By Mary Bisland.
Sixty odd years ago, after a short but merry life in France, a number of gay young Creole gentlemen half-intoxicated with Parisian pleasures returned to the province of Louisiana, resolved to impart at least a semblance of French frivolity to pretty Spanish New Orleans. They had gone abroad, as the scions of all fine families were accustomed to, for the acquisition of European culture and learning. It would scarcely seem, however, from the determined spirit of jollity with which they re-crossed the ocean, that their deepest impressions were received from lecture halls or academy; rather the boulevards on fête days, when the people en masse went forth to recreate in the sunshine, and honor meanwhile some convenient saint or hero. The task they had set themselves was easy enough of accomplishment, for from the earliest days Mardi-Gras in this sleepy Gulf-town had been held an occasion for feasting and high revelry. The first colonists from France and Spain had introduced the Carnival customs, familiarizing the public with the unlicensed fun attendant on that season. To the very questionable propriety at that time of certain brilliant balls on Orleans and St. Louis streets, must be accredited the shade of doubt cast over Shrove Tuesday indulgences. Then, too, numerous street brawls followed Mardi-Gras maskings. Under their dominos, political and social enemies often sought opportunities for avenging themselves, and rarely did the holiday end without one or more fatal encounters. Having no acknowledged leader, and each masker being on the look-out for adventures grave or gay, the results were so serious that the city became aroused to the necessity for a new order of affairs.
The love of more wholesome revelry was ripe, only needing one potent touch to stir the entire community into animation. This was demonstrated by the cordial response accorded the suggestion made by these young sprigs of Southern aristocracy. Immediately upon their return from the Continent, with high-spirited Mandeville Marigny at their head, they organized the first grand Carnival procession ever seen in this country. And very splendid, showy pageants they were, unique conception carried out with extreme lavishness of color and richness of design. Unqualified success crowned their first efforts, and who will wonder now that with the sanction of half a century resting on its observance, this institution has grown to be an inalienable part of the city's life and rights?
Year after year New Orleans has entered upon her dark Lenten penance with the maddest, merriest, and most sumptuous fete known to either continent. Jovial Shrove Tuesday is the brilliant threshold through which her people pass into a long season of humility. For one day, at least, the city lives up with all her might to the cheerful adage of "eat, drink, and be merry, for to-morrow we die," and not till the Carnival moon droops low before the light of a pale Lenten dawn is any cognizance taken of remorse to come.
This very intensity of purpose and absorption in the feast, is the true reason of New Orleans' supreme success in her Carnival. Elsewhere, the public argues of benefits to accrue, and makes vigorous efforts to assume the gay abandon supposed to be part of the program. Under colder skies they masquerade with eye and sober faces, yawn dismally under their dominos, and in the end achieve hopeless failures. None who have had the good fortune to celebrate Shrove Tuesday in the Crescent City will need to be reminded of how different is the fete by the Southern coast. Saints' days are respected. Christmas is revered, but Mardi- Gras stands far and away the first feast in the calendar. A week in advance old and young are assimilating the spirit of misrule animating the town. The social pulse that has quickened as the winter waned, fairly leaps then with a glad, unreasoning joy; the Carnival dominates everything. The half-mystery enveloping Rex, his court and "krewe," only adds a keener zest to sparkling curiosity, ready at any moment to be fanned into a zealous flame among his faithful subjects. Every season the same pretty fooling interests and amuses the people. Long in advance of his arrival, heralds proclaim the king's coming, and the soberest sense finds it difficult to combat a latent childishness that is touched and tickled in each heart by this sort of thing.
It happens, sometimes, that aliens laugh in their sleeves over New Orleans' rapturous enthusiasm, and the lavish expenditure she makes of her wealth at Mardi-Gras. They say the quaint old town is but a sham, a poor wench, after all, patching broken roads in secret, strewing roses over her ragged outskirts, screening tumble-down dwellings behind abundant vine-draperies, that once in a year she may sup with royalty, take a king for her mate, and ask the great world in to famous routs and revels. It is the veriest churl, however, who could lack sympathy with the spirit of mimicry, masking, and fun that possesses the populace. Every pickaninny in the streets wears his false-face with the grace of a jolly knave. His stout legs thrust in harlequin small-clothes, a pinked jacket to his back, and lance of rush or cane, the ragamuffin makes himself one of his majesty's court, whistles shrilly with the band, and finds no obstacle to joining himself with royalty for one long day of delight.
