Praskovia Kovalyova, 1768-1803 : Power of Love

Sentimental Americans like to point to Harriet Beecher Stowe as the conscience of the abolitionist movement.  The little lady who started the Civil War, as Lincoln put it.

What about the Russians?  The serf system, effectively slavery, was something a parallel.  Of course the  gentry were fine with it, the church was okay with it (they had a whole lot of land and the souls that went with it  – yet the whole thing was outlawed in 1861,  two years before the Emancipation Proclamation, four years before the Thirteenth Amendment.

Another case of cherchez la femme, it is said, in this case, not a novelist, but a singer, a diva even, Praskovia Kovalyova. Continue reading

Theodore Roosevelt, 1858-1919; Bully for Him

 Theodore Roosevelt by Lewis L. Gould, Oxford University Press.

In an age of the kitchen-sink-and-all cinderblock biography,  the art of the short potted life story was for some years neglected.  Then Penguin began to put out the Brief Lives series and rekindled the format.  A good thing, really.  Life is short.

At 78 pages of text, Gould’s Theodore Roosevelt  runs the risk of being a little too brief, not quite Wikipedia fodder, but still, pushing the limits.  Bit of a tour de force, considering all that the author has to include-  Roosevelt forebears, childhood, schooling, stints as New York State Assemblyman, Governor of New York, Vice President, deputy sheriff in the Dakota Territory, Police Commissioner of New York  City, U.S. Civil Service Commissioner, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Lieutenant Colonel United States Army, Vice President, president, and post-president.  Each one is enough for a book, and in some cases have gotten them. Continue reading

Luisa, Marquise Casati Stampa di Soncino (1881 – 1957): All The World’s A Stage

As close to a living Edward Gorey character as you are likely to find, and had that good man written plays or novels, she would have been one of the characters.  No matter.  She was first and foremost a visual creature and therefore perfect for his metier. Tall (nearly six feet), thin, green eyed, decorated with living snakes and accompanied by a pet leopard (this years before Harrods sold such things to the chic young things of 1960’s London).   She was a muse,  and subject for a seeming all of the top visual artists of the first half of the twentieth century.

The pictures are beguiling, the stories are irresistible. Her employment of servants who were clad in gold leaf and little else.  Her use of live snakes as a fashion accessory. The pet cheetahs on a leash decades before that became fashionable.  The dinner parties where empty seats were filled with wax dummies  (though it is hard to believe that she could not fill a dinner party as large as she liked if she wanted to).  Couture clothing, jewelry, artwork, books, constant travel and a collection of high end real estate in the most exotic cities of Europe. Continue reading

Gerolamo Cardano 1501-1576: A Throw of the Dice

Every so often you read about a bunch of clever MIT students or such like who go to Vegas and by superior brainpower make a killing at the tables before the spotters notice and kick them out.  In the old days, a broken leg might have been in the cards, so to speak, but in general the experiment ends with the players getting banned from the casino and selling the story to Hollywood.

Didn’t use to be be like that.  Consider the case of Cardano.  As a twenty five year old college student taking a break in a friendly game of cards in Venice, he found that his luck turned unreasonably bad.  He also found that the a game was being played with marked cards.  A direct sort of fellow, Cardano pulled a knife, stuck it in the other guy, then fled into the night.

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Clarence Birdseye 1886-1956: The Adventures of a Curious Man

Birdseye: The Adventures of a Curious Man, by Mark Kurlansky, Doubleday, 2012.

Not to be confused with Admiral Byrd who apparently fudged a bit on getting to the North Pole.  Birdseye is the guy who froze vegetables.

Cheerful  fellow of boundless energy and an innate inability to stay still.  Bit like Teddy Roosevelt in that regard.  He was also one of these small men who can endure appalling abuse where men mas macho would collapse.   He was embodied a curious mixture of lust for adventure,  curiosity over how things work, obsessive bent for  tinkering, and ambitious business moving.  An unusual quartet of impulses which Kurlansky describes but does not underscore.

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Nur Jahan, 1577-1645; Smell the Roses

I once asked an editor of a history magazine what sort of stuff he didn’t get enough of, and the answer was unequivocal – India.  It does seem curious that a country as ancient and as rich in history and characters should be so roundly ignored in the west.  By characters, I mean women such as Nur Jahan.

