Napoleon in New Orleans

From a perch among the whiskey bottles behind the mirrored bar at the Napoleon House, a marble bust of Napoleon Bonaparte watches over an eclectic mix of artists, businessmen and foreigners gathering for 5 o'clock drinks. This 200-year-old townhouse, hunched at the corner of Chartres and St. Louis streets in New Orleans' French Quarter, was to have been Napoleon's home if plans hadn't gone awry. It's a seductively ramshackle shrine to the petite French emperor who reigned from 1804 to 1814 and then clawed his way back to power for "the Hundred Days" in 1815. Yellowed paint peels from plaster walls cluttered with paintings of the Frenchman in his bicorne chapeau, on the battlefield and in repose. Underneath the strains of La Boheme from an aging stereo, the clatter of passing horse-drawn carriages drifts in through open French doors, along with calliope tunes from a steamboat docking three blocks away on the Mississippi River.

It's impossible to know how many of this afternoon's patrons at this popular Vieux Carre drinking spot and restaurant know why Napoleon lives on here in such musty glory. Yet, 200 years after he demonstrated his military brilliance in Europe, New Orleans maintains its half of an unrequited love affair with him. Throughout the city, unanticipated encounters with the ghost of Napoleon keep alive the memory of the emperor who might have lived out the remainder of his days here.

The Napoleon House is the legacy of a failed attempt to rescue Napoleon from exile on the island of St. Helena. In 1821, New Orleans' former mayor Nicholas Girod financed a plot and schemed with pirate Jean Lafitte to rescue their hero from his island prison in the South Atlantic, a thousand miles off the African coast, where he was guarded by the British fleet.

One can only guess at the passions behind centuries-old adventures. The charismatic Napoleon inspired a fanatical loyalty that made him a great leader, but more than devotion must have motivated Girod to attempt the rescue of one of the most powerful men in the world. Fresh in his mind would have been Napoleon's successful escape from his first exile on the island of Elba off the coast of Italy and his triumphant return to the French throne in 1815. At 51, Napoleon might still have reshaped the world with New Orleans at the center and with Girod and Lafitte by his side.

Girod had ships built to royal proportions and prepared a house--this one--in the French Quarter to host the famed general. Pirate Dominique You and Captain J.S. Bossiere, a loyal former officer of Napoleon's army, as-sembled a pirate crew and prepared to sail. Three days before the ships were to leave New Orleans, word came that the emperor had died of cancer on St. Helena, never to see the house that awaited him.

The Napoleon House is only one of New Orleans' shrines to the emperor. Streets of the Crescent City bear perpetual witness to local affection for him. The nationalism Napoleon invoked to inspire his armies also struck a chord with French colonials in New Orleans who loathed Spanish control. For Creoles--French descendants born in the New World, who comprised the oldest and richest families in New Orleans--Napoleon may have personified a desire to keep New Orleans French.

Land developers in the 1830s capitalized on Bonapartist enthusiasm. In the area known as Uptown, then a growing suburb, the main thoroughfare was named Napoleon Avenue. The street today is a wide, oak-lined boulevard that runs from the Mississippi River to Mid City, crossing St. Charles Avenue. Other streets in Uptown bear the names of cities where Napoleon won great victories, such as Milan and Marengo, and Valence Street is named for the village where the young Corsican first joined his regiment. (He was born in Corsica a year after it was ceded to France.)

Throughout New Orleans, names and relics bring life to the memory of the French sovereign, but none as powerfully as the bronze death mask of Napoleon at the Cabildo Museum, an 18th-century Spanish building flanking St. Louis Cathedral. The quiet, over-sized spaces of the Cabildo contain ghostly artifacts of Indians and slaves, explorers and privateers. Portraits of powerful men, beautiful Creoles, and mulattos from the Spanish Colonial years line a wide, dark staircase.

And on the second floor a perfect replica of Napoleon's face sleeps silhouetted by light flooding from the great fanned windows overlooking Jackson Square. This frail visage, a personality locked in bronze with eyes closed, lips parted, does not suggest the ruthlessness of a despot who asked, "What are a million men compared to a man such as I?" Dr. Francesco Antommarchi, who attended the emperor during his last days, brought the mask from St. Helena to New Orleans and donated it to the city. A few feet away are the room and the table where the Louisiana Purchase was signed in 1803, a result of the French army's troubles in Haiti and the end to Napoleon's dream of a colonial empire.

Outside the Cabildo on Jackson Square under the lace iron balconies of the Pontalba, the oldest apartment building in the United States, a small framed portrait of Napoleon in a shop window reflects the bustling activity of caricature artists and street musicians. The shop, known as Bourbon French Perfums, sells eau de cologne "from the 200-year-old formula that was a favorite of the brilliant general Napoleon Bonaparte." In 1843 a young European chemist named J.H. Tindel brought the formula to the New World and joined August Doussan at his perfumery in the French Quarter. Breathing the honeyed citrus scent sparks wonder about the intimate side of the sullen ruler pictured in the window display, surrounded by delicate hand-blown bottles and voodoo love potions.

As the patrons at the Napoleon House finish their Pimm's cups and Sazeracs and slowly head off down Chartres Street, making way for the Napoleon House dinner crowd, they might not notice a statue of Napoleon in the window of the Hotel Ste Helene next door, nor the reference to the island of the emperor's final exile. But New Orleans' languid charm, grown from its unique relationship to colonial history, eludes no one. Though the details become obscured, Napoleon lives on as a part of the soul of a city he never saw, a city he might have called home.


Other Travel Tips: