“Going down a rabbit hole.” People use this phrase to mean many different things. For anyone whose writing requires research, it usually means following clues until enough dots are connected to create a credible scene.
And when writing nonfiction, it really is important not to make assumptions, because, as they say “truth is more interesting than fiction.” Or as Mark Twain wrote: “It’s no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense.”
Alice Down the Rabbit Hole from fc00.deviantart.net
The “rabbit hole” phrase comes from Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” when Alice spies the White Rabbit checking his pocket watch. Curious and intrigued, she follows behind “just in time to see it pop down a large rabbit-hole under the hedge. In another moment down went Alice after it, never once considering how in the world she was to get out again.”
She just HAD to know more. Her curiosity compelled her to follow. And, like Alice, one never knows exactly how one is going to “get out again.” But plunge ahead one must. Irrationally. Illogically. And with the faith that the answer one is seeking is somewhere in that tunnel.
This is the same searing, flaming curiosity that hit me a few days ago. That has kept me up past 2 a.m. for more than a few nights as I work on Joy Goddess of Harlem: A’Lelia Walker and the Harlem Renaissance, the first major biography of my great-grandmother.
SS Paris departs New York’s Pier 57 in lower Manhattan
I really thought I had everything I needed to finish the chapter about A’Lelia Walker’s trip to Europe and Africa…and then I realized just what a fascinating cast of characters were on board the ship with her and whom she would see in the first class dining room and lounge during her five day voyage from Pier 57 in New York to Le Havre.
Among the passengers is the independent, iconoclastic daughter of one America’s wealthiest men; the spoiled, ne’er-do-well grandson of another billionaire; a celebrated Italian opera singer returning to La Scala; the sister of one of America’s most powerful politicians, who like many young women of her era married a titled European; the editor of one of America’s most important papers and the Prime Minister of France.
Anne Morgan, daughter of J. Pierpont Morgan, traveled on the SS Paris in November 1921
To my surprise there are mutual friendships, interests and serendipitous coincidences that link A’Lelia Walker to almost all of these people.
What was it like to be the only black woman in first class on the most luxurious ocean liner of the day? How was she treated? With whom did she interact? How did she spend her days and her evenings? She surely did not go unnoticed. One French newspaper reporter said some wondered, as she strolled along the deck for her afternoon walk, if she were a princess. “Her life is a mystery, others say, as they examine her and her dazzling diamonds and pearls,” he wrote.
And now having gone down the rabbit hole, I have what I need. I wish I had diaries and journals, but I don’t. But I have what I need.
A’Lelia Walker traveled to Europe, Africa and the Middle East from November 1921 to April 1922 (Photo: Madam Walker Family Archives)
So imagine, if you will, A’Lelia Walker standing at the top of the stairwell of the great hall in the photo below, looking down at her fellow first class passengers and contemplating with whom she wishes to spend her evening. Will she play bridge? Will she speak with the opera singer about her love of music? Will she find a common thread with the other women on board who volunteered with the Red Cross during the war?
Oh, I am soooo very eager to tell you all I know!!
The Great Hall for first class passengers on the SS Paris. Imagining A’Lelia Walker on the landing surveying the room and contemplating how she would spend her evening.
Langston Hughes called A’Lelia Walker “the joy goddess of Harlem’s 1920s.”
Many thanks to Quintard Taylor and BlackPast.org for inviting me to write an essay about A’Lelia Walker for Black History Month 2014. Here is the essay as it appears on the website. And please do visit this wonderful, information website for hundreds of articles that make Black History Month last all year long. Click HERE to go the A’Lelia Walker essay, which is posted below:
In the following account based on her forthcoming book on A’Lelia Walker titled The Joy Goddess of Harlem: A’Lelia Walker and the Harlem Renaissance, A’Lelia Bundles provides a glimpse into the life of her famous great-grandmother whose own powerful story is often overshadowed by accounts of her mother, cosmetics entrepreneur Madam C.J. Walker.
