The year was 1878, and the country was going through a recession in the wake of Civil War reconstruction. St. Louis, an agriculture and transportation center, was hit hard, and attendance at the Agriculture and Mechanical Fair, an important local event during harvest time, had been waning. So a group of enterprising local businessmen formed the Veiled Prophet Organization. “The idea was to promote St. Louis, enrich the quality of life for its citizens and attract visitors,” says Veiled Prophet Organization spokesperson Thomas Cooke.
Even during hard times, everyone loves a parade. So, inspired by Mardi Gras in New Orleans, the group of civic boosters decided to sponsor an elaborate evening spectacle in honor of the Veiled Prophet, a mythical character from the exotic kingdom of Khorassan. “That very first parade was a huge hit—more than 50,000 onlookers turned out, all of them eager to catch a glimpse of the horse-drawn floats imported from New Orleans,” Cooke says. The final float carried the Veiled Prophet and his entourage to the downtown Merchants Exchange building for a ball. There, His Mysterious Majesty chose a 16-year-old ‘Belle of the Ball,’ Susie Slayback, for the first dance. “But it wasn’t until 1894, the year of the first official Veiled Prophet ball, that the title ‘Belle of the Ball’ morphed into ‘the Queen of Love and Beauty,’ Cooke explains. The first VP Queen was Hester Bates Laughlin, who wore a replica of Queen Victoria’s crown.
More than 130 years later, the parade, now held during the day to kick off Fair St. Louis, remains a St. Louis favorite. The VP Organization employs a staff of full-time artisans to design and create the floats. “The ball may be the social event of the season, but the parade and the fair, along with the Celebrate St. Louis summer concert series, are free for everyone to enjoy,” Cooke says. “They are the organization’s gifts to St. Louis.”
The group remains dedicated to promoting and serving the St. Louis community. Then as now, its members remain anonymous, refusing to claim credit for their good deeds. The group has contributed funding and other resources to a broad range of civic projects, including illuminating Eads Bridge, and building the Overlook Stage on Wharf Street and the Grand Staircase under the Arch. “But the VP organization is not just about giving money, it’s about acting as a catalyst and providing the inspiration and leadership to accomplish community goals,” Cooke says.
Hands-on community involvement is integral to the organization’s mission, Cooke adds. “The VP Community Outreach Initiative is an opportunity for our families, particularly the young women who participate in the ball, to make a solid contribution.” Recent projects include teaming up with Beyond Housing, Operation Brightside, the Herbert Hoover Boys and Girls Club, and St. Louis Public Schools. Community Outreach also sponsors several blood drives each year. “We’re constantly searching for new ways to remain relevant and make a contribution,” he says. “Our commitment to the community and the people in it are at the core of everything we do, influencing every decision we’ve made since that very first parade in 1878.” LN