A Fabulous New Year's Eve

31, December 2014
partyAuthor Gail Milissa Grant's mother, Mildred Hughes (third from left), at a formal dinner dance in Chicago, 1933. Courtesy of the David M. Grant family.

How are you celebrating New Year’s Eve? Thinking back about books we’ve published at MHM, I recall many stories about New Year’s through the decades, but the one that I enjoy the most is from Gail Milissa Grant’s At the Elbows of My Elders. Her description of a lavish party transports me to a time when women wore “long gloves and gowns (some of them daringly backless) and the men [wore] tuxedos.” As she says while introducing the party discussed below, “One word seems to sum up the “talked-about-for-months parties” that St. Louis Negroes put on during Jim Crow days: ‘FABULOUS.’” See if you agree.

The earliest such occasion recounted to me took place on New Year’s Eve 1931. The Royal Vagabonds, a men’s club, was founded in the first part of the twentieth century by some of society’s leading citizens, that is, schoolteachers, postal employees, businessmen, and such. The “Vags” soon became known for its lavish bashes, and in 1931 threw a New Year’s Eve dance in the Peoples Finance Building’s penthouse that is remembered to this day. The members were distinguished by wearing white turbans embedded with gold insignia and ribbons that swung to and fro. At the foot of the staircase leading from the fourth floor to the ballroom, three Vags welcomed each of the four hundred guests who attended that night. At the top, two pages in blue outfits and floor-length capes checked the names of each invitee and bowed. The hall itself was barely lit to simulate dusk, so much so that those approaching from outside thought that there may have been some mistake. “Why aren’t the lights on? Did they cancel the party?” Once inside they were awestruck by the décor. “Merry Christmas” banners dangled overhead and multicolored bunting draped the walls. Iridescent lights danced across the floor, up the walls, and onto the ceiling overhead and reflected off a huge, mirrored sphere suspended above the dance floor. Alternately showering green, then rosy red light on the revelers below, the effect was so baffling that it took a while to figure out. People finally realized the source: two roving lights placed on the stage next to the bandstand and pointed at the hanging ball. Above the stage, purple and yellow bulbs (the club’s colors) flickered, announcing, “Welcome! Royal Vagabonds.”

receptionThe author's parents, Mildred and David Grant, in fancy dress at a different party—their reception after their elopement in 1944. Courtesy of the David M. Grant family.

Those who weren’t dancing congregated near a booth, labeled “Aquae” and “Drink.” The “waters,” however, were not given freely; they required a password (which was changed every twenty minutes) and had to be whispered to the bartenders. Off to one side, an oversized, artificial flower bud sat, almost unnoticed. Just before midnight, the Royal Vagabond Presentation March began with the members and their partners leading the line. Suddenly, all of the lights faded and a spotlight fell on the forgotten flower. “It must have been midnight when I jumped out of that big flower and did my pirouettes back and forth across the hall, dressed like the New Year Baby,” recalls June Gordon Dugas. She was the six-year-old daughter of one of the Vags’s founders and she announced the New Year “with trumpet held high,” according to the newspaper account. “They put me behind the curtains off to the side of the stage and told me to nap until my turn came. I did anything but that,” June said. At every opportunity, she peeked outside and took in the swirling colors, fancy clothes, and nonstop motion. Above all, she remembers two distinct sounds. “There was so much laughing and a lot of whispering,” she told me. The march then began in earnest with streamers snaking through the room, threaded over the necks and arms of all, and ultimately tying up their feet as they partied on. “It was a dance,” wrote one of the journalists the following week, “this dance of the Royal Vagabonds, that made everybody forget that home had not been so lively these holidays and made more than one say that here is one social group which had shown ‘vim, verve and vitality,’ and what does one say? More power to them!”[1]

I don’t know how long that party lasted but the guests, most likely, headed straight to their houses afterward to recuperate for the next day’s festivities. New Year’s Day itself had to be celebrated at home or at a friend’s by eating an abundant meal, the centerpiece of which was a tureen filled with black-eyed peas, believed to bring money one’s way during the next twelve months. Those who could afford it added a goose to their menu.

You can hear more of Grant’s stories of parties in the 1930s and ’40s in the Moments section of the 250 in 250 exhibit.

—Lauren Mitchell, Senior Editor

[1]Copy of a newspaper article, no date, no name. Probably from The St. Louis American or The St. Louis Argus, early January 1932.