by Jon Newlin, NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana
Like so many people who are of
humble or, let's face it, less-than-distinguished origins, Eloi Bordelon (the final in my triumvirate of three E's) was a ruthless, nay, sisters, a pitiless snob.
Like so many people who put on exquisite and refined manners like the rest of us put on our bunny rabbit mules and a quart of cold cream to get out of bed in the morning, he could be ruthlessly rude. And like so many queans of that vintage-it must have been a great set of years: full bodied reds and dry-ice sharp whites-he Knew Everything and Everyone.
Locally, Eloi is probably most famous as having been Tennessee Williams' roommate when the Great American Playwright first moved here from St. Louis roughly around the time of the Late Cretaceous, when ceratopsians and carnosaurs were still battling it out in the Montana Bad Lands. I'm told by someone who has inspected Williams' unpublished papers and letters at the University of Texas that Eloi turns up over and over, though he doesn't get much mention in Lyle Leverich's biography.
He gets enough mention for anyone with practice in these matters to read between the lines to the effect that it can't have been exactly an easy time between these two. There must have been constant contests as to who was the Greater Lady, and I can imagine Williams must have felt like a piece of terry-cloth after a pulling contest with a bullmastiff after most of them.
By the time I encountered La Bordelon, there was no question of such things. The old girl was positively wreathed, aura'd, and haloed with such imperial airs that all one could do was salaam.
"You know, dear,"-this was the way virtually every Bordelonian pronunciamento opened-"Tennessee and I do still speak."
Eloi would never have referred to him as Tom, at least in the hearing of such a pipsqueak as myself.
"Why, you know, darling, he called me in 1948 for my gumbo recipe." So that was that.
Eloi had a long if somewhat mysterious life apart from Tennes see Williams. His predecessors were from Avoyelles Parish-"From Marksville, darling, though you, know, Bordelonville is of course the family seat. I designed my mother's tomb, dear. It's the only double-crypt in Marksville and it's been very widely copied, you know."
Later, much later, when I knew Eloi, he was not in the best of health and his doctor in New York had advised a stress test. Well, Eloi died more or less and had to be brought back with those things that look like jumper-cables. He told me, "My dear, there I was! On the other side! And what! do you think! There, my dear, were all of my ancestors in crinolines, darling, and! In sepia tone!" Easily the most convincing proof of life after death I'd ever heard.
After World War II, Eloi told me he had lived in the building behind a brick wall on St. Ann Street across from the Pub, and he also told me a few of his adventures with what he referred to in the slang of that ancient period as "jams"-straight trade. ("Remember, dear, that boys are merely a temporary adjunct to our existence," he once decreed, passing on the wisdom of the ages.)
So at some point in the late Forties or early Fifties, Eloi went to New York. I don't know what he did but he later became a sort of famous muralist and decorator and did wonderful little paintings of male nudes, those temporary adjuncts, standing amidst romantic ruins and the like, which were so peculiar that they missed both realism and its overrated sister, surrealism, by miles to become something quite their own.
Eloi was also magnificently skilled at painting fakes-18th-century portraits (one of which had beneath its cracks and varnish, the unmistakable face of Bette Davis) or detached pieces of Quattro Cento Siennese frescoes.
I happened to meet Eloi because he was the landlord of my dear sister, the Oldest Woman In Algiers (since resident in Marrero) who inhabited a marvelous raised early nineteenth century cottage on Vallette Street in Algiers.
(Eloi was a keen student of architecture in all of its forms; pointing to some run-down shotgun, he'd shout, "Look, darling, there it is! That's the dream! And look, dear, the lines are still there!" I know Diana Vreeland must have copied his every word and move. Any building with a hint of the Pharaonic inevitably brought forth, "Well, dear, that's a real retour d'Egypte!")
Inevitably, I met Eloi and we were mutually enchanted and whenever he came to town to look over his property and otherwise make the life of the Oldest Woman In Algiers utterly miserable as landlords, especially the absentee kind, will, we got together.
Slight, pale, lean, but utterly grand with a voice that could always carry to the second balcony in a pinch, he'd drag us all over the map to look at things he thought, no, knew, we should be looking at, quiz us on our artistic and sexual tastes-the chiding remark was "My dear, if you're not careful, I'll have to tear down all the statues I've erected to you in the Pantheon!"
I came in for more than my share when Eloi paid a flying visit to my house. At the time, I had a bed tented with all sorts of materials-ancient and putrefying cretonnes, old piano shawls sharded by the dirty toenails of countless hustlers, damask panels, tassels of every description, bells and masks and shell necklaces hanging from it, bakelite flowers, animal heads, etc. And my house was crammed with bibelots of every sort, piled on books, tables, every surface was covered. (It was, perhaps, not up to the magnificence of 828 Bourbon Street in this regard, but few places outside of the Treasury at Toledo Cathedral and the walk-in safes of certain Indian maharajahs are; a girl can try, cain't she?)
So there was Eloi, looking like china in a bull shop, rather dismayed at all he surveyed, except for my dog, a male Basenji, unaltered.
"My dear, a dog! And oh, such a virile little dog!" Eloi looked around, sniffed a bit and finally unloaded, "You know, dear, you really ought to get rid of all this, this queen frou-frou," (I can't convey the disdain he packed into those words), "my dear, paint all the walls white! Set up a drawing table for your work! But my dear, by no means divest yourself of that wonderful whore's bed!" And again, that was, as they say, that, ragazzi.
