Movies

Slate’s Guide to the Hottest Fourth of July Parties of 1921

In a doctored photo from The Shining, Jack Nicholson waves from the front of a crowd attending a formal party.
This could be you. Warner Bros.

This year’s Fourth of July is an important one for many reasons. It’s the first time we’ve marked the occasion since Donald Trump left office, which is simultaneously cause for celebration and a check on the unconsidered patriotism that sometimes characterizes the holiday. This year’s barbecues and fireworks shows will be the first large-scale gatherings many people have attended since the pandemic, which should make for a potent mixture of joy and agoraphobia nationwide. Most importantly, however, this Fourth of July marks the centennial of the July 4th Ball held at the Overlook Hotel in 1921. If you weren’t lucky enough to score an invitation back in the day, you can catch a glimpse of this legendary black-tie affair in the final shots of The Shining, which reveal that Jack Torrance, the unlucky winter caretaker played by Jack Nicholson, has always been at the Overlook:

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Looks like a great party, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, the Overlook Hotel and its July 4th Ball are both fictional, which poses a challenge to those of us hoping to celebrate the birth of our nation by getting trapped for all eternity in an evil netherworld surrounded by a century’s worth of hungry ghosts, a fully stocked bar, and the musical stylings of Al Bowlly, Ray Noble, and his orchestra. Don’t worry, though: We looked into the matter, and there were plenty of other extremely cursed Fourth of July parties in 1921! So whether you’ve recently invented time travel or are simply trying to decide which hotel caretaker position is most likely to condemn you to an unending alcoholic hell of your own making, Slate’s guide to the hottest Fourth of July parties of 1921 has all the information you need to find a soiree you’ll want to attend forever and ever and ever.

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First and foremost, do not celebrate the Fourth of July at the Stanley Hotel. Yes, it’s the hotel that inspired The Shining, but on July 4, 1921, it was also the hotel that inspired the western division of the $125,000 Field Club of the Mutual Life Insurance Company of New York to travel to Colorado, 250 delegates strong, for their annual convention. Hanging out with 250 life insurance salesmen of the early 1920s would definitely make for a horrifying Fourth of July, but it probably would not be much like The Shining. In fact, Colorado was a terrible place to celebrate the Fourth of July that year: It rained heavily across much of the state. Celebrations and fireworks exhibitions in Greeley and Fort Collins were postponed, while Aspen trudged through their party despite “abominable weather” and a no-show from a visiting baseball team due to flooded roads. Even if the weather had been perfect, most of the festivities emphasized Colorado’s western heritage. Fort Collins, for instance, was supposed to have goat roping, steer bulldogging competitions, a shooting exhibition from the U.S. Cavalry, and a reenactment of the holdup of the Deadwood stagecoach, presented by original driver “Spittin’” Bill Davis. That’s fine as far as it goes, but it doesn’t really have the Masque of the Red Death feeling you want in a cursed Fourth of July party. Overlook-related hotels in other states are also a bust: The Ahwahnee Hotel in California, which inspired the interiors of the movie version of the hotel, didn’t open until 1927, and construction of the Timberline Lodge, used for exterior shots, wouldn’t begin until 1936.

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If you want to attend the kind of soul-destroying gathering of the decadent and depraved rich that the Overlook thrived on, you’ve got to go where the decadent and depraved rich are, and in the summer of 1921, where they were was “not Colorado.” Most years, the easiest way to quickly locate a group of power-mad ghouls on the Fourth is to find the President of the United States and work outward, but 1921 was different: President Harding skipped out on the traditional festivities to travel to Raritan, New Jersey, where he stayed at the home of Senator Joseph S. Frelinghuysen, Sr. and played several rounds of golf. The closest thing he gave to a Fourth of July address was a one-sentence remark given while christening a rowboat that Joseph S. Frelinghuysen, Jr., had constructed:

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As a tribute to American boyhood, who builds castles in the air, who build boats and whose achievements in the future will build this country, I christen this boat, the handiwork of Joseph Frelinghuysen, the Raritan.

That’s pretty dull, but banality is not enough to make for a truly cursed Fourth of July party. It’s unclear if the Raritan ever became a ghost ship, which might increase the odds of people being condemned to attend its christening over and over again until the end of time, but its commission was cruising around a water hazard at the Raritan Valley Country Club collecting lost golf balls, so there wasn’t much potential for naval tragedy. Without the president in town to rile people up, Washington D.C. enjoyed a quiet Fourth, with the Washington Post reporting “no outbursts, no cannonading, no long list of casualties, no rip-roaring raucous racket, no hifaluting hilarity, no noise of any kind disturbed the Sabbath-like peace and quietude that settled in all its sincerity over the city.” The Post apparently thought this was a positive development, but those hoping to be trapped forever in a desperate revel of the lost and the damned should look elsewhere.

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New York City offered more options than D.C., but almost nothing that checked every box on the “never-ending demonic party” checklist. You could join the small crowd who watched a young man drown himself in the Central Park reservoir without making any attempt to save him, which is cursed, but not really a Fourth of July party. Alternatively, you could join the parade organized by anti-Prohibition protestors, which undoubtedly spawned some phenomenal Fourth of July parties, but doesn’t seem to have been all that cursed. To hit the exacta, you’d have to leave the city for East Hampton, where the American Legion threw an outdoor dance attended by 600 people, most of whom were undoubtedly unspeakably evil. In Atlanta, Georgia, revelers’ best bet for having their souls devoured by the unquiet dead was the Capital City Club, which held a rooftop dinner dance that gave off serious Overlook Hotel vibes, if you judge by measuring the Overlook Hotel vibes you get hanging out at any given country club in Atlanta today (a lot) and extrapolating backwards (even more).

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But the Fourth of July party of 1921 that has the most potential to become a nexus for evil spanning all time and space was held in Los Angeles, California, where Governor William Stephens and Mayor George Cryer presided over a masquerade ball at the Palm Court of the Alexandria Hotel. Cryer is primarily remembered today for his close ties to local bootlegger and racketeer Charles H. Crawford, whose organization became known as “the City Hall gang” because they controlled the city government. The party at the Alexandria was one of Cryer’s first official appearances as mayor; he’d only been sworn in on July 1, and his point of contact with Crawford’s organization was his campaign manager, Kent Kane Parrot. That means Cryer’s Fourth of July party was also something of a victory party, and probably as mobbed up as the Overlook in the Horace M. Derwent era, guaranteeing a deep bench of angry ghosts in formalwear. Better yet, the Palm Court has Tiffany glass skylights, with an intricate pattern that could easily transform itself into a nest of writhing snakes whenever people aren’t looking directly at it. Ghosts love that kind of shit! Best of all, though, the party at the Alexandria that night wasn’t just a Fourth of July dance, it was a masquerade ball, the kind of affair where you can dress up in a bear suit and fellate a man in a tuxedo or run around shrieking “Unmask! Unmask!” without causing a scene. For these reasons, the 1921 Fourth of July masquerade ball at the Alexandria Hotel in Los Angeles, California, is Slate’s Top Pick for a Fourth of July celebration where you’re likely to have your soul devoured by the hungry ghosts of a hotel that has lived too long and seen too much. If you can’t make it to 1921 Los Angeles this year, though, try to find an equally fun way to celebrate the holiday wherever and whenever you find yourself. You know what they say about all work and no play.

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