Born just after slavery's end, America's first self-made black woman millionaire, Madam C. J. Walker built the finest house inhabited by a 'Negro'. Today it is in jeopardy due to avarice and racism, that dismisses African American history and attainment as unimportant. Symbolic of the depth and breath of America's unrealized offer of possibility, Villa Lewaro is an inspirational monument all patriots must join in preserving and opening to the public as a museum dedicated to faith and determination
Masterful magnate, Madam C. J. Walker, 1867-1919, the hair-care-beauty specialist who built the most spectacular residence ever owned by an African American in 1918: Villa Lewaro! Not for a moment was there ever the least doubt for her, as to why she was building such a showplace. Villa Lewaro was a testament as to the ability and value of African American faith and enterprize, and every black in America knew it!
1924: Villa Lewaro, Irvington-0n-Hudson, Walker Company employees, sales agents and beauty culturists' convention outing.
"The sprawling mansion, which served as a gathering place for notable leaders of the Harlem Renaissance, may soon be on the market — but it is not legally protected from demolition..." warns Peter Souleo Wright in the September 8, 2014 New York Daily News
Courtesy of Ms. A'Lelia Bundles/aleliabundles.com
1924: Villa Lewaro, Irvington-0n-Hudson, Walker Company employees, sales agents and beauty culturists' convention outing.
"The estate is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1976, but it has no legal protections to prevent major changes to the property, including a complete leveling."Read more: http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/uptown/preservationists-save-historic-estate-madam-walker-article-1.1929984#ixzz3Czpdhc6g
Why is it that a man, just as soon as he gets enough money, builds a house much bigger than he needs? I built a house at Akron many times larger than I have the least use for; I have another house at Miami Beach, which is also much larger than I need. I suppose that before I die I shall buy or build other houses which also will be larger than I need. I do not know why I do it – the houses are only a burden.…all my friends who have acquired wealth have big houses…Even so unostentatious a man as Henry Ford has a much bigger house at Dearborn than he really cares about. I wonder why it is …In a few cases, a big house is built just as an advertisement that one is rich; sometimes a big house is built so great entertainments may be given. But in most cases, and especially with men who have earned their own money, the house is just built and when it is done, no one quite knows why it was started…Henry Ford 1926, Men and Rubber; The Story of Business
There are only a few houses ever built in America that hold such significance that they become the very embodiement of the American Dream. Completed in 1918, Villa Lewaro is such a house. Henry Ford may have been preplexed as to why he had built a big dwelling, but Madam Walker experienced no such confusion. Not for a moment was there ever the least doubt for her, as to why she was building a showplace. For her, Villa Lewaro was a testament as to the value of African American ability, faith and enterprize, and every black in America knew it!
Circa 1789: West Front of Mount Vernon, by Edward Savage.
Distinguishing historical substance from symbolism is imperative. Taught that Washigton was incapable of telling a lie, that he valued liberty above all else, the life of slaves at his vast plantation, with meager rations, communal accomodation and twelve hour workdays, reveals a harsher truth.
For those who are un-knowledgeable, a cursory glance mightn't leave much of a lasting impression. For many examining the surface of things, the constituent elements, making an aesthetic evaluation, their final conclusion might be that they'd seen a conventionally 'nice' mansion, in well-kept, but not extensive grounds. They might determine that the house Sarah Breedlove-McWilliams-Davis-Walker built at Irvington, New York, "Villa Lewaro" was, as nice as it is, hardly exceptional.
But from a better-informed vantage point, the Villa Lewaro, named a National Treasure this year by the National Trust, the grandest house ever built by an African American before 1960, is something else again. Howsoever 'modest' it might appear materially, in relation to grandiose abodes built by whites; placed in context, contrasted with the isolated and unequal conditions characteristic of African American life, it is as magical as the Summer Palace of China's dowager empress, as incomparable as the backdrop of the glittering court of the Sun King at Versailles.
1858: Mount Vernon by Ferdinand Richardt
By repeatedly expanding his father's existing one-and-a-half-storey farmhouse, over several decades, Washington created a structure with 11,028 square feet ! Mount Vernon dwarfed most dwellings in late 18th-century Virginia, which typically comprised one to two rooms, ranging in size from roughly 200 to 1200 square feet.
