Party City 

From Mardi Gras to Cotton Carnival and beyond.

"As for Mae having been Cotton Carnival Queen ... well, that's one honor that I don't envy her for! Sit on a brass throne on a tacky float and ride down Main Street, smilin' and bowin', blowin' kisses to all the trash on the street."

That's Margaret (Maggie "the Cat") talking trash about her money-minded sister-in-law Mae Pollitt (nee Flynn, of the socially prominent "Memphis Flynns").

But Mae throwing kisses from her throne on a float at least had it better than Queen Susan McPheeters:

"Know what happened to her? Y'know what happened to poor little Susie McPheeters? Somebody spit tobacco juice in her face. Some old drunk leaned out of a window in the Hotel Gayoso and yelled, 'Hey, Queen, hey, hey, hey there, Queenie!' Poor Susie looked up and flashed him a radiant smile and he shot out a squirt of tobacco juice right in poor Susie's face."

That's Maggie again, trash-talking in Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. But give local author Perre Magness credit: She quotes Maggie on Mae in The Party with a Purpose: 75 Years of Carnival in Memphis. But the purpose of Magness' thoroughly researched, fully illustrated, coffee-table-size book is not to mock but to give credit where credit is due in this the 75th anniversary of Carnival Memphis.

click to enlarge Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara, reading her invitation to Memphis' 1939 Cotton Carnival
  • Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara, reading her invitation to Memphis' 1939 Cotton Carnival

Make that "Cotton Carnival" until the name was changed in 1985 to "The Great River Carnival" and changed again to "Carnival Memphis." But make that Memphis' very own Mardi Gras in the 1870s, which is when this story really begins. And based on the ball invitations, elaborate costuming, and general hooplah, what a Fat Tuesday in Memphis it once was. And what a shame that yellow fever dealt the city and a week of citywide partying a decisive blow.

Flash-forward, though, to 1931. The Depression had hit hard nationwide, but in Memphis, it hit hard especially. Businessmen Arthur Halle, Everett Cook, Herbert Jennings, and others devised a plan: an event, the first week of March, to celebrate the city's leading industry and to lift the city's spirits. Cotton Carnival was born: parades, krewes, balls, bunting, and, most memorably, a barge decorated with bales of cotton and loaded with royalty. It arrived on Memphis' waterfront, as it was to do, with greater fanfare -- lights, cameras, fireworks! -- for the next several decades (barring the years of World War II and the year of Martin Luther King's assassination).

Magness covers it all -- the maids of cotton, the midways, the prominent white families, the prominent black families -- and then some: from the importance that Cotton Carnival played in the city's economy to what it revealed of the city's race relations.

There's more, though, and who knew that the king's and queen's (cotton) robes in 1935 featuring six pounds of gold (each!). That Vivien Leigh, in costume as Scarlett O'Hara, received an invitation to the 1939 Cotton Carnival? That a very young Peter Jennings of ABC News once reported on the arrival of the royal barge? And that an ornery Calvin Trillin, writing in The New Yorker, covered the brouhaha over Cotton Carnival vs. Memphis In May (the word going round: "crowd-napping")?

One thing I do know, however. Once upon a time, I, for one, was among the "trash" back in the '50s on Main Street whom Maggie the Cat made light of. The queen blowing kisses from her throne I don't recall. But it's a fine memory -- Memphians, black and white, crowding Main Street for a parade -- and Maggie (or is it Mr. Williams?), you were being kinda harsh.

Perre Magness' The Party with a Purpose is, no question about it, top-notch local history and splendidly designed.

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