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Carnival in a Time of War

Throughout the history of Mardi Gras, war has cancelled some parades, and left an indelible mark on others.

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It was, admittedly, not a great time to contemplate the wonders of Mardi Gras balls and parades. Early on the afternoon of Dec. 7, 1941, network radio programming in New Orleans and across the country was interrupted by a flash bulletin: Japanese air forces had virtually demolished the United States Pacific Fleet at anchor in Pearl Harbor. The following day, the United States officially declared war on Japan; Germany followed with a declaration of war against the United States, and World War II was on.

The week following Dec. 7 found New Orleanians in a gray, determined mood. Under warm and sunny skies, more than 5,000 people arrived at City Hall -- then housed in Gallier Hall -- to take part in local civilian defense efforts. Nearly 200 young men -- most enlisted, but some volunteer -- underwent physicals at Charity Hospital. At least 500 women wearing large feathered hats (the l940s was a great time for hats), crowded into a lecture room at the old downtown library, promising to raise money and spearhead blood drives.

Inevitably, darker forces were also at work: Hirohito was hung in effigy in the Irish Channel; an angry gathering of Tulane University students outside a Broadway fraternity house raised fists beneath a sign bearing the message: "To Hell With Tokyo." In the French Quarter, federal treasury officials abruptly closed a small gallery called Hinata's Art Store, while issuing a typed statement declaring that the nation's banks would be "forbidden to cash the checks of the Japanese or allow them access to safety deposit boxes." At the Municipal Auditorium, even farmers gathering for the annual New Orleans Poultry Show were determined to do their part: more than 1,500 chickens previously imported from Japan were dyed in brilliant hues of red, white and blue.

Against such a backdrop it almost naturally fell to a military man, Rear Adm. Ernest Lee Jahncke, the former assistant secretary of the U.S. Navy, to break the bad news to his fellow New Orleanians: there would be no Mardi Gras in l942. "The holding of Carnival balls or parades," Jahncke, given to understatement, remarked, "would not be consistent with the present status of the nation."

The choice of Jahncke to play the spokesman role in the announcement of Carnival's demise was particularly inspired: not only had he once reigned, in l9l5, as Rex, but he had a grudge against the Nazis. Just five years before, in l936, Jahncke was ousted from the International Olympic Committee after he publicly criticized the United States for participating in the Berlin games. To compete with the Germans as their government was engaged in a very real pogrom against Jews, was, said Jahncke, "inexplicable."

Now Jahncke was facing an even thornier challenge: how to soothe the ruffled feathers of locals who had been planning their Mardi Gras balls and parties throughout the preceding months. For those who truly felt it was too late to cancel such festivities, Jahncke gently suggested that an admission fee should be charged with the proceeds "donated to some war charity."

Jahncke spoke with authority; on the day that he announced the cancellation of Mardi Gras, the captains of the krewes of Rex, Proteus, Nemo, Hermes, Babylon and Momus -- among three dozen others -- announced that they would decline to hold either a parade or ball for l942. "Several of the krewes were sending American beauty roses to the girls who were to have been their maids," noted The New Orleans Item on Dec. l4, as the city began to, somehow, change from what it had been only a few days before.

Debutantes, the paper continued, have "turned to Red Cross and civilian defense courses as a filler for the whirl of parties which usually comes at this time." Those who believed that New Orleanians would give up a lot, but never Mardi Gras, were astonished; perhaps, some openly dared to say, there were more important things in life.

It had not always been so. In l861, just weeks after Louisiana seceded from the nation, the papers were filled with reports of the coming Civil War. States on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line launched a call-up of troops. But in New Orleans, Fat Tuesday was, "if anything, a little gayer than usual," claimed the writer Robert Tallant in his classic book Mardi Gras ... As It Was. In fact, said Tallant, the coming conflict seemed to only inspire a rather grim Carnival humor, exhibited by at least one parade that was composed entirely of white men in black face carrying an effigy of the hated Abraham Lincoln, riding on top of a split rail (a reference to the widely circulated stories in the l860 campaign about Lincoln's youthful prowess as a rail-splitter).

