Mr. Mardi Gras

A few years before he died in 2005, Jack Stallworth, sitting on the porch of his gracious family home in Mobile, Alabama, and surrounded by lush magnolia and fig trees, was talking about his life.

“I was born right here in this house, in the room that is now my library, on February 23, 1920. I was the seventh of eight children—six girls and two boys. We never celebrated individual birthdays because there were too many of us!”

Jack was a man who spent most of his life doing pretty much what his family would have wanted him to do. And that was true until the day he died in what had been his parents’ bedroom.

This devotion was despite the fact that his father certainly would not have been many people’s idea of a hero—certainly not one for twenty-first-century sensibilities.

“Daddy, Montgomery Carlton Stallworth, was a self-made man. He’d left home at the age of twelve with everything he had wrapped in a newspaper. He met my mother, Minnie Lee Wilkins of Whistler, Alabama—a flourishing railroad town—when he’d stayed at a boarding house that her mother ran.

“My father was not a sportsman but a workaholic. He seemed never to do anything that wasn’t connected with business. He was gone during the week but would return home on Saturday at dinnertime. Then he would spend Sunday afternoons reading on the veranda. He had educated himself by reading during his early life and later that’s how he kept up with things. His advice was simple: ‘Don’t try to tell a bunch of lies because you’re not smart enough to work out of ’em.’”

This attitude went hand in glove with the older Mr. Stallworth’s practices.

“Daddy’s primary interests were lumber and turpentine and our own pine plantation—Stallworth Naval Stores—was about fifty miles north of Mobile. It had about 200 crops, 10,000 trees to a crop. The plantation had housing for ‘hands’ or laborers. We had as many as 650 families living there in the early 1930s.

“My father was the first one who brought running water to the houses where the people who worked the pine trees in the daytime lived. He didn’t put running water in their houses (there were about eight houses on a block), but he put a pipe with a faucet spaced so that you never had to go more than four houses away for your water.

“The plantation had its own commissary. It’s still standing there—a little old main store with two rooms on each side. At first, in the late ’20s and early ’30s, we paid the hands with our own brass money: nickels, dimes, quarters, and half-dollars, all in brass and stamped ‘Stallworth Turpentine Company.’ The government stopped that because they claimed we were minting money, so we changed to scrip. The scrip could be used to buy whatever was needed at the commissary. Once a month the hands also received some cash.

“We had our own social security system. The plantation took care of everybody who was too old to try and get a job somewhere else. And they stayed there until they died. On our turpentine plantation, Dad always made sure that the 650 families who lived there were taken care of. He fought Social Security vehemently because he said that he could take care of his people better than the government could. Of course he didn’t win that battle!

“Daddy was really much better than most of the other local businessmen at that time. He understood that you were successful by building up the people you worked with. You don’t step on their heads while they’re trying to climb the ladder. And he left a legacy of more than $50,000,000 after starting with nothing.”

Listening to Jack talk in his mellow, hushed, southern voice, Tennessee Ernie Ford singing “Sixteen Tons” started to play in my head. There was a marked contrast between the gentle, soft-spoken elderly gentleman sitting across from me and what he was describing. But it was undeniably another snapshot of twentieth-century American life.

Later in our visit, we relaxed in the turquoise and ivory front room of Jack’s house, an elaborate but comfortable homage to late nineteenth-century taste.

“When I was very little I recall my mother taking me downtown to the docks to see the bananas being unloaded. At that time, Mobile was one of the largest banana importing centers in the country. There were all these small carts on the streets selling bananas because those that would fall off, or were too ripe, these people could buy for practically nothing and then put them on carts and run around town selling them. That’s why we always had so many bananas. It was sad when they moved it all to New Orleans. They took that little bit of history away from us.

“Streetcars were the most popular means of transportation here in Mobile. They went between here and Spring Hill—it’s seven miles. They ran on this street before it was ever paved! I remember there were a couple of old ladies on Government Street, the Triplet sisters, who lived in one of those big houses. One of them had been queen of Mardi Gras. They would get in their little horse-drawn buggy and drive down to the Loop and then they would drive right back down Government Street. You could always see those ladies taking their ride at certain times of the day.”

