President Obama greets Pope Francis at Andrews AFB.
As President Obama greeted Pope Francis on the tarmac at Andrews Air Force Base this afternoon, I couldn’t help but think of A’Lelia Walker’s presence in St. Peter’s Square for the coronation of Pope Pius XI in February 1922. In the midst of a five month overseas trip–that included stops in Paris, London, Monte Carlo, Jerusalem, Cairo, Djibouti and Addis Ababa–A’Lelia made her way to Rome for the pageantry and pomp of this singular ceremony.
“St. Peter’s Rome today took on the aspect of a social International Congress of Nations,” reported La Tribuna, a leading Italian daily. Among the group of international notables, the paper included A’Lelia Walker along with former French Prime Minister Leon Bourgeois and former British Prime Minister Arthur Balfour.
Coronation of Pope Pius XI in February 1922
Pope Pius XI had been elected on February 6, 1922 after the sudden death of Pope Benedict XV. During the coronation, A’Lelia Walker not only joined the crowds at the Basilica, but apparently was among the few to have received a personal papal blessing.
Pope Pius XI speaks to the crowd in St. Peter’s Square in February 1922
La Tribuna’s description of her seems quite unusual. While it reflects some of the exaggerated exoticism ascribed to people of color during those years between the World Wars, the generally admiring portrait would not have appeared in most major American dailies whose editorial perspectives remained trapped in racial myopia. Italians, who were not as accustomed to seeing people of African descent, allowed themselves to be a bit in awe of a statuesque, brown-skinned women.
Dressed that day in “an expensive Tibetan shawl trimmed with fur” and accompanied by a uniformed assistant and an interpretor, she stood out even in a crowd of cardinals.
A’Lelia Walker (Madam Walker Family Archives)
“Tall and slender, with a majestic figure, the divine manner and graciousness…invested her with the bearing of a young goddess,” the reporter gushed. “Her somewhat sloping cheeks, rather extended nose and dark complexion, would have caused the ancient Greek lyricists to name her ‘an Ethiopian Artemis.’ Rising interest is shown in this young lady by the vast throng of international visitors, and her grace and bearing are the cause of much comment. One cannot help but associate her with the races of the extreme Orient or with the no less notable Aztecs of old Mexico.”
“The black race has truly sent us a charming representative in the person of Mrs. Lelia Walker Wilson of New York,” the reporter continued referring to the surname of her then husband, Dr. Wiley Wilson. “Her ancestors surely not so long ago must have been rulers of the virgin equatorial forests between the Gulf of Guinea and Mozambique. Therefore, it goes without saying, that Mrs. Wilson is assuredly a queen.”
La Tribuna made reference to her work with the hair care company founded by her mother, Madam C. J. Walker, and to her plans to travel to Egypt and Ethiopia, where she would meet Empress Zauditu. She must have felt a bit like Lupita N’yongo did when she saw herself on the cover of October’s Vogue or like Viola Davis at the Oscars on Sunday night. But in 1922, when appreciation for A’Lelia Walker’s brand of beauty was scarce, she had to go to Rome to get the love!
Discreetly poured cocktails under the pavilion of George Walls’s Texas Avenue bathhouse made Atlantic City one of A’Lelia Walker’s favorite getaways. Sunrise on Indiana Avenue beach lured her back every year. During the annual Easter parade, when families in springtime finery jammed shoulder-to-shoulder along the seven-mile Boardwalk, A’Lelia and her friends arrived draped in furs and diamonds for their own quite fashionable festivities. Wherever else they vacationed during the intervening summer months—whether Martha’s Vineyard, Saratoga Springs or Long Branch—they returned to Atlantic City’s predominantly black Northside for Labor Day concerts, dances and camaraderie. Like everyone else, they came for chewy pastel chunks of saltwater taffy and breezy rides in wicker rolling chairs. Like everyone else, they savored ocean air and the gentle rush of waves around their ankles, collecting seashells and memories as they strolled barefoot in the sand.
Those Americans without the finances and social status to summer in the mansions and on the yachts of Newport began flocking to Atlantic City, especially after 1882 when Colonel George Howard built an elevated oceanfront entertainment pier the length of two football fields. By the early 1900s, it had become the nation’s largest and most affordable resort, valued as much for its vices as its virtues. Catering to the needs of hundreds of thousands of white tourists were thousands of black waiters, waitresses, maids, bellmen, elevator operators and valets—more than nine out of ten of all hotel employees, in fact. Catering to their needs were black inn keepers, undertakers, seamstresses, café owners, preachers and physicians, who—with their families—comprised a quarter of the city’s total population after the summer crowd had left.
