What I’d like to do today in celebration of her birthday is talk about the person I’ve discovered through extensive research – including her personal correspondence and other primary source documents – rather than the caricature that a number of authors have created.
First and foremost, she will always be known as the daughter of Madam C. J. Walker, the early 20th century hair care entrepreneur and philanthropist. But she also was her own person with interests, personality traits, likes, dislikes and a fascinating circle of friends.
More than I knew when I wrote On Her Own Ground twenty years ago, she was very much a patron of the arts with her own strong passion for music and art that began when she was growing up in St. Louis during the ragtime era of the 1890s. She traveled internationally and understood current events and the politics of Jim Crow. She had an impresario’s instinct for staging extravagant events.
She was a fashion trendsetter with a sharp eye for design. Her parties helped define the Harlem Renaissance. Her Dark Tower cultural salon was legendary. While she was less directly engaged than her mother in causes like the anti-lynching and women’s club movements, she raised money for community and social service organizations.
How Other Authors Viewed A’Lelia Walker
My literary introduction to A’Lelia Walker was through Langston Hughes’s The Big Sea, in which he famously proclaimed her death in August 1931 to be the end of an era. “That was really the end of the gay times of the New Negro era in Harlem,” he wrote. It is Hughes who anointed her “the joy goddess of Harlem’s 1920s” because of her parties and her room-filling personality.
What I have discovered after decades of research, however, is that several other authors who did not know her have repeated second hand, inaccurate and entirely fabricated stories about her. It’s hard to resist wondering if some of them have a need to project a story line onto her life. In their speculation and their failure to do original research, they have relied upon stereotypes and clichés about what they imagine A’Lelia Walker might have done.
A’Lelia Walker circa 1913
I very much admire David Levering Lewis’s Pulitzer Prize-winning scholarship on W.E.B. DuBois, but his description of A’Lelia Walker in his widely read When Harlem Was in Vogue set the stage for a great deal of misinformation about her. Just as I discovered while doing research for my four Madam Walker books, I have encountered the same fictionalization of A’Lelia Walker while researching The Joy Goddess of Harlem: A’Lelia Walker and the Harlem Renaissance (forthcoming from Scribner). In all her complexity and contradictions, A’Lelia Walker is an original who needs no embellishment.
I won’t address all the myths today, but here are three of the most glaring. The Myth of A’Lelia Walker’s Short Attention Span
In 1982 Lewis wrote: “Her intellectual powers were slight. After seven minutes, conversation went precipitously downhill, but those first seven minutes were usually quite creditable.” Among the many authors who have mentioned A’Lelia Walker since then, Steven Watson perpetuated this myth in his 1995 book, The Harlem Renaissance, when he wrote: “One acquaintance cattily declared seven minutes to be her limit for elevated conversation.”
I’ve always found this claim odd. During the early 1980s, I had the good fortune of interviewing a dozen or so of A’Lelia Walker’s octogenarian and nonagenarian friends who regaled me with stories of their social gatherings and travels. To a person, they described A’Lelia’s attention to detail for the elegant parties she orchestrated. I know from her letters how focused she could be when she cared about something. I can’t help but wonder if, by chance, someone actually said she had a seven-minute attention span, that that person may have been someone she didn’t like or with whom she didn’t wish to have a conversation. She could be like that when she wanted to. The Myth that A’Lelia Walker Didn’t Read Books
Watson seems to have started this rumor when he wrote: “Although she supported Harlem culture, she had little interest in intellectual talk and rarely read books.” More recently Saidiya Hartman paraphrased Watson and others in her 2019 book when she wrote: “[S]he financed the Dark Tower, a literary salon in her palatial home of thirty rooms, although it was rumored that she never read books, only supported their authors.” (The Dark Tower, by the way, was in A’Lelia Walker’s 136th Street townhouse rather than in Villa Lewaro, her Irvington, New York mansion.) Neither Watson or Hartman cites a source for this claim.
Langston Hughes autographed a copy of his “The Weary Blues” for A’Lelia Walker. (Madam Walker Family Archives)
Books from A’Lelia Walker’s library (Madam Walker Family Archives)
In fact, I have many books from A’Lelia Walker’s personal library, including an autographed copy of Langston Hughes’s The Weary Blues. I also have personal correspondence in which she thanks friends for books they have sent her and talks about how much she loves to read.
