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The Original Burlesque Queen
Right now you are doing something that has rarely been done – at least in New Orleans – reading about Lydia Thompson in a September issue of a magazine.
Usually Lydia is a February topic, dusted off at Carnival time as part of the legends about the first Rex parade, the Grand Duke Alexis and Carnival’s anthem, “If Ever I Cease to Love.”
Lydia was a burlesque queen, arguably a pioneering figure in the genre; this month’s cover story is about the modern version. The British performer visited New Orleans several times. Her third visit was in February 1872, which just happened to be same time that the first Rex parade was staged. The Grand Duke Alexis, who also happened to be passing through, had seen Lydia perform in St. Louis doing a show called Bluebeard. Because the two had come to town at the same time rumors of romance started. Rex’s selection of its theme song “If Ever I Cease to Love” came from Bluebeard. That embellished the rumor, as though the lyrics referred to Alexis and Lydia.
In fact, the song had been fairly well known in New Orleans because of sheet music. When the Rex organizers announced the anthem in a newspaper decree, they teased that since the first Rex, Lewis Salomon, was a bachelor, this might encourage him to sew his “wild oats.”
There is no evidence of a romance between Lydia and Alexis. Often overlooked is that the Duke was 22; Lydia was 36. It may be that Alexis had sent Lydia a bracelet after seeing her perform in St. Louis, but hey, when you’re a duke you can do that sort of thing.
Through her career, Lydia developed the bump, grind and tease that would become part of burlesque. Eventually she retired in England, had a family and lived a fairly obscure life. Her name is probably better known in New Orleans than in London. Last year Arthur Hardy, publisher of the Mardi Gras Guide, was in England, and while there looked for Lydia’s grave. He and his wife, Sue, had a lead that she had been buried in a cemetery about 30 minutes outside of London. But where? With the help of a cemetery employee they learned that the site was, “located immediately to the west of the pink fallen granite cross and to the left of the road.” When they found the site there was, according to Hardy, little to see: “All that remains is a chip of a head stone, a slightly larger footstone and an eight-foot patch of grass.” Still, Hardy had found what he was looking for.
Too bad Lydia had not stayed in New Orleans. Imagine if she had been buried in St. Louis Cemetery. Her site might be visited everyday with flowers of purple, green and gold left on it. Most of all, she and Marie Laveau could dance through eternity together. It would be quite a show.