Having missed her usual springtime trip, A’Lelia was especially eager to be back on the Boardwalk in September 1924 after the stroke she’d suffered while in Los Angeles that April.
“Everyone is glad to see Mrs. A’Lelia Walker look so well again,” Pittsburgh Courier society columnist Eve Lynn Crawford reported after she’d been seen about town at several parties.
A’Lelia Walker with Al Moore, a Harlem Renaissance era dancer (aka Moiret, who was Fredi Washington’s on stage partner) in front of the Brighton Hotel in Atlantic City. (aleliabundles.com/MadamWalkerFamilyArchive)
She always stopped by to visit Laconia and Benjamin Fitzgerald, whose Fitzgerald’s Auditorium*—with its soda fountain, billiard room and 1,000 seat hall—was booked every night during that last week of August. “In no other place in Atlantic City, open to the free and unquestionable accommodation of our people, can one find a menu more inviting,” boasted Ben Fitzgerald about his chef’s selection of wild game, live lobster and soft shell crab. Those in the know made their way to the back room for poker and black jack.
At the annual balls hosted by the Philontas Club and the Bachelors Benedict, smartly dressed couples from Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, New York and Boston were still getting the hang of The Charleston steps made popular that year in Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles’s Runnin’ Wild. Harlem’s Happy Rhone and his sixteen-piece De Luxe Orchestra made their Atlantic City debut that season before an overflow crowd at Waltz Dream Academy. The Soap Box Minstrels, a group of 23 harmonizing Philadelphia friends, remained a perennial favorite. A few blocks away the Arctic Avenue YMCA benefit jumped with “Red Hot Mamma,” “Hard-Hearted Hannah” and George Stamper’s Broadway dance routines.
Philadelphia’s Soap Box Minstrels, a perennial favorite for black audiences in Atlantic City, in August 1922 (Historical Society of Pennsylanvania)
Unwelcome at the Marlborough-Blenheim, the Traymore and the Shelburne, black tourists found refuge, rooms and meals at Eveleigh Cottage, Wright’s Hotel and the Hotel Ridley, where Maggie Ridley’s buttery hot dinner rolls were legendary.
Atlantic City Boardwalk 1920s (Thomas Topham Collection)
The long weekend was “a riot of excitement and fun and life,” Crawford reported. “Everyone from everywhere seems to be down by the seaside, relaxing, playing and forgetting that there is such a thing as worry in all the world.”
[This post is an excerpt from the forthcoming biography, The Joy Goddess of Harlem: A’Lelia Walker and the Harlem Renaissance, by A’Lelia Bundles.]
Geraldyn Dismond — later well-known as Gerri Major in her role as editor of Jet’s “Society World” — wrote this about Easter Weekend 1927 in her Pittsburgh Courier “New York Society” column:
“It is a tradition throughout the East that the proper place to make the transition from prayer and fasting to the frivolities of Spring is Atlantic City. True, the last week in August brings the largest crowds, the far distant visitors and the wildest extravagances, but at Easter the ultra-fashionable of the East gather to get the first whiff of salt air and pines, to take the early ocean dip, and the thrilling horseback ride on the sands. The natives who have spent the winter season between New York, Philadelphia and Washington open their white homes of many windows and porches and settle down to the serious business of being hosts and hostesses for the World’s Playground.”
“The season opened with the popular game of basketball Thursday night at Waltz Dream where Atlantic City’s two favorite teams, the Vandals and Buccaneers, fought for the South Jersey title. Three hundred fans watched the fast Vandals defeat the hardy Buccaneers to the tune of 37 to 17. It goes without saying that dancing followed.”
“The beautiful Mrs. Laconia Fitzgerald, whose hospitality is a by-word throughout the East, had as her guests Miss A’Lelia Walker, Mrs. Grace Lezama and Algernon Roane of New York, who motored in Saturday in Miss Walker’s Lincoln.”
1926 Video found on YouTube.
Here are links to more excerpts and updates on The Joy Goddess of Harlem, the forthcoming and first major biography of A’Lelia Walker, daughter of entrepreneur Madam C. J. Walker.
*Fitzgerald’s Auditorium was purchased in 1935, five years after Benjamin Fitzgerald’s death, by Leroy “Pop” Williams and his son Cliff Williams, who re-opened it as Club Harlem, the night spot that dominated the Kentucky Avenue entertainment scene for three more decades.
