It has happened before; alleged Russian influence in American affairs. In this case an emerging head of state in America was rumored to have contact with a prominent Russian who had connections to the Czar.

Legend has it that the first parade of Rex King of Carnival was created in 1872 as a last moment effort to entertain the Russian Grand Duke Alexis Romanoff (the fifth child of Czar Alexander II), whose visit to the city would coincide with Mardi Gras that year. Legend misses the point. In 1872, New Orleans was still suffering through post-Civil War recovery. Tensions were high. All that existed of organized Carnival celebrations were the nighttime parades of the Twelfth Night Revelers and Comus. Carnival, and indeed the civic good, needed a day parade that could become a public attraction and be used to lure visitors back to the city. A frank and revealing report in one of the local newspapers of that day, The Republican, sounded like something written in modern New Orleans as it justified the parade for the purpose of tourism:

One of the foremost considerations in this display is to make our city attractive, not entirely for citizens, but principally for visitors . . . Public attention has been drawn to New Orleans. This will bring hither not less than 15,000 people, and they will, on a low average, expend fifty dollars each, thus bringing capital to our city.

(All that was missing from modern reporting was a quote from a university economist talking about how each new dollar will spiral through the economy.)

None of the early accounts of Rex’s formation mention the Grand Duke as the reason for the first parade. One person who should have known the truth was Lewis Salomon, the cotton broker who was the first Rex. In 1921, he was interviewed by a Times-Picayune reporter on the occasion of Rex’s 50th anniversary. Speaking of the founding, Salomon said something that was quite revealing: “Carnival was being talked about, when the war was over, as a sort of tonic for the wearied South.”

That sentiment was being shared elsewhere. In the same year that Rex was founded in New Orleans, The Mobile Carnival Association was formed. Although that city had long had a parading tradition, the association gave Mobile its equivalent to Rex, King Felix – he, too, a king of Carnival. Recovering cities were using Mardi Gras to unite their populations and to draw more people to visit.

Russians were of special interest in the United State back then because of the sale of Alaska from Russia to America five years earlier. Not unnoticed in New Orleans was that Russia could possibly become an importantly market for cotton.

Alexis was scheduled to visit New Orleans as part of a national tour that included stops in Washington and Nebraska where he famously hunted buffalo. The U.S. even assigned him a military escort, General George Custer, who was a battle worn veteran of the Civil War. He would have rough days ahead but for the moment going hunting with a duke and then accompanying him to New Orleans, via steamship from St. Louis, was a choice assignment. New Orleans would have had a King of Carnival even without Alexis, but the Carnival was nevertheless blessed by his presence.

His being here added romance to Rex’s triumphal entry and legitimized the Carnival king’s claim to the throne, as one royal acknowledged another. It also gave Alexis a place in history, though probably not where he expected it to be. The Grand Duke Alexis Romanoff would forever be far better remembered in New Orleans than in St. Petersburg or Moscow.


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BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT: Errol’s Laborde’s books, “New Orleans: The First 300 Years” and “Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival” (Pelican Publishing Company, 2017 and 2013), are available at local bookstores and at book websites.