“Unveiling the Muse: The Lost History of Gay Carnival in New Orleans” by Howard Philips Smith— What Was Once

Smith, Howard Philips. “Unveiling the Muse: The Lost History of Gay Carnival in New Orleans”, University of Mississippi Press, 2018.

What Was Once

Amos Lassen

This is one book that I am anxiously waiting for and I am very surprised that no one has written on this before. As a gay New Orleanian and a Mardi Gras lover, I am sure that there is a lot to be learned and enjoyed here.

Traditional Mardi Gras in New Orleans has been studied and written about a great deal but very little has come to the printed page about gay Mardi Gras (or Carnival as many locals refer to it. There is a great deal of history in gay Mardi Gras and finally someone is giving it to us. Howard Philips Smith does so along with beautiful photographs and clear understanding. The only problem is that we have to wait until January to read it.

Gay krewes (the name for all Mardi Gras organizations) came into being for the first time in the late 1950s. They simply grew out of costume parties held by members of the gay community. Soon their tableau balls were often held in clandestine locations to avoid harassment. Even by the year 2000, gay Carnival remained a hidden and almost lost history. Much of the history and the krewes themselves were devastated by the AIDS epidemic. Whether facing police raids in the 1960s or AIDS in the 1980s, these krewes always came back each season. “Unveiling the Muse” places one of the most important aspects of the New Orleans Carnival season where it belongs. It took more than twenty years of research to write this book.

Smith bases his writing on detailed interviews and each of the major gay krewes is represented by an in-depth historical sketch. We read about the founders, the themes that the krewes used to stage their productions and we get a list of all the balls, themes, and royalty along with the “colorful ephemera” that is associated with the gay tableau balls. Included are reproductions of never-before-published artistic invitations, large-scale commemorative posters, admit cards, and programs as well as sketches of elaborate stage sets and costumes and photographs of ball costumes and other rare memorabilia.

This is a comprehensive history of New Orleans’s gay Carnival organizations and a look at the places, people, and non-Carnival annual calendar of events that are go along with that history.

The New Orleans Mardi Gras has for many years been elite-driven. It is the time when the upper class presents its debutantes to the public. Here we get the alternative history and see Mardi Gras as libidinal and sexually dissident. Filled with fascinating stories and beautiful tableaux, we see the role of the gay community in shaping Mardi Gras as a time for all to have fun.

Leave a Reply