Temptations is a New Orleans strip joint whose neon sign declares it “The Gentlemens’ [sic] Club in a Class By Itself.” Open noon ’til dawn, it sits on a crowded stretch of Bourbon Street between the century-old Galatoire’s restaurant and Larry Flynt’s Barely Legal Club. Inside Temptations, the ground-floor parlor is done up in antebellum-period décor, with a pair of grand fireplaces and crystal chandeliers. The paint on the walls cracks with antiquarian charm. At the rear of the room, red velvet-upholstered stools line a bar that serves up chilled cocktails to cut the bayou heat. The parlor is centered around a stage with a dance pole, where, during a recent late-night visit, a stripper billed as “Ryan” Lockhart was hard at work, wriggling her g-string-clad body around the head of a bald man with a fist full of money.
When Lockhart finished her routine, redonning her leopard-print brassiere and shredded black dress and joining the half-dozen other ladies working the floor, I asked if she was aware of the building’s notable history as the former home of Judah P. Benjamin, the Confederate secretary of state and America’s first openly Jewish senator.
The answer given to the above question is usually either Jefferson Davis or Robert E. Lee. A compelling case can be made however for Judah Benjamin, the individual who served the Confederate States of America at various times during its short existence as attorney general and secretaries of war and state. Davis and Lee really would be his only competition, Davis by default as president and Lee for keeping the army in the field and serving as the nation’s face. Benjamin, though, did as much as anyone to keep the Confederacy afloat for as long as it did. While I do not think he has been as forgotten by history as the Tablet article excerpted above makes him out to be, Benjamin has been left out of the narrative somewhat. Diplomacy and the minutiae of supply procurement don’t make for the riveting reading that many Civil War “buffs” are looking for. The article does a good job of explaining why Benjamin is less know today than he should be. Reasons include anti-semitism or, conversely, embarrassment on the part of contemporary Jews at acknowledging his outsized role in secession and the South’s peculiar institution. Also, his relocation to France after the war left him far from the point of creation of the Lost Cause mythology. Another reason is that the notoriously private Benjamin may have been gay. Whatever the cause, Daniel Brook offers a fascinating account of the Benjamin historiography.