If the Carnival puts money in her purse, surely the city wins shekels from the strangers in a goodly fashion. Before visitors are invited to enter, nature is busy with manifold gracious preparations against their coming. Every olive-bush in the land blooms suddenly with myriads of ivory stars, shedding forth tremulous floods of rich perfume; gardens are lit with multitudes of gold and crimson rose-cups, while the oaks, young and old, are marshaled, every one, to hasten on their fringed robes of spring verdure. A million snowy censers spring from the dark-leaved orange trees that burst into a fury of blossoms, loading the balmy air with a fraught of delicious incense. All that an equable climate and soft temperature can do is accomplished in those days of a late Louisiana winter. The blue, wind-swept arch overhead, dyed a deeper azure, is flecked with feathery clouds, strewn artistically across the wide expanse. Who cares under such conditions to quarrel with surface-drainage, or find fault with local color, in the way of variegated street smells? On every corner a picturesque old negress is busy tying up big nosegays of lilies, orange blossoms and magnolia fuscati, that one may lay across one's lips while passing the worst places.
War and pestilence disfigure the years when the city has forgotten to reverence Mardi-Gras and its mystical sovereign. As season succeeds season, the public has marveled, laughed over, and wildly applauded long lines of brilliant Carnival floats, picturing to them the heavens above, the earth beneath, and inhabitants of waters under the earth. Gods, demons, giants and fairies, history, romance and nature, even the human passions themselves have served to furnish tableaux in countless forms and colors. Long glittering trains are lit with blazing torches, accompanied by the blare of bands and the shouts of an enraptured multitude.
It would seem that with such constant demands, fine illustrative subjects would finally become exhausted. But wit and trained talent are brought to bear evolving each year a mine of pictorial wealth. From three to five mystic orders are engaged annually for months in advance preparing for their parades. The "Comus Krewe," supposed to be almost exclusively composed of older men from the Pickwick Club, appeared for the last time in 1884, after twenty-seven years of unqualified success in their annual celebrations. A genuine sensation was created by the first illuminated scenic procession that moved upon vans or cars by night. After passing through the principal streets they gave a series of striking tableaux, and concluded the evening with a splendid ball in one of the old theaters. This was before the war, in 1856, and although political disturbances and fever epidemics twice forced the Myths to remain in obscurity, Comus kept faith with the city until finally swallowed up in impenetrable seclusion. The reign of the glorious god of mirth was a triumph from both an artistic and social point of view. His pageants were superb creations, illustrating Lalla Rookh, Spenser's Faerie Queen, Homer's Iliad, and like ambitious subjects. From the ball decorations of the French Opera House to the steel-plate engravings on cards, whereby the invitations are sent, every detail was costly and correct. His taste was faultless, and the season's beauty asked no higher distinction than to find favor in the eyes of Comus and his courtly retainers. Some stately correspondence is extant between Comus and the Duchess of the Silver Whistle, no other than Miss Cora Slocum, at present the Countess de Brazza. And Mr. John A. Morris's beautiful daughter, the morning after her reign as Carnival Queen, in 1882, wrote:
"Though bereft of all my dignities, and this morning only a simple republican, I cannot refrain from sending to Comus my acknowledgment and appreciation of the distinguished manner in which he received me as Queen last' night.
"The reception gracious, nay, cordial, the exquisite offering of flowers which greeted me, were, indeed, sufficient to have won my heart; but Comus, always princely, was not content With this, but on his own arm took me upon the floor among his guests, thus adding the highest compliment which he could possibly offer.
"With thanks, many times repeated, I remain,
"FRANCES ISABEL MORRIS."
