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I rarely think about weddings, even in June, but I admit being excited for my friend Charlotte Wyatt who’s soon to marry Gordon Smith, her best friend since middle school. Since Charlotte and I both hail from Tennessee, I started thinking about some of the extravagant Southern nuptials I attended back in the ’60s when June weddings often looked like animated flower shows. They were pretty, very showy affairs but none remotely compared to an extravaganza in antebellum Louisiana that still has people talking. It was the brainchild of one Charles Durande.

Durande was a Louisiana sugar planter who made the whimsical most of his vast fortune.

Durande certainly made the whimsical most of his vast fortune.

Durande was a rather mysterious Frenchman who appeared in New Orleans around 1820 and multiplied his already considerable wealth by becoming one of Louisiana’s largest sugar planters. He not only built the requisite pillared mansion but connected it to the beauteous Bayou Teche with a double row of moss-drenched oaks and pines that stretched an incredible three miles! He named his house Pine Alley and transported his family in elaborate carriages fit for French royalty, complete with horses in gold-trimmed harness. Guests spending the night were awakened by servants spraying them with rare perfumes and given baths in water strewn with perfumed crystals, an unheard of extravagance at the time.

Known as the "Queen of the Bayous," the Teche was the original path of the Mississippi River several thousand years ago.

Known as the “Queen of the Bayous,” the Teche was the original path of the Mississippi River several thousand years ago.

Durande had twelve children by his first wife Amelie, and when she died suddenly he built a magnificent tomb complete with an iron statue of himself kneeling in perpetual mourning. Despite his grief, he remarried a year later, and his new wife Alida gave him another dozen offspring. In 1850, two of his daughters, Marie Lucille and Corinne Philomene, accepted simultaneous proposals, prompting a joint wedding that sent Durande’s imagination soaring to vertiginous heights.

Imagine this luxurious spider web covered with gold and silver dust for an idea of what Durande's fanciful canopy might have looked like.

Imagine this luxurious spider web covered with gold and silver dust for an idea of what Durande’s fanciful canopy might have looked like.

Keeping his plans as secret as possible, Durande placed two very peculiar orders. One was to California for hundreds of pounds of gold and silver dust, and the other was for Chinese spiders known to spin luxurious webs. He had the spiders released high in the trees lining the allée and anxiously watched them get busy. When he was satisfied with their work, he ordered their huge webs sprayed with bellows of the metallic powder so that the gossamer confection glistened in the filtered sunlight. Beneath this phantasmagorical canopy, Marie and Corinne rode carriages from Bayou Teche to the manor house where they were married at an outdoor altar spread with oriental carpets. Two thousand guests witnessed the double ceremony and feasted on rich Creole food and champagne at formally set tables on the great lawn. At night, fireworks were set off before the four newlyweds rode back down the mystical alleyway, now illuminated with torchlight, while strategically stationed musicians serenaded them along the way.  Durande’s private steamboat waited on the bayou to take the couples to New Orleans for their honeymoons.

Since this photo was taken, most of the fabulous avenue has been erased by storms.

Since this photo was taken, most of the fabulous avenue has been erased by storms.

Like most Southern planters, Durande’s vast fortunes were destroyed by the Civil War. He died shortly after Appomattox, and his destitute family abandoned the plantation to the jungle of south Louisiana. What little remained of the house washed away in the cataclysmic Flood of 1927, and all but a few stretches of the fabulous alley have been devastated by storms, most recently Hurricane Rita. I was taken there many years ago by a Cajun friend who knew exactly where and, more importantly, when to look. We arrived at the allée shortly after dawn when long gray fingers of Spanish moss gleamed with dew and the sunlight turned it a sparkling mixture of gold and silver. With a little imagination, I could envision what it must have looked like that long ago magical night and was so moved by Durande’s fanciful wedding that I featured it in my first historical romance, Bayou Passions (1979). I hope he would have been pleased.

A Louisiana historical marker identifies the largest portion of the still-intact alley of trees.

A Louisiana historical marker identifies the largest portion of the still-intact alley of trees.

Part of a series about eccentricity, extravagance and ephemera in the antebellum South.

7 Comments

  1. Dianne
    Jun 23, 2013

    Enjoyed the information on Durande. Very interesting. Wondered how you imagined that in Bayou Passions. Wonder what happened to the rest of his children…

  2. CIJI Ware
    Jun 23, 2013

    What a marvelous description of an event that happened so long ago. Glad it’s remembered in your novel and the pictures you included in your blog about this amazing slice of Southwrn history added to our ability to imagine what it was like for the bedazzled guests at this unforgettable double wedding!!

  3. Dolores Tipton
    Jun 24, 2013

    I would have killed to have been on that guest list! What an interesting story!

    • Michael Lewallen
      Jun 24, 2013

      Glad you enjoyed it, Dolores. Antebellum Louisiana’s planters were unbelievably rich and flamboyant, and this is only one of many fabulous tales I heard while living in New Orleans. I plan to blog about more of them in the future.

  4. felice
    Jun 24, 2013

    What a magical time!

  5. Kay Belangia
    Jun 25, 2013

    Durande certainly possessed the combination of imagination and Southern hospitality. Many of the Southern gatherings I attended in the ’60’s reflected the attention to detail and the genuine caring of the people who orchestrated them.

  6. Cynthia Wright
    Aug 28, 2013

    I really enjoyed this fascinating post! The best part is that it is a true story. Thanks so much for sharing it with all of us, Michael.

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