Saturday, July 8, 2017

On a Veiled Prophet



The parade had passed. But traffic on Market Street was still tentative. Perhaps, the road remained blocked somewhere to permit marchers and floats to reach their destination without the interference of passing cars and trucks. Maybe, the tail of the parade as it were, or its head, was still active somewhere: tramp, tramp, tramp, the boys are marching. It was the 1st of July and other thoroughfares in the city were barred, vehicles detoured around routes where pedestrians were strolling among food booths and carnival rides. In the distance, trumpets and drums sounded.

The gutters of the vacant road were littered with red, white, and blue confetti. Two khaki-colored folding chairs had been forgotten, leaning against a shady brick wall. Down the street, scaffolding was pitched as a sort of reviewing stand, brochures listing the order of bands and floats were crumpled on the ground. Flags guttered in the wind and there was bunting hanging askew on some of the storefronts. At the intersections with cross-streets, rows of porta-potties stood like squat turquoise sentries.

We had come from the St. Louis Art Museum in Forest Park where all the streets on the hill were blocked with big, battered sawhorses, black girls seated on lawn chairs to guard the detours. To reach the museum, a long hike was required through the zoo. The zoo is free in St. Louis and it is fantastically crowded, particularly on this Saturday afternoon and so we had to park our car a mile away, on the very edge of the forested preserve in the middle of the city, the big central park where there are museums and tennis courts, pavilions and picnic areas and, even, a golf course together with the zoological gardens where, as the banners say. "Animals Rule." It was hot and the creatures in the zoo seemed torpid. A hippo played in its deep pool, surprisingly dainty in the shimmer of blue water and two elephants stood next to a concrete-lined puddle dowsing their shoulders and great heads with bucketfuls of water sucked up through their trunks. The fur-bearing mammals were all hidden in nooks and grottos in their habitats, snoozing in the dreadful mid-afternoon heat.

The art museum was icy cold, also free, its big rotunda filled with paintings by Max Beckmann. We looked at the paintings and surveyed the pre-Columbian urns and figurines on the lower level. I was surprised at the elegance and beauty of Catlinite (pipestone) tablets and figures excavated from the Indian mounds in the region. Mississippian culture ceramic birdmen danced on the backs of great coiled serpents and there were remarkable copper plates, incised with the images of creatures half-man and half-animal. Upstairs were oil-paintings by Cranach, a Judgement of Paris with pearly, alluring nudes, canvases by Haeckel and Kirchner, a library of gargantuan, lethal-looking lead books set on shelves, each volume as tall as an eight-year old child and the entire installation (by Anselm Kiefer) surrounded by shattered and razor-sharp panes of glass. It is, I suppose, an allegory of history, very different from the pre-Columbian artifacts that stand apart from history, timeless as the imagery of a dream – by contrast, the lead volumes with each page as heavy as a guillotine’s blade and decorated with lances and spears of deadly broken glass: this is history that one approaches circumspectly with the utmost caution. History, after all, can kill.

But we were now on Market Street where the parade had passed by, walking down the hill through the area of town that had once serviced the great train station with brothels and cheap restaurants, flop-houses and saloons, all of the weeds once drifted up against the flanks of the great Romanesque railroad building now cut down, the disreputable undergrowth hacked away by urban renewal leaving only the towers and ramparts of rusticated stone comprising the Station, uphill a couple blocks, the vacant place where the freeway plugged into the City, a new FBI building behind concrete blast walls, some hotels with parking lots strewn around them, and the St. Louis Sewer Authority, that agency displaying as its logo the great inverted caternary arch with a blue wave of water flowing between its legs. This was an area without shade, vacant lots behind the scattered storefronts remaining after the City had cleaned up the mess around the defunct Union Station, the depot now a hotel with bored kids sitting on the majestic stairs leading up into the building, valets waiting for cars to park. We hoped to eat in the Station but the big restaurant in the great hall was booked for a wedding reception, cordoned off like so many other parts of the city on this weekend, and we saw little floral groups of bridesmaids and groomsmen, gathered in festive bouquets in the huge courtyard under the filigree-iron that had once been the old train shed. In gothic corridors, dim with tinted light slipping inside through stained glass, older people were standing around with the vaguely worried look that characterizes people at a wedding. Love and marriage are so terribly fragile,

We walked back up the hill toward the Sewer Authority building. The porta-potties at the intersection smelled like disinfectant and some of them had outdoor sinks, also portable, pushed up against them. The confetti in the gutters seemed to be ankle deep.

