Walker, A’lelia 1885–1931
A’lelia Walker 1885–1931
Entreprenuer, arts patron
Great Depression Cut Into Fortune
A’ Lelia Walker was one of the wealthiest and socially prominent African American women in her day. Daughter of Madam C. J. Walker, who had founded and built a successful hair-care products empire, Walker used her fortune to entertain lavishly during the Harlem Renaissance, and became one of its most beloved and well-known insiders. This sophisticated era in Harlem--a part of Manhattan that regarded itself as the metropolis of black culture during the 1920s--saw the flourishing of progressive artistic movements and racial pride, as well as a heady nightlife scene that attracted all of New York, both black and white. Walker’s circle of friends included poet Langston Hughes, writer Countee Cullen, and music critic, photographer and novelist Carl Van Vechten. According to Steven Watson in The Harlem Renaissance: Hub of African-American Culture, 1920-1930, Van Vechten once said of his friend, “You should have known A’ Lelia Walker. Nothing in this age is quite as good as THAT…. What a woman!”
Walker was born Lelia Robinson on June 6, 1885, in Vicksburg, Mississippi, daughter of Sarah Breedlove and Moses McWilliams. Her grandparents were former slaves who had become sharecroppers; her mother worked as a washerwoman and raised Lelia alone after McWilliams died or disappeared. Lelia was around eighteen when Sarah Breedlove--soon remarried and known as Madam C. J. Walker--founded her line of hair-care products in St. Louis, Missouri, inspired by a dream in which a large black man provided her with a secret formula that would straighten black hair. After attending Tennessee’s Knoxville College for a time, Lelia joined her mother in the business, which by 1908 had become extremely successful. At the age of 23, Lelia was head of the company’s Pittsburgh office, and oversaw both the branch and Lelia College, the cosmetology training center her mother had named after her. In 1912 Lelia adopted a daughter, Mae.
In 1914 Madam Walker became one of the first African Americans to own property in Harlem, which was quickly becoming a thriving black community in New York City. She bought a pair of townhouses on 136th Street. By this time, Lelia had married and divorced a man named Robinson; she, too, moved to New York City and continued to work for the company as director of the Walker College of Hair Culture, located on the ground floor of their Harlem residence. The hair-care product line continued to flourish, and Madam Walker began building a lavish estate on the Hudson River, in nearby Irvington-on-Hudson. Its design was the work of Vertner Tandy, the first black architect licensed by the state, and cost nearly a quarter of a million dollars. According to legend, famed Italian tenor Enrico Caruso, a guest of Madam Walker’s, named the Italianate mansion Villa Lewaro, after the first letters of each of Lelia Walker Robinson’s names.
At a Glance …
Full name, Lelia McWilliams Robinson Wilson Kennedy; born June 6, 1885, in Vicksburg, MS; daughter of Sarah Breedlove (founder of a hair-care products company; later known as Madam C.J. Walker) and Moses McWilliams; married a man named Robinson (divorced, 1914); married Wiley Wilson, (a doctor), 1919 (marriage ended); married James Arthur Kennedy (a doctor), early 1920s (divorced, 1931); children: Mae Bryant Perry. Education: Attended Knoxville College, early 1900s.
Career: Managed to Plttsburgh, PA branch of her mother’s hair-care product empire, c. 1908-14; also oversaw Lelia College, a school of cosmetology also run by the company; became manager of the Walker College of Hair Culture, New York City, in 1914; became president of the company 1919; began salon for writers and artists that eventually became a popular Harlem restaurant, the Dark Tower, 1927-30.
In 1919 Lelia and her daughter Mae undertook a business trip to South America. From there, she wrote to her mother and stated her plans to marry a doctor, James Kennedy, in accordance with Madam Walker’s wishes. Before she arrived home, however, the tycoon died, and Lelia Walker became a millionaire and president of the company her mother had founded. Instead of wedding Kennedy, she married another doctor, Wiley Wilson, but the marriage was short-lived. Now calling herself “A’ Lelia,” she and Wilson divorced and she finally married Kennedy. She also embarked upon a heady lifestyle that fit in perfectly with the onset of the prosperous, kinetic decade. At Villa Lewaro she entertained large parties of houseguests for the weekend, inviting both blacks and whites. The larger the party, the better, since Walker was disinclined to stay at the lavish house alone after her mother’s death there. Wall Street business moguls, actors and writers, European royalty, bootleggers, and the gay community socialized together in what was becoming a newly integrated and elite urban society. Black servants wearing elaborate period costume that included white wigs tended to the needs of the guests. “A’ Lelia rarely imposed herself on the brilliant people who did so much to enhance her fame and the enviable reputation of her parties,” wrote David Levering Lewis in When Harlem Was in Vogue. “She had the invitations sent, ordered the bottles uncapped and uncorked, mingled briefly, then retreated to play bridge, leaving the chemistry of the evening to work its way.”
The heady lifestyle continued throughout the 1920s. In 1923 Walker provided an elaborate wedding for her daughter Mae at St. Phillip’s Episcopal Church in Harlem. In 1927 she announced her intention to begin a salon, where the proverbial starving artists might dine cheaply, enjoy an extensive library of works by African American writers on another floor, and pass through an art gallery on another. To do this, she gave up the brownstones on 136th Street and moved into another apartment on Edgecombe Avenue. She originally intended to group together fifty arts lovers with deep pockets in order to sustain the salon, but organizational meetings often disintegrated as a result of bootleg liquor. An exasperated Walker decided to open a restaurant-type club in its stead. The palatial dwelling her mother had bought--actually a pair of apartments--was converted into a lush salon, decorated by one of Manhattan’s top names, Paul Frankel. There was gold wallpaper, an enormous modernist bookcase, and framed texts of two significant writers of the era embellishing one wall--” The Weary Blues,” by Langston Hughes, and Countee Cullen’s “The Dark Tower,” also the name of a famous column he wrote at the time and the name Walker chose to give her lon.
