A Pilgrimage to Gypsy Lou Webb, New Orleans’s Patron Saint of Beat Literature
With her husband Jon, Gypsy Lou Webb ran Loujon Press and made beautiful art books that featured poetry from Charles Bukowski, William Burroughs, and Allen Ginsberg. At 97, she now lives off of social security and the kindness of fans.
Gypsy Lou Webb holds a copy of the first issue of The Outsider, which featured her on the cover.
One of the brightest flags of late-period beat literature got planted in New Orleans in the early 1960s when Louise “Gypsy Lou” Webb and her husband Jon Webb founded Loujon Press. The Webbs ran Loujon mostly out of various small French Quarter apartments on Ursulines and Royal, and all their books and journals were art objects handmade on giant old printing presses, a process that resulted in pages in myriad different colors, textures, and typesets. Gypsy Lou even pressed flowers into the later issues of The Outsider, the couple’s literary magazine. The Webbs’ publishing venture was short-lived but they put out two of Henry Miller’s books and, in The Outsider, featured poetry from the likes of Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. They’ll always be best remembered, however, for unleashing Charles Bukowski upon the world, having hand-printed the drunken master’s first two major books of poetry, It Catches My Heart In Its Hands (1963) and Crucifix in a Deathhand (1965), both of which are now collectors’ items that cost hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars.
New Orleans doesn’t lay claim to Bukowski as enthusiastically as it does Tennessee Williams, Walker Percy, or even Anne Rice. But the city is arguably as important to Bukowski’s story as it is to, say, William Faulkner’s. During the Loujon Press years, Bukowski came and went from New Orleans, carousing, drinking, fighting, fucking, and occasionally writing. He supposedly carved “Hank Was Here” into the cement outside of what is now the Royal Street Inn, which only in recent years renamed what was once billed as its “Bukowski Suite.” Meanwhile, Lou sold paintings to pay the rent so Jon could break his back producing Buk’s work.
New Orleans eventually heaped upon the couple a mountain of bad luck that forced them out of the city. They continued publishing from other locations until Jon (in his mid-60s and 11 years older than his wife) passed away in Nashville in 1971. Bukowski later wrote in one of his Los Angeles Free Press columns about how he’d immediately attempted but failed to fuck Lou, who appeared in the story as “June” mourning at “Clyde’s” funeral:
“June, the dead are dead, there’s nothing we can do about it. Let’s go to bed…”
“Go to bed?”
“Yes, let’s hit the sack, let’s make it…”
“Listen, I knew Clyde for 32 years…”
“Clyde can’t help you now…”
“His body’s still warm, you bastard…”
After her husband's death, Gypsy Lou moved back to New Orleans and carried on as a respected eccentric and bohemian scene maven who could be found in Pirate’s Alley selling touristy paintings that she did not take seriously. She served as a muse to transplanted New York painter Noel Rockmore, whose etchings graced Crucifix in a Death Hand. The Upperline Restaurant in New Orleans to this day proudly displays Rockmore’s paintings, including Homage to the French Quarter, which depicts Gypsy Lou and all of her now-dead friends. She was a chaste muse, however—she pledged eternal faithfulness to Jon, whose ashes hung in a vessel around her neck. Reportedly, she ate little bits of her husband over the years until none of him remained.
In the early 1980s, just as New Orleans was about to bungle the World’s Fair, Gypsy Lou’s poor health forced her out of the Quarter and into her sister’s house in the watery burbs of Slidell. She flickered in and out of public life, participating in the writing of Bohemian New Orleans: The Story of the Outsider and Loujon Press (2007), and also helping to narrate a terrific movie about Loujon Press, The Outsiders of New Orleans (2007). The death of her sister in 2010 left Gypsy Lou temporarily homeless. Then she had a stroke. She’s now 97 and dependent on the $200 or so she receives each month in social security. Naturally, she’s not participating in the city’s cultural life like she used to—she’s reluctant, for instance, to drive all the way from Slidell to New Orleans to attend the Historic New Orleans Collection’s new Loujon Press exhibit, which runs until November 16. Still, she’s surely more alive than most of us will be at her age.
When I went to see her recently, I prepared less for an interview than for a trip to a very old woman with a bad memory and even worse hearing. I baked her a meatloaf, mashed some potatoes, and packed up my guitar. I rode over to Slidell with Rich Marvin and his wife Tee, major proponents of painter Noel Rockmore. Because Rockmore’s paintings decorate several Loujon books, the Marvins made a point several years ago to befriend Lou, and ended up happily joining her roster of de facto caretakers.
I also happened to bring all four 50-year-old issues of The Outsider, which a friend had purchased some years back as presents for his now ex-wife. The books looked like relics of another age—just as they did when they were first printed—and still contained Gypsy Lou’s pressed flowers. Original copies of The Outsider serve as the crown jewel of the Historic New Orleans Collection’s Loujon exhibit, so carrying them out from the car made me nervous.