In 1872 a new order known as the Knights of Momus came into existence. Its first parades were held on the last day of each year, but in 1876 the date of the Momus processions was changed to Carnival-week. Fourteen times has the gallant deity and his band of devoted knights visited the Crescent City, picturing from year to year "A Dream of Fair Women," "The Moors of Spain," "The Romayana," and "Legendary Lore." Last winter, after lying dormant for several seasons, Momus emerged to present Rodman Drake's exquisite poem "The Culprit Fay." It was impracticable to give the charming story in a street pageant, but in pantomime and a series of gorgeous tableaux the erring fairy's fate was illustrated on the stage of the Grand Opera House. Until twelve o'clock an audience, comprising the wealth, beauty and fashion of the town, sat enjoying the rich scenic effects produced, when, at the hour of midnight, the Lord of Raillery stepped down, and amidst a bevy of fair women chose his Queen. Momus has selected the Thursday before Mardi-Gras for his annual appearance, and is making extended preparations now for a grand pantomime and ball at this approaching Carnival.
The Twelfth Night Revelers," with their secret association, pictorial processions and masked balls, are usually included in the Carnival attractions, although they have always celebrated a fixed festival twelve days after Christmas, while Mardi-Gras is a movable feast depending on a certain new moon. The Revelers have either ceased to exist, or fallen into a deep sleep, nothing having been known of the scarlet dominos for a number of years.
The youngest but unquestionably one of the most secret and powerful of the mystic organizations is the Proteus Krewe, a body of young and enthusiastic gentlemen who, in 1882, mourned the languishing Carnival spirit, and as a labor of love stood to the rescue. For eight successive seasons, on Shrove Tuesday night, they have dazzled the public with original and splendid displays. As with Comus, Momus, and the revelers, Proteus and his knights have sprung from the rich and influential men of New Orleans. There is no thought of material or individual benefit, in the united exertion made every year to arrange a noble spectacle for the people. Like the other secret societies, Proteus is regularly and systematically organized. The Krewe is nothing more than a club with its president, secretary, treasurer, and committees. Annual dues are exacted, and in this way twenty-five thousand dollars is realized yearly, as the sum necessary to carry out the designs for their processions. No sooner is one Carnival over than the association meets to consider preparations for the next. Proteus reviews in turn various subjects suggested by his committees, the final decision being left to his superior judgment. Immediately upon reaching a definite conclusion, a special artist is called in to sketch suitable designs- for the floats and character-costumes required. In May or June everything is well under way, Parisian costumers being busily engaged realizing in rich materials duplicates of the colored plates furnished them from New Orleans. The costumes are received from France complete, even to the smallest detail of jewels, wigs and wands. The several characters are assigned before orders are issued, and in this way correct measurements are forwarded before a stitch is laid in the different dresses. Each toilet is costly in the extreme, for only genuine stuffs are used, and in carrying out a design it is often necessary to employ fine feathers, furs, and rare Oriental tissues.
The vans or floats on which the moving tableaux are presented are all of home manufacture. Domestic artisans skilled in the use of papier-mache are able under proper direction to set forth very satisfactory results. Finally Proteus's labors are over, and in one of the huge brick cotton-press buildings in the rear of the city he marshals his men. Weeks before the important day arrives, however, the Krewe are absorbed in numerous minor preparations. Every knight having some particular lady he craves to honor sends a request for her presence in the front row at the opera house on the night of the ball. These messages are couched in mysterious language, bearing an untranslatable signature. As Tuesday draws near, every society belle looks anxiously for some such signal promising her the distinction of a masker's attention. Only favored ones numbered in this list are granted seats in the horseshoe of the big lyric theater. They are so placed that when the curtain descends on the last tableau, maskers can readily invite those who are to participate in the initial dances of the ball.
