Creole Defined: Not An Exact Science

It’s unexpected fun when a book title raises questions, i. e., Creole Son, my novel about painter Edgar Degas’s time in New Orleans. When people ask me to define Creole, I say it’s probably not what they think but lots more besides. Few ethnic terms are more misunderstood. The word comes from the Portuguese/Spanish criar meaning “to breed” and was applied to those born and bred outside the mother country. They were called criollos, which morphed into Creoles.

Napoleon's Josephine: Creole empress

Napoleon’s Josephine: Creole empress

The two most famous Creoles are probably Empress Josephine, born on the French Caribbean island of Martinique, and Simon Bolivar, a Spanish Creole born in Venezuela. Degas’s New Orleans-born mother Celestine made him half Creole. Creoles can also be of Portuguese, Italian and African descent.

These elegant Creoles of color were a major presence in antebellum New Orleans.

These elegant Creoles of color were a major presence in antebellum New Orleans.

The term “Creole of color” was commonly used in 18th-century New Orleans, but did not necessarily mean a slave. The free Creoles of color created a society of professional men, cultured women and debutante daughters who lived in fine houses, owned slaves and even plantations. Their achievements were remarkable considering they were only a few generations from slavery, but their culture was destroyed by the Civil War. In a bizarre case of race redefinition, the term Creole now only meant white. Fortunately, the end of Jim Crow laws empowered Creoles of color to reclaim their rightful identity.

The definition of Creole was  debated in the 1950s African-American press.

The definition of Creole was debated in the 1950s African-American press.

For most people, however, Creole means food. Everyone’s heard of Shrimp Creole, and Creole seasonings, mustards and sauces are in grocery stores everywhere. When I lived in New Orleans I discovered something rarely found outside Louisiana, Creole cream cheese and Creole tomatoes. The cheese is often combined with cream and sugar and served with fruit and even made into (wait for it) Creole cream cheese ice cream! The eponymous tomato is grown in Louisiana’s river parishes and is feted every June at the Creole Tomato Festival in the French Quarter. Creole is also attached to language, architecture, two breeds of pigs, sheep, tobacco, mangoes, and even paint colors. Then there’s Zydeco music, Duke Ellington’s Creole Love Call and of course Elvis’s King Creole, which I believe is a wise place to stop.


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Belle, Book & Kindle

What a difference a few decades make. Back in 1979 when I was contracted to write historical romances as Maggie Lyons (see “her” story in my blog, “Romancing the Unknown”), I knew zip about the genre. Luckily I was given a tip sheet by my publishers regarding what to do and, more importantly, not to do. My heroines were supposed to be chaste as well as chased, and a big taboo was sex before marriage. If and when anything finally happened after 300 pages of foreplay, it was to be discreet. Think Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster on the beach in From Here to Eternity or a train going into a tunnel. You get the picture.

Talk about burning sands, Kerr and Lancaster lock lips in "From Here to Eternity."

Talk about burning sands, Kerr and Lancaster lock lips in “From Here to Eternity.”

In 1999 when I was asked to write more Maggie Lyons books, the rules had changed. Seriously. It was no surprise that readers were more sophisticated and knowledgeable about history but who knew they wanted more explicit sex scenes? Nothing pornographic, mind you, but still. My new and improved heroines didn’t exactly fall into bed in Chapter 1, but they were more frank about their desires, i.e., they wanted the same things as my heroes. It seemed only fair to satisfy them, and frankly it was lots of fun.

Last winter I decided to resurrect these seven out-of-print books, only to learn I faced yet another set of criteria. For today’s reader, elaborate prose and details about antebellum Mardi Gras balls have taken a back seat to plots that are sleek, taut and move quickly. That meant heavy rewrites and editing because the bottom line, of course, is giving your audience what they want.

There's lots of rebellious belles in "Heirs of Rebellion."

There’s lots of rebellious belles in “Heirs of Rebellion.”