Jack smiled at the recollection and proceeded to talk about his schooling.

“After graduating from Tennessee’s Castle Heights Military School in 1937, I went to the Louisiana State University for a degree in forestry. That degree was sweetened a little by my music studies with Pasquale Amato, the celebrated operatic baritone who’d been a star of the Metropolitan Opera. He was from the same area in Italy as Caruso. Two little towns close together. They were friends and were always playing tricks on one another. He had sung at the Metropolitan for sixteen years at the same time as Caruso and about the time Caruso died, Amato got kidney trouble and they had to remove one of his kidneys. They cut his ribs and he lost his strength and he never did go back on the stage to sing so he got into teaching. How LSU got him, I don’t know, but he was there a number of years. He was a very distinguished gentleman. Grey hair, olive complexion, rotund. He was a very good teacher.

“Amato was quick to tell me that I had not started singing early enough. He let me know that I was too late to prepare for a musical career. But he taught me a great deal. I remember him proclaiming, when discussing what we should wear for a concert, ‘The performer had on white tie, didn’t he? You wear a tuxedo. They dress for you, you dress for them.’ So I did.

“I did just as well in forestry, but it was my music lessons that made me happy.

“Mother was very pleased that I was taking voice lessons, but she wouldn’t let my Daddy know when I got in the opera at LSU’s music school. Then the opera was taken to New Orleans. We got it into the Municipal Auditorium and Amato was always one to play up a student in his hometown. Of the eight principals in La Traviata, the servant to Violetta was from New Orleans and I was from Mobile. So they had a big picture of the entire cast on the front page of the Times-Picayune. “College Opera Comes to Town.” My brother-in-law bought a newspaper. He brought it to mother and mother was real proud of it. I’m told she laid it on Daddy’s pillow and that at bedtime he went up and saw it. And he came down the next morning and he said, ‘There will be no more pictures of anybody in this family in the newspaper.’ Mother was proud of it but Dad wasn’t.”

After briefly describing some nightmare experiences while in the Navy and stationed at Solomons, Maryland, Jack’s face lit up as he recalled the end of World War II. At that point he found himself very much in the right place at the right time.

“On August 15, 1945, I’d gone to New York to get in touch with some friends I’d met up there. All of a sudden, just as I got there, Japan capitulated. There were crowds and crowds in the street celebrating everywhere. I literally bumped into a group of four or five people, among whom was a friend of Sally Meade’s I’d met when I was up there in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. I just ran into her out in the street! ‘Jack! What are you doing here?’ she said. ‘Come on with us.’

“Well, I stayed with her and her friends for two days. And one of the group had an uncle who had a suite at the Hotel Pierre. At one point most of the group went to the 21 Club, but I was running low on funds, so I sat outside with another guy and waited for them. Then we went to this uncle’s apartment to spend the night.

“As time went on, well, you know New York with all its bustle and hustle and everybody scooting around? You can imagine how it was then! Everybody was loving everybody all over the streets. That’s where that famous picture of the sailor kissing the girl in the middle of Times Square was taken.

“At the end of three days of frenzied celebration, no one had the energy to put one foot ahead of the other. The city was at a crawl. When I got into Penn Station you’d have to push people out of your way to get past them. I don’t think anybody’d slept from the time they made the announcement until they collapsed!”

Looking around the grand room and obviously dealing with a lot of memories, Jack continued.

“Although he was a self-made man, Daddy had earned his position in business. ‘Earning his position’ meant he knew how to make money. He was one of the upper crust when it came to money. Not megabucks, but plenty. The Carnival Association didn’t know me, but they knew him. So in 1947, after I’d been discharged from the Navy and come home to Mobile, and only five weeks before Mardi Gras, I was approached and asked to be king. I asked my father if I could participate and he flat refused, but then I asked my mother and she said to go ahead and that she would take care of my father. I became the youngest king ever. When you become king they give you certain jobs to do and today, at 84, I’m still doing them.”

