So finally I am finished with the two chapters (for my forthcoming book Joy Goddess of Harlem: A’Lelia Walker and the Harlem Renaissance) that focus on A’Lelia Walker’s November 1921 to April 1922 trip abroad. It’s a good thing I didn’t know how long it was going to take or I might have abandoned the whole project!
But writing biography is like that. You just never know where the trail is going to lead and once you’ve picked up the scent, you really do have to follow it until you’ve bagged the bird, so to speak.
In addition to the articles that appeared in several newspapers about her trip, I also am fortunate to have twenty or so letters that her third husband, Dr. James Arthur Kennedy, was writing to her while she was overseas. At the time she still was married to–though very much estranged from–her second husband. My favorite line in one of Kennedy’s letters is: “May the path of your return be strewn with a thousand rose petals leading to the circumference of my arms.”
Yeah, yeah, maybe it’s a little much, but as the old folks used to say, “Honey hush!”
I’d really intended for A’Lelia Walker’s four month trip to Paris, Nice, Monte Carlo, Naples, Rome, Cairo, Jerusalem, Djibouti, Addis Ababa and London to be one chapter. I figured I could do her “eat, pray, love” thing in twenty or so pages, but it soon became apparent that her voyage on the SS Paris in November 1921 was a chapter all its own because of the other interesting characters who were on board and the subtext of what it meant to be a black woman in first class on one of the world’s most luxurious ocean liners in the early twentieth century.
And then her escapades in Paris–where she knew black American musicians who were already there in 1921 before Josephine Baker and Bricktop arrived and where she stayed in one of the city’s premiere hotels near the Arc de Triomphe on the Champs-Elysees–took on a life of its own as I had to check and double check the details of the lives of people who were very important then but who are almost entirely forgotten now.
I knew she’d met Paul Poiret, the famous coutourier of the era, but didn’t know she’d likely crossed paths with Maurice Chevalier and Mistinguett, the famous chanteuse, or Sidney Bechet or Dooley Wilson, who later became famous when he sang “As Time Goes By” in “Casablanca.” People like Louis Mitchell and Mazie Mullins are names most people don’t know any more, but they were very much a part of the black expatriate music community in 1921.
I knew she’d traveled by boat through the Suez Canal to the Red Sea and on to Djibouti en route to Addis Ababa to visit Ethiopian Empress Zauditu in March 1922, but it took additional research to learn that the French–with the permission of Zauditu’s father, Emperor Menelik II–had constructed a very modern railroad linking interior Ethiopia to the east coast of Africa. (I owe thanks to French author Hugues Fontaine who wrote the book “Un Train en Afrique” and whose website http://
I should have known the Joy Goddess did not make that trip on the back of a mule!
I’ve included a photo of some of the pages from my rough drafts of this chapter. I know I must have done 20 or more drafts. I know I’ve finished a draft–or at least polished it enough for an editor to review–when the paper is no longer covered with red and purple ink!
So now, I am on to the next chapter which sets the stage for the dawn of the cultural explosion that will become known as the Harlem Renaissance.
A’Lelia Bundles is the author of On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker, a biography of her great-great-grandmother, who is the mother of A’Lelia Walker. For more information about Madam Walker, please visit www.madamcjwalker.com