When I reread these books, it was like meeting old friends. To be honest, I’d forgotten more than I remembered, certainly in regard to the steamier scenes in the earlier novels. I found several instances, notably Heirs of Rebellion, where milady got all the pleasuring she wanted (and then some) without the sanction of marriage. Like most men, I guess I just didn’t want to wait, so naturally neither did my heroines. Each and every one of these women had her goals and, okay, like Miss Scarlett, flouted convention to get them. That’s what prompted me to call my Kindle series “Rebellious Belles.” My not so ladylike ladies have come a long way, baby!

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Romancing The Unknown

Thirty odd years ago, during my Greenwich Village salad days, I was about to forget my dream of being published when I got a surprising call. “You’re Southern and you know history,” my agent said. “So how about writing some historical romances?” I initially bristled since I knew nothing about the genre, but it’s remarkable how poverty influences priorities.  Once contracts were signed, I began plotting. Since New Orleans was my favorite city, the setting was a no-brainer. As for my star-crossed lovers, Marie would have the raven hair and violet eyes of my favorite movie star and Morgan would be Welsh, based on my heritage and not Mr. Burton btw. The year was 1840 as the Old South entered its Golden Age of wealth, elegance and indulgence, at least for those lucky elitist few.

When it came to Southern romance, Margaret Mitchell literally wrote the book!

When it came to Southern romance, Margaret Mitchell literally wrote the book!

What I didn’t know from Gone with the Wind and Raintree County I culled from long-ago authors Lyle Saxon and Clarence John Laughlin who penned Fabulous New Orleans (1928) and Ghosts along the Mississippi (1948) respectively. Their heavily romanticized tales were rooted in truth and what better inspiration than that? I based Morgan’s plantation, Moss Alley on Pine Alley in Evangeline Parish, Louisiana. Built by wildly rich sugar planter, Charles Durande, it hosted a double night wedding that would’ve made Disney proud. In 1850, Durande imported spiders from China, put them in the twin rows of pines leading to the Big House and left them to spin a web three-miles-long. The webs were covered with gold dust and illuminated by torch light, and it was beneath that
fantastical canopy that the sister brides (and Marie and Morgan of course) rode to their wedding. I mean, you just can’t make this stuff up!

The fabulous 3-mile-long pine alley is long gone, victim of numerous hurricanes and time itself.

The fabulous 3-mile-long pine alley is long gone, victim of numerous hurricanes and time itself.

What I did have to make up though was a pen name since romances were supposed to be written by women. I paid homage to Tennessee Williams by choosing Maggie Lyons, i.e., Maggie from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Lyons View, the asylum in Suddenly, Last Summer. It also contained my initials, but while that passed muster my title, Moss Alley, soon bit the dust.

My beguiling belle is busting out all over in this classic romance cover.

My beguiling belle is busting out all over in this classic romance cover.

The publisher promptly renamed the book Bayou Passions and printed the title in raised gold lettering on a magenta background with Marie in Morgan’s clutches and showing beaucoup cleavage. Whatever objections I had evaporated when the book sold over 75,000 copies! I had such fun that I wrote seven more romances which became my Rebellious Belles series, and  they’re all coming to Kindle soon.

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Twelfth Night at the Eleventh Hour

Like film actors wanting retakes, writers sometimes want to change a published work. Perhaps they’re unhappy with certain phraseology or maybe it’s something serious like a dropped plot thread, character development, or lack thereof. Turning a raw manuscript into a published book is a tedious process involving not just the author but editors, publishers, agents, and the occasional friend whose opinion is valued. You’d think writers would have every opportunity to get things just right, but other factors can be at work.

Case in point, my historical novel Twelfth Night (1997). The contract required a “darkly erotic” story, but not until that first submission did I fully realize what was expected. My editor sent me back to the drawing board several times, and not until the eleventh hour did I finally give him what he wanted. I ignored concerns that what I wanted the book to say would be lost in that “darkly erotic” shuffle.

Twelfth Night

When Twelfth Night was published, response was good but my worries were realized when the Jackson (Mississippi) Clarion-Ledger headlined their otherwise positive review with this: “Violence Overwhelms Story.” Ouch. Other critics voiced similar concerns, confirming my gut feeling that the book was not what I wanted to write but what the publisher wanted me to write and was contractually empowered to demand. It’s my fault for not objecting of course. I was too eager to see my first hardcover in print and, frankly, I sold out. It’s a story as old as publishing itself, but this time with a happy ending.

