When people think of Bourbon Street, images come to mind of a cacophonous carnival of sights and sounds, bright lights and loud music, a frenzied, often garish atmosphere. This boozy barrage on the senses is often the image that lingers, and if in town only briefly, a visitor may end up thinking of New Orleans as Bourbon Street. No Dorothy, this isn’t Kansas. But it’s not really New Orleans either. In fact the high voltage brightness of the Bourbon Street circus often ends up misrepresenting even the street itself.
What the tourist most often finds on Bourbon Street is not New Orleans, but more tourists. Many of the “attractions” on this street are tourist traps pure and simple. The places with the brightest lights and the loudest noise often fall into this category. But there are a few oases around—you have to look, but they’re there. A few vestiges of the real French Quarter exist without all the hype and high pressure. For instance, Galatoire’s Restaurant is one. And Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop, the centuries-old bar, is another.
Lafitte’s is not just a bar—it’s a piano bar, one with an especially relaxed and low-key atmosphere. The atmosphere is often like a gathering of friends. This mood of pleasant congeniality has something to do with the cozy rustic qualities of the building itself, one of the oldest in the area (as its name implies, it was once owned by the famous pirate). But much of the informal warmth of this place has to do with its principle entertainer, Lily Hood, better known as Miss Lily.
Miss Lily is a Bourbon Street institution. She has been performing there for some 14 years. Many of the bar’s customers are regulars, whether they live across the street or across the continent (or across the ocean for that matter). They seem to feel right at home. The combination of Lafitte’s and Miss Lily epitomizes the cosmopolitan tradition of the old French Quarter.
“People seem to like me,” she explained. “I may not be the best singer or piano player, but most people enjoy what I do. It seems to put them at ease.”
Miss Lily’s regulars have included a wide variety of people, including the very famous. “Tennessee used to come here all the time,” she reminisced, alluding to the late playwright Tennessee Williams, whose New Orleans residence was an easy stroll away. “He would always come in and say ‘Hello Miss Lily. Lily Hood you see, I remember your name—and I don’t remember anyone’s name, not even the actors in my plays.’ He was always very nice. In fact, a few days before he died he was here. And he said to me, ‘Wish me luck, because the critiques are terrible in New York. I hope I do better in London.’
“People say he was belligerent, but he was never belligerent in here. You see I never told people who he was, and he appreciated that a lot. I always treated him like he was an old friend or relative. Once, right after he left, some tourists asked me, ‘Was that a relative of yours?’ I said, ‘No, that was Tennessee Williams.’ They said, ‘Why didn’t you tell me—I would have asked for his autograph.’ I said, ‘That’s why I didn’t tell you.’ And they were furious.”
The incident illustrates a facet of Miss Lily’s personality. She inspires confidence. People confide in her. Despite the changing ebb and flow of the bar’s clientele, Miss Lily has a knack for the one-on-one rapport. Or as she puts it, “They all seem to trust me—they think I’m the mother who’s in town. You know? Instead of the mother who’s out of town. They all come to me with their problems. They say, ‘Oh, I’m happy you’re here.’ I say—‘I’m always here. If I’m not, it means I’m dead.’
“But what we do here is unique; not like other places. It doesn’t bother me if people talk while I’m performing. I want them to feel at home. People come and they participate. You know, they sing along. And if we don’t know the words, we find somebody who does. I think people like to come here because I’m not perfect. It’s not like I’m Liza Minelli where you wouldn’t dare say a word or join in the singing. So some nights it’s me and the audience participating, and some nights it’s just me, and the audience is just listening or talking or whatever. It’s nice…”
Miss Lily exudes old world charm. She speaks with a slight accent, vaguely European, and plays an international smorgasbord of music ranging from Gershwin and Cole Porter show tunes to continental classics of the sort made famous by Edith Piaf and Marlene Dietrich. Born in Greece and reared in Switzerland and Latvia, she is fluent in several languages. So it comes as no surprise that she is especially popular with visitors from Europe.
“They come here from all over, especially France, Spain and Italy. They like having someone who lives here and speaks their language.”
We asked Miss Lily how she ended up in New Orleans playing at the piano bar at Lafitte’s. Her answer to the first part of the question was as colorful as we had, by now, come to expect. She met her husband in Europe, where he was working for the filmmaker Dino di Laurentis. He, it seems, was from New Orleans, and like almost all locals, was possessed of a profound homing instinct. So naturally, perhaps inevitably, they ended up in the Crescent City.
As for Lafitte’s, it seems that she had been a fan of the previous piano player, a Frenchman, and so had brought some French friends there one night only to find that he was no longer performing.
“So we came in here and there was nobody—just the juke box playing. And so my husband said, ‘Why don’t you play a little?’ And I said, ‘What—play in a bar? I don’t even drink.’ And he said, ‘Go on—wake up the place.’ And the bartender said, ‘Sure, go ahead.’ And so I started to play, and people started coming in and requesting songs like Moon River or whatever…
“And this went on for the rest of the evening. I did it for fun, but then the manager asked me, ‘Miss Lily, would you work for us?’ They knew me since I lived just down the street and was always walking by. So, I gave it a try, and at first I was terrified, but then I started to get hooked, and now I’m here all the time…” And so she is. An institution, yet one of Bourbon Street’s best kept secrets. Miss Lily reminds us that the true strength of a place like the French Quarter lies in its character, especially its character as a neighborhood, a place where people return to see old friends. And in the case of Lafitte’s Miss Lily, it is a neighborhood that begins on Bourbon Street and extends to the far corners of the globe.