Friday, March 6, 2009

Boire avec Banjo Annie

This morning, as I sit in the breakfast nook (a faithful reproduction of the "Jungle Room" at Graceland) at Mt. Varnum, I have my regrets in leaving the 75 degree weather and the soft smell of orange blossoms of New Orleans for the vast puddles of brown exhaust infused slush of Washington DC. (*sigh* mes regrets sont beaucoup...)

I so enjoyed the time I spent recently at my beloved Chez Moose in New Orleans, the Carnival season was rife with numerous decadent pleasures and social intrigues that I will gladly be sharing with you very soon, but for now, I sit staring at the coffee service that features a hand-painted reproduction of Ecce Homo, (Hieronymus Bosch's 1476 version) I wait for the coffee maker to finish making it's daily miraculous elixir of life, in the background a recording of "Some Cold Rainy Day" by Bertha "Chippie" Hill fills the room with the blues, and my thoughts turn to the eccentrics and colorful characters of my much already missed home town.
Among the long list of nonconformists like "Ruthie the Duck Lady" and "The Lucky Bead Lady" is a woman who was once known as the most famous drinker in modern French Quarter history.
My kinda gal.
When a sixty-five year old street woman known throughout the French Quarter as Banjo Annie died in 1951, a newspaper headline read “Banjo Annie At Rest After Fantastic Career.” Bar owners Pat O’Brien, Charlie Cantrell, and Gasper Gulotta agreed after the funeral that Banjo Annie was by all accounts the most famous drinker in modern Quarter history. Banjo Annie was known as the “Queen of the Quarter” during the 1930s and ‘40s, long before Ruthie the Duck Girl’s reign on the streets and bars of the Vieux Carre from the 1950s throughout the ‘90s. Both local legends have surprisingly much in common, and both famous among residents and tourists alike for their colorful dress and behavior.
Banjo Annie was born in 1886. Her real name, it is believed, was Mrs. Barbara Lee, although many doubted this was her real name. The legend is that she came to New Orleans from Texas. Some say Oklahoma. It was rumored that she was married to a wealthy oil man. Other tales had her married to the mayor of Mobile, or that she descended from an old New Orleans family. Some said she was either the wife or girlfriend of a wealthy lumberman during the World War I era. No one really knew for sure.
George McQueen, the night club impresario, was a bellhop in 1915. He remembers serving the young Barbara Lee in style and elegance at the old Roosevelt Hotel. Later, the once good-looking and stylish girl became a frowsy old street singer, where McQueen would give her coins for drinks. Probably no one will ever know the true story of Barbara Lee and how she ended up on the streets, but another story is that she fell in love with a police officer. She spent all of her money on the cop who eventually left her for another woman when the money ran out. It was then that she took to drink and the guitar, or banjo.
Soon after Barbara Lee hit the streets, she became known as Banjo Annie. She was a habitue of French Quarter bars and restaurants beginning around 1925. Police records show that Banjo Annie first gained her dubious royal title in 1928 when she was arrested for being drunk and disturbing the peace. The arresting officer referred to her as the “Queen of the Quarter.” Since then, Banjo was arrested on the average of once a week. As police put it, “she has been doing a life sentence on the installment plan.”
By the 1940s, knowing she meant no harm, the police would only hold her until she sobered up. The “Queen” was found to be spending most of her time lying in doorways sleeping off the effects of wine. Banjo Annie usually wore several dresses at one time, a man’s cap, and carried a large bottle of gin. Sometimes, her clothes were all but missing. In one case, Annie was given a backless evening gown which she wore on the streets. But she wore it without a slip. And with the back to the front!
She was well educated and could quickly learn any current tune. Her best songs were the ones she composed herself to lampoon many Quarterite socialites. But her most well-known scene, was standing in a doorway while a sharpshooting bartender sprayed her tonsils at a 20-foot distance with soda water just as she hit the high note in “The Old Concert Hall on the Bowery.”
Banjo Annie lived and slept on the streets of the French Quarter. At night, she often slept in Jackson Square in the doorways of the Cathedral. A racehorse owner who felt compassion for the homeless woman commissioned Gasper Gulotta to pay 6 months advance rent on a room so she wouldn’t have to sleep on the streets. Banjo told them to go fly a kite. Friends of Banjo remember three occasions when relatives came to take her home. Again, Banjo told them all to go to Hell.
Not everyone appreciated the eccentricities of Banjo Annie. Some bar owners didn’t want her in their establishments on the chance that she may offend the patrons. But Banjo had a gentle blackmail racket worked out - a regular route – calling on bar owners nightly to be given a quarter to stay away. “ I make my route regularly. The guys don’t like me in their swanky places. So every time I go into them, they give me money to leave,” Banjo was quoted as saying. And other places she was welcomed, provided she didn’t stay more than a few minutes.
Cantrell remembers the time two self-proclaimed “society girls” were found drunk and obnoxious on the streets of the Quarter and got tossed in the third precinct for public intoxication. They chewed out the cops calling them flatfeet, brutes, and bums. The cops got revenge by picking up Banjo Annie and putting her in the cell with the girls. Annie cut loose with an obscene song that “killed the cockroaches on the jailhouse walls.”