A squat, officious-looking building occupied a corner at one of the intersections. Trolley traffic had now been restored to Market Street and a few of those conveyances seemed to limp along the road. The heavy-set building was an Irish pub called Maggie O’Brien’s. At curbside, I saw a big smoker, black as an old locomotive with an iron chimney-stack and a torpedo-shaped gut for the meat. The barbecue equipment smelled like fire and burnt fat, an odor pleasing both to the gods, who desire offerings of that kind, and to mere mortals. I waved my hand over the smoker and could feel the heat coming from the metal shell. Suddenly, I was hungry for St. Louis-style ribs and so we went inside.

The dining room was mostly empty. A few barflies were watching a baseball game in the dark pub. A couple of half-drunk African-American kids were sitting under some athletic memorabilia with their chubby girlfriends. The blonde girl giggled loudly; the black girl had tattoos on her shoulder.

I ordered St. Louis style ribs, a half slab.

One of the black kids called out to me: "You from around here?"

"No," I said.

"We was just wondering about the parade," the kid said. "There’s all that confetti on the street. There must have been a parade."

"We noticed that too," I said.

"I wonder what parade it was," the kid said. At that moment, the TV showed that someone had hit a home-run and so the subject of conversation changed.

Later, I learned that the mid-afternoon parade on Market Street was called the annual "VP" parade. "VP" stands for Veiled Prophet. I read in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that the fair being set up in the park in front of the Art Museum and under the watchful bronze eye of the equestrian St. Louis –his horse seems to rear and his militant sword pierces the humid sky – was the Fair St. Louis, also a part of the Veiled Prophet celebration, but under a different name.

So who is the "Veiled Prophet" and what is his celebration?

On its website,, the fraternal society is described as a nonprofit organization devoted to improving the quality of life in St. Louis. The Veiled Prophet or VP, as it is called, sponsors an annual parade up Market Street from the Gateway Park on "America’s birthday." The VP also organizes an annual debutantes’ ball and the "Fair St. Louis" on the hill beneath the steps of the Art Museum.

Curiously, VP’s website claims that its charitable activities date from 2003. But this is inaccurate. Perhaps, VP dates from 2003 in its current corporate 501( c ) 3 incarnation, but, in fact, the organization has existed for almost 150 years.

VP began as a post-bellum secret society, founded by an ex-confederate cavalry captain, Charles Slayback. Slayback said that he was inspired by the Krewes in New Orleans, neighborhood associations that sponsored bands and floats in the Mardi Gras parade to found the order. Each year one local businessman is appointed to the role of "Veiled Prophet of Khorassan". This man serves with a court consisting of five local women, one of them crowned as the "Queen of Love and Beauty." The girls are selected from debutantes participating in a Ball held each December and serve for one year. The current Queen of Love and Beauty is

Slayback seems to have invented this society on the basis of Thomas Moore’s now-forgotten poems in Lalla Rookh. The first of those poems narrates the story of Persian holy man who attempted to synthesize Islam with Zoroastrianism and claimed that he was a god himself. This prophet, al-Muqanna, sometimes called Hakim or Hashem, wore a veil – either to conceal his other-worldly supernatural beauty or because half of his face had been charred by fire from heaven (accounts vary). Al-Muqanna’s followers wore white garments to symbolize their purity. Ultimately, both religious sects, the Muslim and Zoroastrian, deemed him to be a heretic and al-Muqanna was killed with most of his followers. Moore tells this story in a poem called "The Veiled Prophet of Khorrasan".

