Mardi Gras: The Golden Age

PrintPrintEmailEmail

“Christmas,” a recent writer has pointed out, “is a holiday which New Orleans shares with other cities, but Mardi Gras is her very own.” So it is, and so it has been since 1857, when the first of the great carnival organizations, the Mistick Krewe of Comus, staged its first elaborate parade, tableaux, and ball. Civil War and Reconstruction dampened the Mardi Gras spirit through the 1860’s and much of the decade that followed, but after the departure of what loyal Louisianians still call “the carpetbaggers,” the merrymaking was again unfettered; from then until the century’s end the city’s annual carnival knew a veritable golden age. Here and on the following pages, as preparations for this year’s Mardi Gras near a climax, AMERICAN HERITAGE brings that golden age to life again.

The Editors

A city of French and Spanish origins, New Orleans early celebrated the last day before Lent—“Fat Tuesday”—with masquerades and exhilarating parties, as towns in many Catholic countries have done for centuries. But the Mistick Krewe of Comus was the first New Orleans secret organisation devoted solely to the carnival, and its festivities in 1857 sketched a patterti that was to become standard during the golden age of Mardi Gras after the close of the Civil War.

The latter-day devotees of Comus, a minor Greek god of gregarious mirth, produced something new: an organized street parade with elaborate costumes all designed around one theme. As “The Demon Actors in Milton’s Paradise Lost ,” they were a hit with the crowds; afterward the Mistick Krewe repaired to the Gaiety Theatre for a pageantball of considerable splendor.

By 1861, Comus’ parades and glittering tableaux-balls had become an accepted part of the local scene, but then the Civil War brought Mardi Gras festivities to a temporary halt. Coming back with surprising snap in 1866, Comus put together a parade and ball around the theme of “The Horror and Sorrows of War; the Blessings and Beauties of Peace; and the Hope of a Smiling Future.” Despite the difficulties of Reconstruction, Comus successfully endured, and was flattered by imitation in 1870, when the Lord of Misrule, King of the Twelfth Night Revelers, made his bow with a parade and a tableau featuring an immense Twelfth Night Cake. The Revelers made one innovation: they stretched the carnival season all the way back to the end of the Christmas holidays, holding their ball on January 6.

The year 1872 was particularly significant in the history of the New Orleans carnival. A group of leading businessmen, hearing that the Mardi Gras that year would be honored by a visit from His Imperial Highness, Alexis Alexandrovich, younger son of the Czar of Russia, decided to do something special lor his entertainment. They organized a new group called Rex, and planned a street parade that would outdazzle all earlier efforts. A carnival flag was designed in green, purple, and gold; a series of “royal” edicts proclaimed Mardi Gras a holiday, called for gala décor on buildings and street lamps, and announced the order of march for the parade in which Rex, King of the Carnival, would make his triumphal tour of the city.

Alexis arrived duly on the palatial Mississippi River steamer James Howard , was elaborately received at City Hall by Louisiana’s Governor Henry Clay Warmoth, Mayor B. F. Flanders, and General James Longstrcet, and proceeded to review the great parade. Possibly jaded by the glories of the Romanov court, the Grand Duke seemed relatively unenthusiastic, but the crowds in the streets made up for that. They were entranced by a mile-long spectacle led by the guns of a local artillery unit, followed by a bejewelled and white-bearded Rex on a splendid bay charger. Then came the Boeuf Gras (a plump decoy bull from the local stockyards), fifty-two maskers imaginatively costumed to represent every card in a full deck, five thousand other maskers on foot and in groups aboard wagons and carriages, and, at intervals, several brass bands all blaring out a favorite tune of the day, “If Ever I Cease to Love,” adapted to march tempo. The Rex organization had learned that Alexis was fond of the song, having heard it warbled by the popular Lydia Thompson in a burlesque version of Bluebeard . The Grand Duke’s reaction to the carnival rendition is not known; but the people certainly loved it, and the words of “If Ever I Cease to Love,” now the official Mardi Gras song, have resounded annually ever since in the streets of New Orleans:

If ever I cease to love, May Utile dogs wag their tails in front … May oysters have legs and cows lay eggs, If ever I cease to love.

Rex put on an even grander display in 1873, winding up with the biggest pageant-ball ever seen in New Orleans: four thousand invitations were sent out and eagerly accepted. Comus, stimulated to new efforts, introduced satire in its 1873 parade and tableaux, the theme being “The Missing Links in Darwin’s Origin of Species.” Easily discernible among the grotesque creatures represented in flamboyant papier-mâché were a tobacco grub whose face bore an unmistakable resemblance to President Grant, and a subspecies of hyena reminiscent of Ben Butler, the harsh Union general who had occupied New Orleans in 1862 (see back cover). There was more to this than simple fun, as the civil disturbances of 1874, which prevented the public celebration of Mardi Gras the following year, clearly demonstrated. By 1876, however, the painful days of Reconstruction were receding, and the carnival parades turned to plcasanter motifs.

From 1872 through the 1890—s, carnival societies multiplied fairly steadily. Momus, one of the perennial leaders, was started on New Year’s Eve, 1872, but in 1876 shifted its celebration to the Thursday before Mardi Gras. Like Comus and Rex, it was a prototype for later groups such as Proteus, Atlanteans, Nercus, Elves of Obcron, and Mithras. (Most of them, incidentally, called themselves “krewes,” and the quaint orthography persists today.) Carnival time in the golden age meant fantastic street parades, with costumed masqueraders on floats throwing out trinkets to thousands of excited onlookers; pageants evoking the courtly days at Versailles, with kings and dukes, lovely queens and maids, all performing pretty rituals in lavish costumes; and finally, for each society, a grand march and ball, featuring “callout” dances in which masked krewe members honored chosen ladies from the assembled guests. And, indeed, such has been the basic pattern of the New Orleans carnival and Mardi Gras ever since.