This essay examines the role A’Lelia Walker played as a fashion and social trendsetter in Harlem during the 1920s. The only daughter of early-twentieth-century hair-care-industry pioneer Madam C. J. Walker, she carved her own niche as a patron of the arts and philanthropist.
An heiress with exquisitely decorated homes and chauffeured cars and hostess of music-filled soirees, she personified the spirit and flamboyance of the era. Always stylish, her blend of regal, statuesque African beauty and haute couture served as an inspiration to poets, painters, and novelists. Among those for whom she posed were photographers Berenice Abbott and Addison Scurlock and sculptors Richmond Barthé and Augusta Savage.
Her parties were legendary. Whether at Villa Lewaro (her mother’s Irvington, New York, mansion), at The Dark Tower (a converted floor of her 136th Street townhouse), or at her 80 Edgecombe Avenue pied-a-terre, she welcomed uptown and downtown artists, musicians, actors, writers, political activists, and socialites.
Langston Hughes called her “the joy goddess of Harlem’s 1920s” because her memorable gatherings lent such a glamorous, glitzy aura to the social scene above 110th Street.