Everyone knows the internet triggered tectonic shifts in publishing, most notably the explosion in self-publishing. Granted it unleashed an avalanche of mediocrity that should never have seen the light of day, but it also enabled writers regaining rights to their work to find new audiences for old works. I quickly jumped on the republishing bandwagon but only after excising certain  passages in Twelfth Night I found troubling or excessive. My story remains plenty dark but not so violent or erotic, i.e., the book I originally intended. I’m happy to report the new and improved Twelfth Night is now available on Kindle.

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The Movie Star You Never Knew


When destiny directed me to Pasadena in 2003, I never imagined I’d own a house loaded with old Hollywood history. I was drawn to the 1926 Spanish bungalow (above) for its abundance of character and amazing gardens, not, as the realtor eagerly disclosed, because it was built by silent film legend and cowboy star, Tom Mix. I was further surprised to learn it was moved from Brentwood to Pasadena in 1991. Like all dutiful historical fiction writers, I did some homework and discovered that in 1926 Mix was living in a Beverly Hills mansion with his wife Victoria. Hmmm. More digging revealed my “new” house was a gift to his mistress Dorothy Sebastian who I soon learned was much more interesting than ole Tom. A Southern beauty who came west with thousands of others hoping for a film career, Dorothy had a streak of rebelliousness that would’ve made Scarlett O’Hara proud.


Married at 17, Dorothy dumped her husband four years later and headed for New York where she became a Ziegfeld Girl and appeared in George White Scandals of 1924 with new friend Louise Brooks, another unconventional actress. Offstage she had an affair with famed British cabinet member, Lord Beaverbrook. Dorothy landed in Hollywood a year later and after a string of forgettable movies struck gold in Arizona Wildcat (1927) with real-live lover Mix as her leading man. She got third billing after Tony, “the Wonder Horse.”


Dorothy’s star continued to rise with Our Dancing Daughters (1928) teaming her with another young Hollywood hopeful named Joan Crawford. She and Joan (below) became close pals, but it was her string of flings that earned Dorothy’s notoriety and some said unraveled her film career. Here’s where our tale gets tricky.

Dancing Daughters

While dallying with Mix, Dorothy had comedic genius Buster Keaton on the side, working with him on several films, notably Spite Marriage. Their liaison lasted until 1935 with Keaton’s spectacular fall from superstardom to alcoholic has-been. When Mix also rode off into the sunset, Dorothy got herself engaged to Clarence Brown, Oscar-nominated Best Director in 1930 for Anna Christie. Calling off the marriage, Dorothy quipped, “A girl needs more than an emerald ring and an ermine coat to make her happy.” She then set her sights on another cowboy megastar and this time married him and vamoosed to Beverly Hills. He was none other than William Boyd, better known as Hopalong Cassidy, and they also co-starred in films. The stormy marriage lasted from 1930-36, culminating in a rancorous divorce which fatally tarnished Dorothy’s star. She dropped from sight and died of cancer in 1957 at the Motion Picture Home. She was only 53. Looking back over her turbulent career, I can’t help wondering if her nickname, “Little Bam,” had more to do with her romances than her Alabama roots.


Dorothy’s little love nest fared far better. The owner before me, artist Michael Marquez, not only relocated the house to Pasadena but meticulously restored it as well. He paid tribute to its colorful past by painting a mural of Monument Valley (above). Covering an entire wall of the Cowboy Room, it depicts a silent film crew shooting a stagecoach hundreds of feet below. I can’t imagine a better example of art imitating life and feel sure Dorothy would be pleased. I never saw her ghost but I easily imagined her canoodling with Tom, Buster and Hopalong before the fireplace or sipping cocktails with Joan on the porch and…well, let’s just say when I watched their old movies on TCM I never felt alone.


Part 5 of a series on living with history.

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All That Jazz…and Then Some!

