Henri Schindler never has to worry about anyone sneaking up on his house. All new arrivals provoke loud warnings from his two Pekingese, Carlotta and Xariffa. Carlotta, the elder of the two, has recently undergone surgery to remove one of her eyes -- but the loss does nothing to diminish Carlotta's belief in her own beauty, nor her passions, and she flings herself against visitors in an attitude of seduction. Xariffa, meanwhile, retreats to safety beneath the couch to hurl Pekingese epithets.
The names of Schindler's dogs are as significant as everything else in his apartment, which houses a baroque accumulation of Mardi Gras artifacts. Carlotta, born on Mardi Gras 1990, received her name from Carlotta Bonnecaze, Schindler's favorite of the 19th century Mardi Gras float designers. "Xariffa" was the pen name of Ashley Townsend, the poet laureate of the Krewe of Rex in the 1870s.
Schindler points to a portrait of another Pekingese, Carlotta's father Massa, which hangs over a shrine to Comus, the august progenitor of the Mardi Gras parade tradition. Massa died two years ago, and his ashes rest on this shrine amidst the Comus relics -- a gem-encrusted chalice, a waxen mask that leans with empty eyes and mouth.
Schindler folds himself cross-legged onto the floor, still attempting to woo Xariffa out from under couch, and explains the origin of Massa's name. It comes from a story he had read in Emily Hahn's book Eve and the Apes. Once upon a time, there was a woman who kept a pet gorilla named Massa in her home as though he were her child. Although this gorilla was male, the woman dressed him in girl's clothes because she had always wanted a daughter. One day, a terrible misunderstanding occurred; the gorilla attacked his mistress and so was sent to live in a zoo. The zookeepers believed they had gotten a female gorilla and placed Massa in a cage with another male gorilla, hoping for baby gorillas. The two male gorillas sniffed each other out immediately and their relationship degraded into violence. So poor Massa had to spend the rest of his days in isolation where, according to the book, he comforted himself by fashioning burlap sacks into shawls and bonnets.
"When I read that I just about fell off my chair," says Schindler. "A drag queen gorilla! Of course! It's perfect!"
Death, dogs, drag-queens, ashes, irreverence, and the jeweled splendor of the 19th century Creole rites of Carnival. If one can take the measure of a man by reviewing the adornments of his living room side table, then this would be Henri Schindler's portrait.
As both a Mardi Gras historian and the float designer for the old-line krewes, most notably the Mystick Krewe of Comus and the Krewe of Rex, Schindler's name has become synonymous with the classical age of Mardi Gras. It might seem to be a rather solemn job, but as the one-time king of Krewe du Vieux and the float designer for Le Krewe D'Etat, Schindler also has outlets for his mischievous streak.
In 1993, Schindler rode the Krewe du Vieux king's float as Sarcophagus I and placed a funeral wreath at the Boston Club to mourn the passing of the old-line parades. This was the year of the infamous City Council ordinance that denied a parade permit to the Mardi Gras krewes that did not become racially integrated. At the Boston Club, Schindler also read a peroration in which he told the City Council, "Your days are numbered!"
"My mother was horrified when she saw me on the 10 o'clock news," he recalls with delight.
This year's Le Krewe D'Etat theme is once again a secret, but if all goes according to plan, the satirical parade will once again take out the long knives and carve up as many famous people as possible. Of the floats, Schindler says, "These should get us in a lot of trouble ... I hope!"
Schindler's literary contributions to Carnival history are more straight-faced. Mardi Gras Treasures, published by Pelican Publishing, is a series of four books (three so far, one more to be published this fall) recounting the history of 19th century Carnival through an examination of the artists who created the floats, costumes, ball decorations, invitations and parade bulletins for what we now refer to as old-line krewes: Comus, Momus, Proteus and Rex. The subtitle for each book identifies it as a history of "The Golden Age," beginning with the appearance of Comus in 1857 and fading by World War II. In Schindler's view, nothing about Mardi Gras has ever been so grand.
