The war in Europe was intensifying in early 1941. On Feb. 24, the New Orleans States ran a banner headline on its front page: NAZI SUB TERROR STRIKES. An Associated Press story quoted Adolf Hitler as threatening to expand a naval campaign employing the latest German U-boats against the British.
That was juxtaposed with another front-page story, about a different sort of war. It was Lundi Gras, and the first Mardi Gras season krewe made up entirely of women to parade in New Orleans had rolled the day before.
The pioneering Krewe of Venus was not universally embraced. Some people were outraged. Spectators made up "a hooting, gawking, wisecracking mob," the States wrote. There were catcalls, drunken entreaties and crude remarks all along the route, the paper wrote. Among them:
- "Swing it, sister"
- "All them women and not a leg show; that's a hell of a note"
- "Looks like the beef trust to me"
- "Say, are the dames trying to take over Mardi Gras, too?"
- "Hey grandma, put some life in it."
Worse, some onlookers threw fruit, vegetables and even eggs, "displeased that women had invaded this all-men's world," according to Richard O'Hara of Metairie. O'Hara is the son of Gerardine O'Hara, the former Gerardine Mills, the queen of the Krewe of Venus that first year. He calls her "the first lady of Mardi Gras."
"I'm sure that my ancestors were more interested in the pictures of their gorgeous queen of Venus," O'Hara said this month. "But those ominous headlines (about the war) would later take on greater significance."
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In the weeks leading up to the parade, there had been plenty of skepticism about whether it should or even could happen. Chief among the fears was that some catastrophe might strike members of the krewe, such as a fall from a moving float, which had happened in years past to men in parades.
Those concerns were unwarranted, an anonymous krewe captain told The Times-Picayune for a story published Feb. 21, 1941. "Some thought that it would not be safe for women to parade on the swaying floats," the captain said. "Men are often falling off or meeting with some accident. That won't happen to us, for everyone will be told where to stand and what to do."
With its story on the krewe, the paper ran a photograph of women wearing masks. "Who cares about a little plumpness?" the caption asked.
No women fell off floats. Though it was bitterly cold and rain began to fall as the floats neared the terminus of their route, the parade, made up of 11 or 12 floats -- depending on the source -- went off without a hitch.
"For the first time in Carnival history," wrote the Item on Feb. 24, "the women climbed aboard the floats yesterday and threw the gorgeous parade of Venus right into the teeth of the fuddy-duddies who said it couldn't be done. They also threw every trinket but the glitter off the floats. It was a beautiful, spectacular pageant, and oh boy, oh boy, oh boy, it was fun."
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The krewe's ball was held at Municipal Auditorium. It was there that the William O'Hara, boyfriend of Venus Queen Gerardine Mills, surprised her with a ring and a wedding proposal.
"I'd been so excited all day that I wasn't even frozen stiff on that float, in spite of the horrible weather and my thin dress," Mills told the Item a year later. "Billy had been running around in the crowd all afternoon, taking motion pictures.
"The first callout of the ball that night I had, of course, with the king. But the second one belonged to Billy. He gave me the ring in a little box right there in front of everybody. I guess I must have showed how thrilled I was."
The marriage was what their son called an "interesting confluence." William O'Hara's father was a politically connected Criminal District Court judge. Mills' father had been a rum runner during Prohibition and later moved into gambling. They had met at Mardi Gras several years earlier, "masked as bellhops on a typical Mardi Gras truck ride," the Item wrote.
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The United States entered the war in December 1941, months after the New Orleans press marked the first Venus parade, as the Nazis were threatening to expand use of their U-boats. William O'Hara was commissioned as a naval officer in 1942. A year later he was serving as an executive officer on a destroyer, searching both the Atlantic and Pacific for -- you guessed it -- German U-boats.
Meanwhile, the O'Hara family's 74-foot yacht, the Gernesac, was commandeered by the Coast Guard. It was painted battleship gray, fitted with a .50-caliber machine gun and put into service patrolling the Rigolets Pass, its crew boarding all traffic in and out, as German U-boats lurked in the Gulf of Mexico. Whether it found any contraband is unknown.
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After a hiatus for World War II, the Krewe of Venus returned to parading. It folded in the early 1990s because of flagging membership.
William O'Hara eventually got his boat back. "Pop once told me it took six months to get that blankety-blank off of his mahogany," Rick O'Hara said, referring to the gray paint applied by the Coast Guard. William O'Hara and his wife raised three sons and a daughter, and life went on.
Rick O'Hara can't say for sure whether his mother was scared by the crowd's angry reaction to the appearance of women in a Carnival parade in 1941. "She never talked about it," he said in an interview last week. "I'm not sure I even knew about this while she was still alive. It was absolutely no big deal to her.
"It's so New Orleans, you know?" he said. "My family history, the O'Haras and the Millses, the confluence of the gambling, Prohibition, booze, the Mardi Gras hook-up, the headlines, Dad going into the Navy and actually hunting U-boats.
"Maybe I'm prejudiced, but I think it's a very compelling story."
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