After twenty years in Manhattan, it was time to water my Southern roots. Since I’d always loved New Orleans food, music, history and unvarnished hedonism, I took an apartment in an 1840s Creole townhouse in the French Quarter. My landlord Frank, an eccentric elderly Sicilian with an eye patch, quirky attitude and murky past, occupied the downstairs and slave quarters while I took the second floor with a gallery overlooking the street.

My French Quarter digs were on the second floor.

My French Quarter digs faced Dauphine Street in the quiet Lower Quarter.

Frank explained that the mansion fell into decline when the Quarter became a slum in the ’30s. By the ’80s it was a derelict pasta factory which Frank (whom I discovered was once heir to an Italian food empire), restored to a fare-thee-well. A deeply superstitious charismatic Catholic with a life-sized Jesus in his atrium, he had the building exorcised several times after experiencing peculiar late-night sounds and smells. He swore the place had an evil aura lingering from voodoo and slavery days, but the only noise I ever heard came from the street during Mardi Gras. I thought his exorcisms would be better directed toward the Formosa termites devouring the attic.

My landlord's voodoo insurance.

My landlord’s voodoo insurance.

With its iron-laced galleries, grand staircase, triple hung guillotine windows, and twelve-foot ceilings, the Dauphine Street house oozed antebellum atmosphere. I couldn’t resist making it my heroine’s home in Twelfth Night, my novel exploring the dark side of the elegant, elitist Creole world of 1857 Louisiana. As I wrote away, I discovered something singular and liberating about sharing space with my characters along with a view of the Quarter they would’ve seen 140 years earlier.

The Dauphine Street house was especially magical at night.

The Dauphine Street house was especially magical at night.

Another brand of inspiration arose one carnival season at dusk. I was on my gallery when fog swarmed off the Mississippi River, so thick I could barely see across the street. I heard muffled voices and watched fascinated as a clutch of  costumed revelers in long, hooded robes emerged from the gray miasma and fluttered beneath a pale streetlight before vanishing like a will-o’-the wisp. Deepening the illusion were ships horns, church bells and the clip-clop of hooves from passing tourist carriages. With parked cars hidden by the fog, I saw something truly frozen in time, resulting in my “time slip” book, Incarnate. Still more creativity was roused by a visit to the house occupied by French painter Edgar Degas in 1872-3. Hours alone in the rooms where he lived and worked resulted in my newest novel Creole Son.

The Big Easy was inspirational beyond my wildest dreams, but, Southern nostalgia stoked, I left in 2003 for southern California of all places. Fate dictated that I would live in a house built by one of old Hollywood’s most famous cowboy stars.

Part 4 of a series on living with history.

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Village People

My 1967 summer in Margaret Mitchell’s Atlanta apartment building was a revelation, but that old house was only a nostalgic island in a mundane commercial district. Eager to live in a truly historic neighborhood I moved to New York’s Greenwich Village and took a second floor apartment on West Tenth Street. Tucked between Bleecker and Hudson Streets I was happily immersed in another century. The only modern interloper was the Sixth Precinct Police Headquarters across the street. Our paths would eventually cross but more on that later.


My apartment was on the second floor of the center five-story building.

My new life in America’s Bohemia was magical. Because I was still an unpublished novelist, I walked around in a daze, trying to grasp how many writers I had followed there. Mark Twain, Herman Melville, Edgar Allen Poe, O. Henry, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, James Baldwin,  Maya Angelou, Truman Capote, Marianne Moore, Dylan Thomas, James Agee (a distant Tennessee cousin) to name just a few. I figured if I couldn’t find inspiration in the Village I’d better pack my bags. As things played out, I didn’t have to look any further than my own back yard. The apartment building dated to the 1840s and was originally an inn with a grog shop on the ground floor and a second building in the back for the innkeeper and his family. Because of the nearby Hudson River the inn catered to seamen and continued to do so even after landfill shifted the river several blocks farther west in 1851.

