Letter From New Orleans: Chris Owens, R.I.P.

It’s no secret that New Orleans is a quirky town whose folkways mystify the uninitiated. It’s bound to baffle outsiders that one of our best loved citizens was veteran Bourbon Street entertainer and night club owner Chris Owens who died this week. One obituary listed her age as 89, others believe she was in her nineties. The lady herself wasn’t talking. She liked to keep us guessing. It was part of her mystique.

This Tweet from local historian Dominic Massa sums up that aspect of the Chris Owens mystique:

Whatever her age, Chris Owens was a whirlwind of activity. Her good causes were many. She even created an Easter Parade in the French Quarter, which will roll for the 37th time this year; the first time without its founder and grand duchess.

Here’s the secret of Chris Owens’ popularity with locals: She was the epitome of New Orleans nice. She never met a stranger and would talk your leg off given half a chance.

I worked in the Quarter off and on for many years and ran into Chris with some frequency back then. Initially, I tried introducing myself to her but eventually gave up as she never remembered my name. I was fine with being called “darling” by the Queen of Bourbon Street.

One place I chatted with Chris Owens was at the much-missed La Marquise, located on Chartres Street just off Jackson Square. It was my favorite pâtissière and cafe in the Quarter. It faded from the scene after Katrina. As us locals say: Ain’t dere no more.

La Marquise was not far from Chris’ domain, so she’d drop in from time-to-time for croissants, coffee, and conversation.

On one memorable occasion, Chris engaged in a spirited conversation with the manager/counter person who was a charming Vietnamese woman whose name escapes me. I’d call her darling but I’m no Chris Owens.

The topic of conversation was the manager’s brilliant teenage daughter who could often be found studying at the cafe. I remember her name because it was distinctive, Chinda. It also stuck with me because she was a Vietnamese girl with a Chinese name.

Chinda told her mother that she didn’t feel like studying. Mama was not amused. Then Chris Owens butted in and said, “You should study and make something of yourself. I didn’t do my homework and look what became of me.”

Like most teenage girls, Chinda had a vast array of dirty looks and she bestowed one on the local legend,  “But Ms. Owens, you’re a great success as an entertainer and businesswoman.”

Chris shrugged and said, “But I’m only marginally literate because I didn’t study hard enough.”

The kid was unconvinced but laughed along with everyone else. Her goal was to become a doctor. I hope she made it.

The last twenty-five years of Chris Owens’ life were a one-woman refutation of ageism. She loved what she did and saw no reason to stop doing it. She was a woman of a certain age who was comfortable in her own skin. We should all be so secure.

Chris Owens’ real superpower was making people happy both onstage and off. We need more people like her in these troubled times. She will be missed.

What a life.

What a broad.

The last word goes to Chris Owens live at the French Quarter Festival in 2015:

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