Gilbert Imlay, 1756-1828: Jersey Boy

No picture of the fellow seems to have survived, which is appropriate, given the man’s furtive nature.

He was born in Freehold, New Jersey and was of an elevated enough class to be come a lieutenant in the  American Revolution, serving as paymaster to a New Jersey Regiment. Salesmanship seems to have come naturally – he was allegedly able to talk some English prisoners of war into signing up.

With America’s tiresome British ties eventually cut, he went west. Land grants were something of an early GI bill perq for veterans, and the aftermarket proved an opportunity for the young and ambitious and unscrupulous. Imlay got a position as a surveyor, which made him well placed indeed for gaming the system. Continue reading

Sir Charles Henry Augustus Frederick Lockhart Ross, 1872-1942: Loaded for Bear

Read at any length about the Vietnam war and you will come across accounts of American GIs ditching  their M-16 rifles in favor of Kalashnikovs, a weapon better suited to abuse and jungle life.   It’s not the first nor probably the last time this sort of thing has happened.  Back in World War One, there was a similar problem with the Mark III Ross rifle, the brain child of  Sir Charles Henry Augustus Frederick Lockhart Ross.

Ross was born at Balnagown, Scotland, one of those Downton Abbey type estates, encompassing 350,000 (eventually 366,000) acres and 3,000 tenants.  He inherited the Baronetcy at age eleven,  making the lucky pre-teen the largest landowner in Scotland.  Continue reading

Gaby Deslys, 1881-1920: Material Girl

Norman Douglas on the subject of Menton writes in passing that the Riviera seems to have produced no persons of note other  than Andrea Doria and Gaby Deslys.

Clearly a joke that left them in the aisles in 1922, but hers was not a name I was familiar with. My wife, given the name without context, thought she might have been be one of Yves St Laurent’s muses.   Good guess, but wrong.

She was a dancer and and chanteuse and one of the most notorious stage presences of her day.  The Madonna of the aughts and teens,  making up for modest innate talent with colossal work ethic and a flair for publicity.  A multi-millionaire at the time of her death, she hung her numerous hats on the Corniche (229 Avenue Kennedy, Marsailles) in the sort of place that might entice even Gerard Depardieu back to France. Continue reading

Pier Gerlofs Donia, c.1480 – 1520: Dutch Courage

In 1514, George the Bearded, Duke of Saxony,  sent his crew of landsknechts, the so-called  Black Guard, to put down the lowland upstarts under Edzard I, Count of East Frisia.

There was a good amount of excess in the doing, which came to a head when the Guardsmen, unpaid for too long, started demanding their due directly from the local civilians. They came to the village of Kimsweerd where they did the usual number of robbery, and as a by the way, raped and killed the wife of our subject.

Bad idea.

The Dutch, understand, have a long line of tough.  Serious tough.  Don’t let the pot cafes and the tulips and the cheese fool you.    You don’t pull your own country from the oceans without tough.  You also don;t don’t make a global empire without tough.  And when you kick at the family of a guy like Big Piers, a man who could bend coins with his thumb and forefinger, you will get blowback. Continue reading

Bartolomeo Scappi, c. 1500 –1577: Top Chef

Sistine Chapel Roof,  Mona Lisa,  School of Athens – all works for the ages, of course, but what do we really think of when we think of Italy?   And if that’s what we think, then surely they were thinking the same thing in the days of Leonardo and Michaelangelo and Rafael.  But as a more transitory pleasure than the above mentioned works, food and its creators tend to get less lasting fame.   Of course the Romans had Apicius, but he was old school, a curiosity for classicists and food historians.

It is Scappi who deserves our attention.

His dates are approximate and various cities try to lay claim to him.  Ironically, Bologna, the food town par excellence, has one of the weakest cases to make.  Milan figures as a more plausible candidate, and even more so Lombardy, and there is evidence he spent some time in Venice.  But it is Rome where he makes his greatest mark, first overseeing the tables of various Cardinals, then as the head chef for six popes in the Vatican.  (Must have been a slow time with Pius V who was notoriously abstemious in his own habits.) Continue reading

Harry Champion,1865-1942; I Am, I Am

The  top-selling pop act in the US in 1965 was not the Beatles, not the Rolling Stones, not Elvis, Frank, or Liberace, but Herman’s Hermits.  Make of that whatever you will, but if you were alive at that time, you will have the have ear-worm of I’m Henry VIII, I Am.

Not one of Peter Noone’s own compositions, of course.  It was Harry Champion’s signature song (written by Fred Murray and R.P. Weston in 1910).  He was also famous for light classics like “Any Old Iron” (see also David Jones before he was a Monkee, and Peter Sellers while he was a Goon).

Born William Henry Crump, Champion started out as apprentice to a boot clicker, but, well, Art was calling for him.  Continue reading

Nakano Takeko, 1847-1868: Last of the Samurai

Seems as good a time as any to check the record on women in foxholes again.

The evidence is not surprisingly thin and anecdotal for all the obvious reasons, but there are some interesting characters. Such as Nakano Takeko.

She was born in a part of Aizu  known for martial prowess into a family of Samurai.  Their loyalty was to the ruling Tokugawa Shogunate.

In 1866, the Meiji Imperial family tired of being figure heads and they had supporters willing to fight to bring them back to power. (There was also irritation that the shogunate had permitted  foreign intruders  Commodore Perry and his crew – among which number was my wife’s great-great grandfather. A story for another time).  War broke out.  The Boshin War.  The Imperials were fewer, but they had more modern weapons.  Continue reading