It has happened before; the evolution of a head of state in America was rumored to be linked with a prominent Russian.
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, whose visit to the city would coincide with Mardi Gras that year. Legend misses the point. In 1872 New Orleans was still suffering through reconstructions. 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 if 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.
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 benefited.
For this reason, residents should make the celebration as attractive as possible, and Rex has pursued the right course.
All that was missing from modern reporting was a quote from a university economist telling 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. Embattled cities were using Mardi Gras to unite their populations and to draw more people to their cities.
As for Romanoff, New Orleans would have had a king of Carnival without him, 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 him 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.
Story adapted and updated from “Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival” by Errol Laborde. Pelican Publishing Co., 2013. The book is available at local bookstores.
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