Monday, November 7, 2016

The World of M. Devoti

We often speak of young women and girls going to “charm school” and learning how to walk gracefully and sit properly and to conduct oneself with poise and propriety at all times.  But the fact of the matter is that it wasn’t so much “Charm School” as it was lessons given in the home by a tutor or in the tutor’s home or studio.  A wonderful (if extremely archaic) word for it is “Deportment.”  No, it does not mean sending illegal immigrants back across the border (although it can).  In this case deportment means behavior and the way one conducts oneself.  Teachers of deportment, usually women, frequently single women, also often taught dance and music as well.  A romantic (if somewhat incorrect) notion has surfaced that dance academies were across the street from fencing schools and that young Creole men went from one directly to the other.  Another variant of this highly romanticized idea has the guys practicing their swordsmanship in the street, distracting the girls who are staring out the window instead of paying attention to the dance instructor.  Delicious, yes, but not true.  One of my favorite people from old New Orleans was a “professor of dance and deportment” known only as M. Devoti.

I know very little about him beyond what I write about here.  He was not from New Orleans and, although Devoti is an Italian name, was very likely born in (and probably returned to) France.  He first shows up in the 1841 New Orleans City Directory on the page of REMOVALS AND NAMES OMITTED, which means he arrived in New Orleans after the information was compiled but before it went to print.  It simply lists him as “Devoti, Dancing Master, Strangers’ Hotel, Chartres near St. Louis.”  The Strangers’ Hotel, better known as The St. Louis Hotel, was on the site of the current Omni Royal Orleans.  He was a tenant in rentals and tended to move around quite a bit, never owning property.  Much of what I can gather about him comes from newspaper advertisements for his business.  The earliest I have seen is January 2, 1842:


Mr. Devoti has opened a Dancing Academy at No. 6 Tchoupitoulas street,[1] opposite St. Mary’s Market.  He will give instructions there every Tuesday and Thursday from 6 to 9 o’clock, P.M.
            Mr. Devoti’s Dancing Academy in the First Municipal District is always in Royal Street, No. 102.

For the uninitiated, let’s take a moment to go over a very important fact.  The purpose of this ad is to announce that M. Devoti has opened an academy on Tchoupitoulas Street and that he continues to operate on Royal Street in the "First Municipal District," a.k.a. The French Quarter.  Later, as we shall see, he has one on Chartres Street in the French Quarter and one on Julia Street.  The two academies are not necessarily indicative of his great success as a teacher nor that he is expanding to accommodate a great demand.  It is further proof that there existed between two very different cultures an intense (some would say fierce) rivalry.  From Canal St. down (meaning downriver) was the Franco Creole population and from Canal St. up (upriver) were the Anglo Americans.  Differences in language, culture, religion, politics, etc., not to mention stubbornness and bald faced bigotry, kept the two from mixing.  Smart business people often opened two locations – one in the French Quarter and one in the American Sector.  (And, interestingly, one is more likely to find French speakers courting American business than vice versa.  A French chocolatier by the name of Daniel Lopez stressed his two locations in his newspaper ads, as well.)  In 1842 Devoti’s French Quarter studio was at the corner of Royal and St. Louis Streets while his American academy was on Tchoupitoulas Street between St. Joseph Street and what is now Andrew Higgins Street. (Formerly Delord St.)

Although Devoti is in City Directories fairly consistently from 1841 and is gone by 1849, apparently he left New Orleans, briefly, and returned.  Two advertisements in La Courrier de la Louisiane (each appearing twice - once in French and once in English) announce his return and, when he does, he opens at 123 Chartres Street, for his Creole Pupils, and on Julia Street for his American Students.  I also know that, for a time, he taught dance at the Orleans High School on Esplanade and is listed in their roster of faculty, but very briefly. (Interesting to note that the high school was not co-educational; it was a public boys school.)

English Advertisement, Nov. 13, 1843
French Advertisement, Nov. 13, 1843

Advertisement, Nov. 23, 1843
So, what is it about this man that fascinates me so and why have I devoted so much to M. Devoti? Well, you see, M. Devoti was what is known in today's parlance as a flaming Queen!  He was an effeminate fop, affected and prissy, who first came to my attention in the memoirs of a woman who was one of his pupils.  Eliza Ripley writes about him in "Social Life In Old New Orleans" in a chapter titled "Schools And Teachers Of The Forties."  Let me just publish her complete account:

M. Devoti, with his violin in a green baize[2] bag, was a professor of deportment and dancing. He undertook to train two gawky girls of the most awkward age in my father's parlor. M. Devoti wore corsets! and laced, as the saying is, "within an inch of his life." He wore a long-tail coat, very full at the spider waist-line, that hung all round him, almost to the knees, so he used it like a woman's skirt, and could demonstrate to the awkward girls the art of holding out their skirts with thumb and forefinger, and all the other fingers sticking out stiff and straight. Then curtsey! throw out the right foot, draw up the left.

