Veiled Prophet Ball

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The original figure of the Veiled Prophet emphasized force, even violence, with shotgun and pistol in hand (and another shotgun at the ready); the Missouri Republican (October 6, 1878) commented "It will be readily observed from the accoutrements of the Prophet that the procession is not likely to be stopped by street cars or anything else." Historian Thomas M. Spencer (see below) remarked on the figure's Klansman-like appearance, in the context of the southern and classist origins of the fair, and interpreted "streetcars" as a reference to the previous year's labor strike. Ferriss, in her account of the event's origins, characterizes St. Louis as "the northwest outpost of the Confederacy." A few years later, the imagery (right) was less overtly threatening, but still resolutely patriarchal

The Veiled Prophet Ball (commonly referred to as the VP Ball) is a dance held each December in St. Louis, Missouri, USA, by a secret society named the "Veiled Prophet Organization" (often referred to as "the VP"), first founded by prominent St. Louisans in 1878, and originally part of the Veiled Prophet Fair (or "VP Fair"), which today is Fair St. Louis. The founders' intent was to create a local celebration in the likeness of Mardi Gras, eventually including pageantry and costuming as well as a parade with floats. Each year, one member of the Veiled Prophet Organization is chosen to serve as the "Veiled Prophet of Khorassan," donning a sheik-like garb to preside over the VP Ball. Five of the debutantes are chosen by secret process to form the "Veiled Prophet's Court of Honor," of which one is chosen to be crowned the "Queen of Love and Beauty" by the Veiled Prophet.

Origins[edit]

Vp 1883.gif

The event had its roots in the St. Louis Agricultural and Mechanical Fair, an annual harvest festival which had been held in St. Louis since 1856, bringing demonstrations and attendees from throughout the region. These fairs languished in the years after the American Civil War, however, and the Veiled Prophet Fair was in part an attempt to reclaim pre-eminence for the city as a manufacturing center and agricultural shipping point from the rapidly growing Chicago. On March 20, 1878, Charles Slayback, a grain broker and former Confederate cavalryman (who had spent several years in New Orleans after the Civil War, there becoming acquainted with the Mardi Gras traditions of that city) called a meeting of local business leaders at the Lindell Hotel. Together with his brother Alonzo, Slayback invented a mythology for a secret society, whose public demonstrations would coincide with the annual fair. From Irish poet Thomas Moore, the Slaybacks borrowed the name of the Veiled Prophet of Khorassan, and incorporated features from the Mystick Krewe of Comus. In their version, the Prophet was a world traveler who had made St. Louis his home base. The first parade and grand ball were staged on October 8, 1878, attracting over 50,000 spectators.

The fair was also intended to re-assert the social hierarchy which had been challenged by the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, claimed by Spencer (p. 18) to have been the first and most successful of its type, involving large numbers of African American workmen as well. Though the fair has regularly been characterized as "a way of healing the wounds of a bitter labor-management fight," Spencer (8) suggests "the first Veiled Prophet parade was more a show of force than a gesture of healing."

The Prophet was selected from among St. Louis's business and civic elite. The first prophet was Police Commissioner John G. Priest (who had been energetic in suppressing the 1877 strikers attempt to stop anyone taking the jobs they had vacated). Although the identity of a given year's Grand Oracle, or Veiled Prophet, was officially a secret, early holders of the office were reported to include Col. A. W. Slayback, Capt. Frank Gaiennie, John A. Scudder, Henry C. Haarstick, George Bain, Robert P. Tansey, George H. Morgan, Col. J. C. Normile, Wallace Delafield, John B. Maude, Dr. D. P. Rowland, Charles E. Slayback, Leigh I. Knapp, David B. Gould, Henry Paschell, H. I. Kent, Dr. E. Pretorious, Win. H. Thompson, and Win. A. Hargadine. Today, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch speculates each year on the identity of the Veiled Prophet.

