The story of A'Lelia Walker begins with her mother, Madam Walker.
The orphaned child of freed slaves, Madam Walker parlayed an investment
of $1.50 into an international business empire and a townhouse in
Harlem, as well as a Westchester County mansion, called Villa Lewaro.
Her hair-care products, including, "Madame Walker's Wonderful
Hair Grower," eventually netted her more than $2 million in sales.
(Contrary to a common assumption, Madam Walker did not invent a hair-straightening
technique, but rather an overall hygiene system that cured scalp disease
and promoted hair growth.)
When Madam Walker died in 1919, her only child, A'Lelia Walker, inherited
her fortune. The heiress made contributions to many educational and
political organizations and institutions that her mother had supported.
However, she became more renowned for hosting lavish parties that
fed her fascination with Harlem's social and cultural life.
Walker dubbed her inherited Harlem mansion, "The Dark Tower"
after poet Countee Cullen's column of the same name in Opportunity
magazine. The Dark Tower became a cultural epicenter of Harlem, drawing
scholars, bohemians, and musicians of every race to all-night marathons
of dance, drink, and conversation. James Weldon Johnson and Zora Neale
Hurston, among others, were regular attendees.
Walker entertained a more refined crowd at Villa Lewaro. Here she
received such pillars of the black intelligentsia as W. E. B. Du Bois,
treating them to extravagant weekends where white-wigged African Americans
served cocktails and canapés to guests lounging on expensive
Walker's glamorous role granted her literary immortality: A'Lelia
Walker appeared as a thinly disguised character in works by leading
figures of the Harlem Renaissance, notably Zora Neale Hurston and
Carl Van Vechten.