© 2004: Dinner at Mount Vernon by Pawinee McEntire
Following George Washington's death, on the eve of a new century in 1799, his beloved Mount Vernon Plantation passed on to a succession of less capable heirs overwhelmed by its costly upkeep. Martha Washington's awareness had caused her to free slaves, otherwise freed by provision of her husband's will, upon her death.
Increasingly Mount Vernon fell into disrepair after a failed attempt by Washington’s great-great nephew John A. Washington to sell it to the United States or the Virginia Commonwealth in 1853.
This prompted Ann Pamela Cunningham to establish the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, which began an unprecedented national campaign to purchase Mount Vernon and preserve it as a talisman of American history. This collaborative effort of patriotic and patrician white women from the north and the south alike, formed the nexus of the United State's historic preservation movement.
Every attempt was made to sanitize the memory of our foremost founding father. Acting to transform a bastion of white America's self-entitled wealth-through-oppression, into an icon of liberty, destroying the old slave quarters became the first imperative item of business before Mount Vernon was opened to the public as a shrine.
Building one of the largest houses in Virginia, among the most commodious in the new nation, Washington had hardly sought to outdo the Dukes of Marlborough, whose house was one of the largest and grandiose in England. The Baroque masterpiece boast 175,000 square feet!
As an historian and a preservationist, one learns a good deal about where people stand historically, by looking at where, and how they live. A visit to venerable Addisleigh Park, in Saint Albans, Queens, is a revelation. Billed as the 'suburban Sugar Hill,' in reference to black Harlem's elite address of the 1930's and 1940's, the spic-and-span community offers neat mock-Tudor and Colonial Revival houses surrounded by supremely manicured lawns. Initially met by restrictive deed covenants that prohibited the sale of property to blacks, after 1945 the enclave rapidly became home to a score of celebrities, from Lena Horne and Ella Fitzgerald, to Jackie Robinson, Count Basie and Joe Louis. A few houses boast double lots. Four or five even had swimming pools and tennis courts. But at best, the biggest houses here had about two-thousand square feet of space for living large.
"Hyde Park", 1895, by McKim, Mead & White
Just as America's founding fathers wasted little time attempting to emulate far richer nobles in England, neither did Madam Walker seek to 'compete' with the splendor of the nearby Frederick William Vanderbilt estate, or the even closer and equally palatial Rockefeller place, at Tarrytown. With fifty rooms comprising 44,000 square feet and two hundred acres, "Hyde Park" was one of the Hudson Valley's most notable showplaces.
Meanwhile, out in Beverly Hills, California, the largest houses of the most celebrated white stars, averaged around ten-thousand square feet. Accessing the extent of success accorded the United State's most acclaimed African Americans, it's useful to keep such observations of dramatic inequality in mind.
Whether with architecture or through prodigious philanthropy to black causes, paying as much attention to projecting as regal an image as any sovereign, Madam Walker utilized a saga as poignant and compelling as Lincoln's trek from a back-woods cabin to the White House. This was how she distinguished her brand from every other similar product on the market. As this ad shows, for Walker, the concept that beauty and success were synonymous was espoused as an alluring doctrine of faith.
Lincoln Family log cabin, Sinking Spring Farm, Hodgenville, Kentucky
This is reported to be the place where Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809. Seven US presidents were born in log cabins, including Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Jackson, and James Buchanan. Ironically, Whig contender William Henry Harrison, the son of a Virginia planter, hardly born in a log cabin, nonetheless cynically appropriated this meager type of habitation as a symbol that he was a man of the people. Other candidates followed Harrison's example, making the idea of a log cabin, a background of modest means, a childhood spent overcoming the adversity of hard times, a recurring and classic campaign theme.
Courtesy of Ms. A'Lelia Bundles/aleliabundles.com
The Breedlove Family cabin at Delta, Louisiana
A lowly log cabin has been a potent symbol of heroically-humble origins in US literature and politics since the early 19th century.
Renovated and featured in innumerable pieces since 1991, now threatened Villa Lewaro is ever so slowly gaining recognition as a singular monument to the American dream. When my story appeared, even after Stanley Nelson's titanic Walker documentary, Two Dollars and a Dream appeared, this was not so.
