Ida Ehre, 1900-1988: Tradition

Ida Ehra leading actress and Grand Dame of the German stage.  Born the daughter of a cantor in Vienna and a student of the the Academy for Music and Theater in Vienna, she moved to Berlin in 1933.  In 1933 she was barred from the stage by order of the Nazi party and worked instead as the assistant to her husband Dr. Bernhard Heyde (1899-1977), a prominent gynaecologist.  They and their daughter planned to leave the country after Kristallnacht, but the outbreak of the war made this impossible.  She was arrested by the Gestapo in 1943 and taken to Fühlsbüttel concentration camp, a first step on the road to Buchenwald.  She avoided this fate only because her (non-Jewish) husband was able to arrange her release by writing a personal appeal to an old school mate, Heinrich Himmler.

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Filchner of the Antarctic, 1877-1957

We are now in the centenary year the race to the south pole.  That story is too well known for this blog; enough to say that Amundsen got the gold, Scott the silver. Less well known are the other two polar expeditions of 1912.  There was a Japanese expedition headed by Nobu Shirase.

Then there was Wilhelm Filchner.

If Amundsen had a smooth time, Scott a dreadful time, Filchner lay somewhere in the middle, tending towards the really bad: bedevilled by climate, clashing personalities, sabotage, suicide, death, a proposed duel – the Antarctic is a harsh testing ground.    Continue reading

Queen Artemisia of Halicarnassus, fl. 480: “My men have become women and women men”

Misogyny is a bane of any age and certainly the Greeks were as prone to it as any culture, but as in all things, men seem willing to make exceptions when the woman in question is notably accomplished, no longer a threat to the living, and somehow a credit to their own homeland.  Thus, the historian Herodotus of Halicarnassus is happy to give us the story of Artemisia, queen of Halicarnassus, despite her being a) a woman and b), a military commander of the hated Persians.

The title she inherited from unnamed husband (and despite their having a grown son). When the Persians marched west, she joined with them, serving notably in the battle for Euboea.  She also brought five triremes to the alliance, a significant contribution.  She warned Xerxes, however, not to take on the Greeks at sea, “for these people are as much superior to your people in seamanship, as men to women.”

Well, most women, at any rate. Continue reading

Alexandre-Balthazar-Laurent Grimod de la Reynière, 1758-1837: Nothing But The Best

Son of a highly successful financier and tax farmer, Grimod de la Reyniere was born in 1758 with a pair of deformed hands, apparently shameful enough to keep him indoors and out of public sight throughout his childhood.  Swiss craftsmen fitted him with prosthetic hands, with which he learned to use a knife and fork and, more importantly, a pen.  He trained as a lawyer, wrote the odd play and criticism (pen name: Le Censeur Dramatique) and socialized with philosophes and other intellectuals.  Youthful excess – the pregnant girlfriend, not to mention that time he got caught by an unsuspecting father for throwing a party in which a pig presided at table– saw him get banished from his family’s Paris mansion to a distant abbey.

The punishment turned out to be light.  The abbot took a liking to him over their shared interest in over-eating.  Following the call of food, de la Reyniere then started a business as a high rent grocer in Lyons and elsewhere.  The enterprise failed, as enterprises will. Continue reading

LaMarcus Adna Thompson, 1848-1911: Over the Boardwalk

An Ohio boy who first apprenticed as a carpenter,  Thompson worked as a grocer, then designed a machine to create stockings and founded the Eagle Knitting Company at Elkhart, Indiana.  Hard work impaired his health, a prescribed trip out west was supposed to improve it.  En route, he saw the Mauch Chunk  Switchback Gravity Railroad, a coal carrying freight train which,  in the slow season, took on thrill seeking passengers for a quick rush down the side of the mountain.

Gravity trains for pleasure, so-called Russian Mountains, had been build in Russia and France as far back as 1790, but Thompson took the concept to the big time.  In 1884, after three years of tinkering, he opened the Gravity Pleasure Switchback Railway at Coney Island.   For five cents you could climb a tower, get on the train, and thrill to the six miles an hour rush to the second tower.