But there is a back story to Slayback’s secret society that has sinister implications. In 1877, the railworkers on the Baltimore & Ohio line responded to a third year of wage-cuts by staging a strike. The strike affected several states and was met with violence. When State troops in West Virginia refused to fire on rioting workers, the army was summoned to put down the disturbance. Buildings were firebombed and trains derailed and dozens of people died in the States served by the railroad – West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Missouri. In St. Louis, the focus of unrest was across the river in East St. Louis. More than 1500 workers marched and there was rioting. Ultimately, the strike collapsed, put down in St. Louis by the indefatigable and ruthless police commissioner John G. Priest. Particularly disconcerting to management was the fact that both White and African-American workers had joined together in marching for an eight-hour day and other rights in the course of the strike. Ordinarily, the color-line kept the two groups of workers apart, but during the Great Railway Strike of 1877, both races had acted in solidarity with one another.

Slayback and his initial Krewe members were all White and members of the mercantile and manufacturing elite in St. Louis. They had sided with management against the Union and the first Veiled Prophet was the ruthless police chief, John Priest.

On the fourth of July in 1878, Slayback organized a great torchlight parade, ostensibly to demonstrate that the community had healed from the divisions that cleft it during the Great Strike. Three-thousand men marched along Market Street. A contemporaneous engraving, published in the St. Louis newspaper, shows how those men were dressed. Each marcher carried a loaded six-gun revolver in his left hand and fully charged shot-gun in the right. The men participating in the immense parade made a formidable sight surging down Market Street – each man wore a white cloak and a mask painted to show a fierce face sewn to a pointed white hood. The meaning was unmistakable – the Veiled Prophet society was affiliated informally with the Ku Klux Klan and was, in fact, an organization, dedicated to intimidating Black workers and driving a wedge between them and their Caucasian-laborer counterparts. A local woman recorded in her journal that St. Louis was now a "northern outpost of the Confederacy." Not surprisingly, the first Queen of Love and Beauty was Susie Slayback, the confederate cavalryman organizer’s daughter.

Over the years, the mummers in the parade gradually abandoned their weapons and pointy hooded costumes. By 1928, the parade was generally thought to be benign, although the Veiled Prophet society barred Jews and African-Americans from membership – not unlike many other social institutions in the county at that time. The parades were accompanied by carnival unrest. It was not uncommon for floats and veiled members of the society to be pelted by decaying vegetables. Local merchants sold pea-shooters to be deployed against the mummers in the parade and the Court of the Queen of Love and Beauty was, often, singled out for harsh treatment by the crowds attending the show. Most people in St. Louis perceived the Veiled Prophet organization as institutionally elitist, an association that discriminated not only against Blacks and Jews but, also, poorer members of St. Louis society – workingmen and union members were not admitted to membership.

Protests continued at parades and VP social functions. African-American advocacy groups demonstrated against the segregationist by-laws of the organization. (Pat Buchanan, then a cub-reporter for the St. Louis Globe-Democrat predictably decried the demonstrators as irresponsible "radical elements".) In 1972, a woman named Gena Scott unmasked the Veiled Prophet as he quaffed champagne at the head table at the debutante’s ball. (The Veiled Prophet turned out to be the chief executive officer of Monsanto, a fact that the press did not report out of deference of the secret society.) Scott was blackballed, her house vandalized, and her car fire-bombed.

Finally, in 1979, VP admitted its first Black members. This act was mitigated and undermined, however, by events in 1981. At that time, the VP’s summer fair was held at the riverfront by Laclede’s landing – that is, next to the Eads Bridge from East St. Louis. Large numbers of Black people crossed the bridge from East St. Louis to attend the summer fair – that is, until the Veiled Prophet ordered that the bridge be closed, an action obligingly implemented by the St. Louis police. This led to additional scandals and the proposal to move the fair to the park and the grassy slope under the great equestrian monument to King St. Louis. (Moving the fair to that location resolved some of the controversy but, incidentally, made it much more difficult for the largely African-American people in East St. Louis to attend the gathering.) The Veiled Propet Fair was renamed "Fair St. Louis."