His research focuses on the pantheon of artists -- Charles Briton, Carlotta Bonnecaze, Bror Anders Wikstrom and Jenny Wilde, among others -- who infused the peculiar American-Creole-Roman Catholic-Pagan social custom with dream-like images. The books are filled with surreal watercolor drawings; Bonnecaze's salamanders disport themselves on the surface of the sun and hold festive parasols to shield themselves from the burning rays of nearby Mercury. The drawings served as the prototypes for the floats and costumes, and yet despite their utilitarian purpose, one could easily transpose these whimsical images into a Victorian children's book. Schindler vividly illustrates how today's spectacle was nourished by the exquisite strangeness and excess in the work of these artists.
"The preconceived idea of Mardi Gras is tacky and cheesy," says Schindler. "I wanted to shed light on these beautiful works of art."
In his book on float designs, Schindler has observed of these artists that they appeared to "nurse a horror of the void. No surface lacked ornament." The same observation could be made of Schindler himself. There is room to sit on the pale green velvet couch and the dogs have the run of the floors, but nearly every other available surface in his living room, dining room and kitchen is filled with representatives of 40 years of collecting: frothy constellations of rhinestones, globed scepters, small-scale papier-mache models of floats, a riot of miniature antique toy figurines, and more and ever more. Schindler lifts a tiara once worn by an early Queen of Comus and turns it carefully to show all the facets. "These are all altars here," he says, carefully returning the tiara to its place.
He progresses from the living room into "the Holy Office" -- his workroom, which is filled with portraits of popes throughout history. Rendered in a large, Schindler-commissioned papier-mache bust is Pius XII. "He was the pope when I was a young child so I have nostalgic attachment. And he looked the part," says Schindler, who has costumed as Leo X for Carnival and also stood in St. Peter's Square in 1978 to watch for the plumes of smoke that announced the conclave's selection of John Paul I. "It's not hard to figure out where this fascination comes from," he says. "The Vatican is the last real palace. It is a true sovereign state, and it is treated as such. Unlike here ... oh, well."
Schindler often stops in mid-sentence with a murmur of disappointment, as if it's too painful to continue. This happens when he discusses the American failure to appreciate royalty, pageantry and beauty. Clearly, it can be difficult for a Mardi Gras historian to live in the modern world.
Also displayed in the Holy Office is a portrait of Louis Fischer, dressed in the costume of a pierrot in the 1920s. She was the last of the great old-line krewe float designers, and she was Schindler's mentor. Fischer began her designing career while still a student at Newcomb Art School, and Schindler credits her with carrying the grandeur of the 19th century floats into the 20th century. Fischer stopped designing floats in the 1930s and concentrated on costumes for 30 years before returning to float design for Comus, Momus and Proteus.
When Schindler met her in 1970, she was nearly retired from the whole business, apparently exhausted by the creeping modernism that had been chipping away at her cherished tradition. The two met on the day after Ash Wednesday; Schindler carried Fischer's groceries home from the A&P and she allowed him to look at her drafting table. There, he gazed with wonder at the designs for the Comus floats he had just seen rolling down Canal Street two nights earlier.
Fischer was deeply influenced by Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, and during Schindler's three years of learning by her side, she impressed on him the importance of the literary source. When they worked on the theme of "Seashells" for Proteus, Schindler would offer ideas about the purpled murex. "No, no!" he recalls her saying. "Find the story of the seashells! Where does the murex come from?"
Schindler's love for his mentor is obvious, and when he refers to her "poor unfortunate nose" he does so with tenderness. This plain fact of her appearance seems to have been the formative aspect of Fischer's life, for Schindler couldn't help but describe her in his book as "singularly unattractive; a curse she never escaped." Schindler brings out a photo of Fischer taken on Mardi Gras, her last before her death. She wears a white tulle ruff around her neck and a black velvet cap adorned with a single tall feather. (This same cap now dangles from a screen in Schindler's living room.) Fischer tilts her head to one side, and her face wears an innocent, trusting, soft expression. She appears to possess the fragility of a woman who has learned that the world is not kind to unbeautiful women. "And yet, she so loved beauty," says Schindler.