The Myth that Grace Nail Johnson Wouldn’t Socialize with A’Lelia Walker
A’Lelia Walker in Atlantic City (Madam Walker Family Archives)
One of the most memorable passages in Lewis’s When Harlem Was in Vogue is this: “Not everybody pined for an invitation to her brownstones and her country place. Grace Nail Johnson, the wife of James Weldon Johnson and ‘social dictator’ of Harlem, would as soon have done the Black Bottom on Lenox Avenue as cross A’Lelia’s threshold.”
These sentences have taken on a life of their own in Harlem Renaissance lore and been accepted as factual by readers and authors who have interpreted it to mean that A’Lelia Walker was shunned by Grace Nail Johnson and Harlem’s black elite.
In August 1999 Sondra Kathryn Wilson, the executor of the Johnson estate, told me in an email message that Mrs. Johnson was quite upset about this portrayal.
“It’s a lie,” she told Dr. Grace Sims Okala, her adopted daughter, in an interview recorded some years earlier by Wilson. “Grace and Jim considered the older Mrs. Walker as their friend. Grace often said that the elder Mrs. Walker and her father had similar backgrounds…Grace and Jim didn’t attend a lot of parties. Jim traveled a lot. He was gone so much and when he was home, he was writing. Grace and Jim preferred small dinner parties. If Grace didn’t attend the younger Ms. Walker’s parties, it had nothing to do with Ms. Walker. I know she wouldn’t attend a party if Jim was away. She wouldn’t have gone to Mrs. Walker’s or any other party alone.”
And I know from A’Lelia Walker’s correspondence – including an invitation for an event that lists both A’Lelia Walker and Grace Nail Johnson as hosts – that the speculation about their estrangement is inaccurate. Among other things, the spirit and implication of the story are contradicted by what society columnist Gerri Major, singer Alberta Hunter, artist Romare Bearden and many others told me about A’Lelia Walker during the 1980s.
There is so much more to say about my great-great-grandmother and namesake. Stay tuned for The Joy Goddess of Harlem.
Happy Birthday, Langston Hughes and Happy Black History Month 2016!
For my A’Lelia Walker biography, I’m in the midst of simultaneously writing three connected chapters right now focused on late 1925 through 1926 about white novelist and music critic Carl Van Vechten’s entrance into Harlem and how the community above 125th Street begins to pivot from being inward and self-affirming — and comfortable with that — to the insertion of and fascination by the white downtown, Prohibition-era gaze.
There’s a lot more that I’d say if I had more time this evening, but I didn’t want to let Langston’s birthday and the beginning of Black History Month pass without taking the opportunity to forecast some of what I’m discovering about A’Lelia Walker’s relationship with Langston.
I am very, very grateful to Langston Hughes for giving me a biographical profile and interpretation of A’Lelia Walker that has guided me for many years as I have learned about her and researched her life.
Langston’s The Big Sea, Arnold Rampersad’s The Life of Langston Hughes Volume I and Emily Bernard’s Remember Me to Harlem
Here’s what Hughes wrote in his memoir, The Big Sea: “It was a period when local and visiting royalty were not at all uncommon in Harlem. And when the parties of A’Lelia Walker, the Negro heiress, were filled with guests whose names would turn any Nordic social climber green with envy.”
His description of one of the parties she hosted in her 80 Edgecombe Avenue apartment captures the spirit of the era: “A’Lelia Walker was the then great Harlem party giver, although Mrs. Bernia Austin fell but little behind…At her “at homes” Negro poets and Negro number bankers mingled with downtown poets and seat-on-the-stock-exchange racketeers…A’Lelia Walker was a gorgeous dark Amazon…A’Lelia Walker was the joy-goddess of Harlem’s 1920s.”
What he wrote has been critical to me because many authors and scholars have written about her in a quite two-dimensional manner. But Langston knew her, so I am inclined to give more credence to his interpretation.
Langston Hughes’s “The Weary Blues” was published in 1926 after Carl Van Vechten introducer Hughes to Alfred Knopf.
My research of the last decade for my in-progress book, The Joy Goddess of Harlem: A’Lelia Walker and the Harlem Renaissance, has allowed me to track when they met.
On January 31, 1926 –when A’Lelia Walker couldn’t attend Langston’s book signing at the Shipwreck Inn at 107 Claremont Avenue near Columbia University — she gave mutual friend and author Wallace Thurman two copies of Langston’s new book, The Weary Blues, with a request for him to autograph them for her.
