste.

On every level…International House chef Scot Boswell presides over three magnificent restaurants, including Stanley, and Stella, and the just-opened Hoshi, which means “desire” in Japanese. Hoshi features French, Italian, and Asian fusion food – sensual, subtle dishes with an occasional brazen flourish, like the subversive kimchee sauce that laces melon and papaya in his signature dish, and gives his oysters attitude.

In farewell, I touch the silken hem of the donna grande mannequin and turn to leave.

Okay, I’m miserable. I haven’t had a chance to do an airboat tour or a plantation tour. A voodoo or a haunted places tour. New Orleans has a military history, too, that I haven’t had a chance fully to explore. It’s the birthplace of Andrew Higgins, inventor of the amphibious boats that enabled the Allies’ D-Day invasion of Normandy, and home to the stunning World War II Museum, created with the close attention of historian Stephen Ambrose, and Tom Hanks, fresh from Saving Private Ryan. I need to spend two days wandering the corridors of exhibits and films and audiotapes, not the two hours I managed to find in between, well, let’s be honest, eating and drinking. I want to be here during Mardi Gras, and the Tennessee Williams Literary Festival, and the Jazz Fest.

The cab arrives, and I climb inside. I can’t believe how reluctant I am to go home, despite the much-loved husband and cat who await me in Orange County. I didn’t think I’d feel that way. Before I arrived in New Orleans, I had wondered what I would see, and how I’d react. I thought I would feel depressed. I knew the Aquarium of the Americas had suffered losses: had piranha floated down Royal Street and swum their way into a now primordial Lake Pontchartrain? Would I see watermarks on the wall of St. Louis Cathedral? Would the hotels be deserted, most restaurants closed? Would I be afraid?

No. The city feels safe. It’s on the way back. Parts of it never left. The Aquarium was not breached, though it did lose power and subsequently many fish. The white alligator still gazes inscrutably at visitors. New sand sharks and tiger sharks swim with redfish and garfish, and nurse sharks flop over low rocks. The Cathedral is as soaringly beautiful as before. Sugar-flurried beignets are still delicious at the Café du Monde, though you may now also enjoy a burrito or two in the city, and sense in the savory smells new gastronomic influences from Saigon to Sao Paulo.

At the airport, I turn to take one last look back at this city of music and magic, whisked now by the hurricane into a fantastical melange of new and old, of memories and future dreams. This is a unique time to experience history in the making, to be part of this renaissance on the Mississippi River. I hear the sound of a sax spiral into the air, and I know that I, for one, will return.

return to top