She never married. She never had children. She lived most of her adult life in homes owned by her brothers or sisters. Yet Alma Kruttschnitt (1863-1942) had one important claim to fame: She was Queen of the Mardi Gras in 1896, at the age of 32.
Now, 100 years later, an academic comes around and spoils Alma’s party, ripping apart the lovely dress she wore as queen of the Comus krewe. Jennifer Atkins, writing in her 2008 dissertation at Florida State University, derisively describes Alma as looking like a “Gibson girl,” her ensemble “complete with an s-corsette, puffy sleeves, a bustle and upswept hair.”
Atkins takes the position that Marti Gras societies and events were controlled and orchestrated by males who hid behind masks, while women were put on display. She argues that Kruttschnitt’s body was distorted “to the extreme in order to represent Gentility, wealth, and supple femininity.
“Her sleeves are puffed out to the point of being as big as her bodice; her mantle goes half way up the back of her head; and her train is half as long as she is tall.”
Atkins admits that Alma’s white dress with jeweled embellishments is lovely, but she argues that it must have rendered her immobile. Then she reads something deeper, almost sinister into the photograph, which is kept at the Tulane Library.
“She is a statute of idealized krewe femininity. Between mantle, train, necklace, crown, scepter, dress, and jeweled belt, she is loaded down with the luxury of her class. She carries the burden of her men’s accomplishments.”
No way! No fair! Let’s not belittle the tender woman’s accomplishments!
Alma, the daughter of John Kruttschnitt and Peninah Benjamin, was queen of one of the oldest, most prestigious, and most secretive societies–the one that saved the Mardi Gras from oblivion in 1857. As a testament to its status, Comus goes last in the Mardi Gras parade.
Moreover, Comus (the Greek God of festivities, revels, and nocturnal dalliances) typically adopts the most sedate and scholarly theme for its parade and subsequent ball. In 1896, the theme was “The Seasons.” A drawing of the 1896 float, which was recently selling at auction, depicted a placid queen sitting at the foot of a tree surrounded by flowing brooks, flowers, and egrets.
Alma sat there in a dress fit for a queen, not a Gibson girl. One can only imagine the grace with which she waved her jeweled scepter to the crowd as the float proceeded down the street. Getting on the float, though, with that tight bodice, puffed-up sleeves, and acres of trailing fabric must have been a bitch. Hopefully, several maids attended to her, as befitting her royal status.
The kind of critical analysis proffered by Atkin’s would not have been welcomed at the Comus carnival ball in 1896, which followed the parade. If the ball festivities followed form, they probably began with energenic quadrilles for the masked king, his dukes, Queen Alma, and the court maids. Then masked courtiers called out ladies for more quadrilles (the precursors of square dances) and waltzes. Later in the evening, the krewe would open the floor to general dancing for all members and guests, who typically came from other krewes.
Alma would have had a tough time participating in the dances, of course, due to the obscene length of her dress. But that wasn’t her job. Her job was to parade around the ballroom with other royalty later in the evening, survey her domain, and making damn sure that everyone was having a good time. It was an important job, which Alma apparently did very well. No evidence has been left behind that the 1896 ball wasn’t a great one.
However, if the purpose of making Alma queen was to get her a husband, it didn’t work. She never married. And she eventually moved to New York.
Critics of the Comus ball may just be jealous that they didn’t get a prized invitation. Legend has it that one year a group of women formed a flying wedge and tried to bully their way into the ball. There are even reports of the uninvited trying to beg, buy, or steal invitations. Comus invitations are prized by collectors for their rarity and beauty.
Moreover, Alma ruled over Comus during a Marti Gras that was marked by equality of the sexes. 1896 was a leap year, and that meant, by legend, that women could propose to men. Several prominent women in New Orleans society decided to make a theme out of that opportunity. They formed the first all-female krewe, Les Mystereuses, and selected a male as king. Men and women reversed their roles during the ceremonies. Women called out men for dances.
Though it had nothing to do with Mardi Gras, 1896 was also the year that Kate Gordon formed the Equal Rights Association Club in New Orleans. The group sought and secured the right of women to vote on tax matters.
Let’s be clear about something else: If it wasn’t for Comus, there may not be a Mardi Gras today, and what a drag that would be. The first parade occurred in New Orleans in 1837, but the maskers grew so violent during the 1840s and 1850s that they nearly came to a halt. The cerebral Comus krewe stepped in to save Mardi Gras by holding a beautiful parade in 1857, demonstrating that it could be a safe event. Other krewes subsequently formed, joining the parade and staging balls.
Comus also started the all-important custom of having a secret Carnival society. Without this, everyone would have known everyone who belonged to the different krewes, and what fun what that be? Imagine what that would have done to the burgeoning mask industry in New Orleans. And where would it have left us today–drunk out of our mind and fully exposed on Bourbon Street? Not a pretty sight.
It must have been an inspiring sight when Queen Alma, along with Rex, the King of the Carnival, closed the festivities by paying a formal visit to the throne of Comus. Assuming she didn’t trip on her train.