The Mardi Gras of 1920 was the first since 1917 when the Mystick Krewe of Comus announced the suspension of festivities due to American participation in World War I. From the 1870s to 1917 the Mardi Gras had grown steadily, attracting notice and thousands of visitors from across the country. Following the success, other cities, including Washington, Florida and California, had established their own Mardi Gras celebrations. San Francisco was particularly proud of their own and press reports display more than a little rivalry and envy of the fame of New Orleans’ carnival. By 1917, New Orleans’ Mardi Gras had spread its influence across the United States and was on its way to becoming a national institution. New Orleans’ Mardi Gras may in some way be regarded as an index to the mood of the country before and after the war.
Before the war America was enjoying a period of gaiety that on the surface rivals that of the 1920s. Sure there was labor unrest, poverty and inequality, and conflict with Mexico, but the newspapers seemed to focus on gaiety and the fruits of the inventions of Ford and Edison. The automobile was giving personal freedom to millions and changing patterns of life; the movies had taken off spectacularly, changing how people would view themselves; baseball, boxing and Broadway were bonding great numbers of people; and dance crazes, like the disreputable and sometimes illegal Tango, irrepressibly sprang forth. For the newspapers, the annual Mardi Gras was the icing on the cake of good times, and New Orleans was the leading confectioner.
In 1917 New Orleans’ Mardi Gras was in its peak period. Major photo spread articles on the carnival had begun to appear in newspapers of the 1890s and continued throughout the first decade of the 20th century. Railway lines began advertizing special Mardi Gras services and package tours that took in the carnival. New Orleans’ hotels advertized in out-of-state newspapers. The St Charles Hotel’s advertizing campaign of 1910 gave birth to the sobriquet ‘The City That Care Forgot,’ and became the subtitle of the complimentary pamphlet they gave away to guests. Mardi Gras’ queens, like Corinne Griffith, became movie stars, and Mardi Gras itself became matter for entertainments like Rex Beach’s novel The Crimson Gardenia (1914; filmed in 1917), and The Gayety Burlesque theatre’s popular vaudeville number “At the Mardi Gras”(1917.) Then in April 1917 America entered the war against Germany, and the Mardi Gras of 1918, as announced in the press by the Mystick Krewe of Comus, was suspended.
Armistice was declared in November 1918, and in February 1919 the Mayor of New Orleans, Martin Behrman, announced that Mardi Gras would return for February 1920. Circumstances however were against a return to former gaiety. The mood and the economy of the country had changed. During the war the US government had begun a ‘thrift’ campaign in the newspapers. The idea was to encourage people to save money in order to invest in war bonds, but very little of the war debt was recovered by the bonds that were sold. The ‘thrift’ narrative however seemed to permeate all aspects of life. People became frugal but the war debt remained. Added to this, the newspapers were dominated now by stories of political graft, profiteering, the high cost of living, labor unrest, anarchist bombings, and race riots. And to top it all, in January 1920 National Prohibition came into effect. For sinners in New Orleans, Prohibition merely reiterated the closure of Storyville by the Navy in 1917.
So when in 1920 Mardi Gras re-entered the life-cycle of New Orleans, it did so without the supporting elements of economy, liquor, and good spirits. And as if to rub it in, on December 4th 1919, the French Opera House, the setting for the Rex ball of Mardi Gras, had burned down. In an article on New Orleans on February 8th 1920, Frank Dallam wrote that “Wine died at the hands of the Eighteenth Amendment; Song perished in the flames that destroyed the home of opera…what is there for New Orleans to retain its reputation?” (The New-York Tribune Feb 8th 1920.) Unsurprisingly, the return of Mardi Gras in 1920 was regarded as a disappointment. On the day, there was only one parade and it rained heavily (though guests at the Rex ball were surely delighted by the attendance of General Pershing and Maurice Maeterlinck.) On February 19th 1920 a journalist in The Herald wrote “the New Orleans public expected a regular Mardi Gras with the usual fine parades and not a bobtail affair for which we are kept busy explaining and apologizing to our visitors. As to the weather we lay the blame to Doctor Cline.” As we know, the Mardi Gras would recover. But the truth of the twenties is that when the party spirit returned it was the distillation of a very different mood.
Text copyright Paul Vargas January 2016.