By A’Lelia Bundles
Langston Hughes called A’Lelia Walker “the joy goddess of Harlem’s 1920s”
Whenever I see my grandmother Mae’s 1923 wedding photographs, I can’t help but marvel at the elegance and extravagance. I also can’t resist searching her eyes for clues to the drama I now know was roiling just behind the façade of the carefully choreographed scenes.
Newspaper headlines from the Pittsburgh Courier –“Heiress Weds ‘Mid Pomp-Splendor”—to the New York World—“Thousands Attend Wedding of Negro Heiress in Harlem”—tell only part of the story.
For Harlem’s social event–not just of the season–but of the year, there were parties galore, guests from three continents and a groom from a prominent family. There also was a major glitch: the bride was in love with someone else. But her mother, A’Lelia Walker–like Fifth Avenue socialite Alva Smith Vanderbilt three decades earlier and like the mothers of a number of other American heiresses–had made the decision for her. And that was that.
To others, Mae’s life was a fairy tale: a sepia Cinderella (below) and a dark-tressed Rapunzel all spun into one.
After her father’s death in 1909 in Noblesville, Indiana, ten-year old Mae and her eight siblings often visited their maternal grandmother, Samira Thomas Hammond, in Indianapolis. By coincidence Samira lived across the alley from hair care entrepreneur Madam C. J. Walker’s factory. By an even more amazing coincidence, Walker had known one of Samira’s sons in St. Louis during the 1890s when she still was a poor washerwoman. For Madam Walker—herself an orphan and widow—the connection led to sympathy for Samira’s widowed daughter, Sarah Etta Hammond Bryant, Mae’s still-living biological mother. Though a descendant of two free men of color who had been Revolutionary War veterans, Sarah Etta’s life had been anything but privileged. Like her mother and grandmother before her, she was a widow in her early forties with a house full of young children.
When the Walker women asked Sarah Etta’s permission for Mae to serve as a model to demonstrate (above) their “Wonderful Hair Grower,” she gave her blessing. When they then promised to pay for Mae’s education, Sarah Etta gave her consent for A’Lelia Walker—a divorcée with no biological children—to legally adopt her.
With an eye towards a Walker heir, the November 1923 wedding was A’Lelia Walker’s scheme to unite two prosperous black families: Mae with her inheritance from Madam Walker, who had died in 1919, and Dr. Gordon H. Jackson, the grandson of a Cincinnati coal dealer, who had been one of the 19th century’s wealthiest black businessmen.
”This is the swellest wedding any colored folks have ever had or will have in the world,” A’Lelia Walker replied to Walker Company executive F. B. Ransom when he cautioned her about the growing stack of invoices. “While its purpose certainly is not for the advertising, God knows we are getting $50,000 worth of publicity. Everything has its compensation.”
For those who criticized the $42,000 tab as wasteful and frivolous, A’Lelia knew she also had been quietly signing checks for tens of thousands of dollars to fulfill the bequests from her mother’s will to dozens of educational institutions, political organizations and worthy causes. Regardless of what she did or how generous she might choose to be, she knew she always would be compared to her famous mother. The disappointment of others seemed inevitable. Be that as it may, she told herself. Besides, she believed she was stimulating the local economy with work for black caterers, florists, security guards, milliners and dressmakers.
“In keeping with the late Madam Walker’s policy of encouraging race patronage, all the outfits worn by the bride, matron of honor, bridesmaids and flower girls were designed and made by Negroes,” wrote Lester Walton, the New York World’s only black columnist. “The one exception was the gown worn by Mrs. A’Lelia Walker Wilson, which came from Paris.” And what a lovely garment of gold metallic haute couture it was, a little something A’Lelia had selected during a trip to Europe, Africa and the Middle East the previous year.
Now in the midst of her second divorce, A’Lelia pivoted the energy from her own heartache toward Mae’s wedding with an impresario’s zeal. She mailed nine thousand invitations–mostly as souvenirs to loyal Walker agents–not because she wanted that many guests, but because she had calculated the publicity it would generate. She coordinated eight days of pre-nuptial festivities featuring a party at the home of Striver’s Row doyenne, Bernia Austin; a linen shower planned by Mae’s debutante club and a bachelor bash at Craigg’s, a favorite Harlem haunt.
The highlight of the week was the theatre party for “Runnin’ Wild,” the hot Broadway musical that had introduced the Charleston to New York audiences a few weeks earlier. As guests of Bessie Miller–wife of Flournoy Miller, one of the show’s writers and co-stars–Mae and her friends shimmied in their seats as they watched from the producer’s VIP box.
“Most of the bridesmaids had never met before, but our parents knew each other since we were among America’s small percentage of relatively affluent Negroes,” Anita remembered years later. “In contrast to her bridesmaids, Mae was retiring and quiet, but we all liked her very much. She was a doll, short with a lovely brown complexion and beautiful hair.” Milliner Mildred Blount, who later designed the hats for “Gone with the Wind,” designed the head ornaments worn by the bridesmaids.
