The Catholic Worker Movement

"Introduction", The Thrills of 1924: Dorothy Day Encounters the "Underworld Denizens" of New Orleans by Robert P. Russo.


On December 3, 1923, Dorothy Day, her younger sister Grace Delafield “Della” Day, and their friend Mary Gordon arrived in New Orleans from Chicago. The elder Day had varying reasons for leaving the Windy City behind. She was tired of northern winters, which had left her physically ill by springtime, and trying to avoid the consumption of alcohol, which she had sometimes used in order to keep warm. Day would later confide to her friend Llewellyn Jones, literary editor of the Chicago Evening Post, that “…I never needed much excuse when the liquor flowed free as it generally did in Chicago. Fortunately we know of no place to get it here and there is no one to drink with, so we never think of it.”

Day’s notions that she could avoid cold winters, and the presence of alcohol in New Orleans were ironic, given that a record cold wave would permeate the area in early January of 1924, and Prohibition was rarely, if ever, enforced.

Having no connections in the Crescent City, the women decided to stay the night at the Y. W. C. A., which was then located at 929 Gravier Street. With very little money between them, the women decided to look for a two-bedroom apartment the next morning.

During the previous month, a rental advertisement had appeared in the pages of The Times-Picayune, which read as follows, “JACKSON SQUARE—No. 520 St. Peter street. Two bedrooms, private bath and living room, neatly furnished, clean and comfortable. Walking distance to Canal street, convenient to restaurants. IDEAL FOR BACHELORS.”

The three women found an apartment on December 4, after an all-day search. The apartment, which Day later described as “a large room with a balcony,” was located in the French Quarter, overlooking the Spanish Cabildo, and St. Louis Cathedral. She further explained to Jones that they were living in a house run by a French landlady, who had a daughter. Day had enjoyed reading French to the daughter, adding playfully that, “I’ll learn lots from her.”

Money would soon become an issue for the women, as the rent for their apartment was eight dollars a week, and they had put down five of their combined seven dollars as a deposit. With only two dollars remaining, and no immediate job on the horizon, Day had had to borrow money from Jones in order to survive on fare other than bananas.

After Day had received the much-needed funds from Jones, she described life in New Orleans in December of 1923:

We weren’t quite driven to bananas for the milkman delivers two quarts of milk a day and we had bought lots of rice and oranges—the latter ten cents a dozen. We had a gorgeous time this afternoon shopping in the French market along the wharves. It took the three of us to carry our purchases home—cabbage, potatoes, ground artichokes (did you ever taste them?), pounds of flour, and lard with which to make biscuits in the morning, and, most delectable of all—shrimps, which are fifteen cents a pound and huge and luscious. And the weather is perfect. We walked all afternoon exploring the docks dressed only in serge dresses, for no coats were necessary. The cold I had has disappeared entirely and I feel glorious.

Mary Gordon soon found work selling women’s apparel for fifteen dollars a week, plus commission. Della, having been unable to find suitable employment, returned to New York within a few weeks of her arrival.

Amidst the scramble for immediate employment, it is easy to imagine Day taking clippings of her previously published articles to various newspapers in New Orleans. She had done so earlier in her career, and landed a job on the Socialist New York Call in 1916.

Day would soon encounter the “underworld denizens” of New Orleans—a phrase that she had derived from the literary works of Evangeline Booth and Thomas Burke. Many of these “denizens” were sadly addicted to vice—alcoholism, drugs, gambling, and sexual deviancy. New Orleans could be a tough city to live in, if one wanted to avoid succumbing to vice.

The goal of this work was twofold. On one hand, I wished to expand upon the context of Day’s time in New Orleans. Although Day had mentioned New Orleans in her writings on several occasions, the events surrounding her three months in the Crescent City seemed like a mere footnote. I also briefly wished to show how dealing with the vice of the “underworld denizens” in New Orleans aided her, after her conversion to Catholicism in December of 1927.

The Thrills of 1924 contains seventy articles (twenty were signed by Day) from The New Orleans Item. “All Around New Orleans” contains an analysis of Day’s unsigned articles, with ten separate indications that prove her authorship. “Visiting Celebrities” includes Day’s articles relating to Italian tragedienne, Eleonora Duse, and interviews with the family of future Louisiana Governor Henry L. Fuqua. Going Undercover in New Orleans includes the fascinating, and oftentimes lurid, accounts of Day’s exposé of vice found in three different dance halls. The section also includes an interview with heavyweight boxing champion, Jack Dempsey, and Day’s coverage of his exhibition matches held in the Crescent City. Finally, The Thrills of 1924 section contains Day’s reporting upon the rampant rise of gambling undertaken by women.