Though more reminiscent of the Middle Ages than of recent times, the marriage ceremony of General P.C.T. Beauregard’s niece. Bertha Hall, the daughter of Angele Beauregard and Frederick Hall, took place in St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans only 100 years ago. According to a contemporary newspaper account, the “evening was a scene of much social splendour and religious dignity,” and
united in the ties of marriage two of the most distinguished Creole families in Louisiana, whose names have been honored for many generations in family dignity, wealth and deeds of valor. . . . The most prominent people of American and Creole society were seated within the Cathedral to witness the marriage ceremony. . . . Within the sanctuary was a dense foliage of palms and ferns. The bridal pews were barriered with a rope of smilax entwined with white roses. Miss Escobal, the talented organist of the St. Louis Cathedral, played Goronden March as the bridal procession walked up the aisle, with the Suisse in gold-braided red uniform leading the way, swinging to and fro his baton of gold.
As the 12 ushers reached the altar, “They separated and formed a company of honor, through which the bride passed.” At the altar steps, the groom
took the bride’s hand, placed it within his arm, advanced towards the altar where Very Rev. Father Mignot, Father Scotti, Father Gireand and a circle of acolytes awaited to perform the religious service of marriage. Father Mignot delivered a nuptial sermon of tender thought and graceful words. He spoke of the honored names of the bride and groom, of their families’ loyalty and efforts in propagating the Catholic faith in Louisiana, but above all the glory of virtue and honor that had ever haloed the family heritage of bride and groom. In terminating his sermon Father Mignot said: “My children, God bless you both in being well born. Let this blessing be your incentive to humility of heart. Christian charity and loyal allegiance to the Catholic church.”
Doesn’t it seem odd to read of the union of two “Creole families,” witnessed by “prominent people of American and Creole societies“? It seems so to me when I read those phrases now, though there was a time when it seemed perfectly natural.
On my father’s side, I am descended from the original French and Spanish settlers in New Orleans. The groom in the ceremony described above was Edouard Alphonse Toledano, my grandfather. Most of the information I have of the old city, prior to World War I, came from listening to stories, however embellished, told by people of my parents’ and grandparents’ generation. By the time I began to hear them, my father’s family had sought and found, at least psychologically, some comfort in remembrances of things past.
The topics of conversation seemed normal at the time, though not now. Everything was highly personal in a rather formal and proper way. Madame So-and-So’s “secret” nips of brandy, the “friendship” her husband the judge had towards a younger woman of questionable station, the cotton broker’s gambling debts, the card games, the operas, the ancient family portraits, the furniture and silver which had not yet been delicately “transferred” into other hands. Right was right . . . and also very clear. Money was never discussed, for to do so was the sure sign of poor breeding. In fact, money was dirty. That thought sustained them in their genteel poverty; that and who they thought themselves to be; and thus—in a way—they were.
Of special appeal to me was the story of that part of my family which did not allow mention of the Degas name in their home because, many years earlier, in 1879, Rene Degas, Edgar’s brother, had divorced his blind wife of ten years, Estelle Musson, and left her and their four children and returned to France. As if that were not enough, Rene married Mrs. Leonce Olivier, nee America Durrive, of New Orleans. Estelle changed her name back to Musson, and the Degas name became one of unhappy memory. As a show of support, the friends of the Mussons refused thereafter to utter the name Degas. What made the story so interesting was that Edgar Degas had painted several portraits of members of the family which refused to utter his name.
As best I can put the pieces together, the Creole families, once influential and prominent, lived in the Old Quarter until early in the 20th century. What they lacked in money, they made up in refinement, good manners, and a sense of Old World French culture. They were very Roman Catholic and very proud, which were not considered contradictory. My father’s family spoke French in their home, although they had lived in America 200 years at the time. Their library was entirely in French. Theirs was a very small but elegant bit of France in America; they had thought it would last forever. In truth, it had ended with the Civil War; they just wouldn’t accept the fact for another 50 years. By then, it was too late to do anything about where they would fit into the brash, bustling, mercantile society. For the most part, they wouldn’t, because they couldn’t, and still remain faithful to their ancestors and their traditions. Those who would survive in any kind of comfortable fashion had to make their peace with those they viewed as crude and crass American merchants and moneylenders. The rest fell out of touch. Even most of the lyrical old names are gone.
Of course, such wedding events and all that they represented are no more. That last vestige of Old France in America has passed into the realm of memory, and the memory is faint.
In America, the more things change, the more things change, not only the times, but also the terms. One seemingly small example has to do with the term “Creole.” For reasons which I do not understand, black people in New Orleans and their carpetbagger scholars / apologists have decided to expropriate the term and to give it a new meaning. No, it was not always that way.
Professor William A. Read, in Louisiana-French, published by Louisiana State University Press in 1931, defined “Creole” as “a white descendant of the French or Spanish settlers in Louisiana during the Colonial Period (1699-1803).” “Un nègre Creole” was defined as “a negro who speaks Negro-French, and who was born in the New World.” According to Professor Read, “Creole” was “a seventeenth-century loan from Spanish criollo, a person of European descent born in some other part of the world than Europe.”
In keeping with our present day “thought” patterns, one might ask if it really makes any difference. “So the term as originally applied during the Colonial Period in Louisiana meant a French-speaking white person of French or Spanish descent,” he might say. “So now the blacks want the term to mean either a native-born negro or a negro whose ancestors include Europeans. So what’s the problem?” If history itself can be rewritten to suit current tastes and prejudices, then why can’t historical terms be taken and turned into whatever the expropriators wish? After all, this is a “free country,” isn’t it?
Well, one problem has to do with something as basic as communication. For example, if a white descendant of the 18th-century French and Spanish settlers in Louisiana is asked to write about his Creole ancestry, must he regret the invitation because the term is no longer applicable to his cultural background? Or, must he accept on the condition that he will have to substitute a term for Creole so as not to confuse the issue? Or is he obliged to give an explanation of how and why the meaning of the term has changed?
And how does one do research using original sources or even quite recent sources? Must he have a reader’s guide to the meaning of words and terms during certain periods of time? What are we to make of Lyle Saxon’s 1938 description of colonial New Orleans?
During the French and Spanish regimes (1718-1803) New Orleans remained little more than a town, the population within the city wall never greatly exceeding five thousand. Except for officialdom and a small circle of aristocracy, which was augmented after the French Revolution by the coming of emigres, the inhabitants consisted mainly of the bourgeoisie, soldiers, and the American frontiersmen, who came in increasing numbers after 1800. From the lowest to the highest social stratum in this community there was a very definite distinction assumed by the Creole element (descendants of the original French and Spanish settlers) of the population. Averse to all foreign intercourse but that with the mother countiies, they maintained their social and cultural identity, regarding as unfortunate any increase in the foreign population of the city. So marked was this attitude that after American annexation resulted in an influx of Anglo- Saxons, the newcomers found it advisable to settle outside the confines of the Creole section. Ultimately surrounded by suburban foreigners, the Vieux Carre became a city within a city, in which Creole society maintained its own high social standards.
Only upon that small, fertile island within the larger, figurative island of Louisiana could the unique European culture which was New Orleans have flourished for two hundred years (1718-1918). Many of the wonderful old buildings remain, especially in the French Quarter, which, of course, is no longer French. Once grand homes and tasteful commercial quarters are now occupied by vendors of T-shirts, beer, and vulgar lingerie. The virility of those monuments in brick and stucco is now exceeded by the cultural sterility of those who occupy them and who walk beside them, half-naked, drunk, and singing dirty songs. C’est la guerre.