I first began to learn about my great-grandmother and namesake, A’Lelia Walker, when I was three or four years old. On visits with my mother to my grandfather’s apartment, I always slipped away to explore a chest of drawers filled with her jewelry, clothes, photographs and opera glasses. Later I discovered that the baby grand piano on which I learned to read music had been played by famous musicians who visited her Harlem home. The first edition copies of Countee Cullen
and Jean Toomer
on our bookshelves had come from her personal library.
To the wider world, she was a cosmetics industry executive and patron of the arts. Born Lelia McWilliams on June 6, 1885 in Delta, Louisiana
, she was the only child of future hair care entrepreneur and philanthropist Madam C.J. Walker
(Sarah Breedlove), and Moses McWilliams, a sharecropper. As an adult, she changed her name to A’Lelia.
In 1888, while still a toddler, she moved with her widowed mother from Vicksburg, Mississippi
to St. Louis, Missouri
where three of her maternal uncles operated a barber shop. At nearby St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church, women parishioners reached out, caring for A’Lelia in the St. Louis Colored Orphans Home while Sarah worked during the week as a washerwoman. As a choir member, Sarah was exposed for the first time to educated, urban, middle class African American women, many of whom were members of the National Association of Colored Women. Motivated by these interactions, she began to aspire to a better life for herself and her daughter. Sarah’s marriage to an abusive alcoholic named John Davis during A’Lelia’s adolescence created instability and frequently disrupted her school attendance.
In 1901, when A’Lelia was 16, her mother left Davis. She then sent A’Lelia to Knoxville College
, where she remained for less than a year.A’Lelia Walker’s love of music and theatre, which later would inform her philanthropy, was established long before she attended college. During the late 1890s, she and her mother had lived across the alley from Tom Turpin’s Rosebud Café
, the St. Louis piano hall where ragtime composer Scott Joplin
During the late 1890s, A’Lelia Walker and her mother, who then was still a washerwoman, lived across the alley behind this building which housed Tom Turpin’s Rosebud Cafe.
Her elementary school principals included black Oberlin College graduates who exposed A’Lelia and the other children to opera, German lieder, marches and spirituals. St. Paul’s organist was a classically-trained tenor who appeared in black British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s opera Hiawatha at the 1893 Chicago World’s Exposition. Among her childhood friends were Porgy and Bess cast member Georgette Harvey and musicians Sam Patterson, Joe Jordan, and Louis Chauvin.In 1906, 21-year-old A’Lelia joined her mother and new stepfather, Charles Joseph Walker, in Denver, Colorado, where they recently had founded the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company, a hair care products firm that soon would become one of America’s most successful women-owned and black-owned companies.
To identify herself with her mother’s increasingly successful business, A’Lelia began using the Walker surname, though she never was legally adopted by Charles Walker. In Denver and then in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, as her mother traveled, she oversaw the mail order operation and manufacture of the Walker line of products. In 1909 she married hotel employee John Robinson whom she had met in Pittsburgh, but the union ended after three years.
Madam Walker opened Lelia College, her first beauty school on Wylie Avenue in 1908. (This photo from agatetype.com was shot in 1912.)
When Madam Walker moved her headquarters to Indianapolis, Indiana in 1910, A’Lelia remained in Pittsburgh to manage the company’s east coast operations. During this time, she adopted 13-year-old Fairy Mae Bryant, whose widowed biological mother had allowed her to travel with the Walkers as an assistant and model. Her hip-length braids were featured in Walker ads for their Wonderful Hair Grower, a product that healed dandruff and scalp disease. She became known as Mae Walker, later graduated from Spelman Seminary (now Spelman College) and was a Walker Company executive for more than 25 years.
In 1913 A’Lelia Walker convinced her mother to establish a Harlem office just as African Americans were moving into that uptown Manhattan neighborhood. Like her mother, she became involved in philanthropic activities, heading fundraising campaigns for several charitable causes, including an ambulance for black soldiers during World War I and a building for the Utopia Neighborhood Club’s Child Welfare and Recreation Center, which later served as the New York headquarters for the 1963 March on Washington. With Lucille Randolph—a Walker-trained beautician and wife of publisher and activist A. Philip Randolph—she founded the Harlem Debutantes Club as a vehicle to involve her daughter, Mae, and other young women from the community in social service activities.