Designed by Ventner Woodson Tandy, New York State's second registered black architect after his partner George Washington Foster, the neo-Palladian-style structure was built at Irvington-on-Hudson between 1916 and 1918. Close at hand are other larger historic houses on more ample acreage, that were built for famed whites. Several of these, writer Washington Irving's "Sunnyside", feared robber-baron Jay Gould's "Lyndhurst," and John D. Rockefeller's "Kykuit", are all operated as house museums and opened to the public. 'Why ought not this to be the case at Madam Walker's house?', I mused after my first visit to Villa Lewaro in 1988.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976, America's bicentennial anniversary year, Villa Lewaro's then-owners, Ingo and Darlene Appel, greeted me warmly and encouraged my research and advocacy. They had actually started exploring ways to make Madam Walker's house into a museum. As a result they'd engaged with several groups, including the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Madam C. J. Walker Committee of Westchester County.
"I think the time is right now," they were told by Steve Pruitt. A government relations adviser, he was speaking on behalf of Representative Cardiss Collins of Illinois, who would introduce a bill calling for Federal funds to purchase and safeguard Villa Lewaro. Historian Alex Haley of Roots fame, Oprah Winfrey and many others concurred.
"Cedar Hill", Anacostia, Southeast Washington, D.C.
Statesman Frederic Douglass lived in this respectable dwelling with his family from 1878 until his death in 1895. It's hardly a surprise learning that the largest contributor to a fund saving "Cedar Hill", and open it as a museum, an effort analogous to the Mount Vernon Ladies Association, was made by Madam Walker, to the National Association of Colored Women. Today a comparable undertaking is needed to preserve and open Villa Lewaro for public edification
I agreed too with this splendid idea. So I was elated when a new 'Diversity Scholars' fund initiated by the Trust, picked up the tab for my airfare and hotel, enabling me to attend the nation's premiere preservation organization's annual conference at Miami Beach that autumn. This opportunity would give me a chance to ask Richard Moe, the Trust's new director, what he thought about the amorphous and tentative plans to make Madam Walker's house into a museum.
"Cultural Diversity" was the conference's theme. So why had it opened on Yom Kippur, the Jewish holy day of atonement? The seductive local ought to have further given me pause. Why meet at Miami Beach? After local white politicians ignored recently freed Nelson Mandela durring his seven-city tour of America, black civil rights activists instituted a 1,000-day boycott against the local convention and tourism business. African American groups refusing to hold meetings or to book group tours in the region, meant an eventual loss of more than $50 million.
Still I stayed, undeterred, and had my chance to question Mr. Moe. Perfectly pleasant, he answered politely,
"Under my tenure, I intend to lead the trust out of the business of collecting and opening the houses of the rich. We're past that..."
Protests that it might be a fine idea, once the Trust saved and showed at least one rich person's house that had not been built by a white Christian man, were to no avail.
I'm in agreement with the stellar biographer Jean Strouse; no fabricated story can ever match history for drama, the unexpected, or valuable instruction. So I'm still convinced that Richard Moe's response to being cornered and confronted with a proposal that the Trust find some way to acquire Villa Lewaro, was shortsighted, a missed opportunity. For what an inspirational and encouraging tale can be told, examining the house that Madam Walker built.
"Villa Lewaro was", A'Lelia Bundles reiterates, "a symbol of what my great-great-grandmother termed 'the wealth of business possibilities within the race to point to young Negroes what a lone woman can accomplish and to inspire them to do big things.' "
Ms. Bundles's portrait of her ancestor is titled On Her Own Ground, The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker. Published by Scribner's in 2001, it quickly became a national bestseller. How superbly A'Lelia Bundles un-spools the saga. How affectingly it resonates, as part primer, part cautionary tale. What is it that makes it so moving and so timeless? This is a question that's answered easily enough. For all the nuanced specificity of Madam Walker's distinctly American life, an incessant journey seeking truth and meaning, bravely facing defeat and boldly tracking down triumph: her story is universal, too.
