A few specific years in the modern history of carnival have been recorded as being particularly momentous: the first appearance of the Mistick Krewe of Comus in 1857, the reemergence of Comus in 1866 after the Civil War, the first appearance of Rex in 1872, and more recently, the police strike in 1979 and the first post-Katrina Mardi Gras in 2006. A century ago, the year 1920 was also remarkable due not only to the events of that year and the years just prior but also the individuals involved.
As most carnival followers know, over the last 163 years since the birth of Comus, Mardi Gras celebrations were canceled or curtailed only a handful of times. These absent years include the Civil War, a year of civil unrest in 1875, World War I, the Korean Conflict, and World War II. But carnival never failed to come back, and these interruptions often led to changes or even losses of treasured traditions.
The year 1920 witnessed the first carnival comeback of the twentieth century. Parades and balls had been absent in 1918 and 1919 during World War I, while many of New Orleans’s men were off to war and women at home turned their attention to supporting the war effort. Even though armistice was signed in November of 1918, the city remained bereft of a large portion of its male citizenry for some time, and krewes sat out 1919 with an eye toward redoubling their efforts for a return in 1920.
However, with most krewes perhaps still nursing psychological wounds from the war and lacking the energy and finances for a showy return, the only krewe that staged a parade in 1920 was Rex. Still, gone was the longtime tradition of the Monday arrival of the King of Carnival by royal yacht on the river at the foot of Canal Street, along with His Majesty’s procession in a special Monday King carriage to Gallier Hall to receive the key to the city.
The 1920 Rex parade theme, “Life’s Pilgrimage”, whether by accident or intent, carried a meaningful message about the hardships and the pleasures of life. The lead float in the parade, entitled “Good and Evil Cast Lots for the Soul,” can be considered a direct response to the unimaginable experience of the war just past. The final two floats in the parade, “Sunset of Life” and “Dawn of a New Day,” suggest resurrection of life after death, much as the spirit of carnival had been renewed.
As significant as World War I was as a forced hiatus of Carnival celebrations, other events around that time had a major impact on Carnival. The spiritual home for carnival balls for decades, the French Opera House burned to the ground in December 1919, leaving a gaping wound in the heart of the French Quarter but also advancing the cause of historic preservation in the city’s oldest neighborhood. Ironically, just as Carnival was reborn and the Jazz Age was kicking off, ratification of the 18th Amendment to the U. S. Constitution in early 1920 led to Prohibition. In the midst of this, women’s suffrage became law. A young witness to all this history was Elinor Bright, Queen of Carnival in 1920.
Born on December 8, 1898, Elinor Bright was the first post-WWI Queen of Carnival and the longest-lived Rex queen at the time of her death just six months shy of her 100th birthday in 1998. Coming of age at a moment of extraordinary social change, her life had an undeniable Lady Mary “Downton Abbey-esque” quality. Raised in affluent circumstances in a St. Charles Avenue mansion and graduated from a New York boarding school, Elinor’s life was one of privilege and duty.
Her Carnival pedigree was admirable, as she was descended from William Mehle, just the eighth man to reign as King of Carnival (1879). Her mother, Ella Mehle, was a maid in the 1883 Rex court, and her father, Edgar Bright, was a duke in that same court. It wasn’t unusual at that time, or for many years after, for that matter, for maids and dukes in Rex courts to wed.
Elinor herself married one of the dukes in her own court, Edmund Richardson, but not until 1935, well after his graduation from the Virginia Military Institute and a stint in the Navy. Elinor and Edmund never had children but heaped love upon their nieces and nephews, explaining why Elinor’s family nickname was “Titante,” or “little aunt.”
One mystery yet to be solved regarding Elinor’s queenship has to do with a photo shoot that took place at her home. The photographer captured her in full regalia, including crown, scepter, long mantle, and in a first for a Carnival queen, a gown with a raised hemline. But the most intriguing aspect of this series of photographs, a collection now split between the Louisiana State Museum and the Historic New Orleans Collection, is the photographer’s signature in the center of the lower margin of each print: Bedou. The pencil inscription is a bit loopy and illegible and likely unfamiliar to nearly anyone looking at it with uninformed eyes. However, once recognition kicks in that this is the signature of Arthur P. Bedou, New Orleans’s most accomplished African American photographer, the unknown story of how these two individuals came together astounds. Bedou was the personal photographer for Booker T. Washington on his lecture tours. Did Elinor and her family know this when they invited Bedou to the family’s St. Charles Avenue home to photograph the queen of old-line Carnival? We may never know, but the series of photographs that he created of Elinor may be one of his most beautiful.
Perhaps Elinor’s most outstanding experience as Queen of Carnival was befriending a man whose national profile couldn’t have been any higher in 1920: General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force in Europe during the Great War. Pershing was guest of honor at Mardi Gras that year, and after addressing an enthusiastic crowd of thousands in Lafayette Square on Monday before Mardi Gras, he took in the full day’s events on Fat Tuesday, including receiving a special Rex ducal decoration at City Hall, reviewing the Rex parade from the Boston Club with Elinor, and attending the Rex ball that night at the Athenaeum, where he was presented to Their Majesties, John F. Clark, the King of Carnival, and Elinor.
In the 1980s, the Friends of the Cabildo interviewed Elinor as part of their Oral History Project. During the interview, Elinor recalled:
He was living on this private [train] car, and he had about four aides, and one was General [George C.] Marshall. I remember all the boys who were the aides used to be on their p’s and q’s. When they’d get the general back on the car and they could relax, then they’d come and join us and they could have a good time.
During the war, the Uptown street previously named Berlin Street, no longer a popular moniker due to wartime sentiment, had already been rechristened in honor of General Pershing. The general’s visit to Mardi Gras in 1920 could not have been a better way to mark Carnival’s first twentieth century comeback, painting the return of the city’s most treasured tradition with a patriotic shade it had never had before.
Wayne Phillips is a Curator specializing in Carnival and costumes for the Louisiana State Museum.