During the week of October 19, 2014 the National Trust for Historic Preservation featured Villa Lewaro, Madam Walker’s Irvington-on-Hudson, New York estate, on all its social media platforms. This piece that I wrote for the Trust’s Preservation Blog also appeared on Huffington Post and Jet.com
Inside Villa Lewaro, Madam C. J. Walker’s Irvington-on-Hudson, NY mansion (David Bohl/Historic New England)
Every time I walk through the doors of Villa Lewaro—the mansion my great-great-grandmother, Madam C. J. Walker, called her “dream of dreams”—I always take a moment to imagine the pride and magic the ancestors must have felt in these rooms. From the columns of the majestic portico to the balustrades of the grand terrace, the original stucco façade sparkled with marble dust and glistening grains of white sand when the laundress-turned-millionaire took possession in May 1918.
Villa Lewaro 1920s
The New York Times pronounced it “a place fit for a fairy princess.” Enrico Caruso, the world famous opera tenor, was so entranced by its similarity to estates in his native Naples that he coined the name “Lewaro” in honor of A’Lelia Walker Robinson, Madam Walker’s only daughter.
Walker told her friend Ida B. Wells, the journalist and anti-lynching activist, that after working so hard all her life—first as a farm laborer, then as a maid and a cook, and finally as the founder of an international hair care enterprise—she wanted a place to relax and garden and entertain her friends.
She also wanted to make a statement, so it was no accident that she purchased four and a half acres in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York not far from Jay Gould’s Lyndhurst and John D. Rockefeller’s Kykuit amidst America’s wealthiest families. She directed Vertner Woodson Tandy—the black architect who already had designed her opulent Harlem townhouse—to position the 34-room mansion close to the village’s main thoroughfare so it was easily visible by travelers en route from Manhattan to Albany.
Villa Lewaro Aerial (Courtesy Madam Walker Family Archives)
Indeed, the Times reported that her new neighbors were “puzzled” and “gasped in astonishment” when they learned that a black woman was the owner. “Impossible!” they exclaimed. “No woman of her race could afford such a place.”
The woman born in 1867 in a dim Louisiana sharecropper’s cabin on the banks of the Mississippi River, now awoke each morning in a sunny master suite with a view of the Hudson River and the New Jersey Palisades. The child who had crawled on dirt floors now walked on carpets of Persian silk. The destitute washerwoman, who had lived across the alley from the St. Louis bar where Scott Joplin composed ragtime tunes, now hosted private concerts beneath shimmering chandeliers in her gold music room.
But the home was not constructed merely for her personal pleasure. Villa Lewaro, she hoped, would inspire young African Americans to “do big things” and to see “what can be accomplished by thrift, industry and intelligent investment of money.”
“Do not fail to mention that the Irvington home, after my death, will be left to some cause that will be beneficial to the race—a sort of monument,” she instructed her attorney, F. B. Ransom. As the largest contributor to the fund that saved Frederick Douglass’s Anacostia home, Cedar Hill, she understood the importance of preservation as a strategy to claim and influence history’s narrative.
Invitation to the August 1918 Villa Lewaro gathering honoring Emmett Scott (Courtesy Madam Walker Family Archives)
For her opening gathering in August 1918, Madam Walker honored Emmett Scott, then the Special Assistant to the U. S. Secretary of War in Charge of Negro Affairs and the highest ranking African American in the federal government. At this “conference of interest to the race”—with its Who’s Who of black Americans and progressive whites—she encouraged discussion and debate about civil rights, lynching, racial discrimination and the status of black soldiers then serving in France during World War I. After a weekend of conversation, collegiality and music provided by J. Rosamond Johnson—co-composer of “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing”—and Joseph Douglass, master violinist and grandson of Frederick Douglass, Scott wrote to her, “No such assemblage has ever gathered at the private home of any representative of our race, I am sure.”
After Madam Walker died at Villa Lewaro on May 25, 1919—barely a year after moving in—her daughter continued the tradition of hosting events, occasionally opening the home for public tours to honor Walker’s legacy. Later dubbed the “joy goddess of Harlem’s 1920s” by poet Langston Hughes because of her impressive soirees, A’Lelia Walker feted Liberian President Charles D. B. King and his entourage in 1921 with a Fourth of July fireworks display and concert by the Ford Dabney Orchestra. In November 1923, limousines lined Broadway as several hundred bejeweled and fancily dressed wedding reception guests arrived from Harlem’s St. Philips Episcopal Church where my grandmother Mae had married her first husband, Dr. Gordon Jackson. The following summer, more than 400 sales agents and cosmetologists journeyed from all over the United States and the Caribbean for the eighth annual convention of the Madam Walker Beauty Culturists Union.