A few days later, Thurman wrote to Hughes: ““Dear Langston. . .Madam Walker was tickled pink over your inscription. She just must meet you, and will try to arrange to do so as soon as you return.”
In late February, Hughes wrote to Van Vechten about an upcoming trip to New York (from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania where he was still a student): “I think I’ll be in New York Friday. Of course, I want to come see you sometime during the weekend, if you’ll let me…and also this trip I am supposed to meet A’Lelia Walker. Last time, she sent two books for me to autograph for her, but I didn’t’ get to see her.”
Between 1926 and 1931, Hughes attended many of A’Lelia Walker’s parties at her Edgecombe Avenue apartment and at The Dark Tower on 136th Street. On March 1, 1930, he sent this postcard to her from Havana, Cuba, a place they both loved. ” Dear A’Lelia — I think you would adore Havana. (Have you been here?) The people are marvelous, bars and dance halls everywhere and a too-bad beach. All the leading artists and writers and actresses are treating me royally.” A’Lelia Walker, indeed, had been to Cuba in 1918.
When A’Lelia Walker died in August 1931, Langston Hughes wrote this poem, which was read at her funeral.
To learn more about A’Lelia Walker, please check out some of these blog articles about her
A’Lelia Walker with Everett Johnson in front of Atlantic City’s Traymore Hotel. (aleliabundles.com/ WalkerFamilyArchives)
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.
George Walls’s Texas Avenue Bathhouse (Atlantic City Free Public Library)
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.
“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’s Color and Jean Toomer’s Caneon 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 in Tennessee, 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 often performed.
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.
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.
Anyone who knows me well, knows I’ve been working on a biography of A’Lelia Walker, my great-grandmother and namesake, for more years than I want to admit. After I finished writing On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker--the biography of A’Lelia Walker’s mother–I knew her Harlem Renaissance era story called for an additional book so I could chronicle her life and the lives of her intriguing circle of friends through a new lens.
Research for me is mostly fun and exciting. But writing and editing the first and second and twentieth rough draft of a chapter is challenging. Finding the right word and the right rhythm and the right arc are steps in a painstaking process. Getting to the point where the final draft feels ready for an editor’s eyes is satisfying, but much easier said than done.
Langston Hughes and Carl Van Vechten knew A’Lelia Walker and captured her personality more accurately than many others who have written about the Harlem Renaissance.
It’s all been worth it, though. Along the way I’ve discovered that A’Lelia Walker–who is best known as the daughter of entrepreneur Madam C. J. Walker–is very different from the caricature she has become in the minds of many scholars, novelists and playwrights who have written about her during the last three decades. People who actually knew her–contemporaries like Langston Hughes and Carl Van Vechten–captured her well: Van Vechten in an unpublished New Yorker profile, Hughes in the poem he wrote for her funeral and in his memoir, The Big Sea. In recent years, though, she’s been reduced to the first generation/second generation wealth cliche: “Madam made the money. Her daughter spent the money.”
A’Lelia Walker and her mother, Madam C. J. Walker, with their chauffeur in front of Madam Walker’s Indianapolis home, circa 1914. (Madam Walker Family Archives)
There’s no question that A’Lelia Walker enjoyed the wealth, houses and celebrity she inherited when her mother died in 1919. Yes, she spent a lot of money, but she had a lot of money to spend. To reduce her to a spendthrift who frittered away a fortune is to miss the point of what it meant to be the first black heiress. A narrative that claims she singlehandedly decimated the Walker fortune ignores the context of the Great Depression and the effects the stock market crash had on all American businesses. Like most human beings, she’s more complex–and far more interesting–than the simplistic caricature. She was a big spirit with a charismatic personality. A generous soul. A fashion leader who wore furs, turbans, diamonds and custom made shoes. A social impresario who understood the dramatic gesture, whether she was hosting the president of Liberia for a Fourth of July weekend at Villa Lewaro, her Hudson River estate, or orchestrating the extravagant wedding of her daughter, Mae. She could be regal and she could be entirely down to earth. She had bouts of insecurity because her own accomplishments could never measure up to those of her mother. She had major health problems. She was surrounded by friends who loved her, but also had three unhappy marriages.