But Gordon was another matter. ”While we liked Mae, we were not too crazy about the groom,” Anita wrote in an unpublished memoir. “He came from a ‘good family,’ but was something of a spendthrift and a playboy.”
After Mae confided to Anita that she secretly was in love with a young man named “Sol,” Anita tried to persuade her to elope for her own happiness. But Mae was too afraid to defy A’Lelia. Apparently marrying her much older and quite incompatible fiancé seemed less onerous than incurring her adoptive mother’s wrath.
”It all sounded like something out of one of my old bad movie scripts,” Anita wrote. “And Mae was terrified of even listening to me. My wild scheme was not followed, and the wedding went through in great style.”
On Saturday, November 24–the day before Mae’s twenty-fifth birthday–she awoke to a sky as gloomy and gray as her mood. By the time she and her bridesmaids arrived in the rain at St. Philip’s Episcopal Church (see photo above), the sidewalks and stoops along 134th Street and Seventh Avenue were crammed with 2,000 curious New Yorkers eager for a glimpse of what they surely imagined must be a joyous bride.
“A fashionable parade of fur,” emerged from chauffeured cars, reported the New York Times. “Mink coats, squirrel coats, ermine coats. And the jewels—it seemed as if Tiffany’s had got into partnership with Black, Starr & Frost.” Inside the church the groomsmen escorted guests past pews arrayed with fragrant orange blossoms, palm fronds, white chrysanthemums and satin streamers. Like Gordon, three of the six ushers were physicians. They were joined by dentist Edwin “Ned” Chesnutt, Harvard College class of 1905 and son of the famous novelist, Charles Chesnutt; Attorney Henry Rucker, grandson of Jefferson Franklin Long, a black Reconstruction era Congressman from Georgia, and Chicago undertaker Bindley Cyrus, husband of Booker T. Washington’s niece.
Mae dutifully endured the ceremony without bolting. Ironically and modernly, the word “obey” had been intentionally omitted from the vows, though clearly the directive forcing Mae to “obey” A’Lelia’s edict to marry Gordon had been exempted.
“When we left the church, the streets around St. Philip’s were packed as though for a Marcus Garvey demonstration,” Anita Thompson later recalled. “It seemed like all of Harlem had turned out to see the wedding. It was a great day for A’Lelia, if not for Mae.”
Shortly after the birth of her son, Walker Gordon Jackson (above), in June 1926, Mae hired a well-known Chicago attorney and began divorce proceedings. By the fall she was back in New York.
Less than a year later at a party hosted at Villa Lewaro by A’Lelia, Mae met my grandfather, Marion Rowland Perry (pictured below), a University of Pittsburgh Law School graduate and second generation Lincoln University alumnus, who was taking a summer finance course at Columbia. To avoid the spectacle of four years earlier, Mae and Marion eloped.
Their daughter (and my mother), A’Lelia Mae Perry, was born the following July in Pine Bluff, Arkansas where my grandfather’s family owned a funeral home. His father, Marion Perry, Sr. had been class valedictorian at Lincoln in the 1880s and attended Newton Theological Seminary in Massachusetts. His mother, Ida, was an Oberlin graduate and daughter of a Reconstruction era Arkansas state legislator and superintendent of prisons.
As for my grandmother Mae’s quest for true love: I honestly can’t say my grandparents’ marriage was a match made in heaven, though my grandfather did do the right thing by adopting Mae’s son and remained an attentive father to both children.
After reading dozens of Mae’s letters, I was relieved to learn that she finally developed the courage to assert her own will and that her rather wry sense of humor eventually blossomed. I’ll always wonder, though, if Mae’s beau, “Sol,” was one of the handsome young men I found on the pages of her scrapbook.
As for my great-grandmother and namesake, A’Lelia Walker: I’ve come to understand that she could be both self-centered and generous, formidable and warm, a tyrant and a charmer. She was complicated, contradictory and inconsistent. By many accounts she also was fabulous, fun and flamboyant. Langston Hughes called her “the joy goddess of Harlem’s 1920s” because her parties and her personality helped define the era. In recent years, she’s become a bit of a caricature in Harlem Renaissance histories and surveys, so I’m glad to now have uncovered material from several unpublished sources that I hope will give a more multi-dimensional view.
Understanding A’Lelia Walker–and the role she played as a patron of the arts, as the hostess of the iconic Dark Tower and as America’s original black heiress–is why I am writing Joy Goddess: A’Lelia Walker and the Harlem Renaissance.
About the author: A’Lelia Bundles is the author of On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker, a New York Times Notable Book, a Hurston/Wright Legacy finalist and winner of the Association of Black Women Historians’ Letitia Woods Brown Prize. For more information, visit her websites at www.aleliabundles.com and www.madamcjwalker.com. She also is on Facebook at A’Lelia Bundles and at Madam Walker/A’Lelia Walker Family Archives.
The material in this article is copyrighted. All photographs are from the Madam Walker Family Archives.