To the annoyance of people from Mobile, most Americans think of Mardi Gras as the exclusive property of New Orleans. But as Mobilians know, and as knowledgeable New Orleanians will admit, the tradition of street parades and masked balls was originated in Mobile. In that city, as indeed it is in New Orleans, Mardi Gras is the center of a very active and structured social life. The make-believe royalty is anointed from among the oldest, richest, most important, and well-respected families. To be a queen of Mardi Gras or to be crowned king of all the celebrations is the highest honor that the city’s Society can bestow.

In Let the Good Times Roll, her history of the Mobile Mardi Gras, Emily Staples Hearin, a former queen of carnival herself, wrote:

King Felix III, Emperor of Joy and Lord of Misrule, reigns over a domain so vast he is able to spend only two to four days in his capital city, Mobile. He comes on his royal yacht from the Isle of Joy, according to the legend, over a sea of lemonade (or maybe something stronger), and lands at Mobile at noon on the day before Mardi Gras. He receives the keys to the city from the mayor and other dignitaries, and from then on, rules the city until midnight of Fat Tuesday. . . . One of the chief acts of King Felix is to issue a proclamation commanding all his subjects to forget all care and to devote the days and nights to merriment and amusement.

Jack Stallworth smiled as he began to discuss one of his favorite topics.

“I was the first king to design his own costume. Before me, they just rented the suit and wore it.

“When I was king, Alfred Louis Staples, who had been the king in 1916, was the president of the Carnival Association. He was my friend Emily Hearin’s father and he stayed president for thirty-four years. He liked to have me around because he’d say, ‘Jack, do this’ or ‘Jack, do that’ or ‘Jack, do the other.’ I really became his lackey. And he gave me some pretty big responsibilities. I think that maybe today if I’d known the consequences of any mistake I might have made, I wouldn’t have attempted to do what he wanted. There was a period where I had sole control over who was the king and he had total control over who was the queen. I was also responsible for getting the costumes for the knights to wear for the coronation and for Mardi Gras day.

“Through the years I’ve been involved with many civic activities here in Mobile as well as nationally: the Junior Chamber of Commerce, the Young Presidents’ Organization, the America’s Junior Miss Pageant, the English-Speaking Union, things like that. But the biggest involvement I’ve had has been with the Mobile Carnival Association. People may say that that is not really a charity in the traditional sense of a charity, but they should realize that Mardi Gras is the principal tourist attraction we have here. And you know, although it was started here in 1831, it was revived after the Civil War and part of the purpose of this revival was to give people something to look forward to. In that respect it played a big part in our reconstruction. It allowed people to laugh at their problems and it helped the South resurrect itself.”

Leaning back, Jack interrupted himself to answer a question often asked by Northerners about their countrymen from below the Mason-Dixon line: Why are Southerners still so obsessed with the Civil War?

“Two blocks north of this house was a great big old southern country two-story home—it probably had four or five rooms upstairs. That house had served as a Confederate hospital and it was right on the edge of a Civil War battlefield. Behind it soldiers had dug trenches and we played in those trenches. I had a couple of bullets that I’d found there.

“Even today, one of my former secretaries lives in a house where every time it rains she can go out and pick up two teacups full of these bullets because they keep washing up in the soil. A great deal of the Battle of Mobile was fought in that area.

“To this day, the Civil War is all around us here. When you walk across the yard and pick up bullets, that brings it pretty close. Many of the Civil War artifacts have been physically pushed around, physically moved, but they’re still here, still in existence. That’s why we don’t forget that war as easily as other people do.”

In 1952, Jack Stallworth began a career in catering and opened several restaurants as well. He had great success. His flair with food was well-known and to be expected from a gentleman who so enjoyed partying and celebrations. And at least one story about him has become a part of local folklore. It seems that for a wedding reception he once dressed a turkey in a tuxedo, top hat, and pearl studs.

The bride complained that the bird got more attention than she did.

Issue Twenty Two