The Queen of Love and Beauty, and later maids of honor, would be selected by the Veiled Prophet from among the debutantes who had received invitations (the list of invitees determined by a process never made public, though the supply of tickets was limited to members of the VP organization, also of murky constitution, and the assignment of these non-transferrable tickets required the organization's approval). The Veiled Prophet would dance the "Royal Quadrille" with the Queen, and then award her some keepsake of the occasion. Over the years, the Queens and their courts received pearl necklaces or silver tiaras, which became family heirlooms (as did the elaborate invitations themselves). The 1928 Veiled Prophet Ball illustrates the seriousness with which the event was regarded as an instrument of social control. For the fiftieth anniversary celebration records list "no queen," as Mary Ambrose Smith had secretly married Dr. Thomas Birdsall days earlier, violating the rule that the Queen of Love and Beauty must be a "maiden." In a 1979 interview with the St. Louis Times, Smith recalled how the Veiled Prophet "gave her travelling money and told her to 'begone, don't register at any large hotels, and don't use your real name.' ... Smith was 'made to feel she disgraced her family. None of her friends stuck by her (she was told she could not visit their houses), she was never invited to another VP ball, her picture was removed from the collection of queens' portraits at the Missouri Historical Society, and her name was deleted from the Social Register.'"

The ball was suspended between 1943 and 1945, due to World War II. Upon its resumption, there was increasing objection to the use of a civic facility for such a socially exclusive event. In the 1950s, the exclusive Chase Park Plaza Hotel constructed the opulent Khorassan Ballroom specifically for the purpose of hosting the annual debutante ball, and it was moved from the former venue, Kiel Auditorium. In recent years, the Ball has been held at the Downtown St. Louis Hyatt at the Arch.

1960s and later[edit]

The ball, parade and fair became an established St. Louis tradition, though it was not without controversy. According to the official St. Louis city government website, "The traditional VP celebration has represented for St. Louisans a perceived link between different components of the community in a holiday celebration, while also reinforcing the notion of a benevolent cultural elite."[1] The event had the effect of foregrounding, rather than soothing, class conflicts. Indeed, as early as 1882, public objections were made to the ethnic stereotypes represented by some of the parade's floats (Spencer 45). Assaults on the floats with pea-shooters and less innocuous projectiles came to be a predictable part of the parade, with confectioners' shops actually stocking them in anticipation of the parade, in a kind of institutionalized defiance (Spencer, 74). By 1969, the ball was the object of civil rights protests, resulting in numerous arrests.

The event deliberately had displaced the parades originally held by the trade unions, and occasionally the unions would stage events to mock the pretensions of the VP Ball;[2] The leading socialist and working-class newspaper St. Louis Labor vilified the event and its organizers for decades, although the parade still attracted heavy crowds and elicited fascination. In 1949, for the first time, the ball was broadcast on KSD-TV (now KSDK), and it was estimated that over 80% of area viewers tuned in. According to historian Thomas M. Spencer, "Most St. Louisans probably enjoyed the 'fairy tale' nature of it. By watching the ball, they were vicariously living the experiences of the elites dancing across their television screens." [3] According to Harry Levins, "The parade was aimed at boosting the spirit of the city's common folk. The ball was aimed at reassuring the city's elite of their exclusive status."[3] The early pageants had been partially meant to move working-class viewers to awe at the accomplishments of great men – all of whom were said to be ancestors of the Prophet.[3] According to Spencer, this elite-oriented event replaced more pluralistic celebrations, and placed workingmen in a passive rather than active role, not merely in the celebration, but in the mythology asserted for the history and economic life of the city.[3]

