Antonio Rinaldeschi, ? – 1501: The Perils of a Lost Temper

He had had a bad run at the dice that night, and left the Osteria del Fico (Fig Tree Tavern) the worse for drink and significantly lighter in the pocket, and possibly missing a few articles of clothing.  A disgruntled man on a hot July night – Florence is a furnace in summer –  with an eye out for someone else to blame for his misfortune.  He passed by a fresco of the Madonna at church of Santa Maria degli Alberighi not far from the tavern.

As luck would have it, a horse had recently relieved itself, and Rinaldeschi felt a sudden urge to take out his annoyance on the Virgin who had chosen not to play Lady Luck on his behalf.  He scooped up a bit of the pile and hurled it at the painting. Continue reading

Elizabeth Phillips,1866–1948: Hotels on Boardwalk

When the power went for better part of a week during Super Storm (not Hurricane) Sandy, our household was thrown back to earlier, more primitive diversions than television or the internet.   Among these was Monopoly.

I’d only vaguely remembered just how irritating a game it really was after the first dozen or so rotations.  Memories of irritated, not to say angry, young children who were left out on the street despite having hotels on Board Walk and Park Place.  What kind of crummy game was this, anyway?

Turns out, anger and irritation was the whole idea. Continue reading

Gérard de Nerval, 1808-1855; The Man Who Loved Lobster

I have a vague memory of a Robert Graves essay in which he decries people who steal jokes.  (Google is useless in finding it, suggestions welcome.)  One takes his point.

I have a stronger memory, easily googled, of Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) in his very best Sebastian Flyte mode walking his pet lobster about Magdalen College Oxford.  Ah, young wit!

Witty, but not original.

Though there may be others, I’m guessing that the first of the lobster walkers was the French poet Nerval.  And he had reasons other than style. Continue reading

Antonio de Lebrija, 1441-1522: “language is the instrument of the empire”

Prince George: Well, now, look, Dr. Johnson, I may be as thick as a whale omelette, but even I know a book’s got to have a plot.

Samuel Johnson: Not this one, sir. It is a book that tells you what English words mean.

Prince George: I know what English words mean; I speak English! You must be a bit of a thicko.

The above exchange is from Blackadder III, episode 2, Ink and Incapability and purports to be the conversation between Dr. Johnson and the prince on the occasion of Johnson’s presenting his completed dictionary. Continue reading

Sampiero Corso,1498 – 1569: ‘The Most Corsican of Corsicans’

I once had a French teacher whose family was Corsican.  Among the family possessions was a dagger, on one side of which blade was engraved “Vendetta”, on the other, “Morte”.

Hardboiled, the Corsicans. Perhaps no surprise that a Napoleon could come out of there.  For overall toughness and misfortune in love, however, we can argue that Sampiero has the marshal beat.

He was born a commoner and a reduced lower aristocratic mother.  With a background like that, the military was a natural. He apprenticed as a soldier at age fourteen.

He was good at it, too.  He led Corsican mercenaries for France’s house of Valois during the Italian wars and was more successful than not.  The money was good, too.  By 1547, he was a colonel and rich enough to marry Vanina D’Ornano. He was forty nine.  She was fifteen. Continue reading

Henry de la Poer Beresford, third marquess of Waterford (1811–1859): Beast and the Beauty

“I would there were no age between sixteen and three-and-twenty, or that youth would sleep out the rest; for there is nothing in the between but getting wenches with child, wronging the ancientry, stealing, fighting”   A Winter’s Tale

Shakespeare knew his stuff of course, and what he says goes double for those who come into their inheritance too young, especially if that inheritance is large and privileged in the old sense.

Henry de la Poer got his title and his pile at age seventeen while at Eton, and then, oddly, went on to Christ Church, Oxford, from which he was sent down for being rather too much. Continue reading

Claire McCardell 1905-1958: Rich Designs, Poor Fabrics

Among the qualities most strongly associated with American clothes now are functionality and sleekness, and yet they were not always synonymous with US designs.  There was a time when American fashion was essentially just a version of whatever it was that Paris had proposed that particular season, in a variety of colors.  American designers were less designers, than fashion copyists.

This all changed with World War II and the occupation of Paris by the Nazis. Claire McCardell was just one designer who had suddenly gotten a chance to promote designs that were not particularly…French.  She rose to the challenge of providing clothes in wartime, the materials she used, chiefly cottons and knits, were inexpensive and easy to get.  When closures had to change due to shortages, McCardell used steel hooks or piping sewn into long “spaghetti straps” to tie around waists and customize dresses.  She created her own wide belts, in elastic materials that held in the waist without corseting it, and her clothing paired well with functional footwear, ballet slippers (un-rationed footwear during the war) and slave sandals.  She created elasticized snoods for skiing, dresses made of triangles sewn together, wrap sashes in knit fabrics that would not slide down, evening gowns of washable cotton piquet.  Who was this practical woman? Continue reading

Judith Blunt-Lytton (1873-1957): The Case of Byron’s Slippers

I was reading Artemis Cooper’s biography of Patrick Leigh Fermor and came across the anecdote of Lord Byron’s slippers.  I’d read it before (it’s part of Leigh Fermor’s book of travels in Greece, Roumeli) , but I had forgotten it long since.  The only reason I pricked up my ears this time is that it referred to Judith Blunt-Lytton, 16th Baroness Wentworth,  who I had occasion to mention in this previous post.

Fermor first.  He was a cheerfully wayward autodidact , charmer, adventurer, writer, war hero and social climber who had a particular affection for all things Greek.

As a favor to a friend who was trying to compile a definitive collection of Lord Byron’s letters with a view towards publication (it happened, you can find them here),  Leigh Fermor and a friend  who happened to be on good terms with Lady Wentworth went down to Crabbet Hall for lunch. Continue reading

Henrietta d’Orleans, 1644-1670; Gather Ye Rosebuds

She is better known to history as the sister of Charles II of England and the sister in law of Louis the XIV of France.  It was the latter association which made the luck of Henrietta’s life.  She was the last child of Charles I  and his French Queen Henrietta Maria. She had gone with her mother into exile in France after her father’s capture and execution, and endured a cold and miserable childhood flitting about the backstairs of the French court, noticed by the young Louis only for her extreme lankiness.

After the Restoration of her brother Charles’s crown, Henriette went from being a skinny girl of no consequence, to being one of the most eligible young women in France.  She made a very grand marriage indeed (1661) to Phillippe d’Orleans, younger brother of Louis XIVContinue reading