The Most Fascinating and Flamboyant Lady of the Harlem Renaissance

A'Lelia WalkerOne of the fascinating and flamboyant ladies of the twentieth century was A’Lelia Walker, daughter of Madam C. J. Walker. Out of the many personalities that had a very profound effect on the most dynamic period in African American cultural history, the Harlem Renaissance, A’Lelia stands out as the shining light that illuminated for over ten years. She was the first lady of Harlem, the hostess to the most sensational parties at her Villa Lewaro, or at her two attached townhouses on West 136th Street, located in the heart of Harlem. She was a statuesque lady of class and fortune, standing over six feet tall in her high heels and plumes. Her silk dresses and ermine coatees, paisley beaded shawls and sable muffs, and silver turbans set off her well-modeled head and cocoa complexion. (Steven Watson, The Harlem Renaissance: Hub of African-American Culture, 1920-1930, Pantheon Books, New York, 1995, page 140). Her fashionable clothes and expensive jewelry were purchased from the most prestigious shops in New York and Paris. Langston Hughes wrote in his autobiography, The Big Sea, that she was, “The joy goddess of Harlem’s 1920’s.” (Langston Hughes, The Big Sea, Hill and Wang, New York, 1993, page 245) The Renaissance’s white patron, Carl Van Vechten, wrote to a friend that, “She looked like a queen.”

She spared no expense in making her places of entertainment as luxurious and exquisite as money could buy. Her most lavish parties were held at the Villa, her cream-colored Italianate mansion fifteen miles up the Hudson River. Verner Woodson Tandy, the first African American architect in the state of New York, designed it. It is where she would spend many weekends with special friends and acquaintances. Rumor was that she always insisted on company there because her mother died in the mansion, and she could not stand to be alone. The year Madam C. J. Walker bought the Villa she declared it as a symbol for her race. “It is not for me; it is for my people so that they can see what is possible no matter what their background,” Madam C. J. Walker explained.

After her mother’s death, A’Lelia furnished the Villa with a twenty-four-carat-gold-plated piano, sixty-thousand-dollar Esty pipe organ, Hepplewhite furniture and Persian carpets. The great Enrico Caruso who was often a guest named the Villa. Often on Sunday afternoons, she invited talented and unknown musicians, who were black, to perform in front of largely white, rich and influential audiences. It allowed young artists the opportunity to perform before very well connected men and women, who could help in their career growth. Carl Van Vechten was a frequent guest at the recitals.

If her most elegant events were held at the Villa, her most widely attended took place at her salon in Harlem. According to Richard Bruce Nugent, in the fall of 1927, A’Lelia converted her two townhouses, at 108-110 West 136th Street into a place where writers, sculptors, painters, music artists and composers could meet, drink champagne, eat caviar and discuss their art. She originally hired Aaron Douglas to design the interior but when he failed to produce art satisfactory to her, she turned to Manhattan decorator Paul Frankel. To her complete satisfaction, he decorated one side of the wall with framed texts of Countee Cullen’s “Dark Towers,” and the other side with Langston Hughes’s “Weary Blues,” with Aubusson Carpet and Louis XIV furniture.

Her guests entered the townhouse through long French doors and stepped onto the blue-velvet runner that led into the tearoom. Once inside the townhouse, the guests included all social classes, whites and blacks, royalty and racketeers, lesbians and homosexuals, writers and singers. Her list of invitees, one observer reported, “Read like a blue book of the seven arts, and her parties provided an Uptown counterpart to those Carl Van Vechten threw Downtown. (Watson, page 141)

She would extend several hundred invitations to her parties; however, unless you went early there was no way of getting in. According to Hughes, her parties were as crowded as the New York subway at the rush hour—entrance, lobby, steps, hallway, and apartment a milling crush of guests. (Hughes, page 244) Ethel Waters often showed up late at night and sang for the guests and entertainers from a Broadway show also made their way to the festivities. It was a grand display of the kind of good times that bolstered the image of Harlem as the party capital of the world, and a place where the pursuit of pleasure had no use for color lines. (Aberjhani and Sandra L. West, Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance, Checkmark Books, New York, 2003, page 342)

A’Lelia Walker was both admired and disliked by friends and distracters. There were many who resented her wealth and others who considered her uneducated because she never attended or graduated from college. Her reasoning powers were said to be slight. “She made no pretense at being intellectual or exclusive,” Langston Hughes observed. Some considered her flighty and, “After seven minutes, conversation went precipitously downhill,” it was said. (Carol Marks and Diana Adkins, The Power of Pride, Crown Publishers, New York, 1999, page 71).

