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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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Major-General Rudolf Anton Carl Freiherr von Slatin (1857-1932): Three Faiths

Said to be the inspiration for one of Karl May’s characters, von Slatin is one of those characters who make us feel utterly inadequate.

Born the son of a Jewish convert to Catholicism near Vienna, he was in the commercial academy when his father died rather suddenly.  By chance he heard of an opening at a German bookstore in Cairo.  The sheer unlikelihood appealed to him, and he was off to Egypt.

All thoughts of bookselling left him as he joined Theodore von Heuglin,  explorer and ornithologist into the mountains of Dar Nuba in Sudan.  Rough times and much rebellion in the area at the time, and Europeans were few.  Before he was through, von Slatin met such luminaries as botanist Dr Eduard Schnitzer (aka, Emin Pasha on his conversion to Islam, later to relieve Henry Morgan Stanley) and General Charles George Gordon. Continue reading

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Karl May, 1842-1912 : Big In Germany

There was a blip on the radar screen with the 2012 centennial of his death, and a few translators have pushed through labor-of-love translations, but on the whole he is still remarkably unknown in America.   This from a man who was the largest selling author in the German language, bigger than Thomas Mann or Erich Maria Remarque, or – well, everyone, really.

So why the indifference?  It’s not as if his work is introspective dark philosophical central European doomsday jobs.  He wrote page turners.  Good page turners.  It can take a little bit to get into the spirit of the thing – we are talking a nineteenth century writer here – but once hooked, you will be hard pressed find the work anything but compelling.  He has narrative drive up the wazoo, and could teach pretty much anyone writing thrillers today a thing or two about action. Continue reading

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St. Lidwina (1380 – 1433): Skateaway

Our daughter has taken to ice skating in a big way and raised the question of where the sport originated.   Google tells us that pre-historic types   strapped bones to their feet and trekked across ice with these and some sort of ur-ski poles.  Sounds more utilitarian than anything else.   As far as free form  goes, it was the Dutch who came up with the idea of metal blades and real boots some time in the thirteenth century.

What you see here is the first visual representation of ice-skates.  The girl in blue is named Lidwina, from the Dutch town of Schiedam, near Rotterdam.   Her father had come from a family that had once been rich  and respected but fallen on hard times;  her mother had never known any but poverty.   Together these two produced nine children, one of them Lidwina, who took an early and serious interest in matters religious. Continue reading

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Bernhard von Breydenbach (1434-1497*): On The Road Again

Von Breydenbach was a rich man, a doctoral graduate of the University at Erfurt,  the canon of Mainz who had, by his own accounts, lived a somewhat loose life, wicked enough that he thought a pilgrimage to the Holy Land would do his soul some good. So in April of 14, 1483 he gathered his friend the artist Erhard Reuwich of Utrecht and with a few of other titled and moneyed traveling companions, set off to see the sights of the Middle East.  

The trip itself was pretty standard tourist fare for the time. Venice first, as Venice had regular water connections with the Muslim Levant.  There they spent any number of days waiting for the ship to be ready, time he spent in seeing the local sights, then as a now spectacular. Once at sea it was to the Venetian held territories of Modon, where he met Gypsies, whom he describes not as being Egyptian (never mind India), but from the nearby town of Gippe.  Stood to reason, of course.  Continue reading

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