A’Lelia Walker in Villa Lewaro’s Music Room (Courtesy of Madam Walker Familly Archives)
In the late 1970s, as I was beginning to research the Walker women’s lives, I made my first visit to the house. Sold soon after A’Lelia Walker’s death in 1931 in the midst of the Great Depression, it had been a retirement home for elderly white women for several decades. Even with its beauty then obscured and its furnishings meager, I still could see the lingering grandeur in the hand-painted murals and the marble stairs. When I interviewed blues legend Alberta Hunter a few years later, she told tales of elegant weekend parties and of playing the Estey organ as she gently awakened the other guests.
Through the years I’ve watched as ownership has moved from the Companions of the Forest to Ingo and Darlene Appel and then to Harold and Helena Doley. They all have been stewards in their own caring way. For more than two decades, the Doleys have invested considerable resources and patience to restore the home and the grounds, even hosting a designer show house benefitting the United Negro College Fund in 1998.
In May 1922 the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Rockefellers Brothers Fund hosted a gathering of preservationists, developers and entrepreneurs to discuss the future of Villa Lewaro.
Among the earliest and most notable mansions built and owned by an African American and by an American woman entrepreneur, Villa Lewaro is one of the few remaining tangible symbols of the astonishing progress made by the generation born just after Emancipation and the Civil War. Without this evidence, our history can be intentionally misinterpreted and easily dismissed. Having walls to touch and doors to open helps our children and grandchildren verify the ancestors’ accomplishments and connect themselves to their rich heritage.
It is vital that we work to find ways to imagine Villa Lewaro’s future so that it can continue to inspire others and to be, as Madam Walker dreamed “a monument to brains, hustle and energy…and a mile stone in the history of a race’s advancement.”
To support these efforts, please click here to sign the pledge to preserve Madam Walker’s Villa Lewaro and here to make a monetary donation through the National Trust.
A’Lelia Bundles is Walker’s great-great-granddaughter and author of On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker. Her website is www.aleliabundles.com
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!
Some pages from early drafts of the chapters about A’Lelia Walker’s 1921-1922 trip abroad. Refining the voluminous research into readable prose is always a challenge!
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.”
A’Lelia Walker’s third husband, Dr. James Kennedy, wrote several letters to her while she was abroad in 1921 and 1922. (From Madam Walker Family Archives)
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.
A’Lelia Walker stayed at a luxury hotel on the Champs-Elysees near the Arc de Triomphe in 1921
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.
Suez Canal at Kantara (Quantara) circa 1922
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://www.africantrain.org/ provided invaluable information.)
I should have known the Joy Goddess did not make that trip on the back of a mule!
On the bridge over Gotha between Djibouti and Addis Ababa.
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!
At the 1916 coronation of Ethiopian Empress Zauditu, whom A’Lelia Walker visited in Addis Ababa in March 1922.
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
Sometimes writing is like slogging through mud. A vast, clumpy sepia sea that extends beyond the horizon. A molasses thick morass that will be there when the sun goes down and when it comes back up.
That’s what the chapter I’m writing right now feels like. Thigh high mud that clutches my feet and ankles. Mud that’s all over my arms and in my hair and in my cuticles.
But I remind myself that the only way to get to a thinner version of the gunk and muck is to keep moving. The only way to get to higher ground and clearer water is to push ahead on the journey.
With each step, the extraneous words and facts get rinsed away. Each time I edit another draft, I’m closer to replacing an amorphous mass with a manicured lawn and a garden of lillies, roses and poppies.
At the moment, I’m not sure how I’m going to get there. The seventy single-spaced pages–22,000 words–that sit in front of me need to be whittled down to half that length. What I thought was one chapter is insisting that it is two. The writing gods have told me I have no control over this. That I was wrong when I thought I could combine these scenes into one chapter.
They have told me that they have been generous enough to lead me to new material–which at first can just look like more mud–and now I must find the gold nugget, polish it and make jewelry! While I think sometimes they’ve sent me off on tangents and wild goose chases, I have learned to trust them. They’ve told me they’re depending on me to use those revelations to tell some stories that have been forgotten and some truths that have been neglected.
And so I slog along with faith that the final draft–the equivalent of a long, warm shower–is worth the effort.
“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.