The goddess of Harlem, the queen, died at the age of 46. According to the Amsterdam News, over 10,000 admirers attended her funeral. She went out in style; buried in a five thousand dollar silver and bronze casket and dressed in a “gown of beige and gold lace over lavender satin, with apple green satin slippers and an imported necklace of genuine amber Chinese prayer beads.” The service was under the direction of Reverend Adam Clayton Powell Sr., and the eulogy was read by educator Mary McLeod Bethune who spoke in her “great deep voice,” of A’Lelia’s mother, “Who in old clothes, had labored to bring the gift of beauty to Negro womanhood, and a great fortune to the pride and glory of the Negro race—and then given it all to her daughter, A’Lelia.” (Ibid, page 76.) Her passing, according to Langston Hughes, represented the beginning of the end of the “gay times of the New Negro era in Harlem. (Hughes, page 247) To the scholars and admirers of this fascinating period in our cultural history, A’Lelia Walker will always remain an icon of distinction and class within our race.

A Woman of Dignity and Integrity

Since March is Women’s History Month, I thought I might reflect back over the past century to consider what one particular woman best personified the beauty, morality and dignity of the Black Woman within the public arena. There is a very large selection of my beautiful sisters that meet my criteria. But I have chosen the one individual who I believe easily passes the test and that is Lena Horne. One would be hard pressed to argue with my selection. What makes her such an important figure is not necessarily her beauty and her talent, but the position she took regarding the kind of roles she was willing to play on stage and in movies, and the positions she took in opposition to apartheid in this country and imperialism and colonialism internationally.

lhorneLena Horne placed the perception of Black women above her own career growth. She moved to Hollywood, California in 1940 and became the first Black actress to sign a seven-year contract with Metro-Goldwyn Mayer studio. However, unlike many Black actresses today, she made it quite clear that she would not play any roles she felt were demeaning to Black women in any way. In 1943, she accepted the role of Georgia Brown in Cabin in the Sky. This is the same role performed by Katherine Dunham on stage. That same year, she would also star in the film, Stormy Weather, a musical based on the life of Bill Bojangles Robinson and celebrates the Black music of the Harlem Renaissance, with appearances by Fats Waller, Cab Calloway, and Katherine Dunham.

During World War II Ms. Horne agreed to perform for the troops but when she protested against segregation in the military, her performances came to an abrupt end. In 1946, she participated in a rally held in Madison Square Garden protesting against colonialism. She was also the target of the infamous Senator Joseph McCarthy’s red baiting Senate communist investigation of the 1950’s. Her name, along with great entertainers like Paul Robeson, was placed on the black list of performers accused of aiding communists. She and Robeson spoke out against the atrocities of segregation in this country, and as a result both their careers suffered. Again, she put the interest of her race above the advancement of her own career. How many Hollywood stars today would make the same sacrifice?

One of the real ironies that can exist within a historical context happened when, during the 83rd Academy Awards, a tribute was paid to Lena Horne but the actress chosen to make that tribute was Halle Berry. What makes this ironical is that Berry received an academy award for a role that Lena Horne, undoubtedly, would have refused to play. It takes a stretch of the imagination to visualize Ms. Horne playing the role in Monster Ball that won Berry the award. For that matter, it would also take a stretch of the imagination to see that great lady playing Olivia Pope in Scandal or Cookie in Empire. Can you just imagine, Ms. Horne turning her hind side up to someone and exclaiming, “You don’t have this,” and then popping her butt.

Integrity must be a key consideration in the evaluation of one’s fitness to be considered great. More than any other attributes, Lena Horne possessed an inordinate amount of integrity when she considered her responsibility as an image-maker for Black women. When she sings, “Believe in Yourself,” to Dorothy in the Wiz, she is really singing to young girls of all races and cultures and the words ring true in terms of her life. She did not have to sacrifice her ethics or morals in order to become a star; she only had to believe in herself.