Thursday, October 12, 2017

The Weird Tales Tourist, New Orleans: Robert E. Howard by Karen Joan Kohoutek

Visitors to New Orleans can find plenty of information on the sites associated with authors like William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Anne Rice, and (that dude who wrote Confederacy of Dunces). Fewer people are aware of the city’s connections to the writers from the Weird Tales circle, but there are many, and easy enough to visit.

In 1919, Robert E. Howard’s father, Dr. Isaac Howard, attended seven weeks of medical training in New Orleans, bringing his wife and 13-year-old son (Finn 58). Howard wrote of his time there that “it was my fortune to be acquainted with some elderly maiden ladies by the name of Durell—gentlewomen of the old school living in semi-seclusion and striving to maintain the standards of a faded aristocracy, and reconcile their natures with the necessity which forced them to run a rooming-house” (A Means to Freedom 122).

New Orleans’ census records and property records steer us to “Durel” as the likely spelling. Howard scholar Rusty Burke has narrowed down Camille Durel as a good candidate for one of those gentlewomen, and at the time of the 1920 census (accessible through Ancestry.com), she was the “keeper” of a rooming-house at 1904 Canal Street, where she lived with her younger sisters Delphine and Marie. If this is the correct family, then at the time of Howard’s visit, Camille would have been 49, Delphine 39, and Marie 37: only “elderly” to young eyes.

This address would fall in what is now about a three-block span of a recently reconstructed medical complex.


Given Howard’s remembered familiarity with a family of sisters named Durel, and the fact that the medical schools associated with Tulane were in the same area, the rooming-house at 1904 Canal seems like a plausible contender for the site of their stay.

Just before the passage where he introduces the Durells (sic), though, Howard refers to “my French landlady” in New Orleans, who “hated the Italians.” It’s hard to know whether it’s a result of the letter’s conversational style, but it almost sounds like “my French landlady” and the “elderly maiden ladies” aren’t the same people. In that case, the Durels could also been neighbors, running a rooming-house similar to wherever the Howards lived.

In 1932, Howard facilitated a meeting between his correspondents H. P.Lovecraft, who was visiting the city, and fellow Weird Tales writer E. Hoffmann Price, currently living there. According to Lovecraft’s letters, Price lived in the French Quarter at the time, and an address list of Howard’s correspondents shows Price living at 305 Royal (Derie 47-48). The building's main floor is currently home to the Mann Gallery.


This section of Royal is full of art galleries, expensive antique shops, and upscale boutiques, but it’s likely that the rooms on the upper stories were once affordable enough for a pulp writer to rent.

Talking about the Durel sisters, Howard described “the old Durell (sic) mansion in the heart of the French Quarter – now the Latin Quarter – once a stately, century-old residence, built with characteristic French style – now a hovel housing half a dozen squalid Italian families” (MTF 122). Rusty Burke’s research, based on New Orleans city directories, suggests 301 Royal as the location.


I’d like to believe this is true, because 301 Royal is next door to Price’s lodgings. In this corner view, 301 Royal is on the left, with 305 just on the right.



 A monkey wrench was thrown into this information by Stanley Clisby Arthur’s book Walking Tours of Old New Orleans, originally published in 1936. He names the adjoined addresses “301-305-307 Royal Street” as “Mallard’s Magasin” and describes them as already having “art galleries and an antique shop on the ground floor” (37). All three buildings were erected in 1838, and acquired in 1841 by Prudent Mallard, a renowned furniture maker, who used them as a shop, workshop, and warehouse (37-38). This is mostly corroborated by The Historic New Orleans Collection’s Collins C. Dibell Vieux Carre Digital Survey. The records preserved there show the building in the hands of Mallards’ descendants until it was sold to a corporation in 1983, with no reference to any Durels.

However, Burke’s genealogical research into the Durel family provided the name of the Durel sisters’ grandfather: Jean Baptiste Gustave Durel. Entering that name into the Digital Survey brings up a hit with another property, at 801-803 Royal Street. This one was built for a Claudio Durel in 1779, and appears to have been sold out of the family in 1856.

The website of a bar and restaurant currently at 801 Royal (simply called “801 Royal,” at 801royal.com), provides history about the building; they say it was built “by the Dorel family (sic) in 1776,”  and suffered significant damage in the fire of 1788, which might explain why it appears more modest than the “mansion” Howard described. Arthur’s book identifies this location as “Durel’s Furniture Shop” (86), “erected in September 1788 by Juan Bautista Durel, to give this Frenchman his Spanish name” (87); almost certainly the same person as Jean Baptiste Durel. At the time of Arthur’s writing, he calls it a “decaying structure,” which “had become absolutely shapeless with age” (86), a description which fits a property Howard viewed as a “hovel” seventeen years earlier, although obviously later restored.

801 Royal, therefore, is a fairly conclusive candidate for the site of the one-time Dorel home. The similarly shaped numbers 3 and 8 could easily be transcribed in error, particularly when documents were hand-written in pencil or ink, and even when typeset by hand, so a mix-up between 301 and 801 seems very likely.