Fischer died in 1974, at which time Schindler, as her protege, became the natural heir to the Comus, Momus and Proteus float design work. A few years later, the captain of Krewe of Rex asked him to design its floats as well.
His career as an artist is admirable, considering that Schindler says he can't draw, paint or sculpt. "But I have great ideas," he says. So as other artists sketch what Schindler sees in his mind's eye, he labors to return these old-line floats to the same grandeur and ornamentation of the classical period. It's clear that he wants people down on the street now to have that same visual experience enjoyed by 19th century spectators. It would be nice, he says, if we could bring back the mules to pull the caissons and more of the flambeaux carriers, too. It's just not the same without that "primordial, ancient and potent" feeling brought on by presence of animals and fire.
Schindler is also nearly fanatical on the subject of masks. If you do not cover your face with a mask, he says, you have not fully relinquished your old identity to enter into the spirit of Mardi Gras, which is ego-less and free of the past. Once Schindler was dancing at a party with a beautiful woman. He told her she should be wearing a mask, and the woman was insulted. Later a friend told him that the woman was Cheryl Tiegs, which meant nothing to him. Supermodels didn't exist in the 19th century, so for Schindler they have no importance.
True to his mentor's teaching, Schindler's grasp of Mardi Gras is essentially literary. Several times during an interview, he jumps up to run to his library to pull out a book and read aloud. He quotes frequently from his idol, the historian Perry Young, who wrote The Mystick Krewe in 1931 and gave Mardi Gras its defining metaphor, "the butterfly of winter." Schindler also admires Lafcadio Hearn's lavish descriptions of Creole Carnival and quotes him in his own books. "You can't describe Mardi Gras with an ordinary set of adjectives," says Schindler of Hearn's work. "You must write 'purple' descriptions, otherwise, you sound cynical or snide and always incomplete."
Some of Schindler's most graceful writing appears in his first book, Mardi Gras New Orleans, published by Flammarion Books in 1997. "The observance of Mardi Gras predates all else," he writes in his preface. "Embracing and infusing all that followed -- the colonial orphan's longing for the crown, the perpetual calendar of fantasy (of preparation, enactment, and of memory), and the passion for music and dance -- all have been played out amid New Orleans' extravagant vegetation, beneath her blazing suns and warlock moons."
This is a wider study of Carnival than the Pelican books. It's still centered on his favorite time period, 1857 to the 1950s, but it includes social history, as well as art history. The Flammarion book, unfortunately out of print, also differs from the Pelican books in that it describes aspects of Carnival that go beyond Schindler's customary field of expertise, the social rituals of the white Creole aristocracy. "I didn't know much about black Mardi Gras," he acknowledges as he flips though a copy of the Flammarion book looking for the chapter titled "Carnival Noir." "It was a great learning experience doing this book."
Schindler never allowed school to get in the way of his education. He enjoyed a few years as an English major at University of New Orleans and wrote for the school paper before leaving without a degree. He considered a career as a film critic in Boston, but then returned to New Orleans and the one topic that had seized him completely, since he was a young child -- Mardi Gras.
Schindler grew up on Algiers Point, then known as Old Algiers. He describes his childhood as "idyllic and very Victorian," surrounded by his grandmother and aunts. His father had emigrated from Alsace-Lorraine, and his mother's family descended from the French and Spanish Creoles of Plaquemine Parish. His entree to Mardi Gras occurred in 1946, when he was 5 years old. (Carnival had been canceled during the preceding years because of World War II). Like many children, he was dazzled by the spectacular nighttime display of Comus.
Even more pivotal for Schindler was the publication of Arthur LaCour's 1952 book New Orleans Masquerade, an encyclopedic compendium of the old-line krewes, descriptions of themes and floats, and the names of all the members of the courts. Schindler remembers that, as a 10-year-old, he sat in the public library for hours, poring over LaCour's architecture of old Creole society. The combined allure of the fantastical night parades and this meticulously recorded history hooked young Schindler at both heart and head and turned him into what his friends call a "Mardi Gras maniac."