“We dedicate this tower to the aesthetes,” read Walker’s invitation to The Dark Tower’s grand opening. “That cultural group of young Negro writers, sculptors, painters, music artists, composers, and their friends. A quiet place of particular charm. A rendezvous where they may feel at home to partake of a little tidbit amid pleasant, interesting atmosphere.” Members’ dues were set at one dollar a year. Unfortunately, The Dark Tower failed to achieve its true aim, attracting more of a white clientele from the rest of New York than Harlem’s thriving artistic community, who found the prices for drinks and food a bit steep.
In some ways, The Dark Tower served to reinforce the prejudice some in the black community had against Walker; she was sometimes seen as more interested in presenting authentic “Negro” culture for the benefit of her white acquaintances that actually promoting it with financial support. On one occasion, in what would become an apocryphal tale of the Harlem Renaissance, Walker separated her guests by color and served whites chitterlings and bathtub gin, while blacks enjoyed champagne and caviar. Some among Harlem’s upper stratosphere even snubbed her for being the daughter of a washerwoman--despite the fact her mother was the country’s first female self-made African American millionaire. Privately, elitist lighter-skinned blacks dismissed Walker as “the Mahogany Millionairess.” Walker was also quite tolerant of gays among her social set, which also set her at odds with some of Harlem’s more conservative hierarchy. Grace Nail Johnson, the wife of novelist James Weldon Johnson and considered the grand dame of Harlem society, remained adamant about never crossing the threshold of Walker’s residences nor The Dark Tower.
Great Depression Cut Into Fortune
As the decade waned, Walker continued to entertain lavishly, though years of excessive indulgence of both food and alcohol were taking their toll on her six-foot frame. The parties came to an end, however, with the onset of the Great Depression in 1929. The Madam C. J. Walker & Company, with its massive Indianapolis plant and national distribution network, began to feel the impact of the economic misfortune early on. The heiress shuttered The Dark Tower in 1930, and the following year auctioned off some of the antiques and luxuries housed at Villa Lewaro; she also divorced Kennedy. On August 16, 1931, the New York Times announced that Walker had expired in the early morning hours of that same day. Walker had been hosting a birthday party for a friend at a house in Long Branch, New Jersey.
Much of Harlem turned out for Walker’s memorable funeral. Noted minister Adam Clayton Powell Sr. eulogized her; college founder Mary McLeod Bethune spoke of the legacy left by both Walker and her mother, and Langston Hughes contributed a poem, “To A’ Lelia,” which read, in part: “So all who love laughter/And joy and light,/Let your prayers be as roses/For this queen of the night.”
Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, edited by Darlene Clark Hine, Gale Research Inc., 1993, pp. 1203-1205.
Lewis, David Levering. When Harlem Was in Vogue, Oxford University Press, 1989.
Watson, Steven. The Harlem Renaissance: Hub of African-American Culture, 1920-1930, Pantheon Books, 1995.
June 6, 1885
August 17, 1931
Through the lavish parties she hosted, entrepreneur A'Lelia Walker made herself the center of elite social life during the Harlem Renaissance. She was born Lelia Walker to Sarah and Moses McWilliams in Vicksburg, Mississippi. (She changed her name to "A'Lelia" as an adult.) After her father died when she was two, her mother took her to St. Louis. She attended public schools there and graduated from Knoxville College, a private black school in Knoxville, Tennessee.
She and her mother then moved to Denver, where her mother married C. J. Walker, from whom they took their surnames. A'Lelia also married, but although she took the surname Robinson from her husband, she only occasionally used it, and the marriage was as short-lived as two subsequent unions. While in Denver, the Walkers began their hair-care business. Madam C. J. Walker developed products that straightened and softened African-American women's hair, and assisted by her daughter, she quickly created a vast empire. She moved parts of her operations and her residence to Pittsburgh and Indianapolis before finally settling in New York. In 1917 the Walkers built a thirty-four-room mansion in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York, which A'Lelia's friend, the opera singer Enrico Caruso, dubbed "Villa Lewaro" (short for Lelia Walker Robinson).
With her mother's death on May 25, 1919, A'Lelia inherited the bulk of her mother's estate, including Villa Lewaro and two twin brownstones at 108–110 West 136th Street in Harlem. Soon after her mother's death, Walker also bought an apartment at 80 Edgecombe Avenue in Harlem. While she was the titular director of the Walker business interests, A'Lelia Walker devoted most of her money and attention to social life. She threw parties at Villa Lewaro and in Harlem. She established "at-homes" at which she introduced African-American writers, artists, and performers to each other and to such white celebrities as photographer Carl Van Vechten. Her "salon" was regarded as a place where artistic people, particularly male and female homosexuals, could go to eat, drink, and hear music. In 1927 and 1928, she turned part of the brown-stones into a nightclub, which she named "The Dark Tower."
When the Depression came, Walker experienced grave financial difficulties. She was forced to close her nightclub, and she mortgaged Villa Lewaro. When she died suddenly on August 17, 1931, poet Langston Hughes wrote that this "was really the end of the gay times of the New Negro era in Harlem." The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), to which Walker had willed Villa Lewaro, was unable to keep up the payments on the estate and ended up putting it on the auction block.
Hughes, Langston. The Big Sea: An Autobiography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1940.
Lewis, David Levering. When Harlem Was in Vogue. New York: Knopf, 1981.
Neihart, Ben. Rough Amusements: The True Story of A'Lelia Walker, Patroness of the Harlem Renaissance's Down-Low Culture. New York: Bloomsbury, 2003.
siraj ahmed (1996)