Walker townhouse at 108-110 W. 136th Street. Today the space is occupied by the Countee Cullen branch of the NY Public Library.
Both Walker women cultivated relationships with black publishers and advertised extensively in The Messenger, The Crisis, the New York Age, the Baltimore Afro-American, the Pittsburgh Courier, the Chicago Defender and dozens of other newspapers.In 1916 when Madam Walker moved from Indianapolis to Harlem, she joined A’Lelia at 108-110 West 136th Street in a townhouse, office and beauty salon near Lenox (now Malcolm X) Avenue designed for them by architect and Alpha Phi Alpha founder Vertner Tandy. Two years later she moved into another Tandy-designed home, a 34-room mansion in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York, 18 miles north of Harlem. Legendary tenor Enrico Caruso suggested the name Villa Lewaro in honor of A’Lelia (A’Lelia Walker Robinson). Madam Walker’s presence in the New York office resulted in conflict, however, as she sometimes usurped her daughter’s authority in business decisions involving their local sales agents. A long-time employee described their relationship in this way: “Fire and ice. They loved each other dearly and they sometimes fought fiercely.”
On May 25, 1919, while A’Lelia and Mae were en route home from a business trip to Panama, Madam Walker died, leaving A’Lelia as the 34-year-old company president and heiress of an estate and homes valued at a million dollars.
A’Lelia Walker was in Colon, Panama when her mother died on May 25, 1919.
Devastated by her mother’s death, she immediately married Dr. Wiley Merlio Wilson, a Howard University-trained physician and pharmacist, whom she had met several years earlier when he and his brother ran businesses in Pine Bluff, Arkansas and St. Louis. As a wedding gift, she purchased a building for his medical clinic, Wilson Sanitarium, at 138th and Seventh Avenue in one of the Strivers Row blocks. They divorced in 1924. Two years later, she married Dr. James Arthur Kennedy, a decorated World War I captain, who later became the assistant director at Tuskegee’s Veteran’s Hospital.
With her sizeable fortune backed by the Walker hair care products empire, A’Lelia Walker became a patron of the newly emerging Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. She hosted some of the most memorable parties of that decade, lending a glamorous, glitzy aura to the social scene above 110th Street.
The invitation A’Lelia Walker sent to hundreds of friends when she converted a floor of her 136th Street townhouse into a cultural salon called The Dark Tower in October 1927. (Madam Walker Family Archives)
At the Dark Tower—a converted floor of her 136th Street townhouse named for Cullen’s Opportunity column and poem—and at her 80 Edgecombe Avenue pied-á-terre, she welcomed Harlem and Greenwich Village writers, artists, actors, and musicians at a time when blacks and whites seldom socialized on equal terms.
Also, during an era when few women traveled alone, A’Lelia Walker visited Africa, Europe, the Middle East, the Caribbean and Central and South America. On a transatlantic voyage on the luxury liner Paris in late 1921, she occupied the first class cabin next to French Prime Minister Aristide Briand. In 1922 she witnessed the coronation of Pope Pius XI in Rome, Italy and became the first American to meet Empress Zewditu I in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
A’Lelia Walker visited Ethiopian Empress Zewditu in March 1922.
As a patron of the arts, she supported J. Rosamond Johnson’s Harlem Music School Settlement which offered classical music training for black students. Musicians James Reese Europe, Ford Dabney, Joseph Douglass, Harry T. Burleigh, Turner Layton, and Alberta Hunter performed at her dinners and parties. She also opened her home to theatrical rehearsals, movie shoots and art exhibitions. Among the photographers whose careers she promoted were R. E. Mercer and James Allen. At various times, actress Edna Lewis Thomas, author Eric Walrond, and singer Taylor Gordon lived rent-free at her Harlem house.
