HOUSTON VOICE www.houston voice.com
APRIL 18, 2003 19
Ben Neihart's effort to shed light on the life
of Alelia Walker offers speculation about what
gay life was like during Harlem Renaissance.
Mixing fact and fiction
THE PROBLEM WITH "HISTORICAL
fiction" is that it is often difficult to tell
where history begins and fiction ends.
This is a major drawback with novelist
Bob Neihart's "urban historical," "Rough
Amusements: The True Story of A'Lelia
Walker, Patroness of the Harlem
Renaissance's Down-Low Culture."
The book's title claims to be a factual
account of the life of the daughter of
Madam C.J. Walker, who made a fortune
selling black hair care products to women
in the days before beauty shops. Her
estate reportedly was worth more than $1
million when she died in 1919, making her
daughter, A'Lelia, who was 24 at the time,
one of the country's richest black women.
Neihart's book centers around A'Lelia
Walker and "The Faggots Ball," an infamous Harlem drag ball held during the
'20s. In addition to black gay partygoers,
white gays would also attend.
A'Lelia was something of a party girl
who counted among her circle of friends
such luminaries as poet Langston Hughes,
socialite and heiress Mayme White, artist
Harold Jackman, Vanity Fair social critic
Carl Van Vechten and writer Richard
"People routinely referred to her as
stupid, as ugly, as boring, as superficial,"
Neihart said in a recent telephone
"I think she had an incredibly playful
sense of humor, and was genuinely interested in the arts that she followed, and
was quite a genius at self-promotion," he
said. "And that worked out well with her
Such rich, lively and complex characters of the Jazz Age could make for serious and fascinating study. But "Rough
Amusements" misses the mark because it
involves the author's speculation about
people and events for which there is very
little historic record.
Nevertheless, the seminal work on the
Walker family, "On Her Own Ground: The
Life & Times of Madam C.J. Walker," by
A'Lelia Bundles, a family descendant,
does not mention much about A'Lelia
Walker. And few of her personal letters
remain, leaving Neihart to draw on the
papers and work of A'Lelia's contemporaries to fill in the blanks.
• SOME READERS MIGHT OBJECT TO
Neihart, a white writer, interpreting
events and speculating about black
American icons. But Neihart defends
"There's a lot of historical fiction, or
speculative narrative history that re-
imagines conversations," he said. "So I
In 'Rough Amusement; Ben Neihart uses the literary device of historical fiction to fill in the blanks
about the life of black socialite A'Lelia Walker.
really didn't think it would be offensive."
He said he tried to follow the
"cadences of voice" that he found in writings by Hughes and others. He compared
what he did with "Rough Amusements" to
Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood" and
"The Executioner's Song" by Norman
Mailer. It also is similar, he said, to
Edmund Morris's historical novel,
"Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan."
Any speculation about A'Lelia Walker's
sexual orientation is left unanswered. The
book provides no proof and the author
found little else to help.
But in "Rough Amusements," he mentions A'Lelia's close friendship with
Mayme White. A most revealing scene
plays out at a New Jersey resort when
A'Lelia is on her deathbed.
"In the bedroom they shared, Mayme
asked A'Lelia, 'Baby, what's wrong?'"
"I'm so glad you're here, Mayme,"
A'Lelia replies. "Look at me. I've had
everything I wanted in life. I just didn't
have it long enough."
A'Lelia died of an apparent stroke the
Despite such morsels, "Rough
Amusements" isn't about A'Lelia Walker
as much as it is speculation about black
gay culture during the Harlem
A FOR MORE INFO
'Rough Amusements: The True Story of
A'Lelia Walker, Patroness of the Harlem
Renaissance's Down-Low Culture'
By Ben Neihart
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