National Geographic : 1960 Nov
The Crescent City conjures fantasy. On Mardi Gras day the populace takes to the streets, where devils dance with angels, Betsy Ross curtsies to Dracula, and chained convicts turn out to be members of the family next door. At City Hall even a bird can meet the mayor (on the reviewing stand in background). Merrymakers on Canal Street (opposite) engulf the Rex Parade depicting the Adventures of Marco Polo. ANSCOCHROMES ) NATIONALGEOGRAPHICSOCIETY Mard Gras IN NEW ORLEANS By CAROLYN BENNETT PATTERSON Photographs by ROBERT F. SISSON and JOHN E. FLETCHER National Geographic Staff " /ARDI GRAS," says one New Or leanian, "is a private party given by private individuals for their friends." Says another: "Mardi Gras is a spirit; a time when you meet no strangers because all are friends. It belongs to every one-and no one." No one knows when the European Mardi Gras-literally "Fat Tuesday," the day of feasting before the Lenten fast-got its start in Louisiana. In New Orleans's early years, masquerade balls and street pageants were spontaneous; almost nothing was organized until 1857, when the Mistick Krewe of Comus was born. A secret society, the Krewe staged an annual torchlight parade in honor of Comus, god of mirth, until the outbreak of the Civil War. With peace, Comus resumed his rule. In 1872 he was joined by Rex, King of Carnival, and the Knights of Momus. That year also gave Mardi Gras its official song, "If Ever I Cease to Love," inspired by a romance be tween the Grand Duke Alexis of Russia and the American actress Lydia Thompson. Miss Thompson, performing during Mardi Gras 726 with her royal admirer in attendance, sang a current hit song. The crowd paraphrased it: If ever I cease to love, If ever I cease to love, May the GrandDuke Alexis Ride a buffalo in Texas, If ever I cease to love. An instant success, the song has been played ever since at the appearance of Rex. Today 65 organizations give carnival balls, starting on Twelfth Night, January 6. The carnival season builds up to the parades of Mardi Gras week, when the celebration flows out into the streets. On the final day before Lent, Mardi Gras itself, New Orleans folk turn out in mask and fancy dress. King Zulu, the Negro ruler, arrives by river barge and leads a rollicking parade over a meandering, uncertain route. Rex rides in splendor along Canal Street, and Comus comes by night to command that joy be unconfined. After watching the Comus parade, the late Louisiana author Lyle Saxon wrote: "It was something apart from life as I knew it. It was magic itself." Mardi Gras! What is it? Merely magic in the City That Care Forgot.