Nur Jahan was the twentieth wife of the Mogul Emperor Jahangir.  She must have been something to see.  Like Josephine, she was the widow of a soldier (a rebel against Jahangir, as it happened) and already had a daughter by that man when Jahangir first saw her (1611).  They were married within two months.  Continue reading

Hans Reichenbach (1891-1953); No Relation to the Falls

I stumbled on this map of the philosophers recently.  It’s basically a who’s who six degrees of separation of philosophers based on lines of influence.   Never much a one for philosophy myself, I nevertheless recognized the guys in 20 point type and even a few of the smaller fry.

I did just wonder, however, about the outliers, the people furthest away from Plato.  That poor fellow at the very bottom, for example, all alone, no one much to talk to. Who it could possibly be?  No doubt a name I didn’t know.

In fact it was a name I knew.  Hans Reichenbach.

It’s only a slightly convoluted story.  My father’s family had spent the 1931/2 year on sabbatical in Berlin where my mathematician grandfather soaked up the wisdom and good fellowship of the University’s mathematical and physics superstars  (Einstein,  von Neumann, et al.).  Continue reading

Georgy Zhukov, 1896-1974: Russian Blood

Stalin’s General: The Life of Georgy Zhukov by Geoffrey Roberts, Random House.

“There is only one thing which these gentlemen who long for the western way of life cannot explain – why we beat Hitler.”

Bit of a gob smacker, that, at least for those whose knowledge of WWII comes from Hollywood and Ken Burns.  Sure, the Russians were part of the alliance, but, you know –  Pearl Harbor,  Dunkirk,  Normandy Beach,  Battle of the Bulge, Midway, Hiroshima, those places were where the action was.  The Russian Front, that was some place Germans were sent for punishment.

Well, it’s only natural to focus on the home team, but that war strikes closer to the bone in Russia than America.  They suffered 90 to 95% of all allied casualties.  Not for the Soviets was this an ecumenical affair  of Allied nations fighting shoulder to shoulder, a World War if you like. For Russians, it was, and is, the Great Patriotic War.  They point to the cost to the motherland, and can still grumble over the west’s failure to open a second front in a timely fashion.*

And they point to Georgy Zhukov as the greatest Soviet general of that war. Continue reading

George E. Smith, aka “Pittsburgh Phil” (1862–1905): Master of the Horse

I was trolling some gilded age  newspapers a while ago and I came across a 1889 squib entitled “Wealthy Men Banquet“,  which is my kind of article.  Twenty three notables were listed, including Andrew Carnegie, H.C. Frick, and towards the bottom E.D. Smith.

Pretty commonish name for such exalted company, and I’d never heard of him.  Google is your friend.  So sometimes is fat thumbing

E.D. Smith turned out to be Canadian businessman and Conservative politician.  G.E. Smith, which is what I googled in error, turned out to be both the guitarist, or a gambler.

Not just any gambler.   George Elsworth Smith, aka Pittsburgh Phil, was a byword for astute horse picking.  Or jockey picking,  whichever paid off the most.  Call him the Warren Buffett of the turf.  He did his homework, bet only when it made sense, and wound up making millions.  Millions in pre-World War One dollars Continue reading

Gilles de Montmorency-Laval, Baron de Rais, 1404-1440: Gilles et Jeanne

Gilles et Jeanne.  Sounds like a Truffaut film.  The Jeanne in question is Joan of Arc, and the two did in fact work together, fought side by side for France, and both were vilified by and tried by Ecclesiastical courts.  Joan of Arc became a saint. Gilles became the template for Bluebeard.

We all have our bad days.

So what was the back story here, what got him to his ugly end?  You wouldn’t necessarily come to it by a look at his early years.   He was born in 1404, son of minor aristocrat who had fought for the King of France in the earlier stages of the Hundred Years War.   Gilles spoke Latin and illuminated manuscripts.   He was raised by his grandfather, an ambitious man who married Gilles off well, that is to say, to a girl whose family could increase the Monmorency-Laval estates.  Continue reading