A coat similar to Devoti's skirt-like frock.
Another important branch of deportment was to seat the awkwards stiffly on the extreme edge of a chair, fold the hands on the very precarious lap, droop the eyes in a pensive way. Then Devoti would flourish up[3] and present, with an astonishing salaam, a book from the center table. The young miss was instructed how to rise, bow and receive the book, in the most affected and mechanical style. Another exercise was to curtsey, accept old Devoti's arm and majestically parade round and round the center table. The violin emerged from the baize bag, Devoti made it screech a few notes while the trio balanced up and down, changed partners and promenaded, till the awkwards were completely bewildered and tired out. He then replaced the violin, made a profound bow to extended skirts and curtseys, admonished the pupils to practice for next lesson, and vanished. Thus ended the first lesson. Dear me! Pockmarked, spider-waist Devoti is as plain to my eye to-day as he was in the flesh, bowing smiling, dancing with flourishing steps as in the days of long ago.

One of the most fascinating mysteries about M. Devoti is that almost every reference to him simply identifies him as "M. Devoti."  The "M" is an abbreviation for both Monsieur and Mister (Mr.) and in all of the City Directories and newspaper advertisements that is how he is identified - that, or simply Devoti.  Finally, after much digging, I was able to uncover one source that gave me his first name: Jean.  It amazes me that, in an age when men were men and women were women, this man who was clearly what would eventually be identified as a "sissy" lived his life and taught the children of wealth and society, not only in his home and private academy, but in the public school where he taught young men and no one batted an eye.  (Well, he may have batted his eyes a bit.)  Sadly, the buildings where he lived and taught are mostly gone now.  The Royal Street address was razed in the early 20th Century to build the Supreme Court Building and his Chartres Street location fell with the St. Louis Hotel around the same time.  There is, however, one intriguing remnant; the Chartres Street address was a unit in row houses adjacent to the hotel.

Red box indicates Devoti's Chartres St. location
Five remaining doorways from the Chartres Street Rowhouses

Entrance to M. Jean Devoti's residence.

When the hotel was raised they were able retain a portion of the wall and incorporate it into the modern structure that stands today.  Directories from the 1890's identify 123 Chartres St. as a printer's shop and on the existing historical wall is the hand-painted sign for that very print shop.  This was the entrance to M. Jean Devoti's residence and Academie Devoti, Danses et Belles Manieres.

Where he came from, where he went and what became of him, however, remain mysteries that will require more extensive research.  I, however, will stop right here because my romantic mind loves this Sapphic fragment of history and this foppish dandy, most likely Gay, who came to New Orleans and taught social graces to the children of wealthy Creole and American families.  Did he have friends?  Did he participate in a social whirl, attending balls and operas and soirees?  Or did he live alone and lonely, immersing himself in his vocation? And, most importantly - who laced him into that corset?  Hmmmmmmmmm?

Let me allow Eliza Ripley herself to conclude this vignette.  She puts it more succinctly and eloquently than I ever could:   

Were those shy girls benefited by that artificial training? I opine not. This seems to modern eyes, mayhap, a whimsical exaggeration; nevertheless, it is a true picture. Devoti's style was indeed the "end of an era"; he had no successor. Turveydrop, the immortal Turveydrop himself, (see illustration) was not even an imitator. These old schools and teachers march before my mind's eye to-day; very vivid it all is to me, though the last of them, and perhaps all those they tried to teach, have passed away.

Illustration from Charles Dickens' Bleak House; Turveydrop is at right.

[1] Probably a misprint because No. 6 Tchoupitoulas Street was a block off of Canal Street while the St. Mary’s Market was closer to where the World War II museum is today.  I suspect the St. Mary’s Market location is accurate, since Devoti eventually had a studio on Julia Street in that same vicinity.
[2] a coarse, feltlike, woolen material that is typically green, used for covering billiard and card tables 
[3] of COURSE he did!