Frederick Gustavus Burnaby, 1842-1885; “Play up! play up! and play the game!”

Just look at him! Was there ever such a portrait of easeful upper class twittery?  The vague smile, the languid self drapery, the unfocussed eyes, the half-forgotten cigarette, the mirror polished but virtually useless cuirass on the floor, the opera buffa hat on the second couch, the man’s complete obliviousness to himself and his surroundings.  The subject could have stepped straight of a Wodehouse novel, if Wodehouse had ever written about soldiers.

Once again, it’s a case for not making snap judgements. Continue reading

Catherine the Great, 1729-1796: Great-ish.

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman
Robert K. Massie,  574 pages, Random House

They don’t make biographers like this anymore. Usually these days the ability to write clear English is much less and the tendency to promulgate unsupported speculation is much greater, than in the last decades of the twentieth century. That was when Massie published the bestseller which made his name, Nicholas and Alexandra.

The same qualities that propelled Massie to the top then are evident in his prose now. He may not be a great writer of lyrical sentences. Consider his description of the day that Catherine usurped the crown of Russia from her husband Peter III: “That afternoon at Peterhof was warm and sunny, and the lesser members of Peter’s entourage remained on the terraces near the cool spray of the fountains or wandered through the gardens under the cloudless summer sky.” Continue reading

Isaac Merritt Singer, 1811-1875: A Thing for the Ladies

For trivia buffs, Elias Howe is famously  the inventor of the sewing machine. *

So why do all the machines seem to be named Singer?

Short answer is because it’s not personal, it’s business.  Like fast food, the real money is not in inventing, it’s in marketing, preferable to the great middle.   Isaac Singer, like Ford, figured out how to bring machinery to  the masses and to make it pay.

He worked as a machinist but his first love was the stage, and had his talent been for the latter rather than the former, this story might have turned out rather differently. As it was,  he found himself  by circumstance tinkering on various machines, making small improvements on this and that.  At age twenty seven, he patented a rock-drilling machine, making him $US 2,000 – extremely good money back in the day. So what did he do with it? Continue reading

Wilson Mizner, 1873-1934: “God help those who do not help themselves.”

America really has degenerated as a breeding ground for Class A scoundrels.  Bernie MadoffKen LayCharles Keating? Small men in both ethics and actions, but mostly in their lack of style.  Put them up against a Wilson Mizner and they shrink to the D list specimens they are.

Mizner was old school.  He was the youngest son of an old line California family from  Russian Hill.  A beautiful place, but it was not for him.  Money and comfort were all well enough, but Wilson was man of restless intelligence and a need of excitement, and there was little of that where his parents lived.  His preferred venues were the dives and hells of the Barbary Coast where there was always something interesting going on.  At six foot four and over two hundred pounds, he was able to handle himself.  With a little help and guidance from some of the area’s shadier people, he was soon able to handle others as well.

He worked as a saloon singer despite a terrible voice (women didn’t mind; but then, they weren’t really listening so much as watching), played the shill to a patent medicine salesman, and organized illegal prize fights.  When gold was discovered in Alaska (1897), he and two of his brothers followed the call of the wild.  It didn’t take him too long to realize, like Levi Strauss, that the real money, the easy money, was not in the river beds, but  in the miners’ pockets.

Unfortunately for the miners, Mizner had fewer ethics than Strauss. Continue reading

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, 1571-1610; Darkness and Light

Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane by Andrew Graham-Dixon, Norton, 2011

Caravaggio, brawler, pimp, murderer, fugitive from justice.  Basically your wouldn’t want to meet him in a dark alley kind of man.

He was also (like Kit Marlowe) an artist of startling quality and originality.   A painter of lush paintings of horrific realism and originator of the Mannerist style.

It’s powerful work, Caravaggio’s and not surprisingly as you read his story, it can be a bit queasy making.

