Christine Richard; photo by Jeff Johnston
There’s a story behind each piece of furniture, each piece of art, and every object a person purchases. Don’t believe it? Visit Marda Burton. Her home is filled with vignettes. Or maybe it’s writer Burton who likes to tell a story. All inanimates in her second-floor Royal Street condominium are not simply wood, canvas or crystals, but each is an experience. Point to something, and Burton will tell a story. It will have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and oftentimes she adds a moral, too—as if every ending also has a lesson.
For example, there’s the story of why the antique settee in her living room is broken. Here’s the short version, although you can be assured Burton embellished with more detail: a man came to visit, the man sat, the antique’s leg gave. The antique was repaired. The man visited again. He sat. The other leg broke. The moral of the story, Burton says, is to make sure your antiques are well repaired before you bring them home. She should know. Burton’s home is filled with antiques—or, more fittingly, furniture rich with stories. There isn’t enough room to tell them all here. Her bed has a metal headboard (the wood restoration man called to say, “it isn’t wood”). A corner cabinet is old Dutch, from 1811 (“it was too tall for a friend’s house in North Carolina, so I bought it.”).
Burton’s modern objects aren’t short on stories either: stacks of books (obvious), and Burton’s splashy artwork that she collects with one caveat: “I like to collect art that someone I know painted.” Paintings by James Michalopoulos, Martin Laborde, Fredrick Guess, Dalt Wonk and Zella Funck decorate the walls. Also filling the nooks are the tchotchkes that Burton has purchased from her travels abroad: wood carvings from Thailand, masks from the Amazon, a pillow embroidered with the words Bequia (an island in the Caribbean), puppets from Sicily and Myanmar.
Specializing in travel writing, it is the world, not the boardroom, where Burton reports daily. When it comes time to write the articles that have appeared in national newspapers and magazines, however, Burton returns home. She plants herself in the back room of her condominium, its large windows overlooking the courtyard with its pear tree. On her desk, a book with Paul Gauguin’s art reproduced is flipped open. It’s homework for an upcoming assignment. Burton will be traveling to Tahiti and following in Gauguin’s footsteps. Also in exotic disarray are books about San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Burton is finishing a story on that locale for Veranda magazine, where she is the travel editor.
Her job has allowed her to see the world, but travel, Burton says, serves a deeper purpose. “People who do go to other countries realize people are the same everywhere. We all want the same things. We share the same goals,” she says.
It is because of her blossoming interest in travel writing in the mid-1980s that Burton came to call New Orleans her home—she was on assignment for Travel + Leisure magazine. The Laurel, Mississippi-native had made weekend visits previously, but for this work-visit the city seemed to soak in. Burton decided to stay, she says, because of the literary atmosphere. “I thought I could come here and write the great American novel. This is just that sort of place,” and, this isn’t really a moral per se, but surely there’s one to be found in it somewhere, “but I ended up partying instead.”
One of Burton’s favorite places to party? Her home. The writer re-established the French tradition of the salon. It started because Burton had moved from a cottage to a historic apartment with high ceilings and large rooms. “I thought, ‘What am I going to do with all this space? I’ll just invite friends over and ask them what to do,’ ” Burton remembers. At one point, street musicians playing near her apartment were invited up. For the next gathering, Burton asked all the original guests to bring someone. And so was the beginning of the Sunday parties. Subsequently, she bought a piano, “you can’t have a salon without a piano,” she says. Or champagne; or flowers. Also, in the living room are a microphone and an amp.
Two pieces of art by LeRoy Neiman on Burton’s living room wall also suggest another favorite place for socializing: Galatoire’s. The artist sketched Burton and her friends there. It was at lunch one day while customers were circulating from table to table storytelling that Burton and dining companion Kenneth Holditch had an idea: document this local lore. Champagne was brought, toasts were made, and approximately four years later, on June 28, 2004, the book, Galatoire’s: Biography of a Bistro, was published by Hill Street Press. The process is a lot like giving birth, especially because “you don’t remember the pregnancy much once the kid arrives,” Burton says, referring to the heavy schedule of book signings and readings this fall.
The moral? Partying might not be such a bad idea after all. It could be the creative inspiration behind a book.