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
“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.
Niagara Movement treasurer George Jackson is not in this photo but was present for the inaugural meeting on July 11, 1905.
Today, July 11, on this anniversary of the Niagara Movement’s inaugural meeting at Niagara Falls in Ontario, Canada across the border from Buffalo, New York, I’m reminded of how discovering a distant connection to that monumental event truly made an historical moment come alive for me.
My grandmother Mae’s November 1923 wedding was Harlem’s social event of the year. Lavish. Extravagant. Beautiful. Entirely over the top. The only problem: the bride didn’t want to marry the groom. The groom wasn’t particularly excited either.
Mae Walker marries Dr. Gordon Jackson in November 1923 (Photo: A’Lelia Bundles/Madam Walker Family Archives)
What looked like a Cinderella fantasy and was reported as breathlessly as any People magazine cover story, turned out to be more nightmare than match made in heaven. A’Lelia Walker–daughter of millionaire entrepreneur Madam C. J. Walker--had decided that she knew best for her adopted daughter and only legal heir. In her grand scheme–not unlike the marriages staged by mothers of some wealthy young American women who were paired with castle-rich and cash poor European aristocracy–she selected the scion of another prominent black family.
Mae Walker with her bridesmaids at Villa Lewaro (Credit: A’Lelia Bundles/Madam Walker Family Archives/aleliabundles.com)
The man A’Lelia chose, I can only surmise as a way to consolidate family wealth, was Chicago physician Dr. Gordon Henry Jackson. At some point while doing research for On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker (Scribner 2001), I realized that Gordon’s father, George H. Jackson, was the same George Jackson who had been treasurer of W. E. B. DuBois’s Niagara Movement, the forerunner of the NAACP.
As I began work on Joy Goddess: A’Lelia Walker and the Harlem Renaissance, the biography I’m currently writing, I needed and wanted to learn more about Gordon’s family. I’d been poking around for years, but thanks to Anne Moore, a librarian at UMass Amherst, I was introduced to an incredible trove of information about the Niagara Movement in the DuBois Library at UMass.
George Jackson’s signature appears just below the word “Grove” on this menu from the July 1905 Niagara Movement dinner (Credit: DuBois Library at UMass Amherst)
To say I was thrilled when she sent a copy of the restaurant menu from that first Niagara Movement meeting on July 11, 1905 with George H. Jackson’s signature and address, is an understatement. Among the documents, now on line and accessible to all, are receipts signed by Jackson and meeting minutes that confirm his unanimous re-election as treasurer during the August 1906 Niagara Movement meeting at Harper’s Ferry. (Digital Niagara Movement and NAACP documents are also available at the Library of Congress.)
George Jackson’s signature on a 1906 Niagara Movement receipt (Credit: DuBois Library UMass Amherst Special Collections)
I eventually learned that Jackson was an attorney and Ohio state legislator. After years of living in Cincinnati and profiting from smart real estate investments, he moved his family to Chicago, where he continued to purchase valuable property and be involved in political affairs.
Mae and Gordon’s marriage really was doomed from the start. Not long after their child (and my uncle), Walker Gordon Jackson, was born in June 1926, Mae moved back to New York to work in the Walker School of Beauty Culture, dividng her time between the Walker’s Harlem townhouse and the mansion in Irvington-on-Hudson. In September 1928 she eloped with my grandfather, Marion Perry, an attorney who was studying finance that summer at Columbia University. My mother, A’Lelia Mae Perry, was born the following July.
Coincidentally, my grandfather was born on this very same day 121 years ago!
My grandfather, Marion R. Perry, married my grandmother Mae in 1927. His birthday was July 11, 1892 (Credit: A’Lelia Bundles/Madam Walker Family Archives)
I can’t say theirs was a particularly happy marriage either, but their lives fascinate me and have provided a window through which to see other significant historic events and connect in a way I might not otherwise be able to do.
Newspaper headlines from the Pittsburgh Courier –“Heiress Weds ‘Mid Pomp-Splendor”—to the New York World—“Thousands Attend Wedding of Negro Heiress in Harlem”—tell only part of the story.
Mae Walker's 1923 wedding was the social event of the season (aleliabundles.com)
For Harlem’s social event of the season and of the year, there were parties galore, guests from three continents and a groom from a prominent family. There also was a major glitch: the bride was in love with someone else. (more…)
But even then–long before we had all the Internet tools we now take for granted–I had the sense that the ancestors were leading me to the interviews I did in the homes of surviving Harlem Renaissance icons Alberta Hunter, Dorothy West, Bruce Nugent and Geraldyn Dismond (later known as Jet’s society columnist, Gerri Major) and artist Romare Bearden, whose mother, Bessye Bearden, had been a close friend of A’Lelia Walker’s. (more…)