Adamantly a 'race woman', Madam Walker was hardly deterred by condescension; neither from whites who disdained her very presence, nor from elitist blacks who felt past poverty and deficient education made her unacceptable. In America, wealth seldom hurts. But Madam Walker's assets exceeded wealth alone. This was why Booker T. Washington, who initially tried to thwart her ambitions as a civil rights activist, had ended by becoming her friend.
Edward T. Bedford estate, by Montrose Morris, 1910, Green's Farms, Connecticut.
Especially impressed by two nearly identical country houses near New York, Tandy adopted their design with only slight modifications. At Villa Lewaro, for instance, he used the simpler Ionic order in place of Composite columns with fluted shafts
Edward T. Bedford estate, by Montrose Morris, 1910, Green's Farms, Connecticut. Mr. Bedford was president of Corn Products Refining Co. and a director of the Standard Oil Co.
Villa Rosa Terrace, S. Z. Puli residence by Brown & Von Beren, 1914, Woodmont, Conneticut
Italian immigrant Sylvester Zefferino Poli a theater magnate associated with William Fox in the Lowe’s-Poli theater chain, started out sculpting wax figures for sensational and historic displays. Named for his wife, their waterfront estate consisted of the main house, and ten cottages deeded to five children
How slightly Vertner Tandy seems to have bothered to differentiate Villa Lewaro from the two nearby sources of inspiration he found illustraited in architectural journals
Circa 1928: Villa Lewaro, the Irvington, New York 20,000 square feet country house of Madam C. J. Walker, from 1918 to 1919. Walker is believed to be the first African American woman self-made millionaire, through the manufacture and sale of hair care and beauty products, made expressly for blacks.
Constructed just after the Walker townhouse, between 1916 and 1918, Madam Walker's country retreat cost an estimated $250,000, a vast fortune at a time when the average wage for a black New Yorker was only $800 yearly. The name Villa Lewaro was coined by a visitor and friend, Enrico Caruso. It was derived from the first two letters of each word in Lelia Walker Robinson's name.
Were one Jewish a century ago, chances are that attempting to move into a neighborhood that was not already substantially Jewish, would meet with resistance. Blacks were more fortunate, in one tiny paticular. For Negros, before the 1940's there was little fear of restrictive deed covenants, that prohibited the sell, or even a future sell, sometimes into perpetuity, to a 'Colored person'. The common supposition was that Negros could not afford to buy property in nice neighborhoods. For all practical purposes, this was all too true.
Unlike most mansions on the Hudson, which sit like castles on the Rhine, Villa Lewaro is best seen from Broadway, the main street of Irvington. A two-storey semicircular portico dominates the street facade.
In the 1980's the huge trees that first attracted Madam Walker saved the house from a developer who wanted to erect condominiums. A tree ordinance protected the property.
After establishing a foothold in the 'Negro promised land' at Harlem, building a combination town house-beauty college-salon, the Walkes set their sights on a hose in the country. Madam C. J. Walker's bid to live in Irvington-On-Hudson, near Livingstons, Goulds and Rockefellers, was in fact her second try at locating where the action was, in the very midst of the country's most affluent whites. In the New York Times, March 25, 1916, it was announced that Mrs. C. J. Walker, through Samuel A. Singerman, her lawyer, had acquired "Bishop's Court". The price was given as around $40,000. Vertner Tandy filed plans for a house not so different from Villa Lewaro, but missing the graceful semi-elliptical portico. Madame Walker's entre into sacred precincts had commenced. Or had it?
Like the would-be buyer, the seller of the "old English design, brick and timber house", set on a plot, 200 X 300 feet, was also black. Most unusual! His house was located at the North East corner of State and North Pine Streets, in an exclusive section of Flushing. Born in Antigua, in 1843, the Right Rev. William B. Derrick had a white Scottish father and a black Caribbean-born mother. According to his Times obituary, in 1913, educated in England, this African, Methodist, Episcopal, Zion prelate's jurisdiction included the West Indies, South America and the Islands Beyond the Seas. For this reason the renowned preacher was much involved outside the US, in setting up churches in Panama for blacks working to dig the canal, for instance. Having rushed back from Britain to enlist in the Civil War, becoming sought after as a king-maker, able to reliably rally Negros to vote for Republicans, he was rather busy at home as well. "Bishop's Court" was his reward for a well-lived, sober life. White residents had certainly not welcomed his arrival around 1896. They had felt powerless indeed to prevent it. Over the years his sedate style of living had caused them to thank providence that it had not been worse. They were however, not about to take the same risk to property and propriety twice. All were determined, the Negro, former wash woman, from the west, was not to be admitted to their community. A reprise almost occurred at Irvington. But this time, Tandy did not produce drawing until after the deed was recorded.
