Lulu White (Lulu Hendley, ca. 1868 - August 20, 1931) was a brothel madam, procuress and entrepreneur in New Orleans, Louisiana during the Storyville period. An eccentric figure, she was noted for her love of jewelry, her many failed business ventures, and her criminal record that extended in New Orleans as far back as 1880.
Lulu White circa 1900
The exact date of White's birth is not known. She was born on a farm near Selma, Alabama, but claimed to be an immigrant from the West Indies. Publicity from about 1906 claimed that she was 31 years old, however she may have actually been somewhat older. She was of mixed race, and enjoyed, for a time, an affluence rare for Creoles of Color.
In 1906, she ran into financial difficulties that left her destitute, and moved to California. She commuted back and forth between California and Louisiana several times over the course of her career and kept a high profile until the demise of Storyville.
Jazz historian Al Rose sought documentation of her death, and believed that she died at the residence of former Madam Willie Piazza in 1931. However a teller at the National Bank of New Orleans reported that, in 1941, White made a withdrawal. Otherwise, no information about her post-Storyville life remains.
According to publicity of the time, Mahogany Hall, housed forty women. The official brochure for the house also stated that it had five parlors (one of which was a 'Mirrored Parlor') and fifteen bedrooms, each with its own adjoining bathroom. Famous Storyville photographer E. J. Bellocq's surviving photographs of the house attest to its abundance of elegant furnishings, huge chandeliers and potted ferns. The building housed several expensive oil paintings, Tiffany stained glass windows and other works of art.
Other pamphlets featured photographs and biographies of each of the 'Octoroon' girls. They also contained a supposed picture of Miss White, but it was actually another picture of Victoria Hall, one of the Octoroons. Aside from Miss Hall, other known residents of Mahogany Hall included Emma Sears (The Colored Carmencita), Clara Miller, Estelle Russell, Sadie Reed and Sadie Levy. Kid Ross, Tony Jackson, and Jelly Roll Morton were among the pianists who performed for the clients in Mahogany Hall.
New Orleans Police Department mug shot of Lulu White, 1920
Mahogany Hall served as a House for the Unemployed in the mid-1940s but was demolished in 1949. White's Saloon building on Bienville Street was one of the handful of Storyville buildings to survive past the 1940s, but was extensively damaged during Hurricane Betsy in 1965, losing its second story; the ground floor remains in modified condition as a 1 story building.
In addition to Mahogany Hall, White operated a drinking establishment at 1200 Bienville Street. The Saloon opened in 1912 and, with the onset of Prohibition, changed to a soft drink bar. Throughout the twenties, White was brought in on charges of violating the Volstead Act. In 1929, she sold the Bienville property to New Orleans businessman Leon Heymann.
Lulu White and her business neighbors in Storyville were subject to one of New Orleans' first legal test cases in making a vice district ordinance, for mandatory residential segregation based on gender rather than race. The city rules required any woman who engaged in prostitution to live within specified boundaries, and in the separate but equal era of Plessy v. Ferguson, the courts upheld the city's right to maintain those boundaries.
In popular culture
Boston's jazz supper club Lulu White's was named in her honor.
The film Belle of the Nineties (1934) starring Mae West is said to have been inspired by the exploits of Lulu White (the film's working title was "The Belle of New Orleans").
In the film Pretty Baby (1978), the brothel madam played by Frances Faye wears a red wig and excessive amounts of jewelry, as Lulu White was known to do. The brothel at the center of the film also shares many characteristics with Mahogany Hall, particularly its swirling mahogany staircase.