One 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.