The University of New Orleans medical school,
also in the same area as 1904 Canal, seen from the nearby St. Louis Cemetery II

Very near Canal Street, in St. Louis Cemetery II, Square 3, there’s a tomb for a family called Zamora, which would become the name of a region in the Conan stories. The inscription is gone from the tomb now, but evidence suggests that “Zamora” was still visible in the 1930s when a WPA survey was done.  I know it’s just a coincidence, but I like to picture a young Howard cutting through the cemetery and spotting a name which would stick in his imagination.



New Orleans: H.P. Lovecraft 

In June of 1932, H.P. Lovecraft wrote to Robert E. Howard "from a considerably lesser distance than I've ever written from before": from New Orleans, where he stayed at "the Orleans, 728 St. Charles St., where I got a room and bath for $7.00 per wk" (A Means To Freedom 303, 305).
The building, described by Lovecraft as "a modest hostelry," is now a lavishly renovated private home, featured in the book The Majesty of St. Charles Avenue (by Kerri McCaffety and Cynthia Reece McCaffety). As he noted, the address is outside the French Quarter—across Canal, on the “American” side—but is within easy walking distance,

 According to an online “Inflation Calculator” (at CoinNews.net), that $7 in 1932 is equivalent to $125.45 in 2017. Breaking that down per day, Lovecraft stayed in New Orleans for $1.00 a night then: what would be $17.92 a night now. It would be hard to find a similar bargain today.
During his stay in New Orleans, Lovecraft spent “each day in that centuried backwater” of the French Quarter, “wandering through the narrow old streets with no modern impressions intruding upon me” (MTF 306). He visited the historic French Market, still a major attraction, and characteristically railed against its upcoming renovations: "I knew that the old French Market was doomed. It has been threatened for years, and one of the reasons I made my New Orleans trip this last spring was that I wanted to be sure to see it before it went" (MTF 423).


A WPA plaque on the site describes these very changes:

Dedicated March 19, 1938
French Market was rehabilitated in 1936 - 1938 … The architectural integrity of the historic market structures has been retained throughout, the interiors have been modernized to conform to refrigeration and sanitary trends of 1938. But the French market showplace of New Orleans the most ancient mart in the Mississippi Valley remains the same."

This statue of Joan of Arc, near the French Market,
was there in Lovecraft’s time

Besides the French Market, Lovecraft relayed that “Price thinks that a great part of the old quarter is doomed—and certainly, modern business is eating it dangerously from the Canal St. side.” He adds that “Royal St. is predominantly modern (though a few old edifices have been saved)” (MTF 424).

In general, though, despite the encroaching modern world, he reveled in the fact that “there are streets … which take one back 100 to 150 years, and endless examples of distinctive and fascinating architecture” (MTF 424). In between his walks, he spent much time "reading and writing on a bench in the old Place d'Armes -- Jackson Square" (MTF 306)

Inside Jackson Square, with the picturesque “Employees Only” building,
where I assume they keep the lawn mower

Some of the famous Jackson Square cats,
next to the “Plaza D Armas” sign.

On a budget, and hating sea food besides, Lovecraft tried little of the city’s famous cuisine, although he would later note, rather anthropologically, that “one curious local phenomenon is what is called a ‘poor boy’ sandwich” (MTF 424).
Lovecraft’s overall impression of the city was that “I liked New Orleans tremendously” (424), particularly the French Quarter, which was where, he said, “the cream of everything centres” (305).

Weird Tales: Chicago
While towns like Providence, Cross Plain, and even New Orleans have associations with the Weird Tales circle, the center of it all was … Weird Tales, published in Chicago, Illinois, at 840 N. Michigan Ave., in the heart of the Magnificent Mile. 

In 2013, I stayed in Chicago a few blocks from there, and to my chagrin, this is what I found at that address: 




We certainly know what Lovecraft would have thought of this architecture.
According to the Forgotten Chicago website, “The 840 North Michigan building was demolished to construct the current Escada building, which was completed in 1992.” The article gives more background: “The primary tenant since the building’s completion had been New York-based department store Saks Fifth Avenue,” which makes sense given the location, but seems like strange bedfellows with Weird Tales. In 1937, when “Saks had recently vacated five of the seven floors,” leaving the top two for office space, General Motors leased “a major portion” of the building.
At the time of my visit, the flagship store of this new building, H&M, had itself recently vacated, but apparently it is now home to a Verizon store. Right across the street, there's a historic Fourth Presbyterian Church, which is still beautifully preserved. It was built in 1912, so it would have been a familiar landmark to any of the Weird Talers who stopped at the editorial offices.



Although the original building is long gone, there are still enough older structures in the area that it’s worth a visit, to get a flavor of the neighborhood where Farnsworth Wright and his colleagues went in to the office and changed all of our lives.
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Works Cited

Arthur, Stanley Clibsy. Walking Tours of Old New Orleans. Gretna, LA: Pelican, 1990.

Burke, Rusty. Seanchai, October 2013. Privately published in the Robert E. Howard United Press Association.

Derie, Bobby. The Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard: Index and Addenda, REH Foundation Press, 2015. 


2 comments:

Keith West said...

Great post. Makes me want to go to New Orleans and soak up the atmosphere. Thanks!

Trish Short Lewis said...

I loved you article. Very well-researched and written. Very impressed! Enjoyed it very much.