Caravaggio fell out of favor with the art establishment until the twentieth century.  (It happens. You couldn’t give away Vermeers until the late nineteenth century.)  What changed? Difficult to say, though Graham-Dixon notes that Caravaggio’s style fits in well with the son et lumiere fashion that movie making exploits (there is a good deal of worthwhile ink spilled on Martin Scorcese).  Continue reading

Emilie Busbey Grigsby, 1879-1964: How to Not Marry a Millionaire

Think “Kept Women of the Gilded Age” and you will probably come up with the unfortunate Evelyn Nesbit  Well, everyone loves a murder story, don’t they?

Emilie Grigsby – name probably doesn’t ring a bell. Pity, really. Of the two lives, her’s is quite as scandalous and yet has a far happier ending.

Unlike Ms Nesbit, she came from something. Her great grandfather was James Fisher Robinson (Governor of Kentucky 1862-1863), her father Lewis Braxton Grigsby a colonel in the Union Army. By the end of the war, he had station but no money and was not very good at getting it. He died after his wife Susan gave birth to a son and daughter, leaving her to get by as best she could.

Staying home, proud but poor, was one solution. It wasn’t Susan’s.  She was more of a Scarlett O’Hara type.

Continue reading

Charles Tyson Yerkes, 1837-1905: “Buy Up Old Junk, Fix It Up a Little, and Unload It Upon Other Fellows”

Or, how to make a fortune in public transportation.

Yerkes is one of the Robber Barons who tends to be forgotten amongst the Carnegies and Mellons and J.P. Morgans and Rockefellers of the Gilded Age. For one thing, he died nearly broke and the only hard asset legacy he left is the Yerkes Observatory – high tech in its age,  quaint now.

Forgotten or not, his life was the stuff of scandal, full of material worthy of a novel. Theodore Dreiser found Yerkes so irritating that he wrote three: The FinancierThe Titan, and The Stoic.

Well, who reads Dreiser much any more?  (Kind of surprising, given his taste for the rich and seamy.) Continue reading

Baron von Ungern-Sternberg, 1885-1921: Bloody White Baron

The Bloody White Baron: The Extraordinary Story of the Russian Nobleman Who Became the Last Khan of Mongolia, by James Palmer, Basic Books, 2011.

It doesn’t much matter how vile, cruel, insane, despicable a person may be, if the war or country he’s disgracing is obscure, his bad behavior will probably also be obscure.  It was this unfortunate fact that led Hitler to tell doubters that no one remembered the Armenian genocide, and that no one would remember what the Nazis might do.

Wrong on both particulars. The Armenians are getting their overdue press.  That said, there is a depressing truth in the general concept. The victims of Baron Roman Nikolai Maximilian von Ungern-Sternberg are still more or less a footnote to the list of atrocious murderers of the twentieth century,  though God knows he tried. Continue reading

Alice Perrers, 1338-1400: Whatever Alice Wants, Alice Gets.

English Majors will recognize the illustration as Chaucer’s Wife of Bath as created by the Ellesmere manuscript of the Canterbury Tales.  It’s the closest we’re going to get to Alice Perrers who was, some think,  the template for the cheery chatty wife.

Scholars have their reasons, and I’m not about to weigh in on the question of attribution, but Alice had a decidedly more adventurous life than Ms of Bath could ever dream of.

A mistress of the king and one of the most vilified women in England, she came from obscurity to end on the top of the fourteenth century heap and despite the best efforts of some of the best minds in the country, managed to keep her head and a good part of her  irregularly gotten fortune. Continue reading

Horace Smith, 1778-1849: Look on My Works, ye Mighty, and Despair

“In Egypt’s sandy silence, all alone,
Stands a gigantic Leg, which far off throws
The only shadow that the Desert knows:”

For those intimately familiar with Shelley’s Oxymandias, this might come off as cheeky parody of the sort one used to get in New York Magazine Competition, or the New Statesman, or even the Washington Post.

Actually, that’s not far off from the truth.

A little back-story.  In 1809, the Drury Lane Theater burned down, a sad event for London theater goers.  It took three years to rebuild the place and as re-opening day approached, the managers needed to get themselves talked about.  They came up with a competition. Members of the public were solicited to write an oration to be read on the theater’s opening night.  The sweetener was a prize was fifty pounds, an eye-catching sum in those days, and even today. Continue reading