Success was immediate, and the L.A. Thompson Scenic Railway Company (and the inevitable copycats) was soon making others in America and Europe.   Oval tracks, painted scenery, tunnels, all sorts of improvements and patents followed.   The craze made him a millionaire, proving yet again that, pace Scott Fitzgerald, there are plenty of second acts in America.

Marie of Roumania, 1875-1938: The Peoples’ Queen

“Oh, life is a glorious cycle of song,
A medley of extemporanea,
And love is a thing that can never go wrong,
And I am Marie of Roumania.”

Americans, if they know of Marie at all, will half-remember Dorothy Parker’s  typically snarky quatrain above.  She deserves a lot better, and so, a short primer.

Marie was born in Kent in 1875, granddaughter of Queen Victoria on her father’s side and Tsar Alexander II  on her mother’s.   In 1893 she married Ferdinand, heir to the Romanian throne.

It was not the most passionate of marriages, but what she lacked in that area she more than made up for in her love of her new country and its people,  and somewhat in the manner of Lady Diana, soon became something of a peoples’ princess.  She learned the language, frequently wore the traditional Romanian clothing, and developed a powerful appreciation for her subjects (not least of all the gypsies of Romania and their peculiar culture). Continue reading

Pierre de Camboust, duc de Coislin, 1664 –1710: the Politest Man in France

Pierre de Camboust was a peer of France (sort of the aristocracy of the aristocracy) and a member of the Académie Français at age sixteen.  Other than that, there is little in the way of accomplishment to point to, save perhaps for being a prototype for Alphonse and Gaston. Most of what we know of him comes straight from that first-rate gossip,  Saint-Simon (1675 – 1755).  There’s really no point in paraphrasing.  Here follows S-S’s describing Pierre on the road with two of his brothers, the Chevalier and the Cardinal de Coislin:

“The party rested for the night at the house of a vivacious and very pretty bourgeoise. The Duc de Coislin was an exceedingly polite man, and bestowed amiable compliments and civilities on their hostess, much to the disgust of the  Chevalier. At parting, the Duke renewed the politeness he had displayed so abundantly the previous evening, and delayed the others by his long-winded flatteries.  When at last they left  the house, and were two or three leagues away from it, the Chevalier de Coislin said that in spite of all this politeness, he had reason to believe that their pretty hostess would not long be pleased with the Duke.  The Duke, disturbed, asked his reason for thinking so. Continue reading

Krum the Horrible, (?) – 814

Before the second war, my father, then age twenty, was third mate on an American ship that sailed to the Black Sea and back. Among the souvenirs of that time were some Bulgarian coins dated 1930 on the obverse of which is a man on plow horse for which he is clearly over-sized,  apparently skewering some kind of half-sized lion while a dog carries up the rear.

It says simply, Krum, 814.

Clearly some kind of serious hero to get on both the five and the ten leva coin, and as he is obviously a household name in Bulgaria, it’s a little shameful that as an American I’d not heard of him before.  And what of 814?

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Joseph Kyselak, 1799-1831: “Kyselak Was Here.”

A modest official in the Imperial Austria Exchequer, Kyselak was by avocation a mountain climber and even wrote a book on the subject. Possibly on a bet, he vowed that his name would be known throughout the kingdom within three years.   His claim to fame – graffiti.   Soon after making his declaration, Kyselak began to write his name down on rock faces across Austria.   If this were not bad enough, his name also began appearing on building faces in Vienna itself.

Eventually, an unamused Emperor Franz I had the young man brought to his office and forbade him from defacing things in this manner.  Kyselak bowed, promised to behave, and was a allowed to leave.

A little later, the Emperor found the name KYSELAK carved into his desk top.

(For all his fifteen minutes of fame, not a single portrait of the fellow seems to exist. By the way, if you encounter any of his markings, the Kysalek Project wants to hear from you.)

Sardanapalus, (? – 612 BC?)

The Death of Sardanopalus by Delacroix appears in Eloise in Paris which is where I first saw it back when I was in single digits.  Fascinating stuff to a nine year old.  Who on earth were these people and what in heaven’s name was going on here?  The fellow in back looked annoyed but passive, the woman stoic and resigned- why?  That other woman draped over the bed, was she alive or just unconscious? And what on earth was that horse doing there in the bedroom? What was the matter with these people? Continue reading