We knocked, and through the window saw Gypsy Lou stand up and step onto the clean newspapers she’d spread across the floor for her new rat terrier. (She recently outlived her 20-year-old dog, Jolie.) Her cramped apartment is not unlike those Bukowski once lovingly detailed: two tiny rooms, one bathroom, a kitchen, particleboard counters. She wore a simple, lightly embroidered dress as black as her dyed hair. She’d just eaten but was impressed I’d cooked for her. Rich and Tee had come armed with cleaning supplies but a young lady from STARK was already there wearing yellow gloves; Lou showed surprise each time she reappeared into the crowded kitchen where we all sat talking.
Rich presented Lou with some old photos of herself posing with his hero Rockmore. “Oh!” Lou cried out, her memory jolted. “All the years I knew him I have never had a picture of Noel! Look how handsome he is.”
“Remember when he asked you to marry him?” Rich said.
She nodded then looked at me. “He made every woman in the French Quarter except me. I was married to Jon!” She picked up another of the photos of Rockmore. “Oh no… You’re up in heaven now?” she whimpered, then growled, “I don’t think so.”
Gypsy Lou Webb with Noel Rockmore, right, and a friend.
She put the photo down and remarked to Rich, “Someone called this morning, some photographer. About some pictures?”
“That was me,” Rich said.
“That was you?”
“I called. Those are the pictures.”
Webb grabbed the next photo of herself amid a group that included Rich, Tee, and… “Who is this?” Lou asked.
“That’s your sister,” Rich said. “She died.”
“That’s my sister?!”
“That was taken when we visited you at her house.”
Lou looked at me and cringed, then shrugged off concern for her unreliable faculties. “I lost my mind when I had the stroke two years ago,” she said. “But I am getting better.”
Tee took the opportunity to plant an idea in Lou’s slippery mind: “You’re in that Rockmore show soon in Baton Rouge, you know, Lou. We want to take you.” Lou had missed opening night at the Historic New Orleans Collection after falling and hurting her leg, and now Rich and Tee were afraid she would miss their show too. “We went to New Orleans and saw that Loujon show. You should see it. It’s all about you, Lou!” She handed Lou a copy of the program for the exhibit.
Lou’s eyes widened like she must be misunderstanding this woman: A show about me? She looked back down at the program and pointed out a photo of her husband’s old printing press. “The University of Tulane gave him that press,” she remembered. “He tried to give them money for it. They didn’t want to take it. But they took it.” She pointed to another photo: “And that’s Charles Bukowski. Went by the name of Hank. That was one hell of a nice guy. He drank a lot.”
“I get that from his writing,” I joked.
She nodded a look like she still worries for Hank. “He was a nice guy. He drank a lot, but he was nice.”
When Rich couldn’t find thumbtacks, he went about taping Lou’s new photos to her walls—as I removed The Outsider from the bag, slowly, so as not to startle her. When she saw it she shouted, “Look! We did this!” She whipped it open and in a rough manner the book’s new owner might not approve of, began kissing the pages.“We did this. I did that. We printed this. I remember that.”
Rich and Tee went out to walk Gypsy Lou’s new dog as Lou grabbed the Sharpie with purpose and signed the journals like she all of a sudden remembered the important person she was. She smiled at her own face on the book’s covers and gasped upon finding her old pressed flowers. “I remember doing hundreds of these,” she said, kissing them. “We did everything. That poor Jon.”
Rich returned and again tried to secure her attendance at his big Rockmore show in Baton Rouge. Webb asked for the date, then remembered it before anyone else. “Ed Blair called me, all pissed off,” she nearly shouted. “They had a big show in New Orleans somewhere that I was supposed to go to. But I fell down! I couldn’t walk! It’s slippery, I’m barefooted, what the hell I am supposed to do? He was supposed to pick me up to meet all these people—you know, who cares? ‘All those people came,’ he says, and I was supposed to come, dressed up like a gypsy…” She shook her head. “Bullshit. C’mon. When I was selling paintings—you do a lot of shit when you’re selling paintings, you talk funny, you look funny, the whole damn thing. Those days are done.”
Over the past few years, she’s had chances to return to the vibrant cultural district she left more than 30 years ago. At the 2007 New Orleans premier of The Outsiders of New Orleans, a fan offered down-and-out Lou a free French Quarter apartment. On another occasion, Tee tried to book her into the famous Christopher Inn assisted living facility in the most musically active section of Faubourg Marigny. Either scenario would have meant a constant stream of fun sycophants running her errands and bringing her home-cooked meals. But according to Rich and Tee, Gypsy Lou, a 60s radical after all, didn’t want to give the Man her social security number, and so was unable to sign a lease on either apartment and ended up back in Slidell. Gypsy Lou herself claims she’s simply happy where she is. “I. Want. To. Stay. Here!” she announced. “I don’t want to live in the French Quarter! I lived there for 32 years! I’ve had enough of it!”
Then another memory distracted her. “I did that,” she repeated, again tapping Bukowski’s pockmarked mug on the famous “Outsider of the Year” cover. “He was such a nice man,” she said. “Drank so much though.”
Michael Patrick Welch is a New Orleans musician, journalist, and author of books including The Donkey Show and New Orleans: the Underground Guide. His work has appeared at McSweeney's, Oxford American, Newsweek, Salon, and many other publications. Follow him on Twitter here.