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NEW YORK — Below 125th Street, stories of Barbara Hutton and Doris Duke mesmerized the masses, but farther uptown, the fabulously flamboyant A’Lelia Walker reigned. At the height of the Harlem Renaissance, until her death in 1931, Walker, the daughter of the hair care magnate and outspoken political activist, Madame C.J. Walker, became a legend. After her mother’s death, Walker, dressed in turbans, jewels and furs, presided over the family business and a notorious literary salon, Dark Tower, held in her town house on 136th Street. She drank champagne, divorced three husbands and ignited the local gossip columns. Langston Hughes christened her the “joy goddess of Harlem’s 1920s.” But she inspired sculptures, painters and poets alike.
More recently, Walker’s monumental joie de vivre inspired author Ben Neihart, whose new book, “Rough Amusements,” a short fictional work in Bloomsbury’s Urban Historical series, mingles fact with speculation and merges Walker’s story with that of Jennie June, a tragic drag queen who penned her memoirs during the era. Neihart details one night in 1930 that might have been with Walker and her dandyish friends joining June at a raucous Harlem drag ball.
“A combination of tangents lead me to A’Lelia Walker,” says Neihart. “I had been approached about writing a book that explored the city’s sexual underworld and I made her the protagonist for that exploration. She touched that world, but wasn’t a part of it.”
Hughes wrote of waking at Walker’s Westchester estate to the sound of her massive pipe organ, which was played progressively louder until guests were lulled from sleep in the most gentle way, but Neihart also sought out some of Walker’s telegrams and letters and spent his time at the New York Library reading through seven years of uncataloged issues of the Interstate Tattler.
“Walker was a regular feature in the gossip columns. There was a lot of testimony of her love of the best champagne,” he says. “She would have been a very good friend to Bridget Jones.”
Of course, A’Lelia Bundles, the diva’s great-granddaughter and the author of the critically acclaimed biography, “On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker,” sees things differently.
“She was really flamboyant,” says Bundles, an executive at ABC. “I don’t have any problem with her avant-garde dimension, but I’m really appalled when people misrepresent her life and distort it.” Neihart admits that his small book was meant to be an appetizer, and in no way tells Walker’s full story. Bundles herself is working on a definitive biography.
In the meantime, she suggests that the curious visit the Museum of the City of New York, where curator Michael Henry Adams will open the “Harlem Lost and Found” exhibition on May 3. The show will include photos of the Walkers’ Harlem beauty shop, furniture, china, silver and linen from their home, A’Lelia’s dresses and even her monogrammed flask.
“If you take the trouble to discover the real story of A’Lelia Walker and her mother, I don’t know why you’d take the trouble to make something up,” says Adams, who is skeptical about a fictionalized account of Walker’s life, though he hasn’t yet seen Neihart’s book. He’s also at work on a book about Harlem’s gay community, “Homo Harlem.”
All parties agree, however, that the Walker women are nothing if not compelling. “Like Doris Duke, a comparable white rich girl, A’Lelia wasn’t what most people thought of as conventionally beautiful,” says Adams, “but she had a regal quality and a sense of entitlement that made people respond to her as if she was a princess.”