'Rough Amusements': fey fortune, transvestism

April 06, 2003|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,Special to the Sun

Rough Amusements: The True Story of A'Lelia Walker, Patroness of the Harlem Renaissance's Down-Low Culture, by Ben Neihart, Bloomsbury, 160 pages, $21.95

There are two stories in this book, but the more interesting one did not make the cover. Instead, top billing goes to the daughter of Madam C. J. Walker, one of America's great entrepreneurs. About 100 years ago, the elder Walker made a fortune -- complete with a mansion on the Hudson River -- selling cosmetics and hair straighteners to African-American women. When she died, her child, A'Lelia, took on the burden of upholding the tradition of rich offspring whose duty is to spend every dime in sight. In her case, the beneficiaries were those in the "down-low culture" of the Harlem Renaissance.

Much has been written about the flowering of African-American arts and letters that occurred in the 1920s, but little has been made of that era's homosexual sub-culture. Standard bearers of the Talented Tenth and the New Negro didn't talk about such things in public. Neihart does not belong to those groups and doesn't mind giving us a glimpse of the "down-low" side of that time.

This, the third in a series of "Urban Historicals" being published by Bloomsbury, walks its own path between fact and fiction. I'd have preferred that Neihart chose one path or the other and either written a full-blown historical novel that mines the facts for some elemental human truth, or a rigorously researched "true story" that seeks to find meaning in the life the reader is asked to consider. For that, you'll have to look elsewhere.

While cameo appearances by poet Langston Hughes, writer / patron Carl Van Vechten and others give us a feel for this time, Walker's overall story comes across as little more than that of a poor little rich girl who can't get no satisfaction. She has all the friends, fun, champagne and caviar Mama's money could buy, and she's not happy. How sad. Yes, she is black and at the very least bi-sexual, but those facts alone are not enough.

About one-third of "Rough Amusements" is given over to the "true story" of Earl Lind, who wrote two memoirs recounting his life as a streetwalking transvestite in New York City during the 1890s. Neihart seems to have been so taken with the memoirs, Autobiography of an Androgyne and The Female Impersonators, that he had to find a place for them.

Thus, Jennie June, one of Lind's pseudonyms, makes several compelling appearances. At times I found myself distracted, at others I found myself saying: Who cares about Walker's woes when poor Jennie is engaging in truly rough amusements, suffering all manner of degradation and humiliation in a life that finds her, in her 60s, an "old fairy" adrift in memory?

Jennie and A'Lelia come from different worlds. This "historical" conveniently finds them at the same gay ball. There are two stories here, that of an heiress, and that of an aging transvestite. Both deserve fuller treatments.

M. Dion Thompson, a long-time editor and reporter for The Sun, is currently on a leave of absence. His first novel will be published in the fall.

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