Baroness Micaela Almonester de Pontalba

Micaela Almonester de Pontalba

 

The Almonesters were wealthy and influential, and Micaela was smart and beautiful. That combination made her a hot commodity, but it also made her a target for those with ill intentions.

About the Almonesters

In 1795, Micaela Leonarda Antonia Almonester was born in New Orleans. She was the only surviving child of Don Andres Almonester y Rojas of Spain and Louise Denys de la Ronde of France, which made her a Creole – Louisiana born of European parents.  Her father was a businessman and philanthropist who helped rebuild New Orleans after the great fire of 1788, which included the rebuild of St. Louis Cathedral, the Cabildo, and the Presbytere, all of which still stand today as iconic landmarks of the city. His contribution to New Orleans earned him the nickname “Don Andres the Good.”

Though her father did a lot of good for the city, he also had a dark side. Don Andres the Good was involved in a scandalous affair with his niece—that’s right, NIECE. This led to his excommunication from the Catholic Church and set some undesirable patterns in romantic relations within his family. 

Till Death…

Celestin de Pontalba was a French-American nobleman born in 1793 who inherited his father’s title of Baron de Pontalba. Celestin and Micaela were cousins, as well as husband and wife. And cousin Celestin was not a good man. Neither was his wackadoo nefarious father, Baron Joseph de Pontalba. An example of Baron Joseph’s criminal insanity: while away from home, Joseph sent his young son, Celestin, a letter, “Are you not sorry not to have your dear papa put his arms around your neck and squeeze you tighter and tighter?” Endearing.  Celestin Pontalba

Micaela’s marriage to Celestin was unsurprisingly arranged by their families. Shortly after they exchanged vows, Micaela was shipped off to France to live with her new homicidal in-laws, the Pontalbas, which was bad. The Baron and Celestin were not happy about the marriage contract or Micaela’s will that her mother had drafted prior to their nuptials. It stated that Micaela’s entire fortune was hers and was to be accessed and used strictly at Micaela’s discretion. 

So, Celestin did exactly what all cowardly abusive dudes do and isolated Micaela – cutting her off from all family while verbally, emotionally, and physically abusing her. He broke her down until she finally signed over Power of Attorney. By the time she signed the POA, she had given birth to four of this a-hole’s children and was more than likely manipulated to the point of being trauma-bonded to this awful man. 

Not long after she signed on the dotted line, Celestin left her. To support herself and her children, he gave her a $600 a-month allowance… of her own money. Micaela moved to Paris, probably not wanting to stay in the house with her father-in-law, and lived in one of Celestin’s houses for a while. But, after a few years, Celestin showed no signs of ever returning to his marriage, so Micaela returned home to New Orleans. 

When she got home, she got her head together and reestablished her claims on her property, which boosted her income to $40,000 a year, equivalent to about $1.4 million today. She then told Celestin she was filing for divorce in Louisiana courts. The Pontalba men retaliated. 

The Pontalbas hired spies to follow Micaela, trying to prove infidelities. There were rumors she was having an affair with Andrew Jackson – Micaela donated $1500 to erect the Jackson statue in front of her building. The Pontalba men convinced the French court to extradite her back to France. The abuse returned and was turned up to 11. She was confined to one room, the servants were instructed not to speak or look at her, and visitors were not allowed to inquire about her. Micaela became invisible. 

Micaela endured and tried desperately every chance she got to obtain evidence and proof of their illegal conduct and abuse. Over the years, they would end up back in court numerous times, with Micaela asking for a divorce on the grounds of their wrong-doings, but the Pontalbas always won, and Micaela would be forced to pay their legal fees. It wouldn’t end there. 

After years of attempts to break her, her father-in-law unraveled. The baron grabbed his dueling pistols, walked into her room, and opened fire on Micaela. He shot her four times, with one bullet mangling her left hand as she tried to protect herself. He then walked back to his suite, got his affairs in order, and took his own life. 

Micaela survived the attempt on her life and had a long and painful recovery. She lost a finger and a lung. Celestin suddenly became the doting husband and stayed at her bedside (probably hoping the other lung would go). 

The Last Word

After she recovered, Micaela went back to Paris and continued her divorce pursuits. The French courts still would not grant her a divorce. Celestin celebrated by printing up the court proceedings and handing them out to anyone who read them. The court found his mocking a violation of husbandly duties – leaving her and stealing her money was totally fine, though. Finally, at the age of forty, Micaela was granted a divorce. 

Micaela began her legacy almost immediately. She built the Hotel de Pontalba in Paris, which still stands today and is the home of the United States Ambassador to France. Back home in New Orleans, she oversaw the design and construction of the famous Pontalba buildings on Jackson Square. She acted as the head of all family affairs, handling her children’s investments and losses, as well as overseeing their marriage contracts and wills. Jackson Square 1850s

“I can now say that I have gone through my purgatory while still on this earth.” ~Baroness Micaela Almonester de Pontalba

In the End

What may be the most mysterious and impressive about Micaela Almonester was her selfless care for her ex-husband as he grew old and became senile. Celestin had lost his fortune, as well as his mind, so Micaela came to his aid. She managed his affairs, hired his servants, paid his bills, and managed his care.

Micaela Almonester de Pontalba died in 1874 in Paris; she was 78 years old. She is still revered in New Orleans as a heroine and inspiration, a remarkable woman who made significant contributions to the culture, history, and architecture of the French Quarter. If you visit Jackson Square, you will see her red brick buildings still stand with authority. And if you look closely, you will see an “A” and a “P” in the ironwork that wraps around her building. 

The Pontalba Building Today

“Blessed be these people, They know how to play. They are truly a people of culture.”~Sherwood Anderson, 1922, Pontalba Building. 

The building has seen some interesting characters call it home or simply pass through. The most notable is writer and self-proclaimed host of the 1920s New Orleans Salons, Sherwood Anderson. He hosted Somerset Maugham, Edna St. Vincent Milay, Carl Sandburg, and close friend William Faulkner. Many stories surround Faulkner’s nights of heavy drinking of local spirits and silly antics over the balcony. 

But a different kind of spirit inside the building is as upsetting as Micaela’s past. When the building was originally built, each unit had two staircases—one for the residents and guests, the other for servants. Since then, the inside has been remodeled, and the units have been divided. The top floor was most likely used for servants and still has the servant staircase to access it. 

As you ascend the fourth-floor staircase, you realize it has become increasingly narrow. By the time you reach the top, the 77th step, it is barely wide enough for one to stand straight without their shoulders hitting the wall on either side of them. 

Tenants talk about taking those steps up to their rental, and before reaching the top, a sudden drop in temperature alarms them. They say the chill moves up their spine and shivers their bones. As their bodies shiver, they often see an apparition of a woman swiftly fly past them in a chaotic rush. 

After the building was completed, a young woman was hired as a night nurse for a couple’s new baby. Late one night, the baby was fussier than usual, so after the nurse had tried everything, she decided to walk the baby out and into the night air to see if it would calm the baby back to sleep. As she cradled the infant down the steps, she tripped and missed a step. This sent her tumbling down the stairs. The nurse held on to the baby, saving its life but losing hers. Most are convinced the nurse is stuck on that staircase, “reliving” the dreadful night she lost her life over and over again. 

Pontalba Building French Quarter New OrleansTenants still occupy the Pontalba building, and Ghost Tours continue to tell the abridged version of Micaela’s life whilst weaving ghost stories and speculations about the paranormal activities. Many wonder if the Baroness has returned home, watching over her legacy and keeping an eye on the Vieux Carre.