“Going Down the Rabbit Hole” in Search of the Joy Goddess

Posted on 02/11/2014 at 8:17pm
SS Paris A'Lelia Walker sails from New York to Le Havre in November 1921

“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

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

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

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)

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.

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.

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