Then something really amazing happened. One night during Carnival season, when he was about 10 years old, Schindler was hanging around outside his grandmother's house when he saw the empty floats for the Krewe of Alla rumbling back to the den, which was just a few blocks away. To see the floats in this way, far from the parade crowds, was unthinkably intimate. Schindler stalked the floats to their lair and watched them disappear behind the warehouse doors. Then in an enterprising move, equal parts Huckleberry Finn and Nancy Drew, he found a ladder and dragged it to the side of the warehouse, then clambered up to a window and peeked inside.
It is a common childhood trauma to discover that reality doesn't live up to fantasy. A child sees the strings that hold up the puppet or the clown without his makeup, and the revelation ruins the fun, making it small and obvious. For Schindler, this glimpse into the sanctum sanctorum had the opposite effect. It showed him the inner workings of Mardi Gras, which only fueled his fascination.
As the story goes, during this time there was also a threat in the air that Schindler's father, who worked for Maison Blanche in the imported foods and wine department, might take a job in another city. "Cleveland or some place like that," says Schindler. "I was a nervous wreck because if he did take the job, then we'd have to leave New Orleans. Of course, there would be no more Mardi Gras. And then what would I do!"
Faced with possible exile, Schindler worked up the guts to knock on the warehouse door one night, and Blaine Kern opened the door. Schindler says he blurted out a torrential confession of his desperate situation and begged to be allowed into the den because he might never see Mardi Gras again. Kern, new to the business of float building, was happy to allow this young pilgrim to look around. In Schindler's memory, Kern was like a figure from a Hollywood movie, sporting a huge star sapphire ring and keeping a Doberman named Sultan. Schindler visited the den a few more times, and Kern let him whitewash some of the canvas.
Most importantly, he offered Schindler a chance to be near the creations. Many years later Kern and Schindler would work together on the floats for the Krewe of Rex. Though they would experience artistic differences along the way, Schindler has to give Kern credit. "He gave me a taste of all this," he says.
One of the more surprising items on Henri Schindler's resume is that for 25 years he supported himself by working for the Lykes Brothers Steamship Company at the marine desk. This office was open 24 hours in order to take messages from ships at sea and relay them to the appropriate personnel. Schindler would put in a long night shift, which left him free for a few days at a stretch to do the work he really loved -- creating Carnival celebrations.
Working with him at Lykes Brothers was Paul Poché, whom Schindler met in 1964; the two bonded as fellow Mardi Gras maniacs. Poché also worked the marine desk at night to support his love of Carnival. Poché was also an artist; he knew Louis Fischer and would collaborate with Schindler on designing the early Comus floats after Fischer's death.
One of Schindler's and Poché's most intriguing collaborations, however, is the Societé de Sainte Anne, a Carnival walking club, which they started in 1969 along with their friend Jon Newlin, a freelance writer whose work is published in The Times-Picayune and Ambush Magazine. Ste. Anne appears in the Infancy Gospel of St. James, a text denoted by the Vatican as apocryphal, as the mother of the Virgin Mary. "So, I like to think of Sainte Anne as the grandmother of God," says Schindler, who recalls his own grandmother as a Mardi Gras devotee.
Hanging in Schindler's dining room is an enormous portrait of Paul Poché, costumed as The Whore of Babylon for the Ste. Anne parade. He wears a cape, through which protrude opulent, swelling prosthetic breasts and belly, and the rest of him appears to be covered in silver body paint. He also wears a traditional full-face mask to which he has added false eyelashes and a black curly wig. Poché, against a lush green background of palms, leans back his head back in apparent ecstasy. It's quite an eyeful, this painting. And it conveys perfectly the je ne sais quoi of the Ste. Anne parade.
Ste. Anne, like so many of the precious ephemera of Mardi Gras, defies attempts to define it. As a walking club, the only requirement for membership is that you know about it. Every Mardi Gras morning, a large group of people, wearing the most over-the-top costumes imaginable (including the kitchen sink), arrives at someone's house somewhere in the Bywater. Soon the Storyville Stompers show up, and everyone follows the band through the Bywater into the French Quarter up Royal Street, gathering more costumers at various points along the way, until they come to Canal Street where they await the arrival of Rex.