So we spent a lot of time just hanging with Eloi, listening to him rattle on about which local salons we ought to frequent (as if we would), pick up bits of social advice as "You know, dear, there's nothing like a row of bracelets on a girl's arm to give her cachet!" Cachet was a supernaturally desirable quality in Eloi's universe; I wonder how many people today even know what the word means.
We would listen to Eloi's helpful hints on how we could improve ourselves-"My dear, stop speaking through your jowls!" was one he flung at me more than once-and to his encyclopedic command, one which rivaled that of the late and much lamented Paul Rossetter of Doubleday's, Canal Street, of the lyrics to every popular song written between 1894 and the end of World War Two.
When once we found ourselves, as we often did, in Wanda's for a round of Pink Squirrels, a young man obviously on the game as they say, came up and began focusing his sexual-monetary attentions on La Bordelon. Honey, the Great Ice Age never saw sheets of frost like those that closed around Eloi like a vise grip.
"Hey, whutsyuh name, man?" he kept asking. Eloi wheeled about and with enough cold hauteur to set a bombe glacee, answered "Miss Brown to you, honey." That was the end of that. We almost died. (The reference, incidentally, is to a song by Ralph Rainger and Leo Robin, made famous by Billie Holiday in a 1935 recording accompanied by Teddy Wilson, Benny Goodman, and Ben Webster, among others. Eloi probably could have told this youth that as well, had he desired.)
Years later, when I was visiting New York, I thought I'd drop in on the old girl at her apartment in Yorkville since she had urged this; but of course, nothing happens casually in New York.
My old and dear friend Becket, with whom I was staying in the bowels of the glamorous and smart Lower East Side, offered to accompany me Uptown so I called Eloi, who was effusive over the phone like we'd been to girls' school in Switzerland during the Boer War and hadn't seen each other since.
"My dear, you must come up on Thursday evening, I'm having a group of old queans in and they'll quite amuse you.," etc., etc. So we went.
Eloi's little apartment on East 78th was smartly furnished (and need I tell you, dear hearts, stuffed floor to ceiling with-you guessed it-queen frou frou), and she'd picked it up for a song sometime after investing in those NYC Municipal Bonds.
Eloi's companion was another matter-nice enough, but obviously fond enough of a drink that he couldn't keep steady employment of any kind and younger than Eloi by decades (meaning he was in his fifties) with an affected English accent of the sort favored by certain local publishing tycoons.
"My dear, I thought we'd have just a drop of gin and a bit of pate," said Eloi in his best Ernest Thesiger manner, as the other guests started to arrive, interrupting La Bordelon in the midst of a disquisition on how New York City museum guards, particularly the African-American ones, were the best cruising in New York, and "Darling, there was one at the Frick, my dear, he was a steady for ages..." etc., and as the guests shuffled and tottered in-a bit like the grand soiree at the Prince de Guermantes at the end of Proust or the spa scenes in Fellini's Eight and a Half. Becket and I-not exactly spring pullets-were the youngest people there, everyone else (except Paul, Eloi's companion) was upwards of eighty.
They were a delicious bunch. Gradually we forgot about the pate, served in miserly little gobbets, and concentrated on the gin; Eloi took me by the arm and said, "My dear, you've got to talk to these two old queans! They're just back from a sex-a-thon in Turkey!" and squired me over to the two most decrepit gentlemen there.
One had a broad Scotch accent, the other was nearly deaf and blind, and they proceeded to tell me hair-raising details of Turkish men and members and how they didn't go to North Africa anymore because the Germans had positively ruined it by overtipping the boy whores.
Gradually everything became-as it will when Madame Tanqueray is at the wheel-shall we say, hazy?
I remember another, less crowded visit with Becket to East 78th Street where, after a few drinks, we watched a fetching young man in the apartment across the street masturbate for what seemed forever through a telescope that Eloi had thoughtfully provided near his bathroom window. But again, that evening is a bit of a blur.
Within a year (with only one more visit to New Orleans where he seemed more frail than ever and almost completely lacking in joie de vivre) the Oldest Woman In Algiers got the news that Eloi was dead, rather coldly and summarily delivered, along with the news that the house was going on the market and that he would have to start packing his grip.
The circumstances were anything but clear-where Eloi had died, how, what had happened to his remains.
I called Becket and asked him to play Miss Marple and see if he could spook around East 78th and find something out, but it would have worked just as well had I played Nero Wolfe and stayed at home eating quail and cogitating in a swivel-chair over a glass of beer.
Eventually, we discovered that Eloi had died "suddenly" in Greece; Paul had his remains, and was his sole legatee, no doubt amply provided for.
I shouldn't end on such a note. The Oldest Woman In Algiers and I still speak to one another in Bordelonese (not a pasta sauce) from time to time, and it would be near-impossible to low-rate the number of times Eloi enlightened or amused me.
My favorite memory is of one Sunday afternoon when Eloi insisted that we drive through Metairie Cemetery so that he could inspect the monuments (we also spent an agonizing hour on Bottinelli Place watching Eloi match architectural wits with Old Man Bottinelli but that's another story) and we drove through and he would peer out the window, "Oh, look, dears, that's a very, very social name..." as he read off the tombstones. Each row of tombs provoked the same reaction, "Do you know them, dear? They're very social. I'm sure they have quite a salon. Very, very social." And then what should come on the radio? "High Society!"
I haven't come close to doing Eloi any sort of justice in the above article. Article, shit, he de-serves an encyclopedia.