A California Masquerade

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

Agoston Haraszthy didn’t hesitate to wear masks. A Hungarian immigrant, he became San Diego’s first sheriff by portraying himself as a military colonel. Then, he sold himself as a metallurgist to win a top job at the San Francisco’s first U.S. Mint office. He billed himself as royalty—Count Haraszthy—when he established the Buena Vista Winery in Sonoma. 

By 1864, “The Count” was in trouble. The Civil War and mounting debts strained his wine business. He’d planted the vines too close together, and his attempt to create a sparkling “California champagne” literally fizzled. To stay afloat, he sold off pieces of the estate. 

Despite all these troubles, County Haraszthy hosted a lavish Masquerade Ball, touted as the first in California history. The costumes and wine technologies drew enough of a crowd for the event to endure. It was held most recently in 2019. 

Today’s Californians, so wary of face coverings, might consider what “The Count” knew: Masks are about fun and finding light in darkness. What better time to don a mask than when your whole world is falling down around you?

California’s scolds, who use shame to force mask compliance, miss this point. They tell us, with considerable scientific justification, that we must wear masks to be good. But the true virtue of masks is that they allow us to be bad. 

Behind masks, we can’t be easily shamed. We can try on new identities and deviate from the norms of good citizenship. In this cultural moment, when we are surrounded by so much coerced and performative goodness, might more people want to wear masks if we emphasized their darker and more subversive appeal? Instead of framing face-coverings as solemn obligation, might the public health be better protected if we reimagined this moment as a lavish, statewide masquerade?

The current, highly polarized debate over masks is much too dumb and dull when you consider the history of our use of masks. Our modern conception of masking owes a debt to the Republic of Venice, where a mask-wearing culture endured for centuries. The Venetian devotion to masks was rooted in desire—for hedonism and equality. With identities shielded, people could do as they wished. Without faces, all had voices. 

In the 18th century, the Venetian passion reached America. Of course, in this Puritan country, mask-wearing produced backlashes, with moralists claiming that masquerades were a foreign and immoral influence. By the second half of the 19th century and through the 1960s, major California municipalities from Los Angeles to San Francisco had laws barring public disguise and cross-dressing. Scholars have described those discriminatory ordinances as forerunners of today’s so-called “bathroom bills” that target the transgendered.

Fortunately, the transgressive act of masking has won the cultural war—Freddy Krueger has the box office receipts to prove it. Masquerade in California, from costume superstores to Comic-Con, is now big business. In L.A., the Labyrinth Masquerade Ball, first held in 1997, has thousands of attendees and an ongoing story line with newly invented characters and mythologies. Shawn Strider, its host, told me the balls are great levelers in status-conscious L.A., because regular Angelenos and A-list stars attend together, without learning each other’s true identities.

The appeal of masks in an age such as ours isn’t hard to see. When everyone wants you to pick a side, the masquerade offers glorious ambiguity. In a moment when human identities are often reduced to politics or race or gender, masks can help anyone defeat attempts to confine them. And when digital surveillance sees all, masks provide the protection of anonymity, and the promise that, in disguise, we might still get to be our true selves.

For all these reasons, it makes little sense to turn masks into a symbol of compliance in the pandemic. It’d be wiser to use COVID to celebrate masks and their many advantages. Instead of fines and enforcement, let government strike teams give out cash and prizes for the most beautiful, funny or inventive masks that they see on the streets. Let’s have public kiosks, outside grocery stores and food banks where people are waiting in lines, to help more Californians make their own masks. And if people must gather, let them hold small, outdoor, socially distanced masquerades.

In other words, let’s find ways to savor a difficult time as best we can—like Count Haraszthy did. Just two years after his 1864 masquerade, he was fired from his own wine company for “extravagance and unfaithfulness.” He declared bankruptcy and moved to Nicaragua, where he tried to open a sugar plantation.

But one day in July 1869, he disappeared, forever, into a river full of reptiles, leaving behind a lasting lesson. Wear all the masks you can—because you never know when the alligators will swallow you whole. 

 

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.

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