Local news media continued to cover the ball at length, printing long lists of attendees from locally prominent families. However, from the mid-1960s onward, there was increasing dissatisfaction with the use of civic resources for a celebration emphatically excluding all but the white elite. As late as the early 1960s, Jews were excluded not only as members but as guests. As the culmination of protests organized by Percy Green and the civil rights group Action Committee to Improve Opportunities for Negroes ("ACTION"), on December 22, 1972, in Kiel Auditorium, Gena Scott slid down a power cable and unmasked the Prophet, who was Monsanto Company executive vice president Tom K. Smith, according to the St. Louis Journalism Review[4] (though the papers at the time claimed that the unmasking was too brief to allow for identification). Subsequently, Scott's car was bombed, and her apartment vandalized numerous times. The incident is the subject of Lucy Ferriss's memoir, "Unveiling the Prophet" (Ferriss's aunt, Ann Chittenden Ferriss, had been the 1931 Queen of Love and Beauty). The unveiling of the Prophet was the most dramatic disruption in ACTION's long campaign (1965-1976) to encourage the many CEOs in the VP Organization to hire larger numbers of minority workers, and even to disband the organization so that public and private funds could be spent on worthier projects. Spencer sees the event as a crucial moment in a long process of disintegration of the civic unity and class harmony which the VP Fair claimed to celebrate. Indeed, according to Spencer (138-9), by the late 1970s, the wives and daughters of the elite, for whom the event constituted a sort of marriage-market, had become resistant to its inherent sexism. Even members of the VP Organization itself began to express distaste: William Maritz, a one-time Veiled Prophet himself, reported, "'A lot of members' in the late 1970s 'felt uneasy with the social connotations' and that 'people were saying 'get that godamned ball off of television, don't force that on the community."

The subversive act foregrounded what, according to Thomas Spencer, had been the classist underpinnings of the event from its inception. Only in 1979 did the Veiled Prophet Organization admit its first black members, and in 1981, fair officials were confronted with accusations of racism when they closed the Eads Bridge to pedestrian access from mostly black East St. Louis. According to Ronald Henges (Spencer 140), "People just didn't want other people flaunting their wealth and their position." The event lies behind the present day Fair St. Louis, held on the riverfront, which began as the "Veiled Prophet Fair" in 1974, and was renamed to delete all reference to the "Veiled Prophet" in 1992.

Veiled Prophet Queens[edit]

Selected Veiled Prophet Queens, since 1878.