I don’t think it’s too much to say that her parties helped define the Harlem Renaissance. From the time she moved to Harlem in 1913, an invitation to her beautifully furnished townhouse on 136th Street near Lenox Avenue (now Malcolm X Boulevard) for dinners, dances and recitals seldom was declined. By the time she converted a floor of the house into the legendary Dark Tower in October 1927, she’d been hosting salon-like soirees for more than a decade.
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)
A’Lelia Walker turns out to be much more a patron of the arts than even I knew when I wrote On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker. The conventional wisdom is that the Walker philanthropy ended when Madam Walker died. The truth is A’Lelia Walker contributed to many causes and institutions before and after her mother’s death. She spearheaded a campaign for an ambulance for black soldiers during World War I, donated to the Silent Protest Parade against lynching in 1917 and was the leading fundraiser for the Utopia Neighborhood Children’s Center, a building which later housed the 1963 March on Washington planning offices.
When A’Lelia Walker hosted Liberian President C. D. B. King for a Fourth of July weekend at Villa Lewaro, she hired her friend, Ford Dabney, and his Syncopated Orchestra to provide the music. (Document from the Madam Walker Family Archives)
She regularly hired musicians, photographers, modistes, architects and caterers. She invited theater groups to rehearse in her home and a filmmaker to shoot his movies at her estate at no charge. At various times she let a writer, an actress and a singer stay in one of the apartments in her townhouse rent free. Ford Dabney, whose orchestra performed nightly at Florenz Ziegfeld’s Rooftop Garden during the 1910s, was among the many musicians who played for her parties. She commissioned photographers like R. E. Mercer, James Latimer Allen and James Van Der Zee. And of course as president of the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company, she was a regular advertiser in black newspapers throughout the country.
During the early 1920s she spent five months abroad. In Paris she stayed in a suite at the Hotel Carlton on the Champs-Elysees near the Arc de Triomphe and was invited to a private showing at Cartier. She attended the opera at Covent Garden in London, witnessed the coronation of the Pope in Rome, toured the pyramids in Egypt on camelback and had an audience with Empress Zauditu in Addis Ababa.
In the process of doing the research that has provided all these facts, I’ve started joking that writing biography is a form of insanity. Temporary insanity, I hope, but insanity nonetheless because of the immersion it requires in another time and in another person’s psyche. Learning what makes A’Lelia Walker tick and figuring out as much as possible about the people who were important to her has required a great deal of detective work: Combing through newspaper articles in dozens of digitized databases. Transcribing and annotating thousands of pages of letters and business records. Re-visiting hundreds of files from my research of the last four decades. Reading scores of books on everything from early twentieth century American theater and the history of boxing to World War I black soldiers and Prohibition. I’m never satisfied until I’ve looked under every rock, followed every lead to its end, verified the facts. I’m obsessive about detail. I’m allergic to taking what others have written at face value, even scholars whose work I admire and appreciate. My long career as a journalist makes me want to know not just one primary source and but a verifying second one.
My books are spread all over the house. While I’m writing Joy Goddess, I’ve moved the biographies about A’Lelia Walker’s friends and contemporaries to the bookshelf directly behind my desk. (Photo by A’Lelia Bundles)
The research materials I’ve gathered during the last four decades are organized in thousands of folders. These are some of the files with biographical information of people who knew A’Lelia Walker and Madam Walker.
I often fret about how long it takes me to get each chapter into shape, but there’s too much at stake when writing the first major biography of someone like A’Lelia Walker not to get it right. I can’t claim that she had the creative talent of a Florence Mills or a Langston Hughes, so this is a different kind of biography. More a story of someone who personified her times, who came into contact with just about everybody worth knowing in 1920s Harlem, who provided the setting and atmosphere for the others to be themselves and whom many people wanted to meet. In that sense, it’s a biography of a group of people and the scene they created in a certain place and time. There had never been a such a community of black people with so much talent, so many options, so much potential in such a concentrated few square blocks.
A’Lelia Walker counted among her friends a group of elegant pioneers, talented artists, world-renowned musicians, successful entrepreneurs, global travelers, socialites. Originals who created a parallel world in a nation that didn’t fully appreciate all they had to offer. Sophisticates who transformed their corner of Manhattan into the center of a particularly fascinating universe. She lived from 1885 to 1931, but her legacy was in tact several decades later when old time Harlemites still remembered her parties as the best of a very lively, very culturally exciting, sometimes risque era.