“America has only three great cities: New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland.” This quotation has been repeated for decades — not least, unsurprisingly, in New Orleans. I saw and heard it often on my last trip there, and though attributions varied, most credited the remark to either Mark Twain or Tennessee Williams. According to Quote Investigator, no historical evidence points to either man as the line’s originator, though “the notion that only three cities in the U.S. were commendable or distinctive has a very long history.”
In 1895, for instance, the then-popular comedienne Vernona Jarbeau said that “there are only three cities in the United States that I would care to live in, and one of them is San Francisco.” But she said it, one should note, to a San Francisco newspaper; who’s to say the crowd-pleasing instinct wouldn’t have motivated a transposition of her preference elsewhere in America? New Orleans, then in existence for more than half a century, possessed an even longer-established distinctiveness. The embellished galleries of the French Colonial buildings in the 1898 film clip above, identify the city at a glance.
Even more New Orleanian, of course, is what’s going on in the street: the city’s signature festivity, the Mardi Gras parade. “The film is not only the oldest moving picture of a New Orleans Mardi Gras; it’s the oldest film of New Orleans,” writes Smithsonian.com’s Jane Recker. Recently rediscovered in Amsterdam’s Eye Filmmuseum, the two-minute clip shows us — on detail-absorbing 68-millimeter film — that “one float is pineapple-themed, with riders wearing hats shaped like pieces of pineapple and vests resembling pineapple skin. Another features the Rex, the ‘King of the Carnival,’ sitting atop a float decorated with tasseled globes.”
“Contemporary viewers will surely recognize the film’s parade as a Mardi Gras celebration, though the event features some distinct differences from the one that takes over the Big Easy’s streets today,” writes Artnet’s Sarah Cascone. “There are, for example, no beads, no barricades, no police. Onlookers don suits and top hats and parasols, a far more formal approach than that taken by 21st-century revelers.” Here in the 2020s their revelry has been interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and only this year did New Orleans’ Mardi Gras parade tradition resume. Perhaps it’s too much to hope that the dress sense of spectators 124 years ago will make a comeback as well.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.