November 10, 1918: The story of the last Baron de Pontalba
On November 10th, 1918, news of the death of Baron Edouard Delfau de Pontalba reached New Orleans. The Baron lived his life in France, but despite having little connection to New Orleans, New Orleanians found his death newsworthy because he was the last male of a historic family whose legacy was of great importance to the city. His grandmother, Micaela Almonester Baroness de Pontalba, was at the center of an infamous family quarrel and was the namesake of two of city’s best-known buildings.
The late Baron himself found the history of his family so important that he had a correspondence with a historian in New Orleans to recount the personal history of his family.
Between the years of 1904 and 1914 the Baron sent countless letters from his home in France to historian John William Cruzat in New Orleans. These letters describe his commitment to archiving his family’s history. Within this correspondence, Edouard sent copies of all of the letters his great grandfather, Joseph Xavier Delfau de Pontalba, sent to his wife during the year of 1792. Within the letters one may find pages spilling with passion and adoration the Baron had for his wife. This pair are parents to Joseph Xavier Celestin de Pontalba who goes on to marry the daughter of a prominent New Orleans family, the Almonesters.
Micaela Almonester Baroness de Pontalba was born in November 1795 to a wealthy New Orleans family. At the age of fifteen she married Joseph Xavier Celestin de Pontalba, a distant cousin who was a member of the influential Pontalba family. After the wedding, Micaela moved to France to reside in the Pontalba family chateau at Mont L’Evoque. It did not take long for her father in law to start trying to capture her family money and properties for his own personal gain. On a fateful evening in 1834 her father in law, in a fit of anger over her continuous resistance to giving away all of her fortune, shot Micaela several times and then shot and killed himself. For the baroness this was the final straw in her desire to leave Celestin. After several lawsuits, she finally got a divorce from Celestin, regained her fortune and properties, and eventually moved back to her original birthplace of New Orleans with her children.
After returning to New Orleans in 1846, she began construction of two buildings surrounding what is now Jackson Square. The “Pontalba Buildings” were created on property left to the Baroness by her father. The buildings, completed in 1851 became some of the most desired town houses in the French Quarter. Now, these buildings are known as the Pontalba apartments and house many different things. These buildings define Jackson Square and in fact it was the late Baroness that suggested the area be renamed as Jackson Square from its previous name as the Place d’Armes. Ownership of these buildings remained in the Pontalba family until the 1920s, shortly after the death of our late baron Edouard Deifau de Pontalba.
The article published on this day in 1918 had a title about the last male dying, and thus the family being finished. He is survived at the time by his daughters, but since he is the last male, they regard the family as being dead. However, the most remembered Pontalba was Micaela Almonester, a woman. Not only was she a woman, she married into the Pontalba family. She had no bloodline relation to the Pontalba family. She also then proceeded to get a divorce out of it. Her most influential work was after she had divorced the Pontalba she had married. And yet, the family is considered dead when the last male dies. This truly showcases the importance of gender roles in 1918 New Orleans. Even though a woman was the most important member of this family, they did not wait until everyone in the family had died to say that the family lineage was dead, they only waited for the last man to die.
In fact the family name did not die out with Baron Edouard Delfau de Pontalba. The current Baron and Baroness Delfau de Pontalba will attend the tricentennial Founder’s Ball hosted at the Cabildo by the Lousiana Museum Foundation in December of 2018.
Chicago Tribune. “FOR LOVE AND MONEY.” Chicagotribune.com, 14 June 1998, http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-1998-06-14-9806140385-story.html.
Vella, Christina. Intimate Enemies. LSU Press, 1997.
Cruzat, Heloise. “Thus Disappears the Male Stem of a Historic Family.” Times Picayune, 10 Nov. 1918.
Pontalba, Joseph Xavier Delfau, and Henri Delville de Sinclair. The Letters of Baron Joseph X. Pontalba to His Wife. 1796. Survey of Federal Archives in Louisiana, 1939.
Irvin, Hilary “Pontalba Buildings” https://64parishes.org Encyclopedia of Louisiana. Ed. David Johnson. Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, 2 Feb 2011. 4 Nov 2018