But it is not to Proteus the public looks for the opening of their grand festival. The Shrove. Tuesday celebrations usually begin the Thursday or Friday of the preceding week, as last season with Momus's spectacle of unexampled beauty. This past year the Carnival in many respects rivaled its predecessors in grandeur and sumptuousness of detail. Public interest, seemingly grown cold, all revived for 1889, and gave the thousands of visitors who poured into the city an excellent opportunity for participating in the Southern merry-making. Every now and then a chorus of confirmed pessimists are loud in their wails for the dying Carnival. But this pro-Lenten feast means a golden harvest for a part of the community. Thousands of the wealthy, floating population drifting through the Southern States in the late winter, are drawn to New Orleans by her Shrove Tuesday festival, who would never otherwise come so far west. It has been estimated that these celebrations have brought into the city, in actual money, from three hundred and seventy-five thousand dollars to over a million dollars. Twice by close calculation thirty-five thousand visitors were found to have come, and remained from two days to three weeks. Averaging the worth of their stay, it will be seen the latter sum given is not an over-estimation. Trade is stimulated. Rex, unlike the exclusive secret associations, goes out to the public and by subscription secures the amount needed for his day procession. Railroad corporations, hotel-keepers, restaurateurs, and tradesmen all contribute. The money is given to a committee appointed to complete arrangements for the parade and immense ball invariably given at Washington Artillery Hall. The choice of a sovereign is always an important matter, and after prolonged debate the dignity is invariably conferred upon some man of wealth and prominence. While Proteus, Comus, and Momus are deeply secretive regarding their royal mates, the Carnival queen is notified a month in advance of the proposed honor. Her jewels are shown in their velvet cases on Canal Street, and the regal toilette is frequently imported for the occasion. A long line of handsome and distinguished women have consented to reign beside Rex for the One night he passes yearly in his favorite city, among them the famous Miss Celeste Stauffer, Miss Bell Morris, now Mrs. Thurlow Weed Barnes of Boston, daughter of J. A. Morris, the lottery king, and several winters ago New Orleans' superb beauty, Miss Cora Townsend. Miss Townsend has been an undisputed belle since her first season, and was surpassing lovely on the throne, Shrove Tuesday evening.
By the time Momus has gathered the for initiation into a new carnival, the city is full of strangers eager to witness a genuine New Orleans Mardi-Gras. Everything wears the fete-day look, that brightens the old town, as when some faded beauty is given sugared compliments on her antiquated charms. "Le Vieux Carre," with its quaint squares, picturesque haunts, and queer Creole houses, is completely overpowered by visitors, who find entertainment in the simplest features of that quarter. The French opera, drawing to a close with Lent's approach, plays to packed houses seven times a week. Theaters thrive, and carriages crowd the thoroughfares filled with sight-seers anxious to let no point of interest escape their keen eyes. Friday, Saturday, and Sunday pass in a state of suppressed excitement, incident to the hourly increasing number of strangers and preparations being pushed actively forward for the momentous day. There is scarcely a household but entertains its proportion of guests, and during the interval from Thursday till Tuesday it is almost impossible to secure attention in shops, or one quiet moment in one's home. Streets are thronged from dawn till midnight; Monday morning maskers are counted everywhere. In motley garbs they prance about mounted on antique mules, or with equal content elbow their way afoot through the multitudes. Horsemen in citizen's dress dash round corners or recklessly bolt up the street bearing big packages under their arms, overburdened meanwhile by a weight of mystery. Mardi-Gras is in the air, and it is useless to put any other business forward. The day grows old, and, as the sun declines, with a tumultuous shrieking of whistles, ringing of bells, blast of trumpets and shouts of loyal subjects, his Majesty Rex is announced to be approaching his well-loved city, New Orleans. At this signal flags fly, and thousands of men, women, and children spring as by magic from the banquettes. All are brimful of curiosity to see the sovereign with his escort land at the foot of Canal Street, visit the City Hall, receive the keys and homage from his honor the mayor, and then disappear till the morrow. Unless some order consents to parade that evening, the night is divided between business and pleasure. The hundred and one minor details attendant on the next day's celebrations engross the attention of the different societies, while drawing-rooms blaze with light and echo the laughter of gay assemblages within. Tuesday morning by ten o'clock the people are surging from the upper and lower districts in great waves of travel, all bound for the vicinity of Canal Street. The cars threading the town like busy green and yellow beetles are crowded to suffocation. The daily press publishes the proposed route of the procession in their morning edition; consequently every available inch of space alongside walks and on galleries overlooking the royal way is occupied hours before Rex appears. Finally a mighty shout goes up, and far in the distance is heard the steady march of the on-coming parade with the lilting notes of the