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.
Whenever Rex rides on his gold-bedecked float up St. Charles Avenue, it would be a historically gracious gesture if he would nod his head and wave his scepter to the left along the 200 block. That stretch of street is now overtaken by the Place St. Charles office building, but within it is the ghost of the St. Charles Hotel that once stood at that site. If one spot can be pinpointed as the birthplace of the Rex organization, it would be there.
Rex was a monarch born during a time when the politics of democracy were torn by Reconstruction. For all of Louisiana's outrageous and even notorious politics to follow in the next century, no year was quite as politically outrageous and notorious as Reconstruction-ravaged 1872 when two separate governments were installed. Bloodshed would follow. Rex was born not because of the politics but in spite of them. And, as new research has shown, though he was a monarch, his mission, at least by the standards of the day, was democratic.
By 1872 some of the city's business leaders and journalists were eager to promote the city again to the rest of the country. Carnival created marketable opportunities. What there was of a public presentation on Mardi Gras was the march of the Mistick Krewe of Comus. But Comus paraded at night; a day parade was needed to nurture Mardi Gras and to open participation to more people than those within Comus' limited membership. In creating the new parade, Comus was supportive. Its captain and some of its members lent their expertise to create Rex, who advertised for public participation in his procession.
Rex, who was born with a public purpose, coupled with Comus, whose purpose was not public but rather social, in effect made an event worthy of attracting tourists. The fact that the Russian Grand Duke Alexis happened to be in town at the time of the first Rex parade romanticized the royal birth. The duke's presence would eclipse the less poetic but more practical fact that the monarch was conceived partially to help rev the economy.
Alexis, who stayed at the St. Charles Hotel during his New Orleans visit, would become the enduring figure in Rex lore. But among the other young men who met in the chambers of the St. Charles Hotel to plan the first parade was a lineage that research has, until now, largely overlooked – American royalty.
Lewis Salomon, the cotton merchant, served as the first Rex. Little has been written about Salomon other than that he was Jewish. (That fact we treated with certain irony given Carnival's Christian origins. However, research for a New Orleans Magazine article (Feb. 2004) revealed that in 1862, in the same week that he joined the Confederate army, Salomon converted to Catholicism. He would spend most of his adult life as a devout and philanthropic Catholic, though his burial site would be a Jewish cemetery in Brooklyn.) Salomon was born in Mobile, Alabama, but his roots trace to Philadelphia, home of his great-great-grandfather Haym Salomon. Here was a man who was a glorious footnote to American history. We hear of generals and politicians but seldom of those who pay for the wars. Haym Salomon was one of the chief financiers of the American Revolution and a friend of George Washington. (In Chicago, there's even a statue of Haym, who lost his fortunes and died in debt, standing alongside Washington and Robert Morris, a financial adviser of the general's.)
One of the key people in creating Rex was a young newspaperman, E. C. Hancock, who lived at the St. Charles Hotel. Hancock was from Philadelphia and a descendent of John Hancock. It is quite likely that John Hancock and Haym Salomon, the great relatives of two of Rex's founders, knew each other. Just like Haym Salomon it was Lewis Salomon who became the fundraiser for a cause. Salomon pulled together the money for the Rex parade. In different centuries, both the Hancocks and the Salmons had a hand in creating new sovereignties.
St. Charles Avenue was the hub of economic and social life in the New Orleans of 1872. Along its path are other ghosts for Rex to toast. At the site of the InterContinental New Orleans Hotel, where Rex now toasts his queen, once stood two theaters, the Academy of Music and the St. Charles Theater. During the time of Mardi Gras 1872 two nationally known female performers were appearing next door to each other; Lydia Thompson at the Academy of Music; Lotta Crabtree at the St. Charles Theater. Both would become a part of the Grand Duke saga.