But in December of 1946, the fun stopped. Some humorless people in the Quarter complained to authorities that Banjo Annie was a nuisance, and needed to be taken off the streets and locked up. As a result, Banjo was picked up and sent to the asylum at East Louisiana Hospital at Jackson for one year.
Newspaper articles lamented, “No longer will the strumming of guitar strings in the hand of the “Queen of the Quarter” be heard on Vieux Carre banquettes. No longer will the “Queen” keep quarterites and tourists in convulsions of laughter with her off-color witticisms; nor will the populace be able to jeer at the strange costumes she once wore.”
With Banjo gone from the Quarter, there were many rumors over the year that she had died. When Banjo was finally released a year later, she returned to the Quarter during a rainfall - an unusual rainfall that lasted almost a month. A well scrubbed and neatly dressed Banjo walked into her favorite bar and announced, “the Queen has returned!” A newspaper article announced “Annie’s Back,” a changed woman. “Neat as a fresh-laundered bar towel, she was making her ‘route’ to thank friends for gifts sent her while she took the cure,” one paper said. “Mrs. Davis got me out,” Banjo was quoted as saying. The identity of Mrs. Davis is not known. Banjo wanted everyone to know that the rumors of her death were false, and she was still the Queen of Bourbon Street. She stayed sober for a few months, but nobody could get used to it. They wanted the old Annie back - and she started drinking again.
In October of ‘48, Banjo celebrated her birthday at Tony Bacino’s Bar, a popular gay hangout. She was among a crowd of her friends including Bootsie, the bartender, Joe Matranga, Grace King, Joe Buick, Jackie King, Don Dasche, Shirley, Billy and Bobby Keller. They all chipped in and bought a birthday cake with one candle on it. Banjo broke down and cried when they sang “Happy Birthday.” Banjo demanded everyone have a slice of cake, whether they liked it or not.
Six months later, in April of ’49, it was reported Banjo was in serious condition at Charity Hospital. She had a broken hip and had multiple bruises. She was being kept under sedation and given blood plasma infusions. Banjo was unable to give a coherent explanation of her injuries.
In April of 1950, a year later, Banjo broke her leg and was finally placed in the Villa Maria Convalescent Home, 1715 Prytania St. After a couple of weeks, Banjo got restless. She could not stand the monotony of the home any longer. She wanted to be back on the streets of the Quarter where she once reigned as the “Queen.” So Banjo got out of her sickbed, hobbled off on her crutches, and sneaked out of the home. When the staff discovered her missing, they notified the police, who knew just where to find her. Just as they expected, she was at her old stand at Bourbon and Conti St.
Banjo Annie was returned to the convalescent home where she lived for another year and few months. She turned ill and was placed in Charity Hospital. In September of 1951, Barbara Lee, known to thousands as Banjo Annie, died at the age of 65.
Two Sisters of Charity nursed Banjo in the hospital before her death. “Mrs. Lee often said she wanted to see the face of God,” one of the sisters said. “She said it was hard for her to be good from day to day, but she prayed that she would receive the Sacraments of the church before her death.” The church service was held at the St. Louis Cathedral. About 25 people were counted at the church and funeral home. One woman was spotted crying outside the church during the service.
The two Sisters of Charity attended her funeral at Lamana-Panno-Fallo funeral home (625 N. Rampart St.), as well as several bar owners and operators, a French Quarter artist, and “Helen,” the Quarter’s flower lady. There were also a few curiosity-mongers. The Sisters stood quietly among the night life figures next to Banjo Annie’s casket. No family members were in attendance.
Although considered a pauper, Banjo left enough money in a bank account ($280) to pay for the kind of funeral she wanted. Charlie Cantrell, a French Quarter bar owner, handled her bank account which was in the name of Anne O’Rourke. “Banjo always said she wanted a Catholic funeral, and she brought me money every once in a while that she earned by playing the guitar during her sober periods,” Cantrell said. “I banked it for her and never let her take it out.”
Pallbearers were P.T. Eastland, Jacob H. Rowe, Peter Deagano, W.E. Martin, Gerry Tait, and Roland Valeton. Five cars made up the funeral procession.
Banjo was laid to rest in an unmarked vault in the St. Michael’s section of St. Louis Cemetery #3.
Like Annie herself used to say when toasting, "Here's Kicks..."

Banjo Annie
1 shot Southern Comfort peach liqueur
1 shot Yukon Jack Canadian whisky
1 shot Jack Daniel's Tennessee whiskey
1 shot amaretto almond liqueur
1/2 cup orange juice
1/2 cup guava juice
Mix the alcohol in an 8-12 oz glass. Cover and shake for about 3 seconds. Mix the juices together in a glass of your choice, add ice for character, and pour in alcohol. Serve chilled.
Bon nuit, Banjo Annie. We hardly knew ya...


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zeitgeist, particular friend, perky libertine, animated trickster, iconoclast, rabble-rouser, object of worship, provocateur, capricious damp enchantress, idiosyncratic beloved reptile, whimsical saucy booze hound, bellwether, luminary, stoic, pensive illicit paramour, aloof, engaged, intuitive, curious, perplexing deranged mastermind, passionate, lasciviously adored offspring, amorous, sultry flamboyant charioteer, scholar, scribe, exalted thespian, voracious, considerable chieftain, impaired, cynical colleague, dreamer, procrastinator, loathsome glutton, artist, oppressed peasant, dainty heathen, narcissist, self-loathing...renaissance man