king's own band. It was for the Russian Grand Duke Alexis Rex first rode in his regal costume at the head of a body of Arabic troops. This was in 1872, when all the day maskers were first united in a procession. The project became popular, and Rex was an established favorite. From the "Gods of Greece" and "Arabian Nights" to the "Treasures of the Earth" shown last year, the sunlight sovereign has in his pageants been unfailingly showy and successful. Hours are consumed in passing up and down the broad avenues and through the principal business streets; but the courteous king never once wavers in his acknowledgment of the respectful admiration expressed in manifold devices by the crowds through which he passes. The Phunny Phorty Phellows and Independent Order of the Moon follow Rex's garish train with broad caricatures upon some popular subject of the day. It is not till late in the afternoon a lull is evident in anticipation of the culminating splendors of the night. Finally the crimson sun sinks into the soft violet mist banding the horizon, and the southern sky melts into a deep purple, jeweled with stars. Gradually the electric lamps one by one shine out, throwing long shafts of light into every quarter of the straggling town. Canal Street is then brilliant beyond all description. Broad balconies up and down the wide boulevard are banked with laughing, chattering spectators, fluttering their handkerchiefs and exchanging signals with acquaintances on the banquettes. The five principal club-houses brightened with handsome multi-colored illuminations show hosts of lovely women in full evening dress seated on their pyramidal verandas. Like huge bouquets these clusters of belles in exquisite toilets attract universal attention and admiration. The surging multitudes below overflow the sidewalks, push restlessly to and fro, and cover the earth like a moving mantle of humanity. All are vigorously striving, with perfect good-nature, however, for vantage points from which to see the enchanting picture slowly moving into sight. The streets are bright as day, and from the dense masses of men and women rises a subdued roar of continuous talk. The deep sapphire skies seem at the moment to bend low toward the majestic advancing spectacle. Looking down the luminous way to where the lofty dazzling train comes swaying slowly forward, one feels as though transported to realms of romance. No triumphal entry into ancient Rome could have been more stately or impressive. The shrill sweet notes of rival musicians, the steady tramp of the royal horse, the fantastically attired negro torch-bearers running beside their magnificent floats, all help to realize one's dream of medieval pomp and splendor. With every cheer of the satisfied populace, the music swells and the maskers on the cars grow more and more freakish in their demonstrations of speechless merriment. As the first great tableau draws up before the Pickwick Club, showers of kisses are thrown by the enthusiastic krewe with scarfs, bangles, and rings into the arms of reigning belles and beauties. The scene is one of intense though amiable excitement. Comus in the past, and King Proteus in the present, is the lordly potentate of the Carnival night. He proceeds graciously through the heart of the city, and after greeting the populace vanishes mysteriously, to reappear an hour later on the stage of the French Opera House.
At least a dozen great balls, representing every shade of society, are in progress after ten o'clock. Until midnight Rex, his queen, and court of royal dukes and their charming young duchesses receive the allegiance of thousands in the noble throne room of Artillery Hall. At that hour they withdraw to accept an invitation from Proteus to join the royal party at the Opera House. The scene on Bourbon Street is surpassingly beautiful. The temple of lyric art scintillates with a wealth of superbly costumed women that show a glittering semicircle in the front boxes, and look down with smiling eyes from second tier and loge grilles on the stage where the maskers are trooping in. The Shepherd of the Sea with his men carefully scan the premieres, and soon the ladies of the court are forming the royal set. One after another the maskers select their partners, and in the intervals of the waltz measures are presenting favors and spoils in the way of silk sashes, jeweled pins, and rich daggers from their fancy dresses. It is far on into Ash Wednesday morning when the last dance is ended, and sleepy beauties muffled in soft wraps whisper a last adieu as their carriages rumble home in the Lenten dawn. "The King is dead, long live the Carnival."
This present season is already promising very splendid things New Orleans will rival her own best record in the February of 1890. Momus, Proteus, and the old God Comus will unite with Rex in exalting the glories of Shrove Tuesday. The one fear arising is, that with the Saengerfest as another potent attraction falling on the same date in February, New Orleans will have difficulty in caring for the vast numbers of strangers to assemble within her gates. The huge frame building in course of erection on Lee Circle, artistically designed and with accommodations for an audience of six thousand people, will soon be complete, and the president of this Southern singing festival, Professor Hanno Deiler, predicts an unqualified success. Fifteen hundred singers are already promised for the chorus with an orchestra of seventy-five musicians and many fine artists as soloists. Five concerts will be given, when New Orleans proposes to take her rightful rank among the music centers of this country.
Originally published in Cosmopolitan Magazine. February 1890.