Vertner Tandy died in 1949 at age 64.
Villa Lewaro, which Madame Walker built as a country house, was Tandy's "masterpiece," said Roberta Washington, a Harlem architect, who sits on the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. She discusses his career in depth in her forthcoming history of African American architects who practiced in New York State over the past century. "Yes, his work is derivative. He copied other people. Most designers did and do. But, just look at that novel way he introduced a light well, for the basement kitchen. The big terrace completely obscures the servants' area downstairs, giving them lots of light and air and privacy at the same time. That's good design in my book."
The eclectic decor of Villa Lewaro was devised by Frank R. Smith, who apparently was employed by Righter & Kolb, the decorators of the Walker town house. Favorably describing two rooms in the "home of Mrs. C. J. Walker, at Tarrytown, N. Y." they further related that, "Besides outlining the decorative scheme, Mr. Smith also supplied all the furniture, some of which he also designed..."
Villa Lewaro's formal reception rooms, which open into one another along a straight line, form a series of contrasting areas. Neo-Renaissance in style, the great hall-living room and the barrel-vaulted dining room originally had furniture custom-made by Brekey & Gay, the Grand Rapids furniture manufacturers. The Louis XV-style music room still retains an Estey player-pipe organ with speaker ducts, which let music be heard throughout the house.
Beyond formal entertaing spaces, the living room, dining room, library, music room and solarium, thirty additional rooms included accommodations for eight servants and as many guests, a nursery, billiard room, gymnasium and laundry.
As for so many other builders of pleasure domes, it was all over rather quickly. Madam Walker died in 1919. Her daughter found the role of Lady Bountiful somewhat confining. Villa Lewaro was for her a less stimulating environment than Harlem.
But when duty beckoned, the house was the backdrop for a party: Lady Louis Mountbatten, Richard Bruce Nugent, Walker beauty-parlor girls and Pullman porters were all welcomed. In the 1920's A'Lelia Walker also let the house be used as a location for the black silent-movie classic "Secret Sorrow."
Courtesy of Half Pudding, Half Sause
1932: In Great Depression ravaged America, many fine houses besides Villa Lewaro, sold for a song
Even prior to A'Lelia Walker-Robinson-Wilson-Kennedy's death in 1931, an effort had been made to 'unload' costly-to-maintain Villa Lewaro. Two much-discussed auctions of its contents were staged. In December of 1930, veteran dealer Benjamin Wise, with his force of black salesmen, conducted the first. It lasted three days. "White Buyers Strip Villa", screamed Harlem's Amsterdam News' headline, expressing something of the loss and heartache ordinary blacks felt, learning the news. A'Lelia's ormolu-mounted grand piano, Persian carpets, a French tapestry, a large spinach jade table lamp, beautifully bound sets of books, from a deluxe bible to the multi-volume memoirs of Casanova----all went under the hammer and were knocked down for a paltry $58,500! In light of prices payed to obtain these precious objects, just a little more than a decade earlier, this indeed represented pennies on the dollar. But, all things considered, this was not such a bad result. Things went to hell in America after the debacle of November, 1929. Art and antique collectors once worth hundreds of millions, men like William Randolph Hearst or Clarence McKay, were forced to dispose of their treasures at department stores, for what really amounted to bargain basement prices, as well. In Newport, the ultra exclusive seaside summer resort, things were no better than at Irvington. "Marble House"was the palatial 'cottage' of Mrs. Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont, who as Mrs. Willie K. Vanderbilt had been the first social leader to divorce and remarry without sanction. Her 'cottage' is said to have cost $11,000,000.00 at the start of the 1890's! This is unlikely inasmuch as, well before the crash Mrs. Belmont challenged a property tax assessment based on a nearly $700,000.00 valuation. Indignant, she countered that around $400,000.00 was closer to the true value. Naturally, making this claim, she did not include the sumptuous contents of Marble House. Yet when she sold the four acre property in 1932, the house, lock, stock and barrel went for just a little over $100,000.00.