  • 1878 Susie Slayback
  • 1885 Virginia Joy
  • 1886 Louise Scott
  • 1887 [No Queen nor Royal Quardille due to visit of Mr. and Mrs. Grover Cleveland (U.S. President)]
  • 1888 Louise Gaiennie
  • 1889 - Wain (from Cleveland)
  • 1890 Kate Hill
  • 1891 July Thompson
  • 1892 Ellen Sturgis
  • 1893 Florence Lucas
  • 1894 Hester Bates Laughlin (the first of the crowned queens)
  • 1895 Bessie Kingsland
  • 1896 Louise McCreery
  • 1897 Jane Dorothy Fordyce
  • 1898 Marie Scanlan
  • 1899 Ellen H. Walsh
  • 1900 Susan Larkin Thomson
  • 1901 Emily Catlin Wickham
  • 1902 Maud Wells
  • 1903 Lucille Chouteau
  • 1904 Stella Wade
  • 1905 Julia G. Cabanné
  • 1906 Marguerite Tower
  • 1907 Margaret Cabell
  • 1908 Dorothy Shapleigh
  • 1909 Susan Carleton
  • 1910 Lucy Norvell
  • 1911 Ada Randolph
  • 1912 Jane Taylor
  • 1913 Adaline Capen Zeibig[5]
  • 1914 -
  • 1915 Jane Shapleigh
  • 1916 -
  • 1917 (No ball because of World War I)
  • 1918 (No ball because of World War I)
  • 1919 Marian Franciscus
  • 1920 Ada R. Johnson
  • 1921 Eleanor Simmons
  • 1922 Alice Busch
  • 1923 Grace Wallace
  • 1924 Mary Virginia Collins
  • 1925 Maud Miller Streett
  • 1926 Martha Love
  • 1927 Anne Farrar Semple
  • 1928 Mary Ambrose Smith (disqualified)
  • 1929 Jean Wright Ford
  • 1930 Jane Perry Francis
  • 1931 Ann Chittenden Ferriss
  • 1932 Myrtle McGrew Lambert
  • 1933 Jane Alva Johnson
  • 1934 Jane Wells
  • 1935 Lila Marshall Childress
  • 1936 Susan Elizabeth Thompson
  • 1937 Nancy Lee Morrill
  • 1938 Laura Hale Rand
  • 1939 Jane Howard Smith
  • 1940 Rosalie McRee
  • 1941 Barbara Wear
  • 1942 (No ball because of World War II)
  • 1943 (No ball because of World War II)
  • 1944 (No ball because of World War II)
  • 1945 (No ball because of World War II)
  • 1946 Anne Kennett Farrar Desloge
  • 1947 Dorothy Claggett Danforth
  • 1948 Helen Dozier Conant
  • 1949 Carol Moon Gardner
  • 1950 Eleanor Koehler
  • 1951 Mary Kennard Wallace
  • 1952 Sally Baker Shepley
  • 1953 Julia Terry
  • 1954 Barbara Anne Whittemore
  • 1955 Audrey Faust Wallace
  • 1956 Helene Brown Bakewell
  • 1957 Carol Lammert Culver
  • 1958 Carolyn Lee Niedringhaus
  • 1959 Laura Rand Orthwein
  • 1960 Sally Ford Curby
  • 1961 Anne Marie Baldwin
  • 1962 Diane Waring Desloge
  • 1963 Anne Kennard Newhard
  • 1964 Alice Busch Condie
  • 1965 Rebecca Wells Jones
  • 1966 Jane Howard Shapleigh
  • 1967 Rosalie McRee Ewing
  • 1968 Rebecca Dixon Williams
  • 1969 Josephine Carr Brodhead
  • 1970 Phoebe Mercer Scott
  • 1971 Lenita Collins Morrill
  • 1972 Hope Florence Jones
  • 1973 Susan Mitchell Conant
  • 1974 Susan Clark Smith
  • 1975 Sarah Moore Hitchcock
  • 1976 Cynthia Gray Danforth
  • 1977 Gertrude Marie Busch
  • 1978 Elizabeth Courtney Johnson
  • 1979 Susan Pierson Smith
  • 1980 Eleanor Church Hawes
  • 1981 Talbot Peters MacCarthy
  • 1982 Alice Maritz
  • 1983 Elizabeth Ford Johnston
  • 1984 Mary Genevieve Hyland
  • 1985 Jennifer Lee Knight
  • 1986 Stephanie Marie Schnuck
  • 1987 Emily Shepley Barksdale
  • 1988 Elizabeth Gray Elliott
  • 1989 Alice Marie Behan
  • 1990 Carter Gedge Walker
  • 1991 Katherine Hall McDonnell
  • 1992 Kelly Taylor
  • 1993 McKay Noland Baur
  • 1994 Margaret Dunne Hager
  • 1995 Martha Elizabeth Matthews
  • 1996 Elizabeth Ann Bryan
  • 1997 Rosalie Ewing Engler
  • 1998 Josephine Marie Condie
  • 1999 Elizabeth Claire Kemper
  • 2000 Carolyn Elizabeth Schnuck
  • 2001 Julia Ryerson Schlafly
  • 2002 Lucy Hager Schnuck
  • 2003 Lauren Morgan Dorsey Thomas
  • 2004 Elizabeth Garrett Benoist
  • 2005 Julie Anne Stupp
  • 2006 Janice Hope Jones
  • 2007 Katherine Remington Martin
  • 2008 Elizabeth Bunn Hailand
  • 2009 Melissa Benton Howe
  • 2010 Laura Hogan Hollo
  • 2011 Eleanor Clark Brennan
  • 2012 Margaret Frances Schnuck
  • 2013 Katherine Falk Desloge

See also[edit]

References[edit]

References[edit]

  • Jefferson National Expansion: Administrative History. Chapter 3.
  • Spencer, Thomas M. The St. Louis Veiled Prophet Celebration Power on Parade, 1877-1995 U-MO P 2000
  • "The Prophet's Pearls", by Katherine Darst; The St. Louis Magazine, Vol. 1, No. 4, Sept. 1963.
  • "St. Louis The Fourth City, 1764-1909", by Walter B. Stevens, S.J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1909.
  • Ferriss, Lucy. Unveiling the Prophet: The Misadventures of a Reluctant Debutante. U-MO P, 2005.
  • Nance, Susan. “The Veiled Prophet’s Oriental Tale: St. Louis’ Famous Festivals in Context, 1878-1895.” Missouri Historical Review 103, no. 2 (January 2009): 90-107.

External links[edit]