John Gamgee (1831-1894): The Iceman Cometh

John GamgeeDr. John Gamgee was born in Florence Italy in 1831, the son of a Scottish veterinarian who wanted his children to have a broad education. John eventually graduated from the Royal Veterinary College in London. He thrived in that field. In 1858, he founded the New Veterinary School in Edinburgh in 1858, and later the Edinburgh Veterinary Review. In 1863, he organized the first International Veterinary Congress in Hamburg Germany.

So far, so dull, unless you are interested in Victorian academic politics. A few years later, the United States government invited him to consult on the matter of lung plague and cattle fever in Texas. He lectured widely in America, promoting his novel view on the pathogenic theory of medicine. That is, that disease was transmitted by microorganisms. It was a theory for which claim he was widely ridiculed.

His so-called “rollerskate” was less controversial, but it was his explorations into the mechanics of refrigeration more that makes him interesting to the general reader. Continue reading

Stalin’s Englishman

stalins-englishmanStalin’s Englishman, by Andrew Lownie, St. Martin’s Press, $29.99

Andrew Lownie’s biography of one of the Cambridge spy circle has recently caught an answering echo at Cambridge.  Three men prominent in intelligence circles, one of them Sir Richard Dearlove, ex-head of MI5 and master of Pembroke College, have resigned as conveners of the Cambridge Intelligence Seminar.

The trouble specifically was over a digital publishing service which was providing funding for the seminar called Veruscript, founded by one Gleb Cheglakov and his wife Nazik Ibraimova.  Some of those who resigned fear that Veruscript may be a front for Russian intelligence services.  One recent attendee at the regular Friday meetings was Mike Flynn, the Trump nominee for US national security adviser.  What an unseemly to do for Corpus Christi College. Continue reading

Plus ça change…

This Renaissance sign required you to measure your catch from the Tiber river:

Your catch should not be larger than this or it belonged to the Pope.

Your catch should not be larger than this or it belonged to the civic authorities.

These days, if you catch something smaller than these:

You measure your catch and if it is smaller than these it goes back into Long Island Sound.

You measure your catch and if it is smaller than these it goes back into Long Island Sound.

One way or another, size always matters and there’s always a catch.

The Six: The Lives of the Mitford Sisters

the-sixThe Mitford sisters have become an industry.  There are over twenty nine titles concerning them and that does not count their own books- three of them were writers. Only one of them was truly a success, the instigator of the Mitford mythology: Nancy Mitford.

Laura Thompson is contributing her second book to this already crowded section of the biography shelf. The Six, The Lives of the Mitford Sisters is not a straightforward biography.  She has already written about Nancy, Life in a Cold Climate and this is her second attempt at mapping the complicated lives of these siblings only this time by psychological surveillance. Continue reading

The Reckoning

The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe

Picador

Charles Nicholl

This biography done in the early 1990’s is an arresting variation on the little sonata usually played by Christopher Marlowe’s biographers.  Their performances are almost always tuned to the minor key of Marlowe’s early death (at 29) and the tragedy this posed to English letters.  Charles Nicholl decided to play things in a different mode altogether and the suspenseful true crime narrative he composed is jaunty and percussive instead of a dirge for a dead poet. Continue reading

A Thoroughly Modern Marriage

Portrait of a Marriage

Nigel Nicolson

Atheneum, 233 pages

Vita Sackville-West

Since gay marriage has become a legal reality in the United States so recently, it pays to remember that in the last century tolerance for sexual variety was generally low.  Homosexuality was considered a perversion and a few unlucky people born with the proclivity sought out “cures”.  There were however some surprisingly tolerant oases in this desert of  negative public opinion.

One such was the long running marriage between Harold Nicolson, the British diplomat and his wife Vita Sackville-West the novelist and garden writer.  They married for love in 1913, or so it appeared at the time.  What Harold Nicolson did not know was that his wife was in love with another woman, and only came around to marriage reluctantly. Continue reading

Cristóbal Balenciaga Eizaguirre (1895 – 1972): Master of All Couturiers

The Master of Us All, Balenciaga His Workrooms, His World
by Mary Blume,
Farrar, Straus, Giroux 2013

Cristobal Balenciaga

The news of Oscar de la Renta’s death this past Monday (Oct.20th 2014) snapped one of the last remaining threads stretched between Balenciaga’s era and our own. As a young man, Mr. de la Renta had worked briefly at Balenciaga and the imprint of the great Spanish designer is on his work. You see it in de la Renta’s architectural designs and his love of deep ruffles. Continue reading

Charles Rose Ellis (1771-1845): Come Sing Me Montego Bay

Stumbled across this documentary about German indentured servants in Jamaica and their descendents, which in turn led me to Charles Rose Ellis.

He was the son of James Ellis, who  in turn was grandson of Col. John Ellis who settled in Jamaica in 1665.  Charles’ father was one of the great landowners of 18th century Jamaica and very rich indeed.  James died at sea when Charles was thirteen, leaving  the young man with an estate worth £20,000 a year (Mr. Darcy, you will recall, had half that amount- but then, he didn’t have land in the Caribbean). Continue reading

Charles Louis Désiré Du Pin (1814-1868): Red Devil

If he doesn’t appear in any of the Flashman books, he should have.  Of all the outrageous soldiers of the 19th century, Du Pin is one of the most notorious and, like Flashman himself, appears to have been everywhere.

He was born at Lasgraisses in the shadows of the Pyrenees,  attended Ecole Polytechnique in Palaiseau and was enrolled as an officer in the French Army.  His first few years were uneventful, but that changed for good once he was sent to Algeria in 1842.  Made a name for himself a year later in the battle of Smalain the 1847 capture of Abd-el Kader, and featured in the panoramic painting of the event of the sort so beloved of the 19th century patriots.  (Full marks if you can make him out.)  Promoted to Major by 1851, he was off to fight in the Crimea in 1855 (French cavalry made no such nonsensical cavalry charge into any valleys of death). Four years later he was in Italy, leading a cavalry division and helping the locals break away from the Austrian Empire.   Along the way he picked up a pair of Legions d’Honneur and and some other decorations for bravery. Continue reading

Charlotte Oelschlegel (1898-1984): Ice Queen

Before there was Ice Capades,  before there was Holiday On Ice, before there was Cirque du Soleil, there was the Hippodrome,  5200 seats of theatrical goodness (this was New York – nothing like it on earth).  It was the venue for that needed filling, and Charles Dillingham was just the guy to fill them.

He had taken over the place seats of the from the Shuberts, and those 5200 seats needed filling.  The Schuberts had already gone through the line of elephants act, the wild west show, and any number of water shows.  Dillingham had bigger things in mind.

Job applicants filled in the forms listing their qualifications:  “drive a car, ride a bicycle, dive, ice or roller skate, ride horseback, plus the usual requirement of quality and range of  voice. Dancing – the basic one – was accepted for granted.” *   Among the final cast were  such now forgotten luminaries as Arthur Deagon the Chubby Comedian and Harry Griffiths, The Jaunty Juvenile;  and the unforgettable John Philip Sousa). Continue reading