In Ste. Anne, everyone costumes; there are no spectators, only participants. Without any stated doctrine or structure, the Ste. Anne parade, in its spontaneity and disorganization, resembles the old Creole cavalcades that sprawled through New Orleans' streets in the 1830s, Schindler suggests.
The story of Ste. Anne's origins in the 20th century is a little easier to explain. It started as a response to the ordinance that removed the old-line parades from the French Quarter. Schindler, Poché, Newlin and a few more friends wanted to keep the parading tradition alive in the Vieux Carré, so they cooked up this idea for a walking club. Some of them were living on St. Ann Street at the time, so that name seemed to make sense. But then they discovered a tomb in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 that Poché describes as being in "sublime decay, made from that soft mortar and river sand." This tomb was dedicated to the Societé de Sainte Anne, a benevolent society that Poché later learned had been founded by the Sisters of Charity to assist indigent American Indian girls. The nuns taught the girls to sew intricate beadwork. "So there is a connection to our group right there," says Poché, an accomplished sewer of beaded costumes himself.
Soon this group of friends made it an annual rite to gather at this crumbling tomb on All Saints' Day, where they would read aloud the Litany of the Saints in French, and then go to one of their homes to announce that year's Ste. Anne parade theme. They would decide who would host the many parties between Twelfth Night and Mardi Gras, and they would begin the work of making costumes and the ribboned hula-hoops that became a Ste. Anne trademark.
The Babylon theme held strong for a number of years, and they carried a huge gilded papier-mache calf, a representation of the god Marduke with a lapis lazuli beard. "The whole purpose was to antagonize those people who drag a cross on wheels through the Quarter," says Poché. "They were always calling us pagans, so we said we'll show them some real pagans."
True to its mystical origins, all major decisions concerning Ste. Anne were guided by a consultation with the I-Ching, and since the number seven was sacred to the ancient Babylonians, Poché says that when he was sewing costumes, he would group his stitches in clumps of seven. In the past, they would usually attend Ash Wednesday mass at the Chapel of Divine Love to receive the black mark on their foreheads. But mass just hasn't been the same since Vatican II and it was getting harder to get out of bed on Wednesday morning, so they took to burning the palms at home and administering the ashes in their own private ceremony among friends. A few other customs have changed -- Poché says he had to stop having Ste. Anne parties at his house because the place kept catching on fire. "And feathers really stink when they burn," he adds.
Ste. Anne soon became something much bigger. Newlin reports that in the mid-1980s, someone called WTUL-FM on Lundi Gras and gave the home address of the person hosting the Ste. Anne pre-parade party, and the DJ broadcasted this information. The next day, unprecedented numbers of strangers arrived, and the parade continues to mushroom -- a very friendly gathering, but no longer just a gathering of friends.
Another change for this walking club occurred in the mid-1980s. As Newlin puts it, "People were dying like flies." The AIDS crisis took an enormous toll on the Ste. Anne parade. Poché kept a "list of the dead," names of friends who had walked in the parade, that filled two columns in a large ledger book. One year, Schindler had 16 houseguests for Mardi Gras, mostly from San Francisco, many expatriate New Orleanians. "Now they are all dead, all 16 of them. Stuart Baker-Bergen was one of the first. It was the plague." Schindler adds it has become impossible to celebrate Mardi Gras without thinking of them. "The undertone is always there."
Before dying, friends asked to participate posthumously in one last Ste. Anne celebration, and so, after Rex passed on Canal Street, the Ste. Anne parade-goers would make a turn and carry their ashes to the river. On the banks of the Mississippi, Schindler, Poché and others would first dip the ribboned hula-hoops in the water and sweep them back over the people gathered behind, sprinkling droplets over the crowd in a kind of baptism. Then they would set the ashes of their friends upon the water.
It was not only AIDS victims whose ashes went to the river in this way. Poché commemorated his sister Sally at the river; Schindler also brought ashes to honor his friend Eugenie Schwartz, as well as their friend Judy Latour. And so now, even though fewer of their friends are falling to AIDS in recent years, the Ste. Anne parade still serves in part as a process of grief, even as it continues to bloom as a magnificent celebration. Back in 1969, the founders of the walking club chose to inaugurate Ste. Anne on All Saints' Day at the tomb, because it was redolent with atmosphere, not because they intended for their walking club to be so intimately linked to death and remembrance. They were young, and they were having fun. And yet in their playfulness, they displayed a remarkable prescience of their future.