The best known black socialite of her time, A’Lelia Walker was such a rarity that Harlem Renaissance writer Langston Hughes called her “the joy goddess of Harlem’s 1920s” and noted that her parties “were filled with guests whose names would turn any Nordic social climber green with envy.” In April 1929, composer Max Ewing wrote, “Wherever else one is invited or expected, one must cancel all other plans if invited to A’Lelia’s! She is the Great Black Empress, She Who Must Be Obeyed!”
A’Lelia Walker served as inspiration for many photographers, artists and novelists. (Photo: Madam Walker Family Archives)
A’Lelia Walker personified the spirit and flamboyance of the Harlem Renaissance. Her always stylish appearance, which mixed regal, statuesque African beauty with haute couture, inspired poets, novelists, and painters. “She had a superb figure, the type that artists like to draw,” said a reporter who knew her well. Among those for whom she posed were photographer Berenice Abbott and sculptors Richmond Barthé and Augusta Savage. With admiration, close friend Langston Hughes called her a “gorgeous dark Amazon,” a phrase fraught with powerful meaning in an era when light-skinned African Americans often were perceived as more beautiful by many blacks and most whites. Literary critic Carl Van Vechten and Renaissance authors Zora Neale Hurston, George Schuyler, and Wallace Thurman created characters inspired by her.
As the first internationally visible black American heiress with celebrity status, she displayed an impresario’s gift for staging elaborate extravaganzas that made headlines, filled society gossip columns, and scandalized the more straitlaced social arbiters and race leaders of her mother’s generation. Her most memorable affairs included her daughter Mae’s lavish 1923 nuptials to Dr. Gordon Jackson, son of Niagara Movement treasurer George Jackson, and a fireworks-filled 1921 Fourth of July celebration at Villa Lewaro for C.D.B. King, the President of Liberia.
Like other entrepreneurs and art patrons of the era, A’Lelia Walker basked in the euphoria of the Jazz Age and like many of her contemporaries she personally felt the 1929 stock market crash and ensuing Great Depression. During this period as Walker Company sales plunged, her long-troublesome hypertension worsened. In 1931 she divorced Dr. James Arthur Kennedy.
Like many children of self-made figures, she struggled to define herself outside the sphere of her mother’s influence, expectations and legacy. On August 17, 1931, after an enjoyable day celebrating a friend’s birthday at the beach in Long Branch, New Jersey, A’Lelia Walker died from a cerebral hemorrhage.
A’Lelia Walker died in a private cottage near the beach in Long Branch, NJ in August 1931. (This photo from historiclong branch.org was taken in July 1930.)
A few days later, several thousand New Yorkers crowded the streets outside the Harlem funeral parlor where her body lay in repose. As her casket was lowered into the crypt next to her famous mother at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, aviator Hubert Julian, known as “The Black Eagle,” flew over the site releasing dahlias and gladiolas. Of her death, Langston Hughes wrote “That was really the end of the gay times of the New Negro era in Harlem…The depression brought everybody down a peg or two. And the Negroes had but few pegs to fall.”
A large collection of A’Lelia Walker’s letters, photographs, financial records, clothes and personal effects are in the author’s Madam Walker/A’Lelia Walker Family Archives in Washington, DC. Several dozen additional personal letters and other Walker Company materials are in the Madam C. J. Walker Collection at the Indiana Historical Society. Details of Walker’s life, especially prior to 1920, are included in On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker (Scribner 2001) by A’Lelia Bundles, whoseThe Joy Goddess of Harlem: A’Lelia Walker and the Harlem Renaissance, is forthcoming from Scribner in 2015. Articles and photographs also appear at https://aleliabundles.com/ and http://www.madamcjwalker.com/. Langston Hughes’s The Big Sea (1940) and Carl Van Vechten’s unpublished New Yorker profile in “Keep A-Inchin’ Along”: Selected Writings of Carl Van Vechten about Black Art and Letters, ed. Bruce Kellner, provide useful accounts of her later life.