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Grand Duke Alexis a Carnival catalyst

The following is an excerpt from Errol Laborde's book Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival (Pelican Publishing). Read more of Laborde's Carnival coverage in New Orleans Magazine or at www.myneworleans.com and look for more Carnival stories from him here and on WWL-TV Channel 4.

While the importance of the Grand Duke Alexis' presence at the first Rex parade has long been overstated, it should not be totally diminished. Alexis was a catalyst. His coming gave reason to hasten a parade that might have happened anyway.

The Duke did view the parade at Gallier Hall, and by his presence he added true royalty to the event. He may have even increased parade attendance among those who were curious to see him see the parade. His appearance on Mardi Gras 1872 romanticized Rex and perhaps legitimized Rex's claim to be the King of Carnival – one sovereign acknowledging another.

As the Duke legend would have it, however, the Rex parade was intended to be a one-time event to honor the visitor; in fact Rex official E.C. Hancock's own paper, The Times, was uncertain where the Duke would be Mardi Gras afternoon. In its Feb. 7 edition, six days before Mardi Gras, the newspaper reported that the Duke would see the Comus parade at Lafayette Square and added the following: "One of the numerous clubs on Canal Street will no doubt tender the use of a verandah, should the Grand Duke desire to see the revel of the King of the Carnival." Alexis' legends survive only because Rex thrives. Without the krewe, the duke would have been long-forgotten, as he has been in his native Russia.

A public official of far lesser rank from a much smaller place may have had a greater influence on Rex's evolution. In 1866 a city clerk in Mobile, Alabama, named Joe Cain spearheaded a disorganized spoof of a parade designed to poke fun at the federal occupiers. Cain's procession became known as the People's Parade. Joe Cain Day is still celebrated in Mobile on the Sunday before Mardi Gras.

By 1872 there seemed to be growing pressure for a people's parade in New Orleans, too, not one as informal or rebellious as Cain's but one that would expand participation in Carnival. The history of Carnival in the Gulf South is like a rock thrown into a pool. The impact causes a series of circles, each spreading a little farther. Carnival American Style: Mardi Gras at New Orleans and Mobile, a scholarly book by history professor Sam Kinser (University of Chicago Press) offered a startling observation: "Comus was incomplete without Rex. The private-society idea needed a civic dimension in order to survive in a democratically organized polity."


That is not at all a slight at Comus, for some Rex founders also belonged to the Mistick Krewe. The infant Rex was nourished by Comus expertise. (William Merriam, one of the key Rex founders, was a Comus captain.) But it was in the nature of Comus and the mystic organizations in Mobile to be private, not only internally but externally, as well. Carnival needed a persona, a public figure, a benevolent monarch. Although many Rex members traveled in the same high-society circles as those in the mystic clubs, Rex would play a more civic role. Consider the words written by Perry Young inThe Mistick Krewe, which, though first published 59 years before Kinser, expressed a similar sentiment: "The fame of Comus had spread and was drawing crowds of visitors from afar, to the great embarrassment of the Krewe, whose entertainments were designed for the amusement of themselves and their immediate friends. Another society was needed."

A frank and revealing newspaper report that sounds like something written in modern New Orleans spelled out the tourism purpose. The Feb. 11, 1872, issue of theRepublican, published two days before Mardi Gras of that year and Rex's debut, stated: "We have published the several edicts issued by Rex, so our readers are posted on his intention. One of the foremost considerations in this display is to make our city attractive, not entirely for citizens, but principally for visitors. Items of these things have gone abroad, and 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."

Building to a crescendo, the Republican continued: "Every visitor, on returning home, will give his less fortunate neighbors a pleasant or glowing account of the wonders of the Crescent City. Next year the number of visitors will be doubled; and so our city will be benefitted. For this reason residents should make the celebration as attractive as possible, and Rex has pursued the right course."

Many kings have come to power with less civic calling than did Rex. On the practical side, Rex gave the New Orleans Carnival a day parade. That in turn had financial benefits for the city as circulars promoting New Orleans and its expanded Carnival were distributed by the railroads along their route. On a civic side, Rex allowed another circle of participation in Carnival. On the political side, Rex gave Carnival a public figure in counterpoint to the cherished secrecy of the mystic clubs. On a ceremonial side, Rex greeted a grand duke.

Kingdoms are created by circumstance, but few can count among their circumstances one that Rex could. His was a kingdom that came into existence partially because democracy of that day demanded it.

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