Street people and artists are two archetypes that society imbues with magic, probably because, like The Bead Lady, street people and artists use mystique as a defense against “petty meanness”….Both are living outside of societal norms. Both struggle to eke out a living. Artwork is often sold like a “lucky bead”, with promises of return on investment and the potential for fame and celebrity.
by Ric Kasini Kadour
New Orleans is full of characters, past and present, and when you are drinking at a bar, the city’s denizens trade stories about them like marbles on the playground. The Bead Lady is one of them. The old woman walked the streets of the French Quarter. Strings of Mardi Gras beads hung from her neck. Sometimes she wore a parachute and hardhat, other times she appeared dressed in layers. “The first couple of times I saw her I thought she was a witch,” recalls my friend TJ. Her mystique inspired others to create mythologies about her. Some say she was a Swedish bride brought to the city by a now deceased husband. One guy who claimed she yelled at him, also claimed she cursed a friend of his who lost his leg the following day, and referred to her as either a “Crazy Israeli burnout Berkeley grad” or a “Russian Princess jilted by her French paramour.” Another source claimed, “She was said to be the ghost of a concubine of a French soldier.” I think you get the idea. If The Bead Lady caught your eye, or you caught hers, she would approach you with stories and conversation and eventually, her request, “Do you want to buy a lucky bead?”
TJ recalls, “When I first moved here about 37 years ago, there were not as many homeless people on the streets and she stood out in the crowd in the Central Business District. A couple of times, I saw her in the crowd and when I looked again she had vanished. It was kind of weird.” TJ’s husband purchased a lucky bead from her once. “It didn’t work, he met me.” Artist Mandie Lucas recalls, “Curses and dirt were her weapons against anyone who tried to get close. They worked equally well against petty meanness.”
Street people and artists are two archetypes that society imbues with magic, probably because, like The Bead Lady, street people and artists use mystique as a defense against “petty meanness”. And while I don’t mean to minimize the cruelty of mental illness and homelessness, I do think artists and street people have a lot in common with each other. Both are living outside of societal norms. Both struggle to eke out a living. Artwork is often sold like a “lucky bead”, with promises of return on investment and the potential for fame and celebrity.
In reality, The Bead Lady’s story was familiar and tragic. Her name was Leah Shpock-Luzovsky and she was from Israel and had been missing for forty years. Rabbi Mendel Rivkin of Chabad-Lubavitch of Louisiana tells her story, “Leah served in the IDF during the mid to late 1950s. Upon completing her army service she was awarded a full academic scholarship to Berkeley. Sometime during or after her four year stint at Berkeley, Leah experienced a severe mental breakdown. One can only speculate that the rampant hard core drug use in that era contributed to her situation. Somehow she wound up in New Orleans and lost all contact with her family in Israel.”
And in reality, the life of the artist is more mundane than not. We wake up. We eat breakfast. We work in the studio. We take lunch. And sometimes when we are lucky, we make something magical, something that speaks to someone else. It says, “Do you want to buy a lucky bead?” And the person it speaks to, says yes.
In telling you this, I am not suggesting that the art world is full of lucky beads. Rather, my hope is that when you meet artists, that you think of them as real people with lives and stories and struggles of their own. And my hope is that you will think of your own. We remember people like The Bead Lady, not simply because of their oddity and eccentricity, not because of their ability to throw curses and dirt, but because she brought joy to people. She entertained and made people smile. She noticed you in a crowd and hoped you noticed her. She made conversation. And when we are alone in our world, a little connection to another soul is a lucky bead.
by Ric Kasini Kadour
collage, archival print