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. Either I’m 90% finished with The Joy Goddess of Harlem: A’Lelia Walker and the Harlem Renaissance or I’m 50% finished, depending on how you look at it. 90% because I’ve done enough research to fill five books and because I know her life and the lives of her intriguing Harlem Renaissance circle of friends in a way that is allowing me to chronicle their world through a new lens. Or 50% because I have ten strong, polished chapters and am in the process of editing the remaining eight or nine. I’m in the final stretch hoping to finish writing in early 2015.
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.
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who actually knew her–contemporaries like Langston Hughes and Carl Van Vechten–captured her well: Van Vechten in an unpublished New Yorker profile, Hughes in the poem he wrote for her funeral and in his memoir, The Big Sea.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.”
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 (and also to ignore the effects of the Depression 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.
Through the years, her guests included James Reese Europe, Florence Mills, J. Rosamond Johnson, Bert Williams, Carl Van Vechten, W. E. B. DuBois, James Weldon Johnson, Alberta Hunter, Nora Holt, Lester Walton, Edna Lewis Thomas, Bernia Austin, Paul Poiret, Clarence Darrow and assorted European royalty. A younger generation of writers and artists from Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston and Dorothy West to Countee Cullen, Aaron Douglas and Richard Bruce Nugent also were welcome. Some of these names still are recognizable. Some aren’t. But trust me, they were the boldface names of the times. And I can’t wait to bring them to life for others.
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, my biography of her mother. 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.
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 six 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. I want to know the primary source and then I want a second source.
When I look on my bookshelves, I’m grateful to all the authors who have written about other Harlem Renaissance figures. In addition to books by A’Lelia Walker’s friends (including Langston Hughes’s The Big Sea, James Weldon Johnson’s Black Manhattan and Carl Van Vechten’s The Splendid, Drunken Twenties), I rely upon dozens of other more recent historical accounts and biographies. To name just a few: Bruce Kellner’s The Harlem Renaissance: A Historical Dictionary for the Era, Emily Bernard’s Remember Me to Harlem, Valerie Boyd’s Wrapped in Rainbows and Hill and Hatch’s A History of African American Theatre. Having their work has provided a welcome road map and countless leads.
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.
COMING NEXT: A’Lelia Walker hosts Liberian President C.D.B. King at Villa Lewaro