Many of Schindler's stories have an elegiac air. He takes pleasure in knowing that he was born in the old Hotel Dieu because "it was a beautiful Italianate Creole building with ironwork balconies and interior verandas." However, he can't relish these details without also musing on the fact that the building has been demolished. He has dedicated his life to beauty and yet seems constantly aware that so many of the beautiful things he has loved are gone.
Not the least of these is the Comus parade, which Schindler and all his Ste. Anne friends miss keenly as the greatest of all old-line parades. Comus had mythic proportions even before it retreated from public parading in the face of the City Council ordinance that Dorothy Mae Taylor introduced in 1992, which made racial integration a requirement for a parade permit. Comus and Momus have chosen not to parade for the past 10 years, rather than revise their membership procedures.
Always the most secretive of the krewes, Comus also had the reputation for creating the most eerie, otherworldly appearance in its parade. Rolling as it did through the clouds of smoke from the flares, the rich gold leaf gleaming in the firelight, Comus took full advantage of its privileged status as the season's last night parade by closing the holiday with a mysterious and theatrical flourish. When the last Comus float disappeared, that signaled the end of Carnival and the beginning of Lent. Without Comus, Mardi Gras just unravels in a blobby, formless way. "I feel rudderless all day without Comus," says Newlin.
Schindler's tone turns peppery on the subject of "that Taylor foolishness." He still says private clubs ought to be able to do whatever they want; their parades are a public spectacle but not a public accommodation. "Whatever anyone does on Mardi Gras is their own business. The spirit of Carnival is, 'Mind your own business!' Not: 'I don't like that! You should do something else!'" says Schindler. Interestingly, more than a century ago, Lafcadio Hearn used a similar phrase in his essay "A Creole Type." Writes Hearn: "If there is one virtue [Creoles] possess remarkably, it is the virtue of minding their own affairs -- which alas! cannot always be said of all other people who dwell in New Orleans."
Not consciously quoting Hearn, Schindler nonetheless echoes this writer he admires so much. "I'm in favor of snobbery," he says. "Aren't we all? Don't we all have things that we love that we want to protect? And share with people who appreciate it?" He stresses he supports racial integration -- he recalls that, as he was coming of age in the 1950s, he would argue with his parents about this very topic. Yet Schindler's powerful attachment to the old-line parades seems to eclipse all other considerations.
At one point, during a discussion of Perry Young's description of Carnival as the "butterfly of winter," Schindler jumps up from his chair and runs into his library. He returns with Carol Flake's book New Orleans: Behind the Masks of America's Most Exotic City, which she wrote during that fateful year that culminated with the ordinance of 1992 and Comus' retreat from the public streets. Schindler opens the book and reads an epigraph, a quote from Alexander Pope: "Who breaks a butterfly on a wheel?"
It should be noted here that the old-line Krewes of Rex and Proteus agreed to practice non-discrimination in their membership, and their parades are as glorious as ever, if not more so thanks to Schindler. Still, Pope's quote just about says it all for Schindler. He taps the page emphatically with his index finger. "Dorothy Mae Taylor tried to break a butterfly on a wheel," he says.
All information regarding Comus is a secret, and Schindler has a framed commendation that names him "a true and respected friend of Comus" -- partly because he knows how to keep secrets. Even so, it's impossible to resist asking Schindler if he thinks there is any possibility that Comus will ever roll again. Given his status with the club, Schindler could say he has no idea, or he could suggest that his interviewer mind her own business. Instead, he later offers the following message by email -- a tantalizing hint:
"Comus will observe his 150th anniversary in 2006, and I can think of no better way to celebrate this milestone than the return of the Mystick Krewe's parade. At this point, I hope it would take little more than a parade permit from the City Council to secure the return. Do I dream of this? Of course!"