Golden Years

When I wrote Jackson Square Jazz, an important part of the plot had to do with the 1989 fire at the Cabildo. Shortly after moving to New Orleans in 1996, I’d seen a documentary about the Cabildo fire and how the New Orleans Fire Department had fought the fire–choosing to rescue as many of the artifacts and treasures inside before training the water hoses on the building. I made it a plot point because I wanted to preserve, even if in fiction, what an amazing job the NOFD had done, as well as point out how fragile and delicate our history can be. Doing the research on the fire kept putting a thought in my head–how heartbreaking would it be if St. Louis Cathedral caught fire?

After Katrina, seeing that the cathedral had survived without damage was the first semblance of hope I had after the levees failed that New Orleans would recover.

I cannot imagine how Parisians and other Frenchmen must have felt yesterday, seeing that iconic image that has stood for over eight hundred years aflame. I am not French, but it broke my heart to see the images from this horrible disaster.

One of my dreams, my bucket-list items, was to spend a day at Notre Dame, to soak in all the history and the beauty and the art. I love French history; I love France, although I’ve never been. I remember reading The Hunchback of Notre Dame for the first time. I remember all the French histories and biographies I’ve read; so much history took place in and around that beautiful, beautiful building. As I write this I remember a scene I wrote once; for a book I never wrote but one day I had this glorious image in my head and I wrote it down: the marriage of Henri of Navarre to Marguerite de Valois on the steps; because he was not a Catholic they could not wed inside. It was after their wedding that the Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Day began; I remember reading about it in Dumas’ Queen Margot, and in assorted other historical fictions or biographies of Catherine de Medici or Henri of Navarre (who later was the first Bourbon king, Henri IV). I remember having this vivid image in my head of a lady watching the ceremony; and her impressions of it, and wrote them down. I always thought it would be an interesting historical suspense novel–the lady in question was one of the “flying squadron”; ladies trained in the erotic arts who used seduction for information in service to Catherine de Medici. I enjoyed writing about Jeanne-Charlotte de Sevigny in that scene; I’ve always liked the character and the period has always fascinated me. Perhaps someday…

I still think about that novel every once in a while.

But now, when I finally make it Paris, if I finally make it to Paris…depending on when I go, the iconic landmark, one of the major symbols of both Paris and France, won’t be the same. It will be repaired and rebuilt–it was under renovation already when the fire broke out yesterday–but will it be the view that millions have already enjoyed, admired, gasped in awe at?

And of course there’s the fear that it won’t be the same.

On the other hand, the Cabildo was rebuilt after the fire and it’s still the Cabildo, so there’s that. Future generations won’t know anything other than there was a fire and it was rebuilt–and the interior, it turns out, survived a lot more intact than anyone had originally anticipated.

It also reminds me of John Berendt’s wonderful book City of Falling Angels, about the fire that destroyed a Venetian landmark, the Opera House, and the rebuilding process.

And now, tis back to the spice mines with me this Tuesday morning.

Vive le France.

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