The building super said there were several murders in the old inn. I don’t know how he knew that, but with the combustible combination of sailors, booze and 19th century lawlessness it was highly likely. Other tenants muttered about strange phenomena, but it was years before I joined their ranks. After a workman repaired leaks in my bathroom and thoroughly caulked and repainted the small windowless space, how could it possibly turn chilly in the dead of summer? Figuring the guy sealed in some restless spirit, I poked a tiny hole in the wall behind the basin and hoped for the best. The cold blast promptly vanished. Go figure.

The building hosted moviemakers along with sailors’ ghosts. In 1973, the rear courtyard became Frank Serpico’s apartment garden in the Al Pacino vehicle, Serpico. Also shot there was Men of Respect (1990) with Rod Steiger and John Turturro in a shaky mix of Macbeth and Goodfellas. While they set up a Mafia wedding reception, a rarely seen tenant from the back building ventured into the courtyard to watch. Weeks ago we had reported him as a drug dealer to the nearby police station, but his noisy business continued 24/7. It turned out his apartment was under surveillance and a trio of cops costumed as wedding guests were hoping he would show. Sure enough they busted him right in the middle of a take. The director got the whole thing on film while I watched from my upstairs window. Talk about life imitating art!


The open French window on the left was perfect for watching a police sting in action!

Over the years Greenwich Village supplied me with enough inspiration for a host of historical novels and I was lucky enough to sell seven while living there. One of them, First Families, was set in 18th century Australia and involved seafarers. As rewarding as all this was though, my coming years in New Orleans would be even more so.

Part 3 of a series on living with history.

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Being There

One long ago summer, I was a college student living in Atlanta’s Windsor House apartments. When I tell people it was where Margaret Mitchell wrote Gone with the Wind, they often ask if I saw her ghost. Not exactly but first things first.

Because rents were cheap in 1967, the place attracted the sort of picaresque Southern characters I longed to meet and later wrote about. Someone once said writers are metaphysical pickpockets, and believe me the Windsor House had very deep pockets. Half my neighbors were fellow students but there was also a man who conducted music only he could hear, a couple of gay gents and an artist’s model who grew pot on her windowsill. My favorites were a faded Southern belle and an elderly ex-madam. The first was a real-life Blanche DuBois, fluttery and feminine, who always smelled of White Shoulders and Southern Comfort. She said she didn’t work because “true ladies weren’t supposed to.” That didn’t keep her from leaving every day at five on the dot, dressed to kill in hat, gloves and heels, confiding that she was meeting friends for cocktails somewhere on Peachtree   Street. Eventually I decided she “depended on the kindness of strangers” as Tennessee Williams so eloquently put it. One morning I saw the landlords emptying her apartment. I was told she had “gone out drinking and not come home.” That really bothered me.

The ex-madam was more interesting and certainly more of a survivor. She was well into her eighties with a robust laugh and more stories than Scheherazade. I suspected the landlords let her live rent-free because she never had a cent and Georgia Power was always cutting her off. The other tenants took turns letting her snake extension cords to our apartments until she got electricity again. She paid me back by sharing a life story so bittersweet I made her a character in my first historical novel, Twelfth Night.

Another legacy from my short stay at Windsor House was distaste for Chinese food. A half century earlier, the house had been set back and the vacant space along Peachtree Street filled with retail establishments. Bad luck decreed that my second floor apartment overlooked a Chinese restaurant called House of Eng. Only the landlords had air conditioning and anyone who’s endured a brutal Georgia summer knows you can’t exist with closed windows. Because mine faced the restaurant kitchen’s exhaust fan my place always reeked of grease, sesame oil and MSG. It was years before I could face a plate of Chinese food.


The “GWTW House” was abandoned by 1980.

Eleven years after I left, the house was abandoned again but preservationists came to the rescue in 1985 before it fell to the wrecker’s ball. Today the handsomely restored Margaret Mitchell House is listed on the National Register of Historic Places so now everyone can visit the room where Scarlett O’Hara and her beaux came to life.

I didn’t exactly meet Miss Mitchell’s ghost, but I did encounter what I call a “sense of being.” I later learned that it’s triggered by entering space once occupied by a historical personage or event. It’s difficult to describe, a sort of heightened sentience tinged with déjà vu. I’ve experienced it only a few other times and find it altogether appropriate that my first involved a young, aspiring writer and a world famous, Pulitzer Prize-winning author.

Below, the Margaret Mitchell House today as it faces Peachtree Street. My studio apartment was on the second floor left side, but there was no porch. If only there had been no Chinese restaurant!


Part 2 of a series on living with history.

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History Lessons

Writers of historical fiction love old buildings, especially houses, and I well remember the first one I visited. I grew up in Fountain City, Tennessee and when I was ten I went on a school trip to Blount Mansion (1796) in nearby Knoxville. It’s a handsome but simple structure, its claim to fame being that it was home to Southwest Territorial Governor William Blount and is one of the first frame houses built west of the Allegheny Mountains.

The Governor William Blount Mansion, West Hill Avenue Knoxville

A lot of kids were disappointed because it wasn’t a real mansion, but I was enthralled. We were told not to touch anything, but when nobody was looking I stroked the banister. It felt different somehow, maybe because I wanted it to or maybe because I thought I was touching history. What I recall even more were the smells of must and age. I decided it must be the scent of time. A couple of years later my father took me to Nashville to see my first real mansion, Andrew Jackson’s plantation home, The Hermitage (1835).


With six Doric columns, pure Greek Revival style and period furnishings it was antebellum architecture at its best, but what moved me more were the graves of Jackson and his beloved wife Rachel. I knew from  studying Tennessee history that she died right after he was elected President and that he blamed her death on the terrible slander of his campaign. When I saw them peacefully together for all eternity I realized that it was more than buildings and furnishings that imparted a sense of history. There was emotional impact as well.

In 1967 while a student at Georgia StateUniversity in Atlanta, I needed a summer rental before heading off to Navy boot camp in Memphis. Someone told me about Windsor House (1899) on Crescent Avenue in midtown. The three-story structure was owned by brothers Leon and George Cabero who had apartments on the ground floor. It had been renovated many times and definitely seen better days, but it was fine for a college student. I happily moved into my little furnished studio on the second floor but soon sensed that there was something topsy-turvy about the place. George explained that it was originally a one-family home facing Peachtree Street, Atlanta’s most famous thoroughfare, and that in 1914 it was set back to make room for commercial buildings on Peachtree and divided into ten apartments. What bothered me was that the front of the house was now the back. It was derelict when the brothers bought and renovated it three years earlier, but George insisted their rescue wasn’t just about financial gain.  “This is one of the most important historic sites in Atlanta,” he said. “Do you know what famous local writer lived in the apartment below yours?” I knew only one famous Atlanta writer and the back of my neck burned when I realized what was coming. “Yes indeed, young man,” George beamed. “This is where Margaret Mitchell wrote the book!”

But that’s a whole other blog.

Part 1 of a series on living with history.

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Cover Story: Lost & Found

As the author of fourteen published novels, I can honestly say that none of my covers pleased me as much as the one for my latest book Creole Son: A Novel of Degas in New Orleans. The art director tracked down one of the few Degas paintings done in New Orleans that was in the public domain and deftly incorporated title and by-line without compromising the integrity of the artwork. It’s also a breath of fresh air with the current, inexplicably awful trend to feature headless heroines on the covers of books.


There were other reasons I was delighted by the choice of this portrait of Degas’s cousin Mathilde Bell, part of the extended family occupying the Esplanade Avenue house where he lived and worked during his 1872-3 visit to New   Orleans. That Degas chose to pose Mathilde on the front gallery was a fortunate quirk of fate no one could have foreseen. Because his Uncle Michel Musson, Mathilde’s father, rented the house and the record of tenancy was later lost, no one knew exactly where Degas had stayed. Making the search even more difficult was the peculiar fact that the house had been split into two separate structures and physically moved apart. It had also been extensively remodeled that it so differed from the original structure that it may as well have been hiding behind a gigantic Mardi Gras mask. Luckily someone noted the grillwork painted behind Mathilde’s left shoulder and went exploring along Esplanade Avenue until they spotted a house with an identical railing. The Degas House is now a handsome B&B and museum and thanks to a historical marker out front it’s unlikely to be lost again.

Check out the book at

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