This year, newspaper reports tell me that local firefighters marched in the parade behind a number of bands. The Queen of Love and Beauty with her court adorned a float. At the forefront of the parade, there were forty transvestites in flamboyant costume on roller-skates. Large contingents of drag queens marched in phalanxes around the Queen of Love and Beauty and large balloons representing bald eagles and flags were dragged down Market and past the great ashlar walls of the old train station. Innumerable drum and bugle corps carried the colors up the street and large contingents of police marched in support of their contention that "Blue Lives Matter." The announcer’s microphone was live when it shouldn’t have been and the crowd heard the man directing traffic as it passed his reviewing standard – "hurry up there!" or "hold on a minute" or "keep in step." But, by and large, everything went smoothly and, by report, a good time was had by all.

After the parade had passed, people crowded into Maggie O’Brien’s. The tavern occupies a squat, bunker-shaped building marked in big stone-work letters: Bricklayer’s Union. At one time, this area was called Chestnut Valley and it was notorious for vice. The Bricklayer’s Union building was erected in the 1960's during urban renewal in the neighborhood – at that time, Market Street was widened and the old sporting clubs and saloons were razed. Tom Turpin’s Rosebud Café and the Hurrah Sporting Club were located on the lot where the squat and utilitarian Bricklayer’s Union headquarters was later built. This was near Targhee Avenue, the place where Frankie shot Johnny around the turn of the century, a tough neighborhood where the great ragtime composer, Scott Joplin, supplemented his income by playing piano in the whorehouses. Joplin was flush with cash; his Maple Leaf Rag was a best seller in the sheet music business, but he had a new wife, Belle Hayden, and she was high-maintenance and wanted to live in style. Joplin chose a pre-furnished house up the hill on Morgan Street (now Delmar) – a modern place with gas jet lighting. Joplin composed a lost opera in his furnished rooms overlooking Morgan Street and, also, wrote ten or fifteen rags, including the popular "Cascades Rag" named for the artificial waterfalls being built for the World’s Fair in Forest Park. Already, Joplin was planning his masterpiece, the opera Treemonisha, a work that both inspired the next fifteen years of his life and, also, blighted them. The opera is set on a plantation occupied by freed slaves after the collapse of the confederacy and takes, as its subject matter, the clash between the superstitious fears of the former enslaved people and an enlightened young African-American woman, Treemonisha, who has been taught to read and write and aspires to lead her people out of the darkness and into the radiance of reason. (In some ways, the plot is similiar to Beethoven’s Fidelio). Treemonisha is an opera like no other, built around call-and-response field hollers, proto-blues tunes, and, of course, ragtime dances – it couldn’t be produced in Joplin’s lifetime and, in fact, wasn’t performed until 1972. Joplin suffered from syphilis and, in the waning days of his life, became profoundly paranoid, accusing those around him of subverting his great opera. But this was much later: Joplin died in New York City in 1917.

In Maggie O’Brien’s formerly the Bricklayer’s Union headquarters and previously Tom Turpin’s Rosebud café, the black kid has spilled some barbeque sauce on his white trousers. His girlfriend makes fun of him and he goes into the bathroom and tries, without much success, to rinse the red stain from the thigh of his pants. When he comes out of the bathroom, he asks the waiter about the parade. "Did a parade go on past here?"

The waiter looks out at Market Street. It is still deserted.

"Yes," he says. "There was a parade."

"What kind of parade was it?"

"Fourth of July or something," the waiter says.

"But the fourth is on Tuesday and this is Saturday," the black kid says.

"It was the VP parade," someone else chimes in.

"What is VP?"

"Damned if I know," the waiter says.