One year later, local spirits were considerably more diminished by a series of Union victories and the realization that New Orleans, despite earlier protestations of durability, may might not prove to be all that resistant to outside enemy forces after all. "No masked individual is allowed to go on the streets on Shrove Tuesday," Mayor John T. Monroe declared in a stunning proclamation. "Any disguise or fancy dress smacking in the least of Mardi Gras eccentricity will be considered as an offense." The Krewe of Comus, too, admitted that "war had cast its gloom over our happy homes," and hung it up for the year.

It was a wise decision and a portent of worse things to come. In April, New Orleans fell rather quickly to the Yankee forces. Mardi Gras was officially cancelled for l863, but allowed to continue under federal watch the following year. The Daily Picayune, perhaps reflecting the spirit of any occupied people anytime in history, reported a merriment that "was almost melancholy; the fun was a farce."

But when the war finally did end, it at least brought about a small recognition in some New Orleans circles that what had passed for life before could never be the same again: the theme for Comus in l866 was "The Past, the Present, and the Future." In his book Mardi Gras: New Orleans, historian Henri Schindler would describe the krewe's celebration that year as one of "allegories of reconciliation."

Not until 1918 would Mardi Gras, in deference to World War I, again be cancelled. But the longest run of Mardi Gras no-shows stretched from l942 to l945, the span of World War II. Carnival's return in l946 was considered to be such a significant event, one more sign that the country was returning to its pre-war serenity, that the nation's press covered it lavishly. "This year there were more maskers than ever before, more street dancers, better floats, more drunks, and on the following morning the biggest hangover New Orleans has ever known," said a particularly enthused LIFE magazine.

Just five years later, Mardi Gras organizers, at the dawning of the Korean war, once again found themselves confronted with the vexing question of whether or not it is in bad taste to have a good time while fellow citizens are dying in battlefield far away. Asked where he stood on the matter, Mayor deLesseps S. Morrison delivered a thousand-word statement, the essence of which said, "It has never been the function or authority of the city government to direct or control the staging of Mardi Gras." Buck effectively passed, the members of the four largest krewes announced they would not parade, effectively canceling Mardi Gras l951.

The Vietnam war passed without Carnival cancellations -- although many krewes added patriotic themes in support of American troops. Not until exactly 40 years after the 1951 cancellation would world events again intrude upon the plans for Mardi Gras. In the winter of l991, Carnival organizers anticipating the official launch of Operation Desert Storm, admitted, according to The Times-Picayune, "that a shooting war could affect the season." Such concerns were partly minimized by forecasts issued from the Pentagon that it would probably take a month, and no more, to push Iraqi forces out of Kuwait. With Fat Tuesday set for Feb. 12 of that year and the first air strike launched on Jan. l6, that would make it close.

Too close, in fact, for the Krewe of Endymion, which previously had announced that popular television actor Woody Harrelson would serve as Endymion's grand marshal. Then, several weeks later, a videotape was aired on local television showing Harrelson participating in an anti-war rally in Los Angeles. Noting that at least 40 members of the Endymion Krewe were currently serving in the war against Iraq, captain Ed Muniz announced that the krewe's membership board had voted to rescind the invitation to Harrelson.

"I just wanted to come down there, meet a lot of people, hang out and party," Harrelson remarked, likening Endymion's actions to a new form of McCarthyism. But Muniz, perhaps echoing the fondest wishes of all krewe captains stretching back to the origins of Mardi Gras, defended Endymion's actions with no little irony. Noting that the l991 parade would be bathed in patriotic themes, with an abundance of American flags and yellow ribbons, he remarked: "Endymion is purely social, not political. We don't need this kind of controversy."

As New Orleans nears Mardi Gras 2003 and the nation moves toward another war with Iraq, some Carnival organizers have once again contemplated whether or not the "world's largest party" should proceed. But in a post-Sept. 11 environment, the concerns now center more around the potential dangers to masses of people gathering to watch parades, rather than whether or not the event itself is appropriate in a time of war. Speaking to a reporter for WGNO-TV, Mayor Ray Nagin was blunt: "We're still planning to have Mardi Gras," he said. "The only way that would change is if there was a specific threat that was for the city of New Orleans."

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