Even so, at Villa Lewaro, sufficient unsold remnants from six china dinner services, several sets of glassware, and other furnishings remained unsold to form the basis of a collection of Walker heirlooms that bring these figures to life, more vividly than anything that one could write.
Once A'Lelia passed away, Villa Lewaro was bequeathed to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which sold it in 1932 for $ 47,000.00 to the Annie E. Poth home for aged members of the Companions of the Forest in America, a fraternal organization. Under their care it remained largely intact for the next 50 years.
After her mother died A'Lelia Walker replaced the music rooms conventional Steinway piano for one with an 'art case' in the Louis XV mode, mounted in ormolu. These gilded ornamental articulations caused her Peck-Hardman & Co. instrument to be named 'the gold piano'. In the 1930 sale it fetched only $450.00
Circa 1920: Righter & Kolb were so exacting, that in Villa Lewaro's music room even the Victrola phonograph had its cabinet customised. It was painted with pastoral scenes in keeping with the rooms Watteauesque Lunettes and Louis XV sensibility. In 1930 it brought around $46.00
A nef was an extravagant ship-shaped table ornament centerpiece and container used in the Middle Ages and during the Renaissance. Quite rarely made of glass, usually they were elaborately fashioned from silver, silver-gilt, or gold and often enameled and jewel-encrusted, Nefs were placed in front of the most important person at table as a mark of their status. When not just used for decoration, it might hold salt, spices, napkins, cutlery or even wine. For this reason some nefs had wheels to allow them to be rolled from one end of the table to the other, but most had legs or stood on pedestals.
Posed, poised and privileged alongside a graceful bureau plat, raffinée A’Lelia Walker, gowned in dark lace, looks every bit the pampered heiress. Most extraordinary among the accoutrements lending this scene such élan, is her repousse silver nef, a fantastic object with billowing sails and a large crew of minute hands, each exquisitely differentiated from the next. Most likely a late 19th-century copy of a late 16th-century example made in Augsburg, even these command $20,000.00 and more nowadays
It's more usual than not, that children of the rich, raised in stately houses, fail to comply with the hope that they, and their children might always live in their childhood home. As James Maher noted in his poetic treatise on American palace builders, The Twilight of Splendor, a reoccurring motivation for building grand, has been the desire to establish a seat where one's well-established family might prosper and flourish for generations. Like countless others, the Walkers were not able to hold onto Villa Lewaro. Yet Madam Walker still initiated a dynasty, ambitious, socially conscious, bright, black and proud. A'Lelia Bundles part in the ensuing line of succession has been varied; filled with recognition and rewards for a groundbreaking career as a TV journalist, and that's quite wonderful. Work for which she will most be remembered is quite different. One rarely grows rich writing history. But doing what A'Lelia has done and continues to do, with unstinting care and craft, one is granted the consolation of immortality!
Receiving such a warm reception with On Her Own Ground, The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker, A'Lelia Bundles is continuing as she started. She is in the final stages of rewriting, polishing her manuscript, well beyond the the superficial degree that others might. She is a perfectionist, like Walker women before her, and so will not be satisfied until her dulcet prose shines forth like a diamond.
Once she has finished, we will learn about all sorts of things long the cause of wonder. Was A'Lelia Walker's first husband, John Robinson, the hotel waiter, really the love of her life? Or, notwithstanding three tries tying the knot, was she also gay, like a score of her best friends, like several of her set who also married persons with a different gender than theirs?
We already know, that due to her industry, networking skills and keen instincts, that much of the success of the Walker Company was due to A'Lelia Walker. But far more awaits us, because once A'Lelia Bundles has completed her task, metaphorically, but still most magically, she will take us by the hand to the much changed world and times of her namesake. Guiding us into our recent history , like Dicken's spirit in A Christmas Carol, with but a touch of her gown, we'll be transported. Revealed will be a world familiar and foreign. Most surprisingly, we'll discover, that like our epoch, like our lives, it was hardly all bad, that many things were quite wonderful in fact. More amazing still, going back in time, communing with her people, our people, proud, prepared, purposeful and black, we will discover in them, those who have gone before us, our own wonderful selves.
Courtesy of Ms. A'Lelia Bundles/aleliabundles.com
1923: Mrs. Gordon H. Jackson
Courtesy of Ms. A'Lelia Bundles/aleliabundles.com
Like remarkable historians who have come before, whether Stephen Birmingham, who wrote Certain People, David Levering Lewis, the author of When Harlem was in Vogue, or Gerri Major, who penned Black Society, A'Lelia Bundles is engaged in establishing a legacy too.
Circa 1911: A'Lelia Walker wearing brocade turban with egret aigrette by Paul Poiret. The innovative Paris couturier, who banished corsets, was a friend who A'Lelia Walker entertained.
1927: A'Lelia Walker by James Latimer Allen
That late great trailblazing historian from San Francisco, Eric Garber, wrote of A'Lelia's penchant for parties and gay people:
"Because A'Lelia adored the company of lesbians and gay men, her parties had a distinctly gay ambiance. Elegant homosexuals such as Edward Perry, Edna Thomas. Harold Jackman, and Caska Bonds were her closest friends. So were scores of white celebrities..."
Much earlier, novelist Marjorie Worthington remembered:
"We went several times that winter to Madame Allelia [sic] Walker's Thursday "at-homes" on a beautiful street in Harlem known as, Sugar Hill...." [Madame Walker's] lavishly furnished house was a gathering place not only for artists and authors and theatrical stars of her own race, but for celebrities from all over the world. Drinks and food were served, and there was always music, generously performed enthusiastically received."
Madam Walker, and especially her daughter A'Lelia, loved to fill their home with friends. Madam Walker's initial gala, a luncheon party for nearly 100, blacks and whites, was hosted in honor of the Hon. Emmett J. Scott, Special Assistant to the Secretary of War in September of 1918. President wilson, after first objecting, at last allowed blacks to fight in the World War, and Mr, Scott is the closest African Americans have to a cabinet officer. Madame Walker's guests lunched out on the terrace before entering the music room for musical entertainment. J. Rosamond Johnson, who wrote, "Lift Every Voice and Sing", "The African American National Anthem", eminent organist Melville Charlton and other musicians played and sang. It was a lovely afternoon, but not without purpose. Determined that like official entertaining at the White House, that her social gatherings contributed to political action, Madam Walker used this occasion to implore blacks to set aside differences, and support the war-effort. She also asked that Washington take note of black participation in the defence of democracy and outlaw lynching.
The Hon. Emmett J. Scott, Special Assistant to the Secretary of War
As for A'Lelia Walker, she was more easy. Many recollections confirm her generous nature, her delight in enjoyment, and in providing pleasure as well. By all accounts, everyone from chorus girls to artists to socialites to visiting royalty would come at least once to enjoy her engaging hospitality. Whether at the Dark Tower, 80 Edgecombe, or Villa Lewaro, wherever she was, though not named 'Laeticia', A'Lelia was the "joy goddess."
They say that whatever one's race, class, condition or sexuality today, that people are, on the whole, rather impatient. If then you are an intrepid exception, and have made it this far: through over one hundred pages, numerous pictures and 8,176 words or so, besides offering my congratulations, I ought perhaps to summarize of my intent. Originalist ideologues, nostalgic for paternalism, patriarchy, and white supremacy notwithstanding, ever-changing America, has not changed enough. Justice delayed is, justice denied. Long ago, any landmark as significant to white history, as Villa Lewaro is to blacks, would have been made a museum.
Still beckoning and golden, the American Dream must not be allowed to become irrelevant. It is still so rich and real and robust, but for fewer and fewer, seems within reach. As America evolves to grow ever more diverse, opportunity and reward, ought to expand and not retract to enrich just some few at the top.
Madam C. J. Walker, her daughter A'Lelia Walker, both strove towards such an empowering and beneficial end. An outstanding relic of their faith in our country, Villa Lewaro, as much as Mount Vernon or Monticello, is a shrine that deserves to be on public view, as a museum dedicated to determination and the humanitarian impulse to help others.
Madam Walker, and especially her daughter A'Lelia, loved to fill their home with friends. They included not only eminent blacks like the poet William Stanley Braithwaite and the composer and concert singer Harry T. Burleigh, but Walker beauty-shop operators. One guest, Enrico Caruso, coined the villa's name, using two letters from each name of Madam Walker's only child, A'lelia Walker Robinson.
Edna was a great actress. A blunder-some miss-identification confuses her with another Edna Thomas, a white contemporary who sang Negro spirituals, as "the Lady from Louisiana". Although Harlem's Edna Thomas possessed a pleasant voice, she never sang professionally and started out as Madam Walker's social secretary. One of her jobs, according to Jimmie Daniels, was to look up words Walker did not understand reading the newspaper. Regretting having only a scant education, Madam Walker exploited any opportunity to enhance her knowledge.
Lloyd Thomas managed their 136th street beauty salon for the Walkers. In 1929, at a party given by A'Lelia, Lloyd introduced Edna to English aristocrat Olivia Wyndham. For the rest of their lives the women were a devoted couple
A manservant for Mrs. and Mrs. Basil Rathbone, Edward Perry studied painting with Winold Reiss, before moving on to acting and stage management. Esteemed as Harlem's Elsa Maxwell, late in life he had a career as a party consultant
1929: Harold Jackman by Richmond Barthe
Designated the "handsomest man in Harlem," London-born Harold Jackman, who had an unknown white English father and a black West Indian mother, was a high school teacher, model, actor, writer, and patron, with a life-long interest theater and in documenting African American cultural life. Gay in most every way, he nonetheless managed to have a daughter, with a white friend, to whom he left half his estate
Circa 1926: Carl Van Vechten. Music critic-novelist-photographer-party goer-host with the most, VanVechten's most important role was as an impresario who orchestrated the acceptable presentation of Afrcan American culture to, an at first wary, white public. His notorious novel Nigger Heaven, drawing heavily on his Harlem escapades, was viewed as a betrayal by some, but not by A'Lelia Walker, who vainly attempted to induce the affluent writer to buy Villa Lewaro. Twice married, but gay, he wrote "A thing of beauty, is a boy forever..."
1927: Spirited off as a young boy to England by an aristocrat who lived on London's Lilac Sweep, Caska Bonds grew to become a music coach, with attractive protegees of uneven talent. A particular friend of A'Lelia's he gained the lease of her apartment when she died. He lived there with a youth named Embry Bonner
Cocaine-addict and Harlem lover Princess Violette Murat, was born Violette Jacqueline Charlotte Ney d'Elchingen. Writer Zora Neal Husrton called her "Princess Muskrat". Fortunately, as she was a lesbian, her husband, Bonaparte Prince Eugene Louis Michel Joachim Napoleon Murat, pre-deceased her by almost 40 years
Julius Lorenzo Cobb Bledsoe was a once-renowned, but now forgotten baritone, the first 'Joe' in "Showboat" and the first African American artist to gain regular employment on Broadway. None the less, finding legitimate operatic roles scare in the States, he concertized to acclaim and profit in Europe. Here he met his well-to-do Dutch lover, sometime-diplomatic cultural attache, Adriain Frederick Huygens
Ivor Novello, a Welsh composer, playwright, matanee and film star became one of the most popular British entertainers of the first half of the 20th century. Born into a musical family, his operatic-coach-mother Clara Davies, was the teacher of Caska Bonds. Norvello's first big success was as a songwriter was the World War I favorite "Keep the Home Fires Burning"
Geraldyn Hodges Dismond, Harlem's 'Lady Nicotine', a inveterate journalist from Chicago, who in time, ditched her philandering husband, to become Gerri Major of Jet Magazine
The 'Night Hawk', Gerrie's husband, the college football star, World War I hero, Dr. Binga Dismond, a man said to have too much, of everything!
Jimmie Daniels and Wallace Thurman shared a room as boarders at 1890 Seventh Avenue on the north-west corner of 115th Street, in a cooperative unit owned by Edna and Lloyd Thomas. Edna Thomas' white lesbian lover, English aristocrat Olivia Wyndham, who also lived here, is seen with in the picture above, with Edna, at the center. Jimmie is on the far left, while